Erna Banovac

Curated by Ivana Momčilović

Erna (1963 or 1964 or 1965)
by Erna Banovac
8mm transferred to digital media (2011), black-white, production Kino Klub Beograd, SFR Yugoslavia. With: Erna Banovac, Dragan Kresoja. Sound: Zoran Uzelac Music: Zoran Simjanović.

Erna Banovac left behind only one film, which exists today likely in an abridged version, as all the others are lost. We don’t know for sure what she went on to do later in life, but it seems after working on editing for a period, she completely abandoned the world of cinema. However, this amateur film, realised while Erna was only 17 or 18 years old,  is a masterpiece which, in the form of a poetic manifesto, addresses the ecological and social dangers that emerged in the 1960s. The “jump-cut” sequences allow for an alternation between images of natural disasters, tsunamis, melting glaciers or felled forests (all found footage), and shots of crowds queuing in front of shops (most likely filmed in Eastern bloc countries). Then, soldiers and a group of people are seen rushing somewhere, likely in an act of rebellion. Between those shots, the gaze of a young girl and boy (Erna and actor/director Dragan Kresoja) are accentuated by alarming music. Suggesting a kind of self-fiction or conscious self-portrait, between Courbet’s “Self-portrait of the desperate” and Dürer’s works, the gazes seem to anxiously analyze the past and future of the world around them. Seeing her film after more than 50 years, Erna declares: “Birds have been cut from their branches, people’s lives have been cut off by wars, a young man and a girl remain and do not know where to go, with them a single bird is left alone”. The final shots of the film follow indeed a lone raven, as well as the launch of rockets into orbit, questioning in a disturbing way the meaning of man’s expansion in the Universe while the Earth seems abandoned to its problems. Nearly 60 years later, Erna’s poetic warning is still more relevant than ever. The power of this crystalline message, coming from a women amateur filmmaker, is felt like a gaze turned towards us. A gaze that observes us with wide-open eyes and disturbs us with the way it anticipates environmental issues, way before recent climate storytelling.

Miroslav Bata Petrović, an amateur filmmaker turned director, met Erna again in 2017 in Belgrade, and after 50 years, showed her her short film (provisionally dated to 1963 and digitized in 2011 by Erna’s editing teacher, Marko Babac). This is the only clue as to when Erna’s film was made. In Bata Petrović’s film, we learn that registering a woman at the Kino Klub Belgrade was not common, that the entrance exam was complex, and that the men first laughed at the idea of a girl with the camera. They advised her to make “a film about nudists on Belgrade Lake” — which she did and was awarded 1 kilo of lemons as a prize “for the worst film of the year”. Encouraged by this negative experience, with the will to prove her intention and to show the feminine side of the story, she made the film Erna, which in 1965 or 1966 won the Grand Prix of the Festival of Pančevo (SFR Yugoslavia). Although Erna’s membership card shows that she had been a member of the first category of the Belgrade Film Club since July 1964, the exact year of the film’s creation (1963/64/65) remains unclear, as does the original version of the film. However, Erna’s kinetic manifesto of visual poetry knows a better fate than the debut of Tressie Souders, the first African-American director and her only film A Woman’s Mistake (1922). Souders spent the rest of her life as a housekeeper and her film remains forever unknown (it is only known through writings of the African-American community of those years). The freedom inspired by Erna’s efforts is reminiscent of the amateur filmmaking freedom of a Maya Deren (the protagonist of her own kinetic experiments), but also of the visual activism of contemporary South African photographer Zanele Muholi, who talks about the position of women and the world around her while being the subject of a series of self-portraits. To conclude this homage to Erna, we can point out that for Erna and so many other women and men, the amateur film club represented what Virigina Woolf describes in “A Room of One’s Own”, that is to say, a place for necessary creation of fiction, in the reality of the world around which “fiction weaves a spider’s web, but always leans on the corners”.