Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Igor Drljača's Sarajevo Memories

This is the first of three reviews on new Canadian short films. – D. D.

Igor Drljača was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1983. He left the country on May 1st 1992 on a military plane due to the violence of the Bosnian war, like so many other families. He recalls the flight out of the country in a military plane that “was not a cool looking MIG I had imagined,” where everyone had to sit on the floor. He arrived in Canada in 1993 where he has since completed his Bachelor’s and Master’s in Film Production from York University. His short films include Rana (05), The Battery-Powered Duckling (06), Mobilni Snovi (08), On a Lonely Drive (09), Woman in Purple (10), The Fuse: Or How I Burned Simon Bolivar (11), and he is currently in post-production on another short film and his first feature-length film (hopefully completed by next year) which will be “about a man that’s now in Toronto but was involved in the Bosnian civil war so it deals with themes of immigration, themes of isolation, themes of trauma, war trauma especially. Sort of these universal elements that a lot of people in Toronto can relate to, a lot of refugees.” Much of the subject of Drljača work blends the personal with the political, mixing a child-like pleasantness with serious subjects and his approach to filmmaking blends the traditional with the avant-garde and documentary.

An exposition shot of a crater-ridden apartment complex in today’s post-war Sarajevo opens Woman in Purple. A young boy Mirza (a sorrowful Haris Begic) lives with his grandmother, who asks him a few questions as he is on his way out: Did you eat yet? How will you buy food later? Remember to visit your mother later. When will you be back home? One thing that sticks out in this scene is the long and heavy silences, as if these questions have been asked hundreds of times before. They also recall the trauma of the war when such things were of grave concern. During these moments of silence the only thing you can hear is the television that is turned on in the background.

Mirza goes to the park to watch some older boys play basketball. He is bored. There is nothing really for him to do. A local drug dealer approaches Mirza asking him to do a few rounds for him. The addresses that Mirza will need to go to are on a note that the dealer gives him. What Mirza will have to do consists of receiving cash and dropping off the packaged drugs (Marijuana? Cocaine?). Mirza goes with it, as he has done before, but this time he makes sure to get paid first. The day goes by smoothly - one of the clients even buys him a wrap - but similarly to the beginning of Cristian Mungiu’ 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) the suspicion that something might go awry has a looming presence. At the end of the day Mirza meets up with the dealer at the basketball courts where he makes a significant decision in regards to his future, he chooses not to continue doing jobs for the dealer. He does this by hitting the basketball that is in the dealers hand and starts playing all by himself on the opposite side of the court. The hitting of the ball is an act of social protest and an intense moment of everyday heroism worthy of the films of Mike Leigh. The film’s score which was full of natural street noises so far breaks out into a storm. The films end with Mirza sitting in a grassy cemetery, surrounded by the Sarajevo hills and mountains, watching a plane fly out of the city. In an astonishing reverse-shot you see that he is sitting beside his mother Hasanovic Sanela tombstone. She died in 1996.

The script of Woman in Purple is by Drljača and Hrvoje Župarić. Drljača in Woman in Purple uses a wide frame (2.35:1) and shoots in long shots as he follows Mirza walking in hand-held shots from behind the head. Mirza’s silence emphasizes the films visual storytelling qualities. The Sarajevo City Film Grant helped financed the film. A short note, the fact that Drljača is a Toronto resident and films in a different country has led some commenter’s to place him within the context of First Generation directors alongside Nicolás Pereda and Chris Chong Chan Fui. As Kazik Radwanski describes these First Generation filmmakers, “These temporary-residents play a role in Canadian cinema: their films maintain a connection to Toronto, while defining their own territories and landscapes.”
To contextualize Drljača’s short films within contemporary Sarejevo culture I am going to bring up the Serbian-American poet Charles Simić, from his recent article The Bright Side of the Balkans (The New York Review of Books Aug. 18th, 2011). In the articles Simić describes his experiences going to Sarajevo to attend an international poetry festival. He describes many things from his visit there. Like the recent arrest and trial of the general Ratko Mladić, who with Radovan Karadžić led the siege by the Serbian forces that caused extraordinary suffering, which lasted from April 1992 to February 1996. Simić describes the city,
“Since a great deal of what had been blown up has been re-built, the city appeared to be thriving, and given the warm and sunny weather during my visit and the sight of many people strolling in the streets or sitting in cafes chatting amiably, everything that occurred here fifteen years ago seemed inconceivable.”
On the themes of their contemporary poetry, Simić notes that much of Bosnian poetry is about the war unlike the poetry of the Serbs and Croats. On the residing emotional and intellectual impact of the war, Simić notes,
“Two survivors of the Sarajevo siege described in a calm, matter-of-fact way what life was like without water and electricity and with constant fear that members of their family might die as they stepped into the streets.”
And in regards to the younger generation Simić writes,
“Still, two out of three of them [the young men and women], according to a poll I saw in the papers when I was there, want to leave because there will be nothing for them to do when they finish school. They no longer need visas to travel to other parts of Europe, but since neither they nor their parents have enough money, fleeing the country, as thousands of others had done in the past, is no longer a realistic option.”
The Fuse: Or How I Burned Simon Bolivar is a personal documentary on the ravages of the war that blends home video with achieves footage from Drljača nineties boyhood in Sarajevo. The film separates the footage and progresses the chronology through black inter-titles with the location, city and date. “It’s like an homage sort-of to my childhood,” which took about three years to make says Drljača. The Fuse recalls the found-footage documentary by Andrei Ujică, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010). And Andrew Parker in the Toronto Now writes about The Fuse, “Powerful first-person footage and youthful exuberance add up to a short that’s far better than the program [2 in Short Cuts Canada] it’s in.”

The Fuse opens with Igor as a little boy in his childhood apartment introducing himself and his family to the camera. It proceeds to footage of children standing around the Simon Bolivar bust in his school and then to shots of the students singing and dancing until the camera eventually finds itself on Igor pixilated in the middle of a crowd. Through a voice-over Drljača starts to recollect that week’s art assignment “to paint the arrival of spring,” but when he was painting “that large tree next to his cottage, that always blooms first” he ran out of pink-paint and it didn’t look right. He remembers this experience vividly,
“During our lunch break, Aco, who sits in the first row, said that he saw the teacher marking our paintings. He said that I received a C. But I had never received a C in art. I still hadn’t seen my mark, but I was getting more and more nervous. That night, I thought: Dear God, I’ve never asked for anything before. I am not sure whether to believe in you. Mom and Dad say that you don’t exist. Both of my grandmas say that you do exist. And if by chance you do exist, I’d like to ask you for one big favor. I don’t want to go back to school; I don’t want to see my grade. So if you are able to help me out in any way. I’d be forever grateful.”
Cut to a shot of a teacher on television reading off a message: “All schools in region: Sarajevo, Mostar, Doboj, Tuzla… are on strike.” And then the military trucks and tanks start to roam through the streets of Sarajevo. His family is watching the news of the outbreak of the Croatian War, March 3rd, 1992. The city is no longer safe and his family is no longer leaving their appartment. Footage of bullets going by close to his apartment window is especially frightening. It’s a strange feeling watching the unfolding of a war from the perspective of the residents and how they see it happening on television. There is one especially wrenching shot of a hurt little black dog with his limbs twitching. But still life goes on, the family celebrates Igor’s brothers Dado’s birthday. And also the kids find ways to have fun, “Along with the other children, I excitedly collected shrapnel and shell casings.”

Igor leaves Sarajevo with his mother and brother on May 1st 1992 on a military plane. The last shot of The Fuse is footage of a building burning (is it the school?) in bright red fire and dark black smoke. This is the last footage his father would have filmed and brought with him when he joined the rest of his family in Canada. “After we were able to reach him on the phone. He told me that a few days earlier, my school, Simon Bolivar, had burned down. At that moment I realized that I no longer had to worry about my mark in art,” Drljača says in voice-over narration. This child-like optimism and ability to move forward after trauma gives Drljača’s work an enduring quality. Drljača cinema is one of perseverance and that of being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. - David Davidson


Unknown said...

“Along with the other children, I excitedly collected shrapnel and shell casings.”

What a different world these children grew up. These sound like very human and insightful films.

Michael D.

David D. said...

For sure, they truly are.