When I get a spare moment, I’m going to finish writing up my Sarajevo Film Festival reviews (I haven’t even mentioned the documentaries yet, of which I saw a great many), but in the meantime here’s Dominic Ambrose’s blog - he also attended the festival and wrote capsule pieces on many of the films, including a few that I didn’t see.
Archive for the 'Bosnia-Herzegovina' Category
One of the better films I saw at this year’s Sarajevo Film Festival was Aida Begić’s feature debut Snow (Snijeg) - but though I attended the press Q&A the next day, it was all in untranslated Bosnian (or at least the first ten minutes was: I’d made my excuses and left by then).
So I was delighted to find Michael Guillen’s English-language Q&A with Begić on his The Evening Class blog - not least because it cleared up a couple of the film’s mysteries. I’m still not totally convinced by the magical realist elements, but it’s now clearer that the young boy’s miraculously quick-growing hair had a more definite narrative function than I picked up on at the time.
It’s only when I actually visited Sarajevo for the first time that I realised just how peculiarly susceptible the city is to being beseiged, surrounded as it is by hills and forests offering ample opportunities for snipers. The recent capture of Radovan Karadžić led many British newspapers to offer what turned out to be well-timed crash-courses in Bosnian history (which I’m augmenting with Marko Attila Hoare’s recent history of the region, which is particularly helpful in the way it unpicks and demythologises the roots of its many conflicting nationalism), and just about the first thing I spotted on my arrival this time round was a number of pieces of graffiti, all by the same hand and in the same blood-red paint, exhorting us to remember Srebrenica. (Many of these were bilingual in Bosnian and English, like the dual-layer subtitles accompanying most of the films).
I don’t know whether the graffiti predated Karadžić’s capture, but few attending the festival are likely to forget Srebrenica, as it looms large in both the programme and even the titles of such films as Haris Prolić’s Srebrenica Cenotaph, constructed from (literally) unearthed camcorder footage of Srebrenica residents as they eked out an uncertain existence between 1992-4. The massacre also unavoidably dominated Adnan Ćuhara’s The Seeker (Tragač), an hour-long portrait of Amor Mašović, the director of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Missing Persons Institute, who has spent fifteen years examining the evidence revealed by mass graves. Both will be reviewed at greater length later this week.
Traktor, ljubav i rock’n'roll
Slovenia/Bosnia-Herzegovina, 2008, colour, 105 mins
- Director: Branko Đurić
- Screenplay: Branko Đurić, Feri Lainšček, Miroslav Mandič
- Photography: Sven Pepeonik
- Editor: Miran Miošić
- Music: Nedim Babović
- Producers: Janez Jauh, Ademir Kenović
- Production Companies: ATA Produkcija, Refresh Production, Gustav film, Jadran Film, RTV Slovenia
- Cast: Tanja Ribič, Branko Đurić, Jaka Fon, Semka Sokolović Bertok
Boasting not just the most self-parodically ‘Eastern European’ title of anything playing in the 2008 Sarajevo Film Festival but also arguably this entire blog, director/co-writer/star Branko Đurić’s film is an extremely broad comedy set entirely in a backward Slovenian peasant community in – apparently – the late 1960s. Not that the era is especially clear from anything onscreen, as they still plough their fields manually, rely on the local gypsy band for all things musical, and consult the local fortune-teller for advice on how to deal with everything from unwanted pregnancies to troublesome rivals.
She’s also the steely no-nonsense mother of Stefan Breza Popov (Đurić) a forty-year-old who’s apparently spent his entire adult life keeping her farm ticking over, despite harbouring implausible dreams of becoming a rock star. To this end, Breza has cultivated a Beatles mop-top (kept suitably wavy by a home-made combination of used corncobs and cow saliva) and George Harrison moustache, dresses in brown jacket, flared trousers and tartan winkle-pickers, and has purchased an electric guitar, with which he intends to wow the village and win the woman of his dreams – red-headed Silvija (Tania Ribič), a Swiss émigrée who works in the local restaurant. Despite his performance (rehearsed in the barn at great length to a recording of an unnamed “English rocker”, and using a chicken’s freshly plucked tailfeather as a plectrum) being hilariously terrible – the lyrics consisting almost entirely of “Be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby, rock’n’roll!” - it is at least livelier than the usual gypsy offering and achieves the desired effect.
But Silvija has a complicated love life, sleeping on a regular basis with gypsy band member Gjirkoš, who despite refusing to leave his wife to marry her, nonetheless insists on a kind of droit de seigneur whenever he’s in the mood and she’s on her own (“Find a dummy, marry him, screw him when you have to and me when you want to” - though Gjirkoš doesn’t seem too bothered about that final clause as the film progresses). And Breza, too, is in something of a pickle, having pledged his mother’s cow Cvetka’s calf to the gypsies as a bribe to let him perform, the fact that Cvetka neither has a calf nor is pregnant being a minor obstacle. To complicate matters further, his mother has just taken on a new farmhand in the form of deaf-mute dwarf Duplin (Jaka Fon), who while well-meaning nonetheless has a habit of being in precisely the wrong place at the wrong time.
As that very brief cherry-pick of events from the film’s first third suggests, this is not a film for those who prize refined verbal and conceptual wit over pratfalls and slapstick. There are many times when Tractor, Love and Rock’n’Roll resembles a particularly silly Alexei Sayle sketch that’s been stretched out to feature length, and stereotypes run rampant throughout (“He beat your wife? But we gypsies only beat our own wives!”). That it somehow manages to run the distance is largely due to the likeable cast, especially leads Đurić and Ribič (the latter even managing to infuse the proceedings with several genuine dollops of pathos, whether bewailing her unsuccessful career and love life or agonising over the fact that her baby’s father isn’t her new husband), and a cheerful determination to wring laughs out of anything that moves, including chickens, pigs, goats, cows, and even an owl, which quizzically stares at Breza following an argument with Gjirkoš’s wife.
As is so often the case in films like this, the women generally come off best, with Silvija and her blonde colleague Nada running rings round the hapless Breza when he comes courting, though it’s Breza’s indomitable mother who rules the roost – even after he’s caught red-handed performing a little calf-rustling, she browbeats the gang that’s about to mete out a well-deserved punishment till they let him go. She can, as Basil Fawlty once observed of his own wife, kill a man at ten feet with one blow of her tongue – or at least close off any possibility for future discussion. “You gave my guitar to the gypsies!”, wails Breza after another bout of Machiavellian underhandedness on her part. “They have electricity now”, she replies, as though that justified everything.
Behind the camera, Đurić is efficient rather than inspired, though there’s a nifty trompe-l’œil shot at the start when we see what appears to be a large wardrobe being carried through a field of yellow rape – until the camera descends to ground level and it turns out to be a small wooden box being carried by Duplin on his head. This shot is echoed in the final pull-back from the farm, in which we see that Silvija’s plan to replace its traditional output by growing gladioli has been more than achieved. Narratively, it’s somewhat episodic, with many running gags (Duplin’s mysterious dried black fruit, Breza enlarging the farmhouse windows after his future father-in-law complains that they’re too small) fizzling out rather than building to a punchline, and Breza’s ultimate fate seems more than a little undeserved, though no-one seems that concerned by what would appear to be a blatant miscarriage of justice. After all, he probably deserved it merely for importing ‘rock’a’ro’ into the village in the first place.
On his first visit in the 1960s, Roman Polanski apparently observed that London was “a very red city” thanks to the Routemaster buses, phone and letter boxes, etc. There’s plenty of red here in Sarajevo too, thanks to the many, many Film Festival posters, but the colour that I keep encountering in the city centre is green, whether the vertiginous grass-strewn banks of the Miljacka river, the numerous Heineken posters (they’re a major festival sponsor) or, most surprisingly, the pavements in the city centre. I’m sure they weren’t like this two years ago (it’s the kind of detail one remembers), but they’ve been overlaid with a fine green gravel, which when combined with evenly-spaced raised concrete crash barriers must create the impression from above of a dotted “cut here” sign.
The other colour that’s hard to miss when entering Sarajevo from the airport is the hideous yellow of the Holiday Inn, famous for its background appearance in numerous news items about the 1992-5 Bosnian war. I stayed there two years ago, and despite the exterior it was perfectly fine as a hotel - though my most vivid memory was from the opening night, when I returned from the party to find a note had been pushed under my door reading “Your mother has just died - our condolences.”
Fortunately, it took me about half a millisecond to realise that it referred to my grandmother (and it wasn’t a surprise: in fact, I’d been expecting a call along those lines), and I later found out from my wife that the staff were very reluctant about communicating this in a note and that she had to talk them into it. (She didn’t know, of course, about the fundamental misunderstanding). Still, there was no harm done, and I still have the note - I took it to the funeral, where it provided a certain blackly comic frisson.
Bosnia-Herzegovina/Germany/France/Iran, 2008, colour, 100 mins
- Director: Aida Begić
- Script: Aida Begić, Elma Tataragić
- Photography: Erol Zubčević
- Editor: Miralem S. Zubčević
- Music: Igor Čamo
- Producer: Elma Tataragić
- Production Company: MAMAFILM
- Cast: Zana Marjanović (Alma), Jasna Ornela Bery (Nadija), Sadžida Šetić (Jasmina), Vesna Mašić (Safija), Emir Hadžihafizbegović (Dedo Mehmed), Irena Malamuhić (Nana Fatima), Jelena Kordić (Sabrina), Alma Terzić (Lejla), Muhamed Hadžović (Hamza), Jasmin Geljo (Miro), Dejan Spasić (Marc), Nejla Keškić (Zehra), Mirna Ždralović (Hana), Benjamin Đip (Ali), Emina Mahmutagić (Azra)
The Sarajevo Film Festival got off to a strong start last night with the Bosnian premiere of Aida Begić’s debut feature, already the winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes’ Semaine de la Critique. If it initially seemed incongruous that a small-scale drama whose most telling moments came from quiet asides or unspoken silences should be screened in a massive open-air cinema to an audience of 2500 (possibly more – it was standing room only), it paid off triumphantly, One could have heard the proverbial pin drop for the most part, though there were occasional laughs, most cynically when Marc the property developer says that a major project is supported by the government. The film is set in a small village in Eastern Bosnia in 1997, just after the war, and many people in the audience would have been able to identify all too closely with the protagonists.
It’s quite disorienting trying to get a handle on what initially appears to be a very large extended family. It’s also overwhelmingly female dominated, for reasons that become clear very quickly – virtually all their menfolk have been killed. They deal with this in different ways: Alma, the most devout Muslim, performs a daily ritual in which she winds a patterned headscarf around her neck and goes to prayer, elaborately washing her face, arms and legs along the way. The prayers are held in a ruined mosque, the attendees almost entirely female, aside from the imam Mehmed, the grandfather to some of them. Meanwhile, his wife Fatima weaves an elaborate prayer rug (occasionally cannibalising other items in search of the right colours). The invalid Safija stays at home, regularly checking her blood pressure, Sabrina burns a metaphorical candle for a Swedish boyfriend, Magnus, Nadija constantly recalls her husband Omer (whom she believes is still alive, despite mounting evidence to the contrary), and her daughter Lejla needs no persuasion to start scouring the undergrowth after Omer’s glasses are found nearby. Jasmina looks after orphaned children, with whom she occasionally has a tense relationship – in one subplot little Zehra runs away after being caught playing with Jasmina’s husband’s razor, an object the older woman regards as sacred.
The action takes place over a week, each day announced with intertitles. The title sets us up to expect a desolate snow-blanketed landscape, but in fact it’s the constant threat of snow that’s the issue – the dwelling in which they live is falling apart (presumably war-damaged), and patched together with makeshift tarpaulins (one of which seems to be marked with UN colours). Nadija and Alma scrape a living making and selling chutneys and jams, a back-breaking effort whose every stage is depicted, prior to them pulling a heavy cart uphill to sell the produce by the side of the road. When a young man, Hamza, accidentally crashes into them on the Saturday, he is mortified and not only offers to pay but to provide them with regular transport – and his promise to return gives Alma the first glimmering of real hope that she’s had since the death of her husband Faruk.
What’s much less welcome is the arrival of one Miro Jovanović, whose surname marks him out as a Serb and therefore the target of prejudice-fuelled suspicion, even though he claims to have saved the life of an acquaintance of theirs. Their suspicion mounts when it turns out that he’s representing a foreign corporation that wants to buy their land for redevelopment and needs signatures from six of them – his negotiations with each when he returns with a foreign property developer, and the revelations arising from them, form the core of the film’s final act.
It’s an intimate, contemplative piece, with Begić and cinematographer Erol Zubčević frequently resorting to tight close-ups of tiny, almost insignificant-seeming details – the tail end of Alma’s headscarf flapping in the wind, a toy car being pushed around a wall pock-marked with bullet holes, the threads of Fatima’s loom, a single white cup on a blue tablecloth. (Cloth throughout has a powerful symbolic function, whether headscarves, prayer rugs, or Nadija’s attempt at enticing customers by dressing in various shades of red). Begić sketches in background details without excessive emphasis – the use of cigarettes as a universal currency, the differences between Nadija’s materialism and Alma’s spirituality, the problems the women’s lack of education might lead to if they try to strike out on their own, the fact that Hamza’s furniture removal business is booming (presumably because so many people are having to relocate, both as a by-product of the war itself and of property deals like the one proffered by Miro and Marc). Finally, there’s a shot of a newly-constructed graveyard in the film’s brief 1998 epilogue, the number of headstones startling even given our knowledge of how many of family members were killed.
The performances are faultless, the older women in particular having just the right amount of pinch-faced conviction, and there’s real pain behind Nadija’s eyes, for all her attempts at blowsy seductiveness as she touts her wares by the roadside. But the standout in a difficult role is Zana Marjanović as Alma, whose rare private moments alone in her bedroom finally allow her to let up all the emotions she’s been keeping rigorously in check when on public view, tightly bound into her headscarf.
Igor Čamo does double duty as composer and sound designer, his sparse wisps of piano counterpointed by heightened natural sounds – crickets chirping, insects buzzing, the gurgle of the jam-press, the trundle of the cart, the thudding of the loom, and a sudden, memorably loud thunderclap. Only a couple of lurches into magical realism – the uncontrollable growth of the little boy Ali’s hair, a prayer rug that turns into a river-spanning bridge – feel forced: this material is more than strong enough without outside assistance. As an intriguing footnote, this film is an Iranian co-production, and in its solemn but never entirely po-faced seriousness (the complex dynamics of family life have plenty of comedic highs as well as abyss-like lows), it recalls the work of the Makhmalbaf sisters.
Judging from my own experience, and conversations with people who’d last visited Sarajevo four or five years ago, the festival’s budget has been growing year on year, and a good sign of this was in the lavishness of the opening night party. It was pretty good in 2006, held in a hillside restaurant overlooking the city’s twinkling lights, but all the stops were pulled out this year - and thankfully the weather held up, as it was entirely in the open air.
The most amusing touch, at least for a Briton, was that the party was sponsored by tobacco manufacturer Ronhill, whose illuminated logos were liberally strewn around the venue. They even had cigarette girls handing them out - in London, they’d have been taken away and beaten (I smoked my first in literally years: it seemed rude to refuse). A live band played various cheesy 60s and 70s film-soundtrack standards - in what William Goldman famously called a ‘movie moment’ (by which he meant a coincidence so implausible that it seemed as though it was devised by a screenwriter), they kicked off with Nino Rota’s Amarcord at the precise moment I started chatting to an Italian journalist that I’d previously met at the airport.
A spectacular firework display kicked off at about midnight, after which there was a light show - made all the more effective by the fact that by this stage there was enough cigarette smoke in the air to fuse with the beams (this may well have been precalculated). Predictably enough, the goodie bag consisted of a selection of Ronhill products, which I’ve already earmarked for a friend.
When I started this blog just over a year ago, I did so with a long list of ambitions, chief among them being that I was going to keep the promise of its subtitle “a survey of Central and Eastern European cinema” by visiting the Gdynia, Plzeň, Budapest and Sarajevo Film Festivals every year and thereby end up sampling the vast majority of the region’s cinema. (The first three festivals round up almost every Polish, Czech and Hungarian feature made in the previous twelve months, while Sarajevo screens a generous cross-section of work across the whole of south-east Europe).
Sadly, the demands of a full-time job, limited annual leave, and especially a young family (to say nothing of the expense) meant that this was never going to be more than a pipe dream - but I am at least going to Sarajevo this year (I should be en route right now, if this appears when scheduled), which would probably be my first choice out of the four festivals anyway. This is partly because I’ve been before (in 2006), so it’s a known quantity, but mostly because it means I can at least make a small step in the direction of correcting this blog’s rather overwhelming bias towards central Europe in general and the cinema of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in particular. My site logs frequently show people optimistically clicking on ‘Serbia’ or ‘Slovenia’ and usually being disappointed (unless they were actively looking for the longlist of Best Foreign Film Oscar nominations), so at least over the next week or so there should be plenty of new material on that front.
The full programme can be downloaded here (as a PDF). I’ll mostly be skipping the western European, Asian and American titles (which are primarily intended for locals who might otherwise not get a chance to see them - in favour of as much regional produce as I can fit into my schedule. I certainly plan to watch the entire competition (as I did last time), sample a fair chunk of the documentary strand and generally catch up with other south-east European films I might have missed or never had the chance to see. Fingers crossed I’ll have reasonable online access throughout (last time, the main Festival centre laid on free terminals, and my hotel claims to have internet facilities), so I’ll be able to post pretty regularly over the next week.
Anyway, I’ve still got several hours to arrive, check in, get my bearings and attend the opening night film - Aida Begić’s feature debut Snow (Snijeg) - and party, so in the meantime I’ll try to recall as much as possible of what I saw in 2006. Then, the opening night film was Corneliu Porumboiu’s delectable 1208 East of Bucharest (A fost sau n-a fost?, Romania), which I blogged about here (and reviewed at greater length in the October 2007 issue of Sight & Sound). The only thing the highly varied eight-film competition had in common was that precisely none of the titles achieved British commercial distribution. The standout for me (and the festival jury, which gave it the top prize and Best Actress) was the one I saw first: Andrea Štaka’s Das Fräulein (Switzerland, IMDB/Variety), a Swiss-set, Balkan-themed drama about three women of different generations and backgrounds (they’re Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian, though they emigrated at different times, in at least one case before the early 1990s wars) who end up working in the same Zürich café. Thanks to two superb performances by veteran Mirjana Karanović and newcomer Marija Škaričić (either of whom could have won Best Actress - it went to Škaričić in the end) and sensitive direction that knows when to leave things unsaid, it crammed a huge amount into a brief 81 minutes.
Although they certainly had their moments, I was much less impressed with the next two films, Miroslav Momčilović’s Seven and a Half/Sedam i po (Serbia, IMDB/Variety) was a collection of seven short stories, all featuring a breach of one of the seven deadly sins, and all more or less equally mean-spirited, despite some inventive staging (each episode is given a different style) and occasional hints at greater depth. I was equally underwhelmed by Jasmin Duraković’s Nafaka (Bosnia, IMDB), though have to acknowledge that it was one of the festival’s runaway audience hits if the reaction at the screening I attended was anything to go by. This was unsurprising, because of all the competition films it was the one most squarely aimed at locals, and this sprawling, picaresque recreation of the siege of Sarajevo had plenty of crowd-pleasing set-pieces, even if it failed to add up to much more than a series of overt Emir Kusturica homages. One point of interest is that the treatment of the UN officials is every bit as cynical as that shown in Danis Tanović’s No Man’s Land (2001), the surprise Oscar winner that put Bosnian cinema on the map at the turn of the millennium.
Much better was Antonio Nuić’s All For Free/Sve džaba (Bosnia, IMDB/Variety), a gentle, more than somewhat Kaurismäkian road movie in which a man loses all his friends in a single tragic accident, and decides to spend his inheritance on a mobile bar, which he drives from town to town - the film’s title revealing his somewhat unsustainable sales pitch (and it’s unsustainable in more ways than one, as local business don’t take too kindly to a rival giving drinks away). At around the halfway mark it turns into a love story, albeit one as bittersweet as everything else in the film. Rakan Rushaidat’s performance as the film’s well-meaning but hopelessly idealistic protagonist won Best Actor.
The next two films had an altogether steelier edge. Branko Schmidt’s powerful The Melon Route/Put lubenica (Croatia, IMDB/Variety) which set the tentative relationship between a war veteran and a Chinese immigrant whose entire family has drowned en route westwards against a well-drawn portrayal of the day-to-day operations of viciously amoral people-smugglers. The climactic bloodbath is hardly surprising, but grimly satisfying given the well-deserved payoffs. Radu Muntean’s Paper Will Be Blue/Hîrtia va fi albastră (Romania, IMDB/Variety) made an effective contrast to Corneliu Porumboiu’s film in that it actually reconstructed the Romanian revolution, from the point of view of an elite militia platoon whose mission is to prevent their colleagues from defecting to the anti-Ceauşescu cause, even though the dictator’s downfall is no longer in doubt (it’s set during the long night of 22 December 1989, after Ceauşescu famously betrayed on live television that he was no longer in control of events). Not unexpectedly, even these nominally ultra-loyal diehards have their misgivings, which creates much of the film’s considerable tension.
I don’t remember much about Péter Mészáros’s Kythera (Hungary, IMDB/Variety/Eye For Film), aside from the way it fused langorously beautiful images of an idyllic Greek island voyage with a far harsher account of the disintegration of a relationship. I also can’t give a fair appraisal of Faruk Lončarević’s Mum’n'Dad/Mama i tata (Bosnia, IMDB), because the DVD screener I watched was of an incomplete print that was lacking any titles or special effects sequences. That said, it was reasonably clear what was missing, and I’m not sure greater surface polish would have changed my opinion that this was a great idea for a short (it’s about an elderly couple whose drab existence is being broadcast to the world, Big Brother style, lending a voyeuristic edge to their final breakdown) that didn’t manage to sustain my interest when stretched to feature length. But it won the festival’s Special Jury Prize, so I may well have missed something significant.
Anyway, that was 2006. Now for 2008…
Posted on 15th August 2008
Under: Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Corneliu Porumboiu, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Andrea Štaka, Miroslav Momčilović, Jasmin Duraković, Antonio Nuić, Branko Schmidt, Radu Muntean, Péter Mészáros, Faruk Lončarević | 1 Comment »
According to the Hollywood Reporter, a record 63 films are on the initial longlist for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. The full list is here, and these are the Central and Eastern European submissions:
- Azerbaijan: Caucasia (d. Farid Gumbatov)
- Bosnia and Herzegovina: It’s Hard to Be Nice/Teško je biti fin (d. Srđan Vuletić) - IMDB/Variety
- Bulgaria: Warden of the Dead/Пазачът на мъртвите (d. Ilian Simeonov) - IMDB/Variety
- Croatia: Armin (d. Ognjen Sviličić) - IMDB/Website/Variety
- Czech Republic: I Served the King of England/Obsluhoval jsem Anglického krále (d.Jiří Menzel) - IMDB/Website/Variety
- Estonia: The Class/Klass (d. Ilmar Raag) - IMDB/Website/Variety
- Georgia: The Russian Triangle/Русский треугольник (d. Aleko Tsabadze) - IMDB/Website
- Hungary: Taxidermia (d. György Pálfi) - IMDB/Website/Trailer/Variety
- Macedonia: Shadows/Senki (d. Milcho Manchevski) - IMDB/Trailer/Variety
- Poland: Katyń (d. Andrzej Wajda) - IMDB/Website/Trailer
- Romania: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days/4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile (d. Cristian Mungiu) - IMDB/Website/Clip/Variety
- Russia, 12 (d. Nikita Mikhalkov) - IMDB/Variety
- Serbia: The Trap/Klopka (d. Srdan Golubović) - IMDB/Website/Variety
- Slovakia: Return of the Storks/Návrat bocianov (d. Martin Repka) - IMDB/Trailer
- Slovenia: Short Circuits/Kratki stiki (d. Janez Lapajne) - IMDB /Website/Variety
Posted on 18th October 2007
Under: Croatia, Poland, Hungary, Russia, Romania, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Estonia, Georgia, Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia | 1 Comment »