Oasis: Gentle and Undivided Attention
Ivan Ikić’s sophomore feature chisels a love triangle out of the concrete block that difficult human relations cement into.
After his debut Barbarians (Varvari, 2014) won a Special Mention at Karlovy Vary, Ivan Ikić already seemed like a fresh and laborious pair of eyes on the Serbian film scene. His work, including Barbarians, testifies to the importance of documentary film ethics within fiction filmmaking. For his first feature, Ikić worked together with several young non-professional actors, to whose actual life stories, he then adapted an existent screenplay (even though he never showed it to them in writing). Such an approach might be tricky for an up-and-coming director but Ikić showcases somewhat of an anthropological scrutiny in his work ethics: by being attentive and appreciative of his subjects, he yields raw and unrestrained performances. As a result, powerful stories push against the limits of fiction film, attaining a tangible sense of realness – rough and cherished at the same time.
Oasis (Oaza, 2020) is impressively polished for a sophomore feature. To that end, it took more than fifteen years for Ikić to articulate a love story that had been on his mind. In 2005, he was shooting a documentary at the Sremčica Institution for Children and Adults with Disabilities just outside of his hometown, Belgrade, when he learnt of a love triangle between its residents. Transforming a personal account into a film, Ikić knew, benefits from a temporal and critical distance. Later, when he decided to retell the story, he returned to Sremčica, where he spent two years getting to know the residents and management, prior to the actual shoot of Oasis. After a meticulous research process of gauging the interests and attitudes of the teenagers towards acting, a non-professional trio was chosen. The casting of Oasis was ethically-informed even from the get-go, and the main characters were then adapted to deviate as much from the original actors as possible and still was fitting. Creating a safe space for the disabled cast members is of utmost importance to projects that promote inclusivity. More than that, belief and support is necessary to encourage them to take on challenging roles – this, I’d say, exemplifies an inclusive filmmaking practice.
The film opens with archival footage of the institution in its early days, carefully repurposed to set the mood and main questions of the film. The socialist propaganda reel is bursting with profound optimism about the social integration of the intellectually disabled, while the marvelous colors of the 16mm film stock conceal an otherwise bitter truth – Yugoslavia with its typically socialist ethos required everyone to be of equal opportunity in order to work and work. The opening sequence is tinted with both nostalgia and the ambivalence it implies. It also introduces the film’s location and Oasis builds up a claustrophobic relation to its spaces that are mostly indoors (dining hall, double-bunk bedrooms, doctor’s office), intermingling with some glimpses of meadows and empty roads. The Sremčica Institution is a place for help but also surveillance. The residents are constantly being watched by the caretakers and such a tight environment makes a beguiling backdrop for a love story, as we associate first love with the secrecy of it, stolen kisses, and hidden romance. Because, if first love was public to everyone, rather than just the ones involved, it would be easily disenchanted. Or would it?
Not soon after Marija (Marijana Novakov) arrives at the institution, she makes a friend out of Dragana (Tijana Markovic) – both girls are temperamental and self-assertive so it’s natural that their draw together would soon result in a rivalry. His name – Robert (Valentino Zenuni), a doe-eyed kitchen helper who never talks. Battling with the lovelorn lyrics of turbo folk flowing from the stereo at lunchtime, Dragana whispers: “He showed me how to cut my wrists.” Self-harm is referred to in the film several times, and all three protagonists, at given points, candidly roll up their sleeves to compare scars. Here, wrist-cutting is treated as both a symbol for wounded surfaces and the harsh reality of mental distress. As a third layer, the scars here present a bond between all three – and with that, a powerful message of togetherness in a shared experience of self-harm.
Indeed, the manifestations of romance in Oasis feel rather voyeuristic in nature – lots of people watching, peeping through windows, and stolen glances, to the objects of which the camera never bats an eye. For most of the runtime, Milos Jacimovic, who Ikić entrusts to achieve a look as honest as he did in Barbarians, goes for almost static shots. The exceptions mark an emotional shift and occur equally in the film’s three sections – each named after one of its main characters. Only a certain determined sway smoothly directs the camera’s attention when portraying each one’s internal struggles in tense moments. The swings of focus also feel puncturing. Rarely relying on a conventional, shaky handheld look, Jacimovic keeps (sometimes achingly) close to the protagonists, often through an over-the-shoulder tracking presence. At other times, the compositions upon which the camera prefers to linger, frame two out of the three, in symmetrical combinations, reconfigured with the help of windows and doors. When making the most of the cramped space of the care home, the visuals of Oasis provide a precise, focused look that’s never clinically aestheticized.
Even when its plot results in a tragic end, Oasis remains nonetheless a piece of urgent and vital filmmaking. Undoubtedly, the film’s aptness follows from the ethical engagement with its actors, a process of working together with attention and without the condescending implications of “helping” intellectually disabled people. The closeness here, achieved with ethical distance and consideration, has yielded a touching kind of rawness that’s almost fairytale-like. With Oasis, Ivan Ikić utilises the quasi-magical properties of cinema to enrich and enliven reality, so it can become even more real (that is, as palpable as every hand touch is on screen) in its fictionalized form.
© FIPRESCI 2020
Edited by Karsten Kastelan