Whenever I am moving somewhere, one of the first things I check out are the film festivals. Houston has a few of them, but the more I got in touch in with the film community, the less I heard about worldfest. I checked out possibilities to work or volunteer there, and was staggered to find their statement that you should not have visible tattoos or piercings if you should feel inclined to work (or, for that matter, sacrifice your time in exchange for valuable experience) there. The sentence concludes with “we are kind of old school here” followed by a smile. Well, this is Texas after all, I thought, yet decided not to get involved.
However, I searched their program and actually found a short film from Croatia in a short film block and went to see it last year. It was the worst block of short films I have ever suffered through. The Croatian film was also not good, but still one of the better ones in this compilation of horrible shorts. And I know what bad short films are from the time I helped a friend screen the submissions for a short film festival in Berlin. Believe me, there are many bad short films out there.
Anyway, last monday I went to see MOST NA KRAJU SVIJETA / THE BRIDGE AT THE END OF THE WORLD as part of the worldfest program. Another thing that added to my mistrust in the festival is the fact that they show all their films at a multiplex cinema somewhere in Houston’s no man’s land of strip malls and supermarkets, half an hour drive away from where I live. Most film festivals who try to show arty and independent films try to avoid these settings at all costs, not so worldfest.
When we arrived, the theatre that could easily fit 500 had roughly 10 (at most) spectators scattered among its tiers. A group of older men sat in the front, marked as being related to the festival by the badges around their necks. We waited untill the time the film was supposed to start had passed and one the older man rose to address the audience. He apologized and explained that there were technical with the screening DVD, and added that “like all things from Croatia, this DVD is moody”. He went on to advertise other films showing right now, one about poverty in the US depicting people off food stamps making a comfortable 50.000$ a year. He said this in an agitated tone which made me hear “let’s kill them all!” between his lines. I don’t know who the guy was, he did not even bother to introduce himself, but his speech spoke of utter disrespect and revealed his dismissive attitude towards Worldfest’s claim “we see things differently”.
With this bad start, I hoped the film would at least be interesting. After ten minutes, the technical problems were solved and the film started. The synopsis (here) sounded promising, yet it summarized onyl the first five minutes. The film is set in the late 90s/early 2000s in a village in rural Croatia, where refugees from Bosnia now occupy houses that used to belong to Serbs, who fled Croatia towards the end of the war. Now, the war is over and people have to come to terms with the new situation, the trauma of being displaced and the shadow of atrocities looming large like the grey winter sky over the rural community that was shook and altered in its very foundations. Benumbed by the recent events and facing an insecure future, the visit of the Serbs threatens to disrupt the attempt to create a sort of normality.
We meet Filip, the main protagonist, himself displaced who now occupies a former Serb house with his wife and father. in his early 40s, he works at the local police, although it does not become clear if he is a special detective as he does not wear an official police uniform but jeans, an old army sweater, an olive green jacket and his trademark, a thick black woolen beanie covering his bold head. He is clearly the good guy with an air of authority surrounding him, but as an outsider he is uninformed about the community he is thrown into. He only learns about visit of the Serbs in a bar, from local drunkards fearing for their recently acquired livelyhood. When the Serbs arrive in busses with police protection, they seem to be equally bad off than the Croatians. They carry their belongings in plastic bags and are clad in worn down winter coats. Of course, Filip, free of hostilities, bids the former owner of his house inside and offers him the customary rakija. No deeper conversation can unfold, as the Serb is mute, a tiny yet lovable man with lively gestures only concerned about the bees he had to leave behind. But suddenly, Filip is called away to an incident, where on of the drunkards from the bar shoots at the Serbs in fear they will take his newly acquired house away from him. Filip manages to resolve the situation thanks to his courage and authority. While drunkard is being handcuffed he cries out that that’s how it has been agreed, revealing these hostilities are not just personal but structurally entrenched in the institutions of the new order.
So far, so good. This opening section offers a lot to deal with, but sadly, the film does not take up most of it. The visit of the Serbs serves only to portray Filip as the good, morally superior guy who tries to follow his ideals and behaves completely unaffected by his own traumata and experiences of which we learn nothing. From here, the film takes a completely different direction: The day after the shooting Filip is charged with finding an old man, also a refugee from Bosnia, who is reported missing. He starts his research into the family and the local community, and eventually finds him in his village in Bosnia looking at the bridge built in honor of once famous family member. The visit of the Serbs does not appear again throughout the course of the film, and the conflicts it seemed to tear open are not touched upon.
The figures remain utterly one-dimensional and seem devoid of inner conflicts or contradictions. The village community is made up by the stereotypical figures, the Ustasha shop keeper, the village idiot and the know-it-all old man who likes liquor more than he should. The female charakters are not better off, even though fewer in numbers. Here we have the dull wife of Filip, the village whore he has an affair with and the old peasant woman in black mourning attire. During the course of the film, we meet a plethora of characters, but they are too many and all equally flat that their meaning and role for the progress of action remains unclear and they mainly distract the viewer. The cast fits a demure soap opera, an impression that is underlined by the dull cinematography, that would have probably been less annoying on a smaller TV screen.
The TV-format is not too surprising given that Croatian TV channel HRT is the main producer of this film, but selectors of a film festival should be aware of that. One of the worst scenes, whose style is completely unrelated to the rest of the film, is when Filip takes a relative of the missing man to a place in the woods where he tried to recreate the bridge of his Bosnian home village. The nephew then indulges in the family story about the bridge, in a dreamy soft voice that should probably allude to nostalgic memories of how it used to be contrasting with the hardship and losses of the reality. This is so inapt yet foreseeable, that it renders the rest of the film even more unconvincingly and boring.
Another thing that I find repulsive is the portrayal of women. Not only fails the film the Bechdel Test, the only roles women are portrayed in are house wifes, mourning widows and prostitutes. Not that Croatia is a pioneer in strong female roles in films, but the exclusion of any female perspective denies the fact that women are equally affected by the post-war conditions, yet, the film does not allow them to proactively deal with it.
My verdict: The first 15 minutes are promising, but the film fails to deliver throughout. It feels pieced together, the action progresses unconvincingly and the characters remain stereotypical. There are better examples dealing with such a topic out there.