It's been exactly three days since returning to Berlin from Kosova and Albania, and as part of my massive decompression, between batting away writing deadlines, I am watching as many films as I can. Something you would have thought I had done plenty of the last month considering I spent most of that time at a film festival. But, I had other duties this year (which are listed handily on my Facebook page if you're at all interested).
While I did watch some films, of course, I wanted to start this first blog snog to beloved Dokufest with some thoughts on the small, but powerful, film that won this year's Balkan Dox competition, a strand with a staggering fourteen films. The intrepid Balkan Dox jury--Alexander Nanau (whose film made in Romania, The World According to Ion B., won last year's Dokufest Balkan prize); American filmmaker, Donal Mosher (October Country), and Sara Garcia, founder and co-director of Play-Doc in northern Spain--gave Serbian, Srdjan Keca, the prize. (As well, the jury awarded Cinema Komunisto's director, Mila Turajlic, for Best Newcomer.) The evening the jury finished deliberations, Nanau told me that Keca's film is one that "really stays with you," and after watching it, I would have to say I agree. The film is a highly personal and resonant film about trying to unslip the knots of a past that you lived through as a child. Childhood, as we all know, is a time where you miss so much of what's happening around you, while simultaneously, sense memories are embedding themselves deeply enough to last a lifetime.
While this is not the 29-year-old's first film, for such a young filmmaker, he has a keen and sophisticated cinematic eye, a voice, both visual and aural, for solid storytelling. I am a fan of the long, beautifully composed static frame in documentary; it provides a breathing space, a nonverbal contexualization in which a good director / cinematographer will indulge his audience, providing a resting spot for the eye and mind as the story unfolds. These still lifes tell us much in their silence and poise, as much as the home movies show us that this family was one like any other--a parade of photos and moving images on fragile Super 8, filled with young love, marriage, children, birthday parties and living room shenanigans.
Marinko Keca, the filmmaker's father, has passed away from advanced stages of cancer without his family around him. The burning question of his son, Srdjan, is why his father chose to die alone. And while he never finds a fully satisfactory answer to that question, he does manage to piece together a powerful 45-minute film, a collaboration between generations, the younger member still here on earth and coping the best he can, the other the incorporeal manifestation of a whole generation of men and women who lost part of their souls to a war that none of them ever fully understood.
Keca's Serbian father and Croatian mother married in 1979, one year before Yugoslav leader Tito dies. The union is considered ill-crossed--not at the time they first meet, but by 90s wartime, Keca finds himself the product of a "mixed" marriage, a relationship that founders mostly due to Marinko's intense post-traumatic stress disorder upon returning from the war. In one scene in particular, Keca's camera work really shines: as he holds the camera steady, we see intermittent close-up images of old family photos with his mother's face a ghostly blur behind them; then, as he pulls focus, we see the pictures whisked away to reveal his mother's face clearly, grounded in the here and now. In a very simple, understated way, Keca, in the language of cinema, traverses past and present, weaving some kind of bridge between the two with his lens. It's a beauiful moment, filled with quiet eloquence about the internal limbo in which the young man is stuck trying to process his father's death.
There were many expert and subtle storytelling touches, particularly notable in the way in which he crafts the interviews with the three most important men in Marinko's life: his best friend, his business partner, and his brother, the filmmaker's uncle. All of them tell Srdjan outright that they can't, and won't, talk about certain things regarding the war. And then, to a man, they each proceed to deliver deeply emotional soliloquies about their own experiences, and those of Keca's father, a man they profoundly loved and respected. He even gets them, in essence, to direct their own scenes: "OK. Now you hold the camera. I'll start the engine, and we'll go slowly," says his father's friend as they're shooting on his boat. And Marinko's business partner (after finger-wagging at his old mother for walking into the frame while he's being filmed) knows that with his big belly and "big Serbian soul," he will barely fit into the frame. Knowingly, the director has already set up a pretty wide shot in anticipation, and the ebullient man fits just fine.
This is rich storytelling, and the jury prize is a well-deserved nod to a deep thinker, one that has left behind a career in theoretical physics (of all things), to pick up a camera. Gracefully edited by Katharine Lee, Srdjan and Marinko Keca, father and son, crafted this film together in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Romania over the course of twenty-two years, almost three-quarters of the filmmaker's lifetime. As Srdjan notes at one point, both men hide behind the camera lens, their mutual concealment perhaps tying them complicitly together as fellow travelers through the ravages of their region's past.
At the film's end, Srdjan comments to his father's ghost: "You know, we always blame this war. But the war is made by people. Don't you think so?"