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Sunday, 26 June 2016

Sydney Film Festival (19) Max Berghouse reports on Death in Sarajevo (Danis Tanovic, Bosnia, 2015)

Absolutely my personal favourite of the films at the recent Sydney Film Festival although this is not to say that it was the best nor necessarily one that will linger long in my mind. But pleasurable indeed.
This is a classic arthouse film which should do extremely well on the film festival circuit. Presumably audiences will have considerable knowledge of the history of the country. Such sufficient knowledge is certain to enrich one's understanding.
In the mid to late 1880s, the Ottoman Turkish Empire began to recede in Europe, leaving an independent kingdom, Serbia, an Eastern Orthodox Christian country with strong irridentist aspirations to control the balance of the "country of the southern Slavs". In the western section in Croatia and Slovenia, these small kingdoms were controlled by Austria and were Catholic. In the centre was Bosnia-Herzegovina which was overwhelmingly Moslem and loyal to the Ottomans. In 1907 Austria Hungary annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina although it did nothing to change its primitive and feudal political structure. This enraged Serbia and lead, immediately before the First World War, to the First and Second Balkan Wars and it was in Sarajevo that the heir apparent to the Austrian Empire was killed in 1914. Serbia did ultimately triumph and constituted the controlling part of Yugoslavia and held the other constituent parts of the kingdom in considerable thrall. Massive internecine fighting broke out as a consequence of the German occupation of the country in 1940 and again following the breakup of Communist Yugoslavia in the late 1980s and 1990s.
The film commences on the roof of the hotel in the city where a TV producer is managing recordings of local intellectuals about the history of the country and history's relevance given that this very hotel is to play host to visiting dignitaries of the European Community to commemorate the commencement of the First World War. These are real life intellectuals who give extremely polished performances, one more or less negative about the long-term future, the other somewhat more optimistic. Down below in the hotel and in particular in its non-public work sections, all is going badly. The owner manager Omer is deep in debt to his bankers who are unable to advance him further money. His own bank officer says that were he the banker to do so, it would mean his job. Omer is scarcely grasping because he has gone without two months wages just like the rest of the staff. The staff is restless and preparing to strike, even though with the delegation from the European Community arriving, to fill up the hotel, money problems should be at an end. That said, no one is prepared to compromise.
Front of desk manager Lamija, fiercely loyal to her boss, does what she can to paste over the cracks. This includes ignoring the severe bashing of a hotel employee who has threatened to strike, by a gangster operator of a strip club/gambling joint in the hotel basement who has been put up to it by Omer. Incidentally she is nearly always seen from the rear, walking very steadily and rapidly on high heels through the bowels of the hotel, immaculately groomed and steadfast. When we finally see her face in Omer's office, where uncharacteristically he seeks to seduce her, the performances are truly riveting. Lamija's mother is in charge of the hotel laundry and somewhat surprisingly is elected head of the strike group. Like everyone else she seems unable to compromise, even in circumstances where it is in her best interests so to do. She ignores her daughter. Lamija is portrayed as a clearly Western executive style woman. This is evidenced by the fact that the previous evening to the commencement of the film, she slept with a new employee sous chef who is clearly besotted with her, yet to her, he is simply a one night stand.
Meanwhile on the roof the producer interviews an apparent descendant of Gabriel Princip the assassin of the Austrian heir in 1914 and he  appears to be, despite inflammatory speech to be quite peaceable. Perhaps it is that quality which results in his death.
The only hotel patron is Jacques Weber who spends most of his time in the presidential suite, preparing an address to the other assembled guests. It's unclear whether he is learning lines or improvising. He draws parallels with the Holocaust and other momentous and highly destructive episodes in European history. Only subsequently is it clear that he is in fact the actor Jacques Weber playing himself as an actor which gives the gloss that all the highfalutin prose he intones is just an act and that nothing is to be taken as seriously meant. People talk about "reality" but it is simply words, not lived experience.
Ultimately nothing changes, everything goes from bad to worse and the public or external history is matched by the internal history of the hotel, its occupants and workers. The ending and indeed the whole film is highly fatalistic as to the capacity for onward movement which is  frozen by the ghosts of the past.
I thought this movie was quite terrific. Pretty well flawless scripting allows everyone to have their moment in the sun while at the same time providing considerable onward momentum to the multiple story lines. Acting too is perfectly consistent without any particular attempt by one actor to outshine another. That's not entirely true for Weber, but as he is an actor, playing an actor, his histrionics seem appropriate. The camera work is impeccable, fluidly moving throughout the hotel with perfect grace.
Incidentally I have noticed in reviews that the film has been variously characterised as Serbian and Bosnian. Ignoring European coproducers, the film is definitely Bosnian. It so happens that I have a particular interest in cinema, which although fictional, endeavours to look at unpleasant periods in a country's past and in which there is a sense of personal responsibility taken, not blaming others – particularly outsiders. I first noticed this in relation to French films and their gradually more open discussion of French participation with Vichy and it is also apparent to some extent in another festival film Magallanes*. This film is similarly an example, and a very fine one at that.

* See Barrie Pattison's note at Sydney Film Festival (12)

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