Better Than Ever

in 13rd Sarajevo Film Festival

by Damir Radic

This year’s Competition program at the Sarajevo Film Festival, as almost everyone agreed, was probably better than ever. It contained ten films from (so called) region – the Balkans and a little broader – and at least seven of them deserve respect, which was not often case in previous years at the festival. We saw at least three films of high quality, and those three films were Dogtooth (Kynodontas) by Greek director and co-writer Yorgos Lanthimos, The Blacks (Crnci) by Croatian directors and scriptwriters Goran Devic and Zvonimir Juric, and Ordinary People by Serbian director/scriptwriter Vladimir Perišic. Next to those titles were First of All, Felicia (Felicia, inainte de toate) by Romanian-Dutch director/writer duet Razvan Radulescu and Melissa de Raaf, Men on the Bridge (Köprüdekiler) by Turkish director/scripter Asli Özge, and Donkey (Kenjac) by Croatian director/ scriptwriter Antonio Nuic. Some respect also goes to Transmission (Adás) by Hungarian director and scripter Roland Vranik.

Well known Dogtooth, winner of the Un Certain Regard Award this Year in Cannes, is one of those provocative and bizarre films, very brave and bold, and in some ways it reminds me of Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s outstanding Innocence. The story deals with a family; father, mother, two daughters and a son. They live in a luxury home on the outskirts of a city, with a pool in the courtyard surrounded by a tall fence. Children, who are in their twenties, have never left the house, because father didn’t want to expose them to the influence of the outside world.  But father’s employee Christina, who he engaged to appease the sexual urges of the son, brings changes in children’s life and father loses his control over them. A strange situation with grown up but immature children, along with sexually explicit scenes and some moments of hard violence, creates a very peculiar atmosphere which is a strong weapon in the hands of the director Lanthimos. Some critics objected that Lanthimos uses ‘larpurlartistic’ shock for the sake of a shock strategy, but even if that is the case, he does it to effect, and with a style that cannot be ignored.

The Blacks and Ordinary People are two films with similar themes – both deal with the effects of war crimes on the psyche of soldiers who were killing captives (mostly civilians).  While the authors of The Blacks, Juric and Devic (for Devic it is a feature debut, and for Juric a major film), deal with a group of special unit soldiers in a dangerous action in the woods, with war crimes in the background (we never see the victims, though, only the consequences), Perišic, the author of Ordinary People, concentrates on crime itself, on a young soldier who, at first, first rejects killing civil captives, but as day goes to night he becomes a cold, blooded executor. Juric’s and Devic’s film has a very suggestive atmosphere of tension and anxiety, and the scenes in the forest are especially well done (particularly a strange poetical scene with the wild boar that suddenly appears in front of the soldiers). The strongest devices Perišic uses in his debut are long takes and a cold, distant perspective, which gets him excellent results in the depiction of borderline psychological condition and disturbing individual transformation, which is also significant for the state of society in a deeply immoral time.

The co-author of First of All, Felicia is prominent screenwriter Razvan Radulescu, co-writer of the first and strongest film of Romanian new wave, The Death of Mister Lazarescu (directed by Cristi Puiu). In his and his co-author Melissa de Raaf’s debut we follow a day in the life of Felicia, a divorced Romanian woman in her younger middle age who, in the home of her parents in Bucharest, packs for a plane flight to Amsterdam, where she’s lived for twenty years and raised her son. The first part of the film, placed in a parental apartment, is outstanding for its hyper-realistic way of depicting family relationships through detailed long takes. Unfortunately, the second part, at the airport, loses that impact – all the time we have only one recurring motif (communication problems on all levels, especially private ones underlined by long and slightly less long mobile phone conversations), and eventually it gets boring. Or, to put it differently, we’re left with an empty concept without any content development. At the end, authors try to make a big impact through Felicia’s emotionally intensive monologue, some kind of one-direction showdown with her mother, but it seems far-fetched. Sadly, because the first third of the film is really masterfully done.

Donkey, Antonio Nuic’s second feature, is a story about complex and troubled family relationships placed in Herzegovina’s province, with war events in the background. The message is clear – for individual people private problems are much more important than the general ones, emotional engagement is much bigger, and private emotional wars might be much more dangerous than real wars. Donkey is a film of narrative maturity, interesting cinematography and does pretty well, the acting is occasionally superb, but the film is unconvincing on a basic level – it’s not plausible that such complex emotional situations, and problems the characters have with each other together and within their inner conflicts can be fixed in just a few days. But, on the other hand, it is the rule of this ‘genre’ – the genre of films that take place in an idyllic or non-idyllic province where the characters, usually a family or a group of friends, in a few days, succeed in solving their serious problems.

In her first feature Men on the Bridge, Turkish director Asli Özge blends documentary and fiction – non-professional actors depict themselves in fictional (staged) but very authentic situations in the original locations. We follow three narrative lines with four protagonists (those narrative lines never intersect); the common point of these characters is Bosporus bridge in Istanbul, and all of them share the problem of (emotional) communication. Although it is a feature debut for its director, Men on the Bridge is a mature work without any flaws and a fine example of documentary approach in what is basically a fictional film.

Finally, the last title I mentioned among the films of better quality – Transmission – is a kind of ‘post-apocalyptic’ story. It’s a meditation about three brothers after the decline of telecommunications (computers, TVs, mobile phones and other telecom devices no longer work), a story that includes manslaughter and romantic relationships, and tries to deal with moral issues.  The film is pretentious, but not to an irritating degree – and some of its shots are masterfully taken. Visually, it’s pretty impressive and has a Tarkovskian touch in style and with rgard to its subject of morale. In this way Transmission is an interesting piece of work.

I will conclude with three films of lesser quality. Slovenian Girl (Slovenka) by an experienced Slovenian director and co-writer Damjan Kozole is fair but it is nothing more than that story about a sweet-faced but cold student who works as a prostitute, and about her relationship with a good warm-hearted father who is pretty lost in time. One well executed poetic scene, but out of context in the film, and an effective open-ending with the clever use of Frank Zappa’s cult song Bobby Brown is too little for something more than an average film. Feature debut of Bulgarian director and scriptwriter Kamen Kalev, Eastern Plays, is well directed and acted, but drastically a stereotypical film about two troubled brothers (one is an ex drug addict, the other a newly recruited skinhead), that contains almost every possible cliché about people and society in transition, and is full of explicit or even didactic messages. In other words, a mediocre flick with good actors and fair direction. It is really doubtful how that kind of film can enter the Cannes Film Festival (Quinzane des realisateurs program), and many (far) better Eastern European films can only dream about it. Finally, maybe the weakest title in the competition was the Serbian film, Automn in My Street (Jesen u mojoj ulici) by Miloš Pušic, a director and scriptwriter from Vojvodina. It is a film with some style (dynamic editing with jump cuts, slow motions, hand-held camera, etc.), but also with immature content. It is a story about two young guys, one is good and the other is not as bad as he is stupid, and, of course, the stupid one eventually will be responsible for the death of the good one, otherwise the author won’t know how to end his story about two more or less uninteresting protagonists.

All in all, in Sarajevo we had a good competition program (and I have to say a very good time with hospitable hosts), the program that proves that authors from this region should be taken seriously in an artistic sense.

Edited by Tara Judah