Few nonfiction films so carefully adhere to the classic challenge of three-act structure than Zeljko Mirkovic’s I Will Marry the Whole Village. Set in small-town Serbia, the main character, Pekka, is an accordion player and wedding-band frontman of almost superhuman sincerity, who in the opening scenes identifies for us the problem of his community, one that the film will eventually extend to the whole of Europe: too many bachelors. After a fade to black, Mirkovic follows Pekka in uncovering the various pressures the some 300 local single men, ages 30 to 60, face, including long-suffering mothers, single women who have bigger problems than a few pining, middle-aged men, and a simple lack of ambition; “We’ve got to dig them out of the cave,” he says to a friend—single, of course—in one early exchange. Finally, he’s able to wrap two fingers around something approaching success, resulting in a final-act mixer for which Pekka serves as event planner, host, emcee, musical entertainer, trouble-shooter, and that one heroic guy at these sorts of parties who crosses the gap between boys and girls to break the ice. As lonely hearts stories go, it’s a perfectly pleasant, easygoing, and on first glance, unassuming ride.
But for all its structural integrity, I Will Marry the Whole Village offers some fundamental, not wholly comfortable challenges to standard documentary form. For one, it’s a musical, occasionally turning to Pekka and his accordion to offer a little exposition and—even more disruptive, halfway through the film and then repeatedly afterward—calling on a full-on, costumed women’s choir to sing the film’s title song. The suddenness of the singers’ appearance and cleanliness within the dirt and overcast skies of suburban Serbia provide the film an unusual element for usually world-weary documentary, an ethereal tone landing between the angelic and virginal. A narrator, deep-lined in the face, lowing white hair, hard eyes that stare both into the lens and beyond it, saunters into frame a few times to offer some philosophical questions on the role of musicians and common men in altering history. And just as the film settles into a rhythm of shifting between straight-on interviews with the single men and straightforward, safe-distance footage of Pekka in action, the two modes combine: The interviews turn out to be the material for Pekka’s pet project, a singles dating video on DVD.
If an essential question to be answered by all documentarians is how far the filmmaker can go in manipulating the action of his supposedly nonfiction story, Mirkovic offers an unexpectedly fresh and atypical approach, using some small percentage of the material meant to solve the problem presented in the film to contextualize the problem itself. The resulting tone is, for a while, ideal: quiet and funny, in keeping with the craggy surroundings and small dreams of men who are looking or an easy companionship far from the passion sought by the romance-novel reading women of Full Frame’s opening-night film Guilty Pleasures. It works, right up until the final titles tell audiences that this problem—aging that will make Europe the continent with the oldest population within only a few decades—overcontextualize the film’s importance. It’s like Pekka says, it’s a global problem, but you can only deal with the portion right in front of you. That would have been enough.
This year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival runs from April 14 - 17.