When A Million Movies a Minute, a distributor specializing in short documentaries, asked if I wanted a copy of their inaugural release After The War: Life Post-Yugoslavia (a two-and-a-half hour compilation of nine short films from five filmmakers from five countries) I said sure, figuring it was high time, in this post-Milosevic world, to expand my knowledge beyond Kusturica. Here’s what I discovered.
Cowboys In Kosovo (Netherlands)
Simultaneously deadpan absurd and deadly serious, Corinne van Egeraat’s Cowboys In Kosovo is a film Jim Jarmusch might want to option. A man who waited out the war in Holland returns home and reconnects with his four brothers by—of all things—reenacting classic westerns. Turns out that though new American movies had been banned in Kosovo for decades, John Wayne and his brethren were a childhood staple for these now grown men, who don real cowboy hats and fake guns and play out scenes from The Magnificent Seven and Shane in-between candid interviews about actual wartime gun slinging. It’s as sweetly surreal as an Aki Kaurismäki film, but only when one brother says that a toy gun is the shadow of a real gun (and “where there’s a shadow, there’s a tree”; another that “killing or getting killed comes down to the same thing,”) does the extent of these men’s experiences (two of them tortured, another a soldier in the Kosovo Liberation Army) and the simmering sense of genocide at the heart of their “cowboys and Indians” gameplay truly hit home.
The House of Wisdom (U.S.A.)
The House of Wisdom, an American production by Peruvian director Roberto Forns-Broggi, is really an experimental jazz-like collage, wherein images of Sarajevo (and other international cities) set to new age music serve to comment on the destruction of the national library. As related by the unseen narrator, the people of Sarajevo “burned books out of ethnic hatred,” but also “burned books to keep warm. ... Books are just a burden, like memories” and “a weapon of mass construction,” he proclaims, continuing on in dour, French New Wave fashion even as repeating CUs of eyes reference Dali and other influences (Forns-Broggi wears every precursor right on his sleeve).
A Conversation with Haris (U.S.A.)
Sheila Sofian’s Bill Plympton-esque animation tells of an eleven-year-old Bosnian immigrant’s coming to the U.S.; it’s a poignant reminder that scars are never left behind. As the bright, articulate and unseen Haris recounts memories of family members’ murders, the interviewer’s voice rightly prompts but never leads, letting Haris himself guide the whimsical animation that soothes the shell-shocked psyche. Haris’ matter-of-fact assessments (he might be describing a day at school), especially that “Land isn’t worth people. I don’t understand that,” are, in the end, worth a thousand images.
Images from the Corner (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
I thought I’d discovered the sleek diamond among the rough-edged shorts in Jasmila Zbanic’s Images from the Corner, until I checked the press notes and learned that the jury awarding the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival had beat me to the find two years ago. Nevertheless, the humble title of this exquisite short belies one big-hearted film, the impetus of which is the wounding of the beautiful Bilja, a woman from the same neighborhood as the director, who lost an arm when her father was blown up behind her in the 1992 shelling of Sarajevo. Her little dog died, absorbing the rest of the shrapnel, and she was photographed by a French photojournalist (who never offered any help!) as she lay near death in a corner of the street.
Zbanic retraces the story through (sometimes reluctant-to-talk) witnesses of the scene, childhood friends of Bilja, a doctor who treated her, a friend who works at a TV station that has footage of the incident, a driver who took her to the hospital and many more, each adding their unique piece of the puzzle to form a solid image of a woman not much different from Zbanic, thus giving a flesh-and-blood past to a media symbol. It’s much like a detective story, the filmmaker searching for clues anywhere and everywhere along the way.
Respectfully, Zbanic refuses to show the photos of Bilja even after locating them on the Internet—she doesn’t “want to expose her to a stranger’s eyes, wounding her again,” she states. Yet by the time Images from the Corner reaches this point Bilja herself has been superseded, the film expanding into a search to make sense of a senseless war represented by a senseless act (photographing rather than rescuing). It’s not about Bilja in the end. So instead, Zbanic leaves her camera trained on the now empty corner where the incident happened while allowing us to listen in on the painfully long sound of three rolls of film (the amount of photos taken by the French photographer) being shot. As at the start Zbanic concludes with images of her young daughter and herself at the circus—a dedication to the future generation—the very last shot captured from a train pulling away from a station (where the filmmaker remains stoically standing) into the snow ... the war leaving for other lands.
Red Rubber Boots (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
Red Rubber Boots is another film from director Jasmila Zbanic about the search for meaning—this time a more literal one as a woman tries to locate the bodies of her husband and children, all of them murdered and buried in a mass grave (her daughter was nine, her son, who disappeared wearing the titular red rubber boots that will identify him, only four). Patiently, Zbanic documents the tedious, demanding, emotional work of digging for these lost families. “She knows they are not alive and yet she’s focused her life on finding them,” Zbanic marvels, as she does at the men who do the actual digging and who treat their job like a spiritual calling (and a dangerous one at that—having to navigate unexploded mines and mortars along the way!). While it’s heartbreaking to watch this stoic woman whose whole life is buried she knows not where, it’s also thrilling to witness a filmmaker taking to her camera as if to her own spiritual muse.
A Father, A Son, A Holy Ghost (Serbia)
Resembling a dreary home movie smuggled out from behind the Iron Curtain (complete with a guitar score sounding like it was recorded in someone’s basement rec room) Zelimir Gvardiol’s triptych A Father, A Son, A Holy Ghost begins by cutting between a man who accidentally killed his wife and the mother of his children, and the grief-stricken family left behind. In the second part, Gvardiol interviews a PTSD, mentally ill son (who’d tried to hang himself) as he reunites with his long lost father. In the final installation a war widow describes having to give birth in the sewers—to a child who turns out to be severely handicapped. Not for fun-loving Kusturica fans.
It’s Only Mine (Serbia)
Also by director Zelimir Gvardiol, It’s Only Mine delves into the aftermath of Serbia’s Communist policy that seized all private property along with individual rights. In addition to the purging of artists and intellectuals and the Stalinist labor camps, there were the men in black leather coats who simply walked into people’s homes one day and took over. Some of Gvardiol’s now elderly subjects are still clearly emotionally horrified recollecting these incidents more than a half century later. “She spent her life and died in a laundry room,” one woman sobs about her mother before Gvardiol cuts to a creepy, corpse-like bureaucrat claiming that all confiscation was always done legally—that the government had the full support of the “average people.” The children of those “branded,” who found themselves also stigmatized, vehemently disagree as they recall the strangers who moved into their houses, who eavesdropped on them night and day. That the Serbian government still owns most of these homes (many of which are leased to men like that pale and skinny bureaucrat, and even given outright to Tito’s heirs) is testament to the stubbornness and hostility that runs deep on both sides.
Ravens, yet another film by Serbian director Zelimir Gvardiol, refers to the mourners dressed in black who visit their soldier children’s graves. If Gvardiol is looking to turn one of his shorts into a feature, this is the film with the most gripping subject matter—that of a son’s death in Milosevic’s army, which splits a family in two. Gvardiol interviews both the staunchly communist grandfather, who accepted his fallen grandson’s medal of bravery in his honor, and the infuriated father who wants that posthumous award sent back. That this father and son no longer speak, the grandfather claiming his grandchild died for his “country,” the father that he died only for the war criminal Milosevic, is representative of the post-Yugoslavia psyche itself. From hilarious television footage of Milosevic addressing the public (“I intend to take a little vacation”), to the father viciously destroying his son’s medal for a video camera, to Clinton preaching about “teaching by example,” war-torn viewpoints inevitably collide. That the father became a humanitarian worker and the grandfather an embittered recluse speaks volumes about the future for the country as well.
I Don’t Know Where, or When, or How… (Serbia)
The fourth of Zelimir Gvardiol’s films in this collection begins with lovely, mesmerizing images of elderly people simply waiting, framed in windows and doorways with Wiseman-like stillness, silent. But this illusion of peace is soon broken by a 94-year-old who matter-of-factly states that she prays for death since the war has made living just too hard, with pensions unable to provide for food and no medicine to ease physical suffering. Set to a dignified violin concerto, images of frail and bedridden men and women (all of them barely alive) and CUs of wrinkled hands with veins shining through make the calm, no frills camerawork resonate—as does the admission that many of the elderly men and women choose suicide over the misery of this state desertion.