American Studies alum says major was perfect match for documentary career

Milos Balac ’11 found out that his language skills in Serbian and French – as well as his time on the Cornell ski team and his American studies courses — have paid off handsomely so far in his career as a documentary filmmaker.

Balac, a producer at Film 45 based in Santa Monica, is hard at work these days finishing up a project about Serbian tennis great Novak Djokovic.

“This job is truly my dream job,” said Balac, who majored in American studies and was heavily involved with Slope Media and the Cornell Daily Sun during his years at Cornell. For his tryout with Film 45, he flew to Serbia to meet Djokovic and ended up chatting up the tennis star and his family as they swished down the ski slopes.

“I found him really easy to talk to and because we can speak Serbian, it was a more open conversation,” Balac said. Djokovic is somewhat of a saint in Serbia, Balac said, because he came to prominence in the wake of political upheavals and conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. “His story is important to my family and to the people of Serbia,” he said.

The film follows Djokovic through 2017, capturing his training routines, competitions in the Grand Slams tournaments and his decisions to take time away from the sport to be with his family. It’s scheduled for release in January as a 10-episode streaming series on Amazon Prime.

Balac found his way into the documentary world after completing his master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University, then holding positions at the Huffington Post, VH1 and People magazine’s video division.

“I came to Cornell undecided, with a million different thoughts but no career path,” he said. “I thought I might be a chem. major and was close to majoring in psychology, but I liked American studies because my classes were so varied – from film to art history to government to pop culture.”

Looking back, Balac says he appreciates that Cornell allowed him to explore all of his interests without the pressure to hone in on a career path right away. It turned out that the American studies major was the perfect major for his interest in journalism. “You’re learning about people and telling their stories in different forms,” Balac said.

He became involved in Slope Media as a freshman, hosting a radio show, writing and taking photos for the magazine, and eventually joining the editorial board in later years before becoming head of the group’s operations. He also wrote for the Daily Sun and snagged a photo internship at the Washington Post after his junior year - still “I wasn’t ever telling people I was going to grow up and be a journalist,” he said.

In grad school at Columbia, Balac said he was able to hone the writing and video skills he’d learned in film classes, American studies courses and working with Slope Media. “It flowed so naturally from what I’d been doing in American Studies.”

At a Columbia career fair in 2012, he was able to walk away with a job at HuffPost Live, the Huffington Post’s video streaming network, where he led teams covering international and social justice stories from 2012 to 2016. At his People magazine gig, he was on the crew that filmed the White House exit interview with the Obamas.

As this documentary project wraps up, Balac says he’d like to continue working on another project in the documentary world, or maybe open a motel.

“I’ve never had a well-defined career path or agenda,” he said. “I’ve always cared about storytelling, but I also have other ideas. A friend and I (a fellow 2011 Cornell alum) have this plan to open a motel in upstate together. I don’t think that’s a total shift to left field.”

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