War Inheritance

in 13th Prishtina International Film Festival

by Anne-Christine Loranger

How do the children of the Balkans deal with the conflict aftermaths that their damaged parents transmitted to them?

Like the generation of Germans born during or after World War II, the young people living in the former provinces of Yugoslavia face the heavy legacy that their parents – whatever the side of the conflict they belonged to – left them of experiences too often left in shadows and silence. Whether their parents were aggressors or victims, the legacy weighs all the more heavily as the silence is thicker. Most Balkan films presented at the International Film Festival of Priština, Kosovo show these remnants of a war that the new generation must somehow digest and integrate.

In After the Winter (Poslije zime, 2021), director Ivan Bakrač shows a group of childhood friends from Montenegro in their early twenties who, scattered around the Balkans, are forced over the course of a year to become adults. They visit each other, help each other to overcome the afterglow of their carefree youth, and discover a new maturity. Among them, Mladen (Momčilo Otašević) is given the task of dropping by the home of an old companion of his father’s to retrieve a mysterious wooden box. He then learns that, contrary to what he knew, his father was in the war. The friend of his father remains, however, mute on what occurred there. Having opened the box, Mladen discovers documents and horrible photos. “Why would anyone keep these awful things for 25 years?” he wonders. Mladen realizes that he knows his taciturn, demanding father even less well than he thought but finds himself unable to question him. When his father dies, he can only put the box of documents in his grave and bury his father’s secrets. We will never see what was in the photos or what happened to the father. The viewer, like Mladen, must live with ignorance. “Did you try to talk with dad about the war?” he asks his older brother after the funeral. “Yes,” the latter replies, “but he didn’t say anything. “At least you tried,” says Mladen sadly. By this short sentence, the director reflects a generational observation: dizzy in the modern pleasures of sex, alcohol, and social media, there are many who, like Mladen, will never try, all the while inheriting the invisible wounds of their elders. “I don’t think we ever really had a childhood,” says Bubi, seemingly the most unhinged in alcohol and drugs of the lot, testifying to her silent suffering, and the cause of her drift.

The wounds inherited from the father form the essence of The Silenced Tree (Ceviz Ağaci, 2020) by director Faysal Soysal, whose first feature film, after several documentary series and shorts, is the first fiction film. We discover Hayati (Serdar Orçin), a weak and shy literature professor, at least according to the macho criteria of the men in his milieu. His wife, an overbearing woman and second-rate painter (Sezin Akbaşoğullan) has long sought to leave him because of his sexual impotence and inability to write his second novel. Hayati’s impotence, however, is a metaphor for his impotence to understand his father’s suicide as a child. Never did his mother or his father’s best friend agree to talk. Hayati finally discovers that his father, a prison security guard, had allowed his best friend, arrested after the 1980 coup in Turkey, to be tortured and killed because he wrongly suspected him of having an affair with his wife, Hayati’s mother. Frightened by his weakness, Hayati’s father kills himself on the tree in front of the house, leaving his son obsessed with his suicide.

While his wife disappears with a colleague to the big city, Hayati witnesses the murder of another woman, found burned and unrecognizable. He is suspected of this murder because people believe that it was his wife that he burned. To atone for his father’s mistake, Hayati takes responsibility for the murder. Only when he is behind bars is he inspired to write again.

Faisal Soysal has sometimes missed his subject in this film that splits in all directions. The beautiful cinematography of Vedat Özdemir and the sensitive interpretation of Sendar Orçin in an often-thankless role don’t allow us to forget that we run out of steam in the maze of a somewhat incoherent story.  Soysal barely touches many themes, such as painting, literature, violence towards women, machismo culture, etc. and mixes the macho men of the village, the tree of the father’s suicide, Hayati’s mother’s death, a young woman bookseller, etc. At the same time, some critical questions remain unanswered, even though they matter in treating the underlying theme. Why, for example, did the father’s suicide shock Hayati so much, while the death of the best friend tortured in prison does not seem to have affected the latter’s son, a childhood friend of Hayati’s? And why doesn’t Hayati ever admit to this childhood friend, who supports him as much as he can, the reason for his decision to take the woman’s murder on his back?  Soysal would have done better to restrict himself to this complex and troubling subject of inherited responsibility.

“The fathers have eaten sour green grapes,” the Old Testament tells us in Jeremiah 31:29, “and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” In the Balkans, as in Rwanda or Germany, whole generations have their teeth chipped. We can hope that the expression of these wounds through art (and cinema!) will be able to open the doors of the social imagination or at least offer an outlet to new generations eager for answers and appeasement. 

Anne-Christine Loranger