This week, civil war, persecution and dark humour as World On Film travels to Bosnia-Herzegovina for the memorable snapshot into madness:
(2005) Written & Directed by Ahmed Imamovic Co-written by Enver Puska
“We’re slaughtering each other like in the Middle Ages while abroad, they’re making computer chips. You know how much data a computer chip the size of a fingernail can contain? A million! And where are we? Persecuting each other on hills and in forests like we didn’t have anything more intelligent to do.”
It’s 1992, and the Yugoslavian Socialist Republic is collapsing into a series of brutal civil wars. As Serbian forces lay siege to Sarajevo, Serbian student Milan and his cellist Muslim boyfriend Kenan have no choice but to flee the ethnic cleansing. With Muslim citizens being executed all over Bosnia, Milan disguises Kenan as his bride-to-be, allowing them to escape to the relative safety of the countryside where Milan’s father Ljubo lives until they can obtain the necessary papers promising passage to the Netherlands. However, maintaining the deception becomes harder and harder: Milan’s best friend Lunjo quickly learns the truth and Ljubo is especially keen to marry the happy couple. Worse still, Milan is suddenly drafted into the army, leaving Kenan alone to keep up the pretence, made all the more difficult by the sex-starved Ranka, a local waitress who the whole village seems to fear.
My initial impressions of Go West were that it would primarily be a fairly damning commentary on the Yugoslav war – a harsh, but sobering drama that would leave the viewer in no doubt as to the futility of ethnic and religious hatred, and indeed war itself. Which indeed it is, but it is also a condemnation of homophobia, while at the same time, the sheer absurdity of the fleeing couple’s predicament elevates Go West’s discourse into black comedy and farce – something that writers Ahmed Imamovic and Enver Puska expertly mesh with the general message of social meltdown and the way it destroyed Bosnia and Herzegovina – without one theme compromising the other.
Horror and madness must come before absurdity of course, and there is definitely nothing to laugh at during the opening sequences, where the two protagonists carry on with their lives in Sarajevo before they are overwhelmed by the turmoil. Director Imamovic weaves genuine newsreel footage of the conflict into his specially-shot sequences of Serbian militia terrorising the locals and gunning down the Muslim population (with soldiers forcing men’s pants down in search of tell-tale circumcisions). As Milan and Kenan’s lives are quickly overturned, forcing them into flight, the audience is given a street-level snapshot of how the conflict might have been experienced firsthand.
Fuelled by such life-or-death desperation, I found myself wondering if indeed the real-life Muslim homosexuals might too have disguised themselves as married women in order to escape execution. As Kenan himself states at the beginning, “On the Balkans, it’s easier to bear if someone in the family is a murderer rather than a faggot [sic].” Under pressure from all sides, much of the tension in Go West therefore derives from we the audience wondering just how long he will be able to maintain his disguise while besieged by threats on all sides (some not necessarily malicious) to expose the truth. Actor Mario Drmac plays the would-be transvestite with great skill, giving Kenan a quiet strength, though portraying him on a knife-edge as the drama escalates. Go West is ultimately his story, showing the lengths the natives must go through in order to survive the war: humiliation, desperation, and above all, loss, leaving only courage or madness to dictate how one lives their remaining life.
“[Go West is a] black comedy and farce – something that writers Ahmed Imamovic and Enver Puska expertly mesh with the general message of social meltdown and the way it destroyed Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
The writers are also keen to point out the ridiculousness of the predicament, not only through Kenan’s constant struggle to ensure his ‘breasts’ appear convincing or the stubble from his face, but in the whole cast of villagers whose world ranges from witchcraft and superstition to the local priest more concerned with political rhetoric than the salvation of the soul. Some of the characters are obvious comic relief, while in other cases, the humour creeps up on you with the forced jollity of the inhabitants that causes events to spiral further out of control. Ljubo is perhaps the strongest example of this. Wonderfully played by veteran actor Rade Serbedzija, the one-time Texan rancher fights daily against resignation and melancholy in the face of so much loss, unable to see that his good intentions are making things harder. His son Milan, played by Tarik Filipovic, sits somewhere between the two people he cares about most: warm and all-embracing, yet feeling as though only he truly understands the sacrifices that must be made. In contrast, Ranka, in a strong performance by Mirjana Karanovic, has far baser desires, which threaten to unravel the entire social fabric. Tragically, only the viewer is ultimately able to see the lighter side of their predicament.
While I think the blend of drama and black humour hold together well, there are some aspects of the script that don’t entirely work as well as they could. The witchcraft element, for example, seems to be there simply to build up the potential threat of certain characters, yet ultimately doesn’t seem to have any other meaning beyond this. Elsewhere, the murder of certain antagonists seems out-of-character for those enacting them, and done simply to pull the writers out of a hole during the all-important climax. This may sound a little odd in a film where senseless killing would be considered inevitable, but perhaps readers will know what I mean when they watch for themselves.
Ultimately however, these elements do not cause serious damage to the film’s central premise, nor fear and madness of one of the 20th Century’s most brutal civil wars. It does not try to be universal commentary on the fall of the republic, but instead ‘zoom in’ to a snapshot of the personal tragedy and persecution of those perceived to be socially abhorrent, which of course, they were not – merely ordinary people trying to survive. It reminds me of similarly-themed Albanian film, Slogans, also a drama/black comedy exploring the absurdity borne of a society descending into madness and painting itself into a corner. In Go West however, there is a much higher body count.
This, and the many twists and turns of the plot, may cause the viewer to wonder if anyone will ultimately get out alive. In the end, Go West delivers a bittersweet conclusion and a very poignant message. Hope survives, though many will have to die first – a not incongruous ending for film with war as its subject. Definitely recommended.
British Virgin Islands
This Caribbean British outpost has yet to dazzle the world with its film-making prowess, hampered at present by the complete non-existence of a film industry and hampered still further by being far too small for such things – not even a travel documentary explaining why the late 1960s is the ideal time to visit. It has occasionally however been used as a location, and located as it is in the heart of ‘stereotypical pirate’ territory, its exotic appearance speaks of old-world adventure, though today, it is just as associated with drug trafficking and Richard Branson.
In more recent times, it was an island rich in cannibals destined to ingest a group of New York tourists in the uncelebrated 2008 horror film Holocaust Holocaust, the destination for a Geek Cruise in 2007, and in 2003, just one of the many remote hideouts chosen by Dream Chasers, people who had given up the rat race in search of a new life away from the concrete jungle. A decade ago, it was on three occasions a popular filming location for the Boob Cruise series, the focus of which would suggest the islands are today ‘virgin’ in name only.
Most fans of celluloid however will have seen something of the BVI via the 1977 blockbuster horror/thriller, The Deep, in which the sunken packet ship RMS Rhone doubles for the morphine-rich home of tiger sharks, the Goliath. Today, the Rhone, sunk two centuries earlier by a hurricane, is a popular diving site, though as far as I know, has yet to yield any treasure. I prefer Jaws myself.
Western civilization quite literally strikes the natives of the Kalahari in Botswana, causing chaos, misery and misunderstanding. The continent of Africa’s most famous film to date goes under the spotlight when World On Film examines the slapstick comedy, The Gods Must Be Crazy. To view a trailer, click below:
World On Film visits not one, but two countries this week, owing principally to the fact that I could only get short films for each locale and although this normally means a review accompanied by the usual side topic, there’s been more than enough deviation lately (your host is deviant enough as it is). Until the next episode, anyway. The combination turned out to be an interesting one in any case, with one entry proving that major topics can be too broad in scope for a short film, and the other entry proving the exact opposite. Read on to find out just what I mean as we travel first to the Bahamas for the romance drama Float, followed by a short sojourn in Bahrain for the black comedy, The Last Bahraini.
(2007) Directed by Kareem Mortimer
(To view a trailer, look to the bottom of last week’s post.)
Float tells the story of Jonny, a nervous young artist trapped in a world where his homosexuality is condemned and his talents and timidity are unappreciated by his father. Only his art teacher seems to recognise the aptitude trapped inside and she sends him to Eleuthera to find himself. There, Jonny finds his identity through the help of Romeo, a young man confident of all but his sexuality, and discovers that he may have more courage than he realises.
Coming in at just under 35 minutes, Float does not have a good deal of time to explore its chosen themes and in consequence, the human voyage of discovery and transition seem to happen just a little too quickly and easily to ring true. That aside however, the characterisation is handled with understanding and warmth. The awkward, introverted and timid Jonny, as played believably by Jonathan Murray is someone you ultimately want to see triumph when that first spark of defiance becomes evident. Similarly, the carefree and affable Romeo, as played by Stephen Tyrone Williams, elicits appropriate feelings of betrayal when he is unable to live up to the very philosophy he seemingly preaches. They may not be Oscar-winning performances, but there is an honesty and a resonance to them.
“Coming in at just under 35 minutes, Float does not have a good deal of time to explore its chosen themes.”
While a culture of homosexual persecution is the film’s main theme, it is only really in the opening sequences where this is made manifest, through footage of anti-gay rights protesters. Although punctuated slightly further by a couple of scenes with some street kids, the real persecution, it is emphasised, is that which we inflict upon ourselves through fear. While these external and internal battles are worthwhile and form a strong basis for a tale of the struggle for personal freedom fought every day by many across the world, they are very tall pillars for such a short film to support – at least in the way the script was conceived. I’m fairly sure that many who are dealing with these very issues would argue that they are not overcome quite so easily. Doubtless budget was a constraining factor here, though it should have led writer/director Kareem Mortimer to consider what is achievable within the constraints imposed – yes, you can tell the story in half an hour, but will it have the same impact?
Nonetheless, while this leaves Float feeling at times like the edited highlights of much longer story, it is still an entertaining gallop through a moving and very personal struggle. Mortimer could certainly not be accused of slow pacing – indeed, we are missing none of the story’s crucial elements and each is constructed with the skill of a genuine film-maker. The dialogue is feels real enough and generates real emotion. This being the Bahamas, Mortimer is also blessed with a natural set that paints its own rich colours and only adds wonderfully to the human battle for freedom. You are almost left wondering how some people have time for such pointless persecution in the face of so much natural beauty – the human tragedy in a nutshell.
Thus, while Float suffers from a lack of depth and development borne of obvious budget limitations, the parts still hold together well enough to deliver its underlying message intact and in an engaging way.
The Last Bahraini
(2007) Written & Directed by Farid Alkhajah
Getting hold of a Bahraini film proved especially difficult, as at present, one is unlikely to see the few that have been made outside of film festivals, although that of course depends upon when you’re reading this. Happily, Burning Dream Films stepped into the breach with the humourous and telling short commentary on racial hubris and attitudes to immigration, entitled The Last Bahraini. BDF is actually no more nor less than writer/director and indeed crewman 1-200, Farid Alkhajah, but although his film betrays its amateur roots, it says far more in 6 ½ minutes than a certain Tropical Films (Antigua) struggles to do in 40 minutes.
The film is a two-hander, depicting the chance encounter of a rather nationalistic Bahraini citizen of dubious morals and an Indian taxi driver who manages to annoy him from the moment the two meet. One needn’t be especially aware of Bahraini social attitudes to enjoy the film, but simply live in a country with an immigration policy to see the same sheet music played out by the same kinds of bigots we know so well.
“One needn’t be especially aware of Bahraini social attitudes to enjoy the film.”
However, Alkhajah injects his commentary with a great degree of ironic humour, which ultimately makes The Last Bahraini as good as it is. It may be nothing new to laugh off the absurdity of empty prejudice, but it’s always the best solution, although doubtless, those quickest to propagate their prejudice are also the first to miss the point.
Shot on location mostly at night, Alkhajah’s camerawork is obviously not Scorsese, but sufficient to capture the story in an effective manner. The film’s two stars, Hamad Albinali and Amir Hussein meanwhile, get the dialogue off the page convincingly and spark off each other well. Scenes where Albinali roams the streets look a bit unconvincing and self-conscious, but that’s more of a directorial issue than one of acting. Also, the subtitles are a little too fast and convoluted during scenes rich in dialogue and I had to pause and rewind a couple of times to catch everything. Overall however, the parts pull together sufficiently well enough and deliver as a whole, and I’ll be keeping an eye on Alkhajah in the future – a promising talent likely to go from strength to strength.
Burning Dream Films has a youtube presence, so you can watch The Last Bahraini for yourself right here:
A young Muslim boy struggles to make sense of the strange, contradictory world around him as East Pakistan battles for independence. A nation’s loss of innocence when World On Film returns to examine the moving Bangladeshi full-length drama, The Clay Bird. To view a trailer, click here.