In March 1999, at the height of the Kosovo conflict, NATO engaged against the military forces of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Lieutenant Dale Zelko, a U.S. fighter pilot, was shot down by Colonel Zoltan Dani, commander of a Serbian anti-aircraft unit. Twelve years later, the former enemies meet when Zelko, now a civilian, flies to Serbia to encounter Dani, a baker. 

Željko Mirković, a Serbian filmmaker, documented this emotional journey in his film, The Second Meeting, thanks to a grant from the Balkan Trust for Democracy (BTD). 

“It is more than a story about Serbia and the U.S. This story has a long-term message,” said Mirković, an award-winning documentary filmmaker and producer.

“One layer [of the film] is about the war background, the second layer is about two nations who are in war, the third layer is the story about people and their families, the fourth layer is the story about family values, and thefinal layer is the global layer, which is universal,” he said. 

Without any of these layers, he noted, the story would not be complete.

Mirković especially remembers the struggles that Dani had after settling into civilian life.                                                                            

“For Serbian people it is really hard to remember this period,” Mirković said. “Dani is under pressure and has other people telling him that it is not appropriate to meet this guy, who was on the opposite side.

“[But] both guys strongly believed in the message, and they wanted a second chance.”

The message of reconciliation was the key to Mirković’s documentary.

“I didn’t want to make a war story,” he said. “I wanted to show on both sides [that] there are people that are willing to go further, that are willing to establish a normal life, and meet each other.”

Mirković gave both men video cameras so that each could document his feelings in the months leading up to their meeting. The resulting 70 hours of video diaries showed personal insights into similarities between the families’ daily lives. “They were more comfortable to share deep personal emotions and moments,” Mirković said.

Biljana Dakic Djordjevic, a program officer with BTD, said, “The legacy of recent armed conflicts in the Balkans still burdens many public perceptions in the region. 

“We believe that this project addresses some of these issues in a substantive manner, one accessible to a wider, global audience. The film tells an interesting human story and carries a symbolic message of mutual understanding.” 

Though Mirković recognized that he had a strong message, he needed support from partners who not only recognized the relationship between the United States and Serbia but would also allow him to retain editorial rights.

“Without funding you cannot finish [recording],” said Mirković, who added that financial support was nonetheless just one aspect of the strong partnerships behind the production and promotion of the film.

Mirković also received funding from the Serbian Ministry of Culture, the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, the Province of Vojvodina- Serbia, and the City of Nis- Serbia.

The film’s first public screening was held during the Belgrade Security Forum in September, and received positive reactions from the audience that included, among others, the new U.S. Ambassador to Serbia and Serbian Minister of Culture.

A pre-premiere of the film took place on Monday October 15 at 15, 2012 at the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Washington, DC, headquarters.

Click here for photos of the meeting and reflections from Dale Zelko and Zoltan Dani about The Second Meeting.