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.