The Scars of War and Slavery

in 26th Stockholm International Film Festival

by Kristin Aalen

Prejudice and war between people can destroy love and peaceful co-existence. Only now and then do weary people find a glimpse of happiness.

One of the outstanding films screened in the “Open Zone” section of the 26th Stockholm International Film Festival was The High Sun (Zvizdan) by the Croatian director Dalibor Matanic. In a highly original and impressive way the film weaves together three stories from different decades – 1991, 2001 and 2011 – in order to show how ethnic animosity has destroyed the relationship between people in former Yugoslavia.

The film opens in 1991 with a loving couple swimming in the idyllic countryside. In the same vein of Romeo and Juliette, the Serbian woman (Tihana Lazovic) and the Croatian man (Goran Markovic) have chosen to love the enemy, as defined by the environment. The tragic end to their relationship is depicted in a shocking way.

Matanic surprises us in his 2001 story by using the same actors to portray two different characters who hesitate to approach each other. With the war of the 1990’s still haunting their minds, love between people of different ethnic background seems impossible.

Even more heartbreaking is the 2011 story, acted by the same couple. A young Croat has fled to Zagreb because his mother did not tolerate his relationship with a Serb woman. As he returns to the village, the question of reconciliation arises, both with his parents and with his girlfriend who was pregnant when he left.          The use of the same actors in all three stories, combined with similar locations and sound design, allows Matanic to create an overarching and touching narrative about how war destroys human relationships for decades, allowing only a glimpse of hope in the end.

Gold Coast (Gullkysten) by Daniel Dencik tells the story of a Danish botanist in 1836, who is sent to Danish Guinea in West Africa to set up a new plantation. During his time there he discovers that his compatriots are selling slaves, although slavery was forbidden by Danish law decades earlier.

The Norwegian lead actor Jakob Oftebro gives a convincing portrait of the tortured botanist who pines for the fiancée he left back home, while fighting to release the slaves. However, what is direly missing is an individual character among the slaves in order to show, not only tell us, about their hardships.

Much more impressive is Aferim! by Radu Jude from Romania. This black-and-white slave drama is set in a Romanian countryside in 1835. It is a road movie in which a policeman on horseback and his son set out to search for a gipsy slave who has fled from the brutal regime of the local Bojar. This marvelously directed film tells in a shocking way how powerful Romanians treated the gypsies like animals. The cruel experience of being sold as a slave is lively visualized through the crying of a little boy who is treated without mercy, as well as the horrible mutilation of the gipsy as he is brought back to the ruthless Bojar.

Combined with the highly ironic title Aferim! – Bravo! in English – the film demonstrates the extraordinary skills of yet another Romanian director.

Edited by Yael Shuv