Sabre truth

Sabre truth

By Michael Pickard
July 1, 2024


Made in secret, Operation Sabre dramatises the events surrounding the assassination of a Serbian prime minister. Creator Goran Stankovic and producer Snezana van Houwlingen join actors Milica Gojkovic and Dragan Micanovic to reflect on making this award-winning series.

The first rule about making Operation Sabre is you don’t talk about making Operation Sabre.

The eight-part crime drama is based on true events surrounding the assassination of Serbian prime minister Zoran Đinđić in 2003. But such was the secrecy and sensitivity around the project that all those involved were sworn to “super NDAs” – non-disclosure agreements – to keep details about what the project was about and which characters the actors were playing under wraps.

“The entire cast was a secret. The entire script was secret,” producer Snežana van Houwlingen tells DQ. “With that approach, we somehow made a safe space for our actors and our directors and crew to really do their job in the best possible way without any influence from the outside.”

Then when the promotional campaign around the show began ahead of its world premiere at French television festival Canneseries earlier this year, the factual drama was “a big shock for everybody,” she continues. “All of a sudden, the TV show existed and nobody knew that we were writing it. Not talking about what we were shooting and how we were shooting it, [working] completely in secret, helped us a lot. It saved the project.”

The Serbian drama, known locally as Sablja, opens in 2003 when Đinđić is assassinated by a sniper as he enters a government building in the capital, Belgrade. As the country plunges into chaos, a state of emergency is declared and Danica, a rising-star journalist, tries to investigate the truth behind what happened. To do so, she works with police inspector Ljuba, who is tasked with finding the killer.

On the other side of the law is Uroß, a young petty criminal who drove the getaway car for the killer. Across the series, a network of corruption and criminals within the government is uncovered. And as those searching for Đinđić’s killer become targets themselves, they become victims of the system they are trying to expose.

Produced by This & That Productions in association with Agitprop for Serbia’s RTS, and distributed by Beta Film, Operation Sabre comes from writers and directors Goran Stankovic and Vladimir Tagic, who scored a hit for RTS with their 2018 series Morning Changes Everything (Jutro će promeniti sve), which charted the lives of four 30-something friends over a single year.

L-R: Vladimir Tagić, Dragan Mićanović, Milica Gojković, Lazar Tasić, Goran Stanković and Ljubomir Bandović at Canneseries

It was the broadcaster that then approached them about dramatising the circumstances surrounding Đinđić’s death. Initially uncertain how they could – and if they should – tell this story, it was only when they settled on following the real event through the eyes of three fictional characters that they believed they could take the project forward.

“He’s definitely one of the most important political figures in recent Serbian history, so there are many ways to go with this story,” Stankovic says. “What we decided to do was not make the politicians and the publicly known figures the centre of the story, but make ordinary people the centre – people we could more easily identify with.

“Of course, one of the most important characters in the show is Zoran Đinđić, but since we decided to frame the show so that it revolves around the assassination, it is through them that we find out about him, about what he was going through and about the decisions he had to make that probably led to his assassination.”

Taking its title from the real police investigation into the shooting, the drama seeks to explore the controversy surrounding Đinđić, who became Serbia’s first democratically elected prime minister when he was elected in 2001 and pushed through many political and economic reforms the took the country away from the rule of former dictator Slobodan Milosevic.

It also aims to paint a picture of Serbian society at this time – one that Stankovic still recognises today.

“When we approached the topic from a fictional standpoint, we always thought, ‘How does it refer to the times we live in today? What does it have to do with our life today and the region in general?’” he says. “The best way to tell the story was through this kind of political thriller because it is about portraying and getting inside the point of view of these people who are trying to cope with everything that is happening between them, and every one of them has some responsibility for what has happened.

“That is also something we’re trying to say. Before we go and accuse others, let’s turn the mirror towards us and see what our responsibility is. What role do we play in all this? What could have we done differently as civilians, as people who live in Serbia. That is something the show manages to do, hopefully.”

Those characters are all composites of real people and fictional elements, while the real police inspector and people who knew Đinđić also advised on the series. Yet Stankovic says drawing a line between fact and fiction proved to be “tricky,” owing to the scale of the research material he and Tagic read and watched – including books, newspaper articles, documentaries and court transcripts – while developing the series.

“There’s the factual truth and there’s the higher truth,” he says. “The higher truth is something that speaks more truly to the matter than the factual truth. So whenever we came to a point where, ‘Oh, he was not there in the room that time,’ or, ‘He never said that,’ we decided to give ourselves some dramatic licence to tell the higher truth.

Appearing mostly in flashbacks, Dragan Micanovic plays assassinated Serbian PM Zoran Đinđić

“We changed the names of people or we turned him or her into a fictional character so that we didn’t have those problems. And if we needed information to come another way, we would introduce it through other sources and so on. We really tried to stay true to all the events and all the research. But then again, what was important was really to tell the higher truth of the whole story.”

Having spent five years working on the project, Stankovic admits there were times when it was “very hard not to quit,” comparing their progress to swimming against a tide.

“Really, nobody wants to talk about this. Nobody wants to discuss this,” he says. “Nobody said, ‘That’s a really good topic you picked,’ because nobody wanted to do this story. You know it’s super fragile, you know people are so divided, over many things in our society and this event especially, because everyone has a theory about what actually happened. It’s like you’re going into the viper’s nest, so it was a challenge, every day.”

Two people who did join Stankovic and van Houwlingen – who are partners in This & That Productions – for the journey were actors Milica Gojkovic, who plays the journalist Danica, and Dragan Micanovic, who portrays Đinđić.

Danica, says Gojkovic, is an ambitious but frustrated reporter who despairs at the softball questioning of political figures by her colleagues and strives to uncover the biggest stories at the centre of government. She is also a single mother who often brings her work home with her, much like her journalist mother once did.

“She’s ambitious and wants to tackle more serious topics, but she doesn’t have any colleagues with whom she could work,” the actor says of her character. “Because of that, she attacks the prime minister and does a report that is false. When she finds out he was assassinated, she is devastated and ashamed. She feels a bit responsible for that.”

Gojkovic says it’s “unusual” for Serbian TV to feature a character like Danica, a woman who goes largely unseen in a male-dominated world but who uses that anonymity to succeed at her job.

“She’s based on several real female journalists, and I felt I was portraying real heroes of our society,” she says. “As an actor, I wanted to honour all the journalists who have done so much for us and our society. That was a huge deal for me in creating this role.

“I don’t know why people underestimate women all the time. Then we can use that as a tool, as Danica is using it. If you think I’m not a threat to you, I’m going to do a lot of stuff to make sure I’m going to work with you. ‘I’m not a threat, everything is fine,’ but at the end I’m going to do my job well and unearth everything I can.”

Milica Gojkovic co-stars as Danica, a journalist seeking the truth behind the killing

Meanwhile, Mićanović describes playing the politician as “a real acting challenge.” Through the series, he appears largely in flashbacks, as Đinđić is gunned down in episode one, and each subsequent episode opens with the politician making a decision that has thematic links to the story in that part.

“I wanted to avoid [doing an impression] for a number of reasons but, at the same time, we didn’t want to lose that fast thinking, fast talk that Zoran had; that cheerfulness,” he says. “Even when he was in deep trouble surrounded by enormous difficulties in society and social problems, he always had a smile and a cheerfulness to the public. We didn’t want to lose that. He was a very cheerful guy, very smart, very fast thinking, and we didn’t want to lose that.”

However, the actor experienced “the most difficult shooting days in my whole career” when it came to filming Đinđić’s death, as the scene was recorded in the location where the assassination actually took place.

“Just imagine being on the same spot where the assassination actually happened. Lying down in the same spot, covered in blood,” he says. “It wasn’t physically difficult, but mentally it was very hard. Every single person who lived at that time remembers where they were when they heard the news we lost our prime minister. Those kinds of huge historical things, you never forget. That specific day was very difficult.”

Gojkovic picks up: “We all remember that day, where we were that day. I was just a kid back then and vividly remember where I was in the school yard, and I ran to my house because they told us to go home.

“I remember the atmosphere in Belgrade and in my house, my neighbourhood, my surroundings dramatically changed in just that one day. Especially when you are a kid, you feel helpless. And when I got this part, I felt I could do something about it. I could at least thank him in some kind of way for everything he had done for us in those couple of years.”

Filming in real locations was crucial for producer van Houwlingen, and the NDAs signed by cast and crew meant that when filming did take place, no one outside the production knew what was being filmed and why, other than it was a series for RTS.

Writing the show was the most difficult part of the process for Stankovic, but it meant many issues were resolved by the time it came to production. Then on set, the series was shot with two handheld cameras to create the feeling that viewers wouldn’t know what would happen next.

The same could be said for the camera operators, who were excluded from rehearsals so that, when it came to recording, the sudden movements of the camera would reflect their surprise at who was speaking next or where the actors were moving.

Gojkovic expects that the response to Operation Sabre will be ‘enormous’

“It was not difficult. We were a bit surprised,” van Houwlingen says about filming in secret. “But you have to be clever and we know the locations. We all know the people. It was also very helpful that the national public broadcaster was backing the project, so we were really using that a lot.”

Following the show’s debut at Canneseries, where it won the special interpretation award honouring the performances of its ensemble cast, it is hoped Operation Sabre will now air in Serbia in November.

“Our number-one priority is for the show to air. That is the most important thing – to air in Serbia,” Stankovic says. “We’re living in very turbulent times. We really hope it will air without a problem, and my wish would be that people form their opinions after they’ve seen the whole show.”

Gojkovic hopes the series will remind some people of what happened in 2003 – and inform others who aren’t aware.

“The response to the TV series will be enormous, I know that for sure, and I’m looking forward to that,” she says. “We need to talk about that period of time much more now because we need to talk more about what happened recently in our region, why it happened and, hopefully, looking forward, it never happens again.”

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