Also shown this year at Cannes’ Film Festival (at the Critics’ Week), Ordinary People is, as with Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, a war film that smartly refuses to match the expectations of the genre. The film (a French-Serbian-Swiss co-production) focuses on Dzoni, a newbie recruit in his regiment, on one hot summer’s day in his life. Dzoni wakes up, makes his bed, has breakfast, takes a bus with his comrades, comes to a remote and abandoned farm in the countryside, waits and waits. Finally, his orders come: to kill prisoners in a field under a scorching sun.
We guess the film takes place during the war in ex-Yugoslavia but Serbian young director Vladimir Perisic (who studied at Paris’ FEMIS) chooses abstraction and, not to name places or times, gives a universal vibe to his first film. Ordinary People summons darkness from all over the world, whether it fell on Guantanamo and Chechynia, in cells and on warfields. Perisic told us: “I spent my teen years in Belgrade during the war and I lived the conflict as if it was opaque, feeling violence but not suffering directly from it given I wasn’t on the front. I didn’t want to represent directly the conflict because it is still such a complex issue. If I had to deal directly with the history of ex-Yugoslavia, I would make a period piece during the communist period.”
Perisic chooses to treat this violence and its mechanism objectively, almost scientifically. He refers to the Stranford Prison Experiment – a 1971 psychological experiment taking place at Stanford University, where students role-played prison guards and inmates. Both parties went beyond boundaries and the study, taking their part too seriously because the context allowed them to. “I wanted to understand how ordinary people surrendered to this irrational behavior in ex-Yugoslavia and everywhere else, how they became ordinary killers. The most chilling thing is that this madness was – and still can be – initiated by the state, which makes law to bend laws.”
Ordinary People starts as a real-time documentary, dissecting each of Dzoni’s gestures and movements. As for Tarantino, the wait before violence is stretched to its limits. But whereas Quentin T. takes his time with a drifty, talky conversation that owe to both Jean-Luc Godard (well, the sixties’ JLG) and Sergio Leone in terms of rhythm and fooling around, Perisic builds tension and repetition as a ritual or a mechanism where the clock is coldly ticking. Soldiers standing to attention, tracking shots and settings add lines that capture Dzoni. There’s no point in disobeying because there’s no vanishing point for the characters.
Ordinary People shows that the devil is in the (micro) detail even when everything seems static and, statistically, killing takes the same time as smoking a cigarette. The film works on a slow burn, with intense effects due to the fact that all the acts are filmed on the same level. Events add and progress until the dead end. Using non-professional actors fitted this objectivity. Perisic says: “professional actors would have tried to put and make sense. To rationalize. They would have “played”. What interested me was the idea of mental and physical change for the characters. It is a journey and you cannot find better starting point than non-actors. Blank pages. I wanted the characters and actors to discover what was going on, to be awkward. I read in military books that in this type of mission, you have to confuse the soldiers, to bring them in an unknown place, move things so that they don’t have time to disobey and step back.”
That is not to say that Ordinary People avoids the notion of resistance. But the film is subtler than a tract: there is this nearly-slapstick scene where a prisoner refuses to bend over and over at gunpoint, like a jack-in-the-box or a broken spring rising from a wheelwork. Above all, the way the film uses nature is original: Perisic refuses the cliché of nature being the reflection of violence, where war equals wild animals, dust and mud. Here it is only contempt that is felt: the sun can be almost Malick-like when Dzoni lies peacefully on the grass – the scene recalls one from Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima in which a vicious sergeant lies all day among dead bodies, waiting for the enemy to strike them. The Bad Sleep Well, as Akira Kurosawa said. But most of the time, the sun in Ordinary People “hates us all”, Perisic says, quoting Antonioni.
At the end of the day, Dzoni sits, well, collapses, in front of a coffee that is served by a young girl, the only female (and neutral) character in this very male film. A storm warning takes shape in his head. Perisic says: “I wanted the film to work as a shock therapy where, buried by orders, automatism, and obeying, Dzoni and the audience would say “stop”. Perisic was naturally anxious about the reactions of audience in ex-Yugoslavia: the positive response this year at Novi Sad Exit Festival (Serbia) – where it won the Grand Prize – and in Sarajevo show that Ordinary People is definitely a medical prescription for everyone.
Edited by Tara Judah
© FIPRESCI 2009