Unearthing Imprints

in 18th goEast – the Festival of Central and Eastern European Film, Wiesbaden

by Eithne O'Neill

“The Miner” (Rudar) directed by Hannah Slak

For three reasons, this film made its mark in the 18th goEast Festival feature film competition. Against a background of a 2009 economic slow-down in Slovenia, its subject is a taboo chapter in the history, thereby illustrating the Festival’s commitment to the geopolitical element in filmmaking. A disused mine concealing a mass grave is traced back to World War II and its aftermath. The surfacing of gruesome evidence coincides with the expression of deeply repressed  trauma. Yet, although a poignant character study, thanks to its broader scope, the film avoids the pitfall of a mere psychological approach.

“The Miner” is a Slovenian thriller based on the account written by Mehmedalija Alic who lost two brothers in the Srebrenica massacre. At the same time, by dint of the classical framing technique of prologue and epilogue, the film is established as a multiple quest. A flashback to the early 1990s focuses on a young man taking leave of a teenage girl on the outskirts of the woodlands. This opening on a universal motif strikes the note of mystery and identity : Who is the woman ? What happened to her ?

Imprints. The childhood game of outlining one’s hand on paper seals a kind of covenant. Will they meet again ? “The Miner” is a tale of traces and imprints. Again the anxiety about employment is skillfully related to one’s past. Others may be losing their jobs, but Alija has been with the firm for a long time and his skill is a guarantee. So say his fellow workers in the shower-room after hours.

The abandoned coal-mine becomes a successfully sustained metaphor of plot and meaning. The miner is a family man with a loving wife, teenage daughter and lively boy. What dark secret is hidden in a mine ? What sense of shame lurks in a man’s brain ? The shaft into the depths of rock leads to unearthing the truth. Almost at once, a contradiction is embedded in the devious instructions the miner receives. Prior to being sold, the mine is to be checked out and blocked up for good. Not only is there is no official question of a proper inspection, Alija is sent alone, excluding the self-imposed mission of carrying out his task correctly. Here the filmic strands begin to intertwine.

While Alija’s mates are being callously laid off, to accompany him, the overseer takes on a young trainee miner who costs him nothing. An elderly gentleman and resident of the vicinity turns up, thus reinforcing the link between the generations. Given that Alija is a survivor of a horrendous end of century massacre, he is the bearer of the duty of remembrance, the “devoir de mémoire”  or “Erinnerungspflicht”. At the cost of his job, of his safety, of losing his wife, Alija pursues his search. Not to knock down that brick wall, not to heed that single dark blood stain-of a desperately clawing hand?, is to persist in a crime of omission. The tension mounts. Isn’t there a danger of gas ? If there people died, was it because of a leakage? The official pressure being brought on Alija and the boy intimates more sinister deeds. The old man hovering around is a further sign in this direction. Finally, imprints and fragments lead to the motif of suffocation and visual trope of the ossuary in extermination camps. In a single place, the Holocaust is summarized.

But whose are these bones ? Of the victims or the evil-doers? No-one knows. The burial of the dead was the theme of László Nemes’ “Son of Saul”.

Should this prove impossible, what path to choose ?There is a wealth of evidence pointing to a terrain of mass graves. But the truth can be denied. Thus the problem is how to accept the tragedy of the impossible resting-place.

As we write, on Wednesday April 25th, 2018, the headline in »Die Welt« is : “The Freedom of the Press is under threat especially in Europe”. Silke Mülherr quotes “Reporters without Frontiers” (ROG) stating that “four out of five countries in which the situation for journalists has markedly deteriorated are in Europe: Malta, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Serbia”. In Eastern Europe, the Hungarian government is known for its muzzling of the media. If Alija the defiant miner must henceforth look ahead, “The Miner” is a statement about the freedom of action and speech that goes beyond the boundaries of fiction and documentary. It is about the truth in our time.

Eithne O’Neill