Last November film maven Eddie Cockrell flew to Yugoslavia and saw 100 films in nine days - in Serbo-Croat, with English subtitles. It's not that Mr. Cockrell believes in excess, it's that he was scouting talent for a major Yugoslav film festival sponsored by the American Film Institute here. Titled ``Yugoslav Film Today,'' it includes 17 feature films and nine shorts from Cockrell's movie blitz through the screening rooms and VCRs of Yugoslavia. Cockrell says that only 50 of the films he screened were features; the rest were shorts.
The festival will play here through Oct. 31, overlapping its dates at the Cleveland Cinemath`eque, then going on to Pittsburgh and finally the Pacific Film Archive in Los Angeles in February 1988.
The films range widely, from Rajko Grlic's ``In the Jaws of Life,'' a bittersweet black comedy that cross-cuts between the producers of a TV series and the central character in the series, a naive and unloved girl searching for romance, to Zoran Tadic's ``Dreaming of a Rose,'' a mean thriller about an innocent man who witnesses a robbery-murder and eventually turns violently murderous himself.
Cockrell, as associate film programer for the institute, says, ``This is a special time in Yugoslav films. I'd say there's a renewed energy in the '80s that has to do more with the training of the filmmakers than anything else. There just seem to be an awful lot of really good directors who are over there making movies. And by good directors I mean men and women who can tell stories and crews that seem among the best in the world for turning out quality images, and post-production facilities that turn out polished films.''
Outside of the recent hit ``When Father Was Away on Business,'' directed by Emir Kusturica, Americans have not been exposed to much Yugoslav film in the last few years. Cockrell says, ``One thing we have to overcome on countries like Yugoslavia is an American idea that `Oh, it's going to be black and white; it's going to be out of focus; the camera is going to be shaky.' That's no longer true in the majority of European countries. And except for French and the occasional German movie, foreign films are usually a pretty tough sell.''
Sometimes an American viewing a Yugoslav film may feel a reel has been dropped or to put it more gently, that something thing has been lost in translation. Cockrell counters: ``Well, I think in the majority of movies I saw, they were totally clear. Now obviously they lose something [in translation from Serbo-Croat] especially with a country that is so in tune with social black comedy. I mean, we're showing a movie called ``Caught in the Throat'' [by Srdan Karanov] which apparently has amazing overtones of growing up Yugoslav in the '50s and '60s, that sort of thing. Now we don't get a lot of that. But it turns out to be a movie that can be compared very favorably to `The Big Chill,' just because of the universality of a lot of situations.''
Cockrell explains, ``The thing that impressed me, and one of the reasons we agreed to do such a large package, is that there's such a large amount of impact that comes through, given the restrictions of the cultural differences. And that's really one of the strengths of the new Yugoslav films - that they're able to tell stories that are universal but are still rooted in the Yugoslav experience, which, as you know, is pretty unique in Europe. I mean the whole Tito-Stalin split, that's something very unique to Yugoslavia, and they're fiercely proud of that.''
Among his favorites in the festival are ``In the Jaws of Life,'' Nikolic Kovacevic's ``Balkan Spy,'' and ``The Small Train Robbery,'' directed by Dejan Sorak. The latter are ``very physical slapstick comedies about two very politically charged subjects,'' says Cockrell. ```Balkan Spy' is like Buster Keaton making a movie about the Hollywood Ten.''
Among the other films in the festival, which deal with everything from construction of a generator factory in Zagreb, to a smallpox scare, to the break from Stalinism and the punk rock scene in Belgrade, are: Dragan Kresoja's ``The End of the War,'' Zivko Nikolic's ``Unseen Wonder,'' Karpo Godina's ``The Medusa Raft,'' Anton Tomasic's ``Cormorant,'' Goran Markovic's ``Variola Vera,'' Andrej Mlakar's ``Christophoros,'' and Grlic's ``The Melody Haunts My Reverie.''