Maja Milos' "Clip": License to Shock?

in 41st Rotterdam International Film Festival

by Carmen Gray

It was the first year at the International Film Festival Rotterdam that all three Tiger Awards were won by female directors. Chile’s Dominga Sotomayor picked one up for Thursday Till Sunday (De jueves a domingo), as did Huang Ji of China for Egg and Stone (Jidan Le Shitou). The third went to Serbia’s Maja Milos for Clip (Klip), which also came away with the KNF Award of the Dutch film critics. In a selection that suffered at times from overly mannered stylisation, it was clear that the rawly in-your-face, disturbing Clip enjoyed unique visceral impact.

Certainly, Clip was the film that most divided audiences, provoking some heated reactions. While this is all too predictable in light of its unflinchingly bold and explicit treatment of teenage sexuality, the film surprised many with layers of complexity that defied any dismissal of it as mere attention-seeking.

Isidora Simijonovic, who was just 14 at the time of shooting, gives an electrically raw performance as 16-year-old Jasna, a school student experimenting with boys, drink and drugs as adulthood approaches. It follows her intensifying relationship with 18-year-old Djole (Vukasin Jasnic), who she has a huge crush on but who initially reveals little emotion or even interest in her aside from as a plaything for sex. Her encounters with him are often mediated through the eye of their camera-phones, their intimacy informed and skewed by their emulation of online pornography in its dirty-talk and role-playing. In an accomplished handling of what can often seem a gimmicky format, the mobile footage Milos incorporates captures a youth era in which experience seems inauthentic unless recorded, and images are hyper-sexualised.

Jasna’s nervy masochism and eagerness to please are uncomfortable to watch, though she is also presented as a desiring being who actively seeks out and derives pleasure from the encounters. Given her age, this complexity is challenging, especially as these growing pains of a naive teen with no experience navigating power relations in a patriarchal society in which guys call the shots feel very naturalistic and disturbingly real. A disclaimer at the end saying none of the sex scenes were filmed using underage actors is no quick fix to the controversy, with the use of body doubles and prosthetics to some extent a technicality in terms of the teen sexuality represented.

While Jasna is having emotional difficulty with stresses at home — her dad is seriously ill, and her mother’s under strain to care for him while earning the family’s living — her social behaviour is not depicted as anomalous acting out, as it is echoed by her peers. But even if we take it as representative of actual tendencies in Belgrade’s youth and the contemporary world at large, it’s not clear Milos achieves a critical distance sufficient to avoid simply reproducing teen sexual objectification rather than interrogating it.

To what extent Clip is specific to place and to what extent universal is debatable. It party feels like territory trodden before — a Serbian Larry Clark’s Kids, if you will, but with mediated reality rather than AIDS the pivotal concern. A sequence in which the students flag-wave and shout about Kosovo being Serbian references an undercurrent of nationalism that ties them to the region’s war-scarred history and a demand for a brutal form of masculinity. Interestingly, and to the film’s credit, the portrayal of Djole’s character is also complex, and not unsympathetic. We see him as an immature teen and a lout, but also as a boy who has lost a father and does not know how to accommodate his growing attachment to Jasna. And there is no easy rebellion, in a milieu in which the parents are absent or preoccupied — rather, this generation seems to flounder in a moral vacuum.

Most problematic is the camera’s gaze. While Clip is shot by a woman (and it’s arguable whether that should make a difference in regard to how we regard the content), and the experience primarily followed is that of Jasna, the camera’s movement, frequently gliding over Jasna’s body, replicates the male gaze. The girls are dressed in the trashiest, most revealing outfits the costume designers could find — white leggings with slits down the side, for instance — which are so extreme as to be humorous, but also disquietening in so far as they create a possibility for titillation that makes the film feel very dangerous for what could be all the wrong reasons.

Does this deftly intensify our discomfort by making us complicit, or simply incite objectification? It’s not a simple question to answer, as it depends on individual audiences — a trust Milos has made a very bold gamble on.