Against the tide
by Vladan Petkovic
20/10/2009 - After the civil war in Croatia and Bosnia ended in 1995, there were films such as Srdjan Dragojevic's Pretty Village Pretty Flame, Danis Tanovic's Academy Award winner No Man's Land [trailer], Jasmila Zbanic's Berlinale winner Grbavica [trailer, film focus] and Kristijan Milic's The Living and the Dead. However, no one took a direct look at the crimes of their own armies until this year, when Goran Devic and Zvonimir Juric made The Blacks [trailer, film focus].
The title refers to an imaginary paramilitary formation that took its name from the infamous actual unit of the army of the fascist Independent State of Croatia during WWII, which had committed atrocities against the Serbian population in Croatia and Herzegovina. Linking events from 1941 to the ones from 1992 in Osijek, Juric's birthplace, they made a story about the "Garage" case in which Branimir Glavas, the former head of defense of the City of Osijek, was sentenced this year to 10 years in prison for torturing Serbian POWs. Glavas is currently living in Bosnia, which will not extradite him.
The film sparked controversy among Croatian audiences after its premiere at the Pula Film Festival, and was attacked in particular by right-wingers who claim Glavas is a hero.
The film opens with six soldiers in black uniforms who are lost in the woods and are looking for a minefield where their wounded fellow fighters are. They have a new guy in their midst, a miner who turns out not to be what they thought he was. A fight and shooting ensues and we cut to a flashback that lasts until the end of the film.
The soldiers are in army barracks, biding their time while waiting for orders. There is obviously something very wrong, but the audience gets no information as to what it actually is. Soon, the squad receives a tape-recorded message from a Serbian radio station that caught and transmitted Croatian fighters' call for help from a minefield. They decide to get them out and bring them to the barracks.
Juric and Devic build the oppressive atmosphere with long shots along the corridors of the barracks, large-grain cinematography, scarce dialogue and just an intermittent low drone for the soundtrack. We hear the characters mention a garage in passing, and while there is no direct dialogue that would tell us they tortured prisoners there, the very word "garage" triggers awful associations for anyone acquainted with the war in Croatia.
Once a light is turned on in the room that is obviously the cursed garage, no words are necessary. This is a film that says much more about war crimes than any of the blood-spattered affairs we are used to seeing from Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian filmmakers.
Besides the crucial cinematography by Branko Linta, an all-star ensemble cast – including Ivo Gregurevic, Emir Hadzihafizbegovic, Franjo Dijak, Kresimir Mikic, Rakan Rushaidat and Niksa Butijer –maintains the heavy atmosphere throughout the film with low-profile, unemotional acting.
Produced by Ankica Juric-Tilic from Kinorama, The Blacks will be released in Croatia by Continental Film. After Pula (where it won Best Director) and Sarajevo, other festival invitations include Cinepecs in Hungary, Ljubljana, Mumbai, Cottbus, the Auteur Film Festival in Belgrade, Crossing Europe in Linz and IndieLisboa.