Film Fest Reflects Pittsburgh's Serbian Heritage

Mar 15, 2016

Detail of an icon of St. Sava the Illuminator, the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church.
Credit Creative Commons / Wikipedia

For more than a century, the Pittsburgh area has been home to the longest-running Serbian newspaper on the continent, written in a quiet office in Green Tree before being shipped off to readers across the U.S., Canada, Australia and Europe -- including, of course, Serbia itself.

Some recent feature stories of the bi-monthly American Srbobran include the founding of the Tesla Visionaries Society (the noted inventor was Serbian); the 100th celebration of Serbian Day at Kennywood Park (marked by a full weekend of Serbian music and dance this July, including a riverboat cruise); and Novak Djokovic's victory at the 2015 U.S. Open.

It also details the routine goings-on of various groups of American Serbs, plenty of whom are clustered in specific areas of the country, like California, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh. The paper is published by the Serb National Federation, the same group that's sponsoring the free Serbian Movie Festival at the University of Pittsburgh this weekend.

The front page of a 1920 edition of the American Srbobran Serbian-language newspaper.
Credit Serb National Federation / via hathitrust.org

Starting Friday evening, the organization will screen seven Serbian-language films at David Lawrence Hall in Oakland, with subject matter ranging from inventors and academics, to a soccer team and two war heroes.

One of those war heroes, the late George Vujnovic, was born in Pittsburgh to Serbian immigrants before going on to earn a Bronze Star for his World War II rescue operation that saved hundreds of allied airmen held captive in his parents' homeland.

Vujnovic's family was one of many that came to this area in the early decades of the 20th century. At that point in time, Serbia had been a free nation for only a matter of decades following 500 years of Turkish rule, and wars were raging in the Balkan peninsula, even before the outbreak of the first world war.

A map of modern Serbia including the disputed southern region of Kosovo, outlined with a broken line.
Credit Wikimedia Atlas of the World

“In those times, when Serbian immigrants came to the United States, they didn’t have any health insurance, any kind of financial support for their living here,” said Milos Rastovic, a native Serb and cultural outreach coordinator for the Serb National Federation.

“People usually came here and worked in steel industry and mines," Rastovic said. 

They also founded churches dedicated to the Serbian branch of Eastern Orthodoxy, including the St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church and the Holy Trinity Serbian Orthodox Church of the South Hills. The latter is now a cathedral.

It was around this time, in 1901, that Rastovic's own organization was formed, in order to provide the new wave of Serbian immigrants with insurance benefits and retirement funds.

Rastovic said subsequent waves of Serbs came to the Pittsburgh area to escape the outbreak of WWII and the communist government of Yugoslavia, which then encompassed Serbia and several other Balkan states.

The most recent influx of Serbs came in the 1990s, when Yugoslavia fragmented. The following decade was difficult for Serbia and its neighboring countries, during which time Serbian forces were accused of ethnic cleansing and other war crimes by the United Nations in the still-disputed Kosovo region.

But Serbian pride lives on, particularly here in the Pittsburgh area. The American Serbian Club on the South Side and the Tamburitzans both regularly perform Serbian folk music and dance. Though, it now features English alongside Serbian, the American Srbobran is produced every other week at the Serb National Federation's Green Tree headquarters. And, of course, this weekend's film festival is meant to provide Serbs, and non-Serbs alike, with an appreciation of the Serbian people's contributions to history.

The Serb National Federation has provided a full schedule of the Serbian Movie Festival at Pitt this weekend. All screenings are free and each movie will have English subtitles.