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In Films From the Balkans, Archival Footage Bears Witness to War

In Films From the Balkans, Archival Footage Bears Witness to War

The article was produced as part of the 2015 Locarno Critics Academy. Learn more about this year’s class here.

Although a crucial part of Europe’s recent history, the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia still seem to be an uncomfortable topic for contemporary cinema to address directly. It is perhaps for this reason that three films presented at the 68th Locarno film festival explored the subject through a common formal choice: Brat Dejan,” “The Waiting Room,” and “Moj Brate” all made use of archival footage, either to visually mark historical events and memorial recollection, or to characterize narrative detours.

The two latter films included factual video material from the early and mid ’90s, but “Brat Dejan (Brother Dejan)” employed “visual evocations” that mimic the aesthetics of archival footage but were artificially produced for fictional purposes. “Brat Dejan,” directed by Georgian Bakur Bakuradze, depicts the last 12 months of Dejan Stanić, a former Serbian army general, who went underground following the end of the Balkan War. After ten years spent hiding from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the general finds shelter among a group of old friends determined to protect him. He is old and sick, allegedly devastated by the horrors he inflicted in the past, but in fact still stubbornly attached to the authority he once embodied. As we follow him from one refuge to another — where the squalor of the indoor settings appears the only grisly downside of being a “privileged” fugitive — we don’t grow empathetic with Dejan or with his supporters.

There is no room for penitence, we feel, not even when national TV starts reporting the re-appearance of the general in the streets of Beograd. Bakuradze revealed that the story was freely inspired by the 2011 capture of Ratko Mladić, a Bosnian Serb military commander who was tried for war crimes in The Hague. Both Mladić and the fictional Stanić suffered family tragedies, and had their wives’ support till the very end. Like Dejan’s solitary post-war life, Mladić’s existence was also marked by a horrific personal tragedy; in 1994, his daughter Ana committed suicide with his favorite gun. As an aesthetic parallel, Bakuradze represents memory with intermissions of archival, lo-fi images from TV news, clearly recalling the existing footage of Mladić paying a visit to his daughter’s grave (a rather unsettling video from Bosnian TV program “60 Minuta,” still accessible online). Joshua Oppenheimer’s “poetry of re-enactment” represents a third form of footage in the film, a formal tool popular when portraying genocidal criminals. However, this choice is not always effective. In different moments we see the director acting out scenes assigned to Dejan, but the protagonist’s overwhelming apathy pervades the whole film in such a way that we are left with no precise instructions to what we are supposed to make of such interludes.

However, as the festival of Locarno teaches in terms of cinematic experimentation, a similar type of “video-analogic intermission” – yet again in the form of archival footage – may work in other narrative contexts. It’s been argued that the Gulf War initially happened on the television sets of millions of Americans. A similar case is that of the Yugoslavian War, at least from a Central-European perspective. European viewership, following Croatian independence or the siege of Sarajevo, did not experience these events in first person. In other words, we may also argue that the grainy texture of TV reports made the war more tangible in the eyes of those who weren’t directly involved.

This might be the aesthetic rational behind the video inserts in two other films premiering at Locarno that use archival footage to situate their heroes’ backgrounds in the Bosnian ’90s. Presented in the section “Cineasti del presente,” “The Waiting Room” is a film by Bosnian director Igor Drljaca, an adopted Canadian like protagonist Jasmin Geljo. Drawing on his real life, Jasmin impersonates an actor who struggles to sustain his family with a series of unfrequent gigs in the Toronto film business. We accompany him from one audition to the other, although we get the impression that his existence is not as bad as he wants us to believe. Jasmin is eager to regain his career as comedian, started in 1991 in native Bosnia just a few months before migrating to Canada. We even get to see some (original!) VHS recordings of his shows. Whilst this footage derives from the real-life experience of the actor, the film deploys such material to underline his migrant background, presenting it as the key element to interpret his desolation. The (audition’s) waiting room becomes thus a metaphor for the experience of immigration, which delays personal aspirations and imposes on the actor the demand for a performance he may not be truly willing to carry out.

The analog essence of poor images, in the trembling consistency of tape recordings, informs another film presented at Locarno in the same section. “Moj Brate (My Brother),” the debut work of Italian filmmaker Nazareno Nicoletti, collects some of the important elements discussed so far — brotherhood, distance from the homeland, the Yugoslavian fragmentation — in the story of Alberto Musacchio. Musacchio, who took his life in 2001, was a juggler, actor, poet, archeologist who lived his life to the fullest. After his relocation to Canada, his friends and family in Italy lost his traces: in this sense the film results in a search for truth. Unfortunately the final outcome — regardless of the great human story and archival footage — is rather badly composed. There are indeed the premises for a fascinating study of a common yet complex man, but the cinematic representation annoyingly intoxicates the original material to its core. Different types of visual formats intertwine with the apparent intent of animating the rhythm of narration, while interviews, pensive voice-overs and an insistent music score covers the information we are so keen on collecting. Stefano Gabrini — a close friend of Musacchio’s and Nicoletti’s professor at film school — is hungry for solo appearances and contributes in making the documentary even more aesthetically incoherent with passé GoPro recordings. We learn that Gabrini and Musacchio spent several months in Mostar carrying out acting workshops with the kids of the city. The footage from those years is the most touching part of “Moj Brate” as well as revealing of Musacchio’s human quality, but the documentary doesn’t do justice to his legacy as artist and volunteer.

In conclusion, we have the feeling that the insertion of analog and archival footage is needed to reinforce the importance of individual experience in the recent history of the Balkans. “Brat Dejan,” “The Waiting Room,” and “Moj Brate” are all films in which reality sometimes overlaps with fiction — their outcomes may differ in quality, but they share a view on telling history through cinema. It’s an aesthetic view. And Locarno is a good place for these films because it doesn’t force them to fall into precise categories. As long as Europe won’t accept differentiations based on ethnicity, films like these should continue to challenge the forms through which history can be represented.

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