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Documenting A Diplomatic 'Mission Impossible'

Brussels--EU negotiator Robert Cooper in the film "The Agreement" screened at Prague's One World film festival March 3-12 2014.

Danish film reveals what went on behind the scenes during the first talks between Serbia and Kosovo.

How do you bridge the simmering impasse between two countries that have waged war? Wearing a goofy necktie with an Italian cheese motif might be a start.

This is one of the surprising pearls of diplomatic wisdom revealed in “The Agreement,” a documentary by Danish filmmaker Karen Stokkendal Poulsen, screened at the One World film festival held in Prague March 3-12.

The film documents the 2011 Belgrade-Pristina negotiations, the first talks between Serbia and Kosovo since the former Yugoslav province declared independence in 2008, a decade after the start of the Kosovo War.

The talks were held at a low level -- with Deputy Prime Minister Edita Tahiri representing Kosovo, and former rock star turned Foreign Ministry functionary Borislav “Borko” Stefanovic representing Serbia -- and after years of stalemate, expectations were also low. But the delegates, with the help of EU negotiator Robert Cooper, shocked the world when they emerged from the pokey halls of their temporary Brussels office with a deal.

The agreement would be a precursor to the landmark 2013 Brussels Agreement that normalized relations between Serbia and Kosovo, enabling Serbia to advance towards EU membership and Kosovo to strengthen its independence.

“The atmosphere surrounding the talks was not full of optimism. At the time during the regional meetings, if the Kosovo delegation was present, the Serb representative would leave the gathering,” said RFE/RL Balkan Service Director Gordana Knezevic in an audience discussion that followed the screening on March 5. “Robert Cooper did not have a reputation as a person who could make history. All of these ingredients didn’t promise a good outcome, but as the political drama started to unfold, Poulsen was a unique witness to this ‘mission impossible.’”
Borislav Stefanovic, head of the Serbian team for dialogue with Pristina and Kosovo Deputy Prime Minister and Chief Negotiator Edita Tahiri.
Borislav Stefanovic, head of the Serbian team for dialogue with Pristina and Kosovo Deputy Prime Minister and Chief Negotiator Edita Tahiri.
In the film, Poulsen gives the audience a glimpse of the agonizing minutia involved in international diplomacy, as the delegates hash and rehash language that seems trivial but carries significance for both sides.

She also provides space to show the strong personalities, human flaws and idiosyncrasies of her protagonists. Cooper shows off his collection of silly ties, and explains that changing your necktie can “change the whole tone of a negotiation.”

She catches Stefanovic in a huff at the opening of talks because he suspects the Serb delegation has intentionally been given the smallest office.

She doesn’t miss Tahiri chain-smoking through the breaks and insisting the meeting schedule conform to her hairdresser appointments.

Poulsen, who joined Knezevic after the screening, said her aim when she began the project was to make a film about a European success story, as she believes these stories are rarely told.

“Being a member of the European Union means sitting through a lot of long meetings,” she said. “All of this talking and meeting can seem boring, but that is what has kept the members at peace with each other.”

Poulsen's characterization reflects Coppers view as expressed in the film, that some of the most seemingly banal moments in diplomacy can be the most crucial.

“History is always made late at night when everybody is tired and fed up. By the time you make the history, you couldn’t care less.”

--Emily Thompson