It doesn’t speak well of my journalist’s intuition that in June 2001 I was sitting in a Belgrade hotel room, obliviously reading over my notes for a book project while the first-ever Serbian gay pride march was gathering a stone’s throw from my window. It was only when I heard shots fired that I scrambled down the stairs to find the detritus of a melee strewn across a little square off of Marshal Tito Boulevard. Café tables and chairs were upturned, placards and banners abandoned on the curb, and onlookers with bewildered expressions were tentatively emerging from door fronts.

The small clutch of would-be marchers had not made it far. Before they could even commence their route through downtown Belgrade, a throng of right-wing thugs attacked. The small police detachment on hand was either unable or unwilling to protect the march, and dozens of activists were brutally assaulted. The parade organizers scattered, retreating to a nearby cultural center. The crowd of homophobic hooligans pursued them, surrounding the building and brawling with police, who at least managed to prevent the mob from breaking down the doors.

Thirty of the thugs were arrested at the scene, but none was prosecuted. Nor did the Belgrade authorities condemn the fiasco. Images of the pogrom circled the globe, and the European Union revoked $70 million of financial aid allocated for Serbia.

At the time, most observers, myself included, saw the violence as testimony to the precarious conditions of democracy in a Serbia that had only months before overthrown Slobodan Milošević.

The parade debacle unfolded like others in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe—Warsaw, Moscow, Sofia, Vilnius, and elsewhere—had. The legacies of socialist hostility and religious conservatism have bred a culture of homophobia that continues to set the region apart from Western Europe, where there is broad-based respect for gay rights.

But in the years since, Poland, Bulgaria, Slovenia, and Croatia have all seen gay pride gigs snake their way unhindered through the capitals, amply protected by police and backed by courageous political figures such as Katarina Kresal, the former interior minister of Slovenia, who joins the procession through Ljubljana every year.

It seems like Serbia is set on remaining the lone holdout. However, a new film about the aspirations of gay Serbs may finally be changing things.

• • •

Earlier this year, in my home city of Berlin, I watched a few screenings at the annual Berlinale film festival. One of the films I stumbled upon was Parada (The Parade), an uproarious Serbian comedy centered on an activist group battling to stage the country’s first successful gay rights parade. The movie begins with documentary footage of the 2001 attempt, but then breaks into a feature film. It has become an unlikely box office hit, outperforming Hollywood blockbusters in almost every state of the former Yugoslavia.

In Serbia, in particular, The Parade’s popularity is evidence of a postwar country rebounding from the ultra-nationalism and the bloody wars of the 1990s, aided in no small amount by the European Union. Director Srđan Dragojević’s none-too-subtle messages about tolerance and cross-border reconciliation boldly affirm Serbia’s—and all of the former Yugo states’—EU bids, which are the motor of democratic reform in the region. Gay rights are a litmus test for liberal bearing in postwar, post-autocratic societies, and a prerequisite to joining the European club.

Moreover, even though Dragojević is Serbian, The Parade is a multinational effort, produced with money and actors from across the former Yugoslavia and shot throughout the territory. In addition to gay rights, the film affirms the future of the region’s states as mutually respecting, tolerant societies, united not by class consciousness or ethnic blood rivalries but by liberal values.

The story begins in Belgrade, at the posh domicile of an ex-commando, war profiteer, and all-around bully named Lemon, who lives with his voluptuous, ditsy young fiancée Pearl and his beloved pit bull Sugar. The three lead an unspectacular life of relative normality after the adrenalin-pumped days of the wars. Lemon runs an all-in-one security company and martial arts studio with several war buddies who fit every stereotype of the schnapps-swilling gangsters who ruled the roost in 1990s Serbia.

Thirty-somethings Mirko and Radmilo are two men in love, who confront the discrimination and abuse that homosexuality attracts in the Balkans. Their cars are vandalized, and they are cursed at, spit on, and roughed up on a regular basis.

Lemon and Pearl eventually cross paths with the couple when Mirko, a wedding planner, meets Pearl to discuss her upcoming nuptials. He’s also a gay activist intent on either emigrating or organizing a pride parade a decade after the 2001 disaster. Radmilo is a roly-poly veterinarian who saves Sugar’s life after the dog gets the worst of a vendetta hit against Lemon.

Through a convoluted turn of events, Mirko agrees to organize the boondoggle of a wedding that Pearl demands only if the pride march comes off. For that they need the protection of Lemon’s agency, since the police refuse to provide it. But when a desperate Lemon asks his devoted cronies to help, they look at him aghast. “We’d even take it up the ass for you, Lemon,” one of them says, “but not this, not faggots!” “If we grant rights to faggots and dykes,” says another, “even Gypsies and Albanians will ask for them!”

 

Lemon, however, has friends who owe him a favor or two. They don’t live in Serbia, but in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. The odd couple of Lemon and Radmilo take a road trip across former Yugoslavia in Radmilo’s cramped, flaming pink Mini Cooper, which accumulates homophobic graffiti along the way. There’s the inevitable hotel room scene where the two end up together in a double bed. Lemon, afraid to go to sleep for fear of being raped or catching AIDS, lies down fully clothed and covers his backside with a pillow for protection.

On the Adriatic coast he meets up with Rocco, a 350-pound Croat ex-paramilitary and war buddy. The story of former enemy commandants becoming friends might seem unlikely, but war created opportunities for smuggling contraband, and the relationships formed in the crucible of shared profiteering trumped ethnic feuding. Moreover, these types often knew one another from the former Yugoslav army, where they had served together in the 1980s before realizing they were supposed to hate one another for crimes committed in another age by people they’d never met.

Rocco, decked out in the regalia of the WWII Croatian fascist Ustaša, initially flips when he hears Lemon’s request. The peoples of former Yugoslavia may have their differences, Dragojević underscores, but hatred of gays (peder, the pejorative south Slavic term for homosexuals, is a variation of “pedophile”) unites everyone from Slovenia to Macedonia. Rocco, though, is won over when Radmilo delivers a baby donkey, and he squeezes into the back seat as the recruiting trip continues.

The next stop is Bosnia, where they enlist the Islamic fundamentalist Halil. After Bosnia it’s on to Kosovo, where they visit Azem, who is in the process of selling heroin to American soldiers. It’s a hilarious scene, as the hatch of a U.S. Army tank pops open, drugs and money are exchanged, and the tank speeds away without a word uttered.

Back in Belgrade, the whole pride troupe, including a no-nonsense lesbian, has moved into Lemon’s house—and redecorated it. The mixed bag of war veterans moves in and eventually manages to feel at home. In one scene an older gay Serbian man tells Rocco about lying to his wife about his sexuality every single day of their marriage, which brings a tear to Rocco’s eye. With everybody living together, the alienation and prejudices on all sides melt way, though the results of the eventual parade are not so sanguine.

Stereotypes are Dragojević’s medium, and he uses them ad absurdum to expose their folly and, ultimately, to deconstruct them. Does his art work? Sometimes I nearly busted a gut laughing, at other times I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat. My gay friends from the region rolled their eyes, wholly unimpressed. It wasn’t a film that spoke to them or, they thought, anyone enlightened about gay rights.

Take Mirko and Radmilo: effeminate, limp-wristed, crying types. This stereotype is eventually reversed, but not before the film exhausts every sissy gay man cliché in the book. Toying with stereotypes is popular in Yugoslavia, but it’s a tricky business: if the familiar images aren’t convincingly debunked, they can reinforce prejudices. I would like to have seen at least one gay person as burly and mean as alpha male Lemon and his pals. Moreover, while there’s lots of trash talk about anal sex, there’s not a single kiss exchanged between gay characters. When asked about it Dragojević responded that such a scene would have been “too provocative.”

• • •

Dragojević’s creative roots stretch back to the thriving new wave scene that crystallized in the cultural underground of Yugoslavia’s northern metropolises in the 1980s. Dragojević played guitar in the punk band TV Moroni, and it was during this time that he first came into contact with Belgrade’s gay underground:

In the late 1970s, a small park just below Hotel Moskva in downtown Belgrade was the gathering place for some twenty of us, punk rock fans. The same park was the gathering place for homosexuals, too. These neatly dressed family men with impeccable socialistic biographies were looking for partners. Besides sharing the same location, we had just one more thing in common—both groups were repeated bashing targets for healthy looking, and “healthy” thinking young men. They couldn't stand the sight of us, with our safety pins, dyed hair, and ragged clothes, as well as the other group, but only because of their sexual orientation.

Dragojević didn’t start out making movies about homophobia, but he has never been a stranger to controversy. His 1996 antiwar film Pretty Village, Pretty Flame, was the first in Serbia to portray the inglorious underside of the country’s 1992–1995 war in Bosnia. The movie caught plenty of flak from the Milošević regime, though it wasn’t banned. For radical nationalists in the Orthodox church and the far right, it was outright heresy. Pretty Village had critics in the West, too, who panned it as essentially pro-Serb. But it was cheered by Serbia’s urban liberals, who understood how subversive it was given the context.

 

That The Parade was even harder to get off the ground than a mid-1990s antiwar film mocking Serb nationalists suggests just how deep homophobia runs in the country. Though Dragojević is one of his country’s best known and most respected filmmakers, more than a hundred Serb companies rejected his funding requests. Eventually financing came through from the Council of Europe and from the national cultural ministries of Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenergo, and Macedonia.

Things didn’t get much easier when filming began. So fierce were the threats from nationalist organizations that most of the movie was shot in secret locations. Dragojević found his car windows smashed. The release sparked calls for a boycott and livid editorials from the far right and the church. In Croatia the bishop of Dubrovnik managed to get the film’s opening postponed.

But the effort seems to have been worth it. The Parade premiered to sold-out cinemas across Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Croatia. (It has not been shown yet in Kosovo.) In Serbia it was 2011’s biggest hit, despite opening in November. In Croatia it has the second-highest attendance of any film, ever. It is also racking up prizes internationally, having taken two at the Berlinale.

Filmgoers’ attitudes toward gay rights are changing. There’s also evidence that Serbia’s officialdom is beginning to accept gay rights as fundamental to the kind of tolerant, democratic society that Serbia is striving to be. (Pressure from the European Union and the United States has been helpful in this regard.) Serbia’s education ministry, for example, offered public school teachers across the country the opportunity to see the film for free.

“I have always had in mind that making The Parade is my citizen’s duty,” Dragojević said upon the film’s release in late 2011. “I strongly believe that The Parade will have a similar effect [to Pretty Village] on the Serb nation. They will scream, they will shout but they’re going to watch it. And when they watch it, maybe they will think and reconsider their prejudices and stereotypes toward those whose only guilt is that they’re different.”

• • •

Just this year, Serbia took a giant step up the EU ladder, attaining candidate status. If the likes of Lemon, Pearl, Rocco, and Halil can join together to protect a gay pride parade, maybe the entire region can live up to human rights norms and take their place in the European community.

But there is still reason for worry. The 2011 pride parade was cancelled, leading gay rights advocates to grumble that EU candidacy was granted too hastily. A month ago, Serbia ousted its liberal president Boris Tadić in favor of Tomislav Nikolić, a former leader of the far right Radical Party, which is still wildly homophobic. Anti-gay violence is as vicious as ever.

Another pride march is scheduled for October. It will be another chance to test whether Mirko and Radmilo’s dream is still just that in today’s Serbia, or whether the country is ready to join the rest of Europe.