Anyone familiar with Emir Kusturica‘s 1995 film “Underground” has had a taste of the signature Balkan brass music unique to Serbia, a wild, lively, and heart-pumping blend of trumpets, drums and other brass instruments that gives the film its distinctive tone and cultural stamp. “Brasslands,” a documentary directed by the 10-person Meerkat Media Collective, sets out to explore this type of music at the largest trumpet festival in the world, in the tiny village of Guča, Serbia. The people of Serbia are passionate about their music, something that sets them apart as a culture and serves as a point of desperately needed national pride in the wake of the war with Bosnia and subsequent NATO bombings in the 1990s. So while “Brasslands” captures this special music and its spirit, it also captures what this music means to Serbians and how they see themselves in the world. And more than that, the film shows us how this music can draw in and hook anyone, Serbs and non-Serbs alike, united in the lightning fast rhythms and infectious celebratory spirit.
After a short introduction to the sleepy hamlet of Guča, we are soon taken to a more familiar environ: Grand Prospect Hall in Brooklyn, where the American Balkan brass band Zlatne Uste is performing for hundreds of dancing hipsters. Formed in 1983, Zlatne Uste is a group of non-Serbian musicians who simply play this music because they love it so much. They immerse themselves in the history, the musicians, the singing, the culture and the dance in a Balkan summer camp of sorts, familiarizing themselves with all aspects of Serbian and Balkan culture (down to the whole roasted lambs). Varying in age from 20s to 60s, Zlatne Uste is comprised of middle school gym teachers, retired engineers, professionals and moms who are obsessive in their love of this music. What’s importantly captured in the film is their self-awareness about their appropriation of this style of music and culture, being non-Serbians, as well as their utmost respect and love for the art form. Without that humility, it would be difficult to be able to get on board with what one WNYC DJ describes as “bringing Balkan music to the Balkans.”
But that’s not what the members of Zlatne Uste are trying to do, as they’re just happy to be there and to participate, having played the festival for the first time in 1987. Their desire and need to play this music seems to exist on a cellular, spiritual level; they are taken with the addictive, adrenaline rush of a rhythm and sound. They’re chasing the high that can only come from this music, which is much more than just the music, it’s an experience. The bands tend to play in and around groups of people, often in the middle of a circle of dancers, or while smoking cigs with a groom-to-be, or next to a dead sheep for a housewarming party. It’s as much about the music as it is about the dancing, the unity, the bills stuck in the hats and on the heads of sweaty trumpeters.
For the 50th anniversary of the trumpet festival, Guča has organized an international competition for the first time, and Zlatne Uste feel compelled to go and compete, being one of the first international bands to play the festival in 1987. This competition gives the film its structure and its driving plot engine; much of it is laid out the way most competition docs are, with introductions to our major players, top dogs and underdogs and the wild, screaming fans. We meet reigning champ Dejan Petrović, a charismatic brute of a master trumpeter from a long lineage of champion trumpeters. We are also introduced to Roma Gypsy trumpeter Demiran Ćerimović, one of the musical idols of Zlatne Uste, and from South Serbia, the rivals of West Serbia, where Dejan hails from. Serbians refer to the Gypsies as “black” and other Serbs as “white” and freely speak in these terms. The musical styles vary slightly, but both men are champions and the title of best orchestra from this festival is hotly contested as a point of pride (and it’s not too bad for business either).
As the film builds to the crescendo of the ultimate trumpeting competition, we can see just how the filmmaking collective does its best work. With cameras backstage, front and center, in the audience, and on all of our major players and the rowdy crowd itself, they capture moments from the concert from so many viewpoints that brings a real live feeling and temporal vitality to the proceedings, capturing all of the emotions of the major players participating. That could not be accomplished without so many filmmakers, and the multitude of viewpoints helps the storytelling and objectivity in the documentary. As every band has 10 members who each play their parts, so too does the Meerkat Media Collective. The film also doesn’t shy away from dealing with the more unsavory political issues that continue to leave their mark on Serbia, and the Serbs in the film are preoccupied with their image to the West— approaching the members of Zlatne Uste and bringing it up, and wanting so desperately to be known for something as joyful and jubilant as their music. It is the most important thing to them, part of their everyday lives and something beautiful that they can be proud of.
The only downside of “Brasslands” is that, for a film about music, one wishes there were only more of it. Only a few full songs are featured, and while we are plunged into the masses of music and booze and dancing and singing, as an audience member, you wish you could be more swept away as the people onscreen are, taken over by the music and the energy. The film is a bit preoccupied with the contest itself, the buildup bringing down the pace a bit, only to end in an anti-climatic fashion. Which serves to illustrate that it’s not about the competition, it’s about the music and the experience… and it needed a bit more of that. While the film is a lovely documentation of this event, and the various people who love and perform this music, one wishes that the film could really give that truly visceral experience, which just may not be possible on a screen.
However, this will be possible for some lucky New Yorkers, as “Brasslands” will have its New York premiere on Saturday, July 13th, presented by Rooftop Films as a part of the River to River Festival, which will also serve as the soundtrack release party (which is being released on world music label Evergreene Music). In addition to the free outdoor screening on the waterfront, four Balkan brass bands will be playing (yes, Zlatne Uste will be there), to bring a little bit of Guča to the East Coast. “Brasslands” is a fascinating look at this infectious and addictive form of music, so filled with life from a country that has seen its fair share of death, sadness and war. It’s not hard to see why the members of Zlatne Uste love it so much. [B+]
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