Nationalism, Punk & Love: Croatian Filmmaker Sanja Bistricic on ‘Before Flags’


Love operates within that space where individuals can start imagining a truly apolitical interaction of genuine care and individual relationships. However, this has often been proven wrong. Whether it be cultural fetishization or toxic dynamics, love is completely like any other interaction that is littered with differing power operations. The transitory quality of love is a myth. Love is always political.

Although that may be true, love can exist as an unparalleled disruptor. It has a truly remarkable to cause individuals to question their fundamental beliefs and assumptions. It gives a body to what was once just an imagination. Love holds the potential to challenge an individual to rethink what they previously assumed to be absolute.

Sanja Bistricic’s beautiful documentary Before Flags presents this powerful capacity for love to disrupt an individual’s hatred and transform it into love. Before Flags, tells the story of a Croatian punk named Đuro that finds himself in adulthood filled with nationalist hatred because of the loss of his father during the war of the fall of Yugoslavia. This hatred starts to thaw when he begins to converse with a Serbian punk named Elviru. Through their relationship, the nationalistic bigotry and sadness of Đuro are renegotiated.

Sanja’s film does not look to offer solutions for reconciliation for all those that lost loved ones during the conflicts of the 90’s. Rather, it reveals the futility of stale hatred and the endless potential of love. It is a soft reminder that within the hierarchy of our identities, nationhood does not need to trump individuality.

Sanja Bistricic is a Zagreb-based photographer and documentary maker. Perhaps known more for her photo work, this film nonetheless confirms her ability to translate her tender exploration of the body into narrative form. We spoke to Sanja through e-mail about this touching film and its characters. You can watch the film below and make sure to follow Sanja on Instagram.

The story you tell in Before Flags really is a universal story that even the harshest can empathize with. How did you come across these two individuals and this beautiful story?

I came across them purely by accident. In 2015 I took a short break from photography and, during that period, enrolled into a documentary film school.

As we had to select a theme for our final work I remembered an acquaintance and his story about the death of his father and the way it left a big mark on him. As we continued talking I discovered other details of his life – his marriage with a Serbian girl with whom he has a small child, which seemed like a paradox considering his nationalist views. It took a while before he agreed to be in the film, but in the end he said yes.


It is interesting that both these individuals are punks. They live on the margins of society and thrive on that outsider identity. Do you believe that existing on those margins makes it easier to transcend nationalist boundaries?

When you consider their way of life and the ethos of punk subculture, it would make sense if they didn’t care too much for nationalism. But people, as individuals, are different and unique and hard to place in preconceived boxes – everyone breathes in their own way and has their own wounds. Actually, I think the environment we grow up in, people we choose to surround ourselves with, and information we choose to consume are really important. Those are the things that, in the end, define us.


What I found myself so interested in was how the male character remained so fundamentally conflicted about his relationship with nationalism. He still appeared to embrace nationalism and find irony in the fact that he was in a relationship with a Serbian woman. Did he ever fully overcome his prejudice and reconcile himself with the loss of his father?

Considering the tragedy that befell him while he was still just a child and the fact that he grew up in the family that valued patriotism – his step father is also a veteran – it would make sense that it would leave a mark on him as a person and shape his thinking. But life is sometimes unpredictable and full of irony. By chance, he fell in love with a Serbian girl and I think that could’ve been a really big step for him. At the end of the day and through all the time we’ve spent talking I realized that his anger isn’t necessarily directed at people, but more at the “system”, however ill defined, and probably mostly at the thing that he feels other people have and he never had – a father figure.

Even then, it’s just a small step towards healing, a slow process that takes a very long time, sometimes even years. At the moment, even though his wife could have had a positive influence, I don’t see a big change in his thinking which is absurd and something I can’t really understand.

But as I said, I think these things need time, patience, a different environment, way of life and thinking in order to make a real change. It’s like a feeling that accumulates inside of you and grows into increasingly morbid anger and resentment. You’re fucked up. Especially if you surround yourself with things that encourage and feed on the same emotions. Sometimes it’s hard to go through all that alone and you need some kind of help and encouragement. Unfortunately, it doesn’t help that today, in 2018, a lot of people in Croatia are thinking the same way as him. Like they are perpetually living in 1991, and the war never really ended.

That division is encouraged and perpetuated in the mainstream society and a surprising number of young people in Croatia, that weren’t even born in the 90s, think the same way as him. It’s like some kind of disease that just won’t end. So it’s not enough to fight this way of thinking as an individual, there needs to be a deeper change.


I loved the soundtrack. The Yugoslavian New Wave tracks were mysteries to me. Why did you select music from the pre-war period?

As I was researching the music for the film I came upon two bands from ex-Yugoslavia whose aesthetics and lyrics appealed to me. The first one, Rukopotezno povlačilo, is a Croatian band from Požega that played in the late 70s and early 80s.

As soon as I heard the song and the lyrics I knew that this was the song I had to have in the film. I made countless phone calls with people from all over Croatia to get to the author and ask him for permission to use the song.

It was either this or nothing; I really fell in love with it. It’s called Hrabrost iz boce (Courage from the Bottle) and it reminded me of punk subculture and my protagonists and their way of life. The song plays at the beginning and the end of my film and its lyrics: “all you need is a little courage/ just like I also need it / just like we all need it” are, in a way, a message to my protagonists.

The other one is also a Post-punk band, and from Niš, Serbia. The song is called Vrati se (Come back) and in the film it’s a reference to the protagonist and his father. The lyrics really touched me and, I feel, summed up all his accumulated pain and longing.

Only later, after deciding the music, I’ve realized that both bands are from the ex-Yugoslavia – one from Croatia and one from Serbia. I’m glad that I chose the songs from that time and place that, for all its faults, at least tried (or pretended) to cherish the idea of unity and closeness of the people from two countries that today, to some people, seem like they couldn’t be further apart. Because I feel that’s the most important thing. That we love each other and that we are one – everything else is meaningless.


BEFORE THE FLAGS ( ISPRED ZASTAVA ) from sanja bistricic on Vimeo.