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TORONTO 2018 Wavelengths

Review: The Stone Speakers

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- TORONTO 2018: Igor Drljača explores particular places in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and their narratives that compete or fit in with the existing nationalistic discourses in the country

Review: The Stone Speakers

There is something beautiful about visually ugly places (and faces, for that matter) that comes to the surface when filmed by an expert filmmaker. And such is the first shot of Sarajevo-born, Canadian-based filmmaker Igor Drljača's new feature-length documentary, The Stone Speakers [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
, which has just world-premiered in Toronto's Wavelengths section.

His permanently fixed camera is first trained on the rusty and cracked concrete yard of a chemical factory in Tuzla, a city in northeast Bosnia that used to be the industrial hub of the former Yugoslav republic. After a couple of shots that seem to last just as long as is needed for the viewers to become immersed in the place, a woman's voice starts explaining how this factory has been feeding her and her family for decades, and is now just a shadow of its former, prosperous self. 

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Drljača continues through chapters dedicated to particularly significant places that are now bringing a new kind of tourism to the troubled country – for instance, Tuzla has salt lakes that have successfully been put to this particular use.

First, we go to Medjugorje, a town in East Herzegovina that became famous in 1981 when several children claimed to have seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary. Nowadays, it is a pilgrimage site for Catholics from around the world. A voice-over from a local explains that during the communist rule, this region was treated particularly harshly due to its strong connection to the Croat fascist Ustasha movement. But what we see is a huge crowd of people on a hill, singing Catholic anthems, praying and waving their flags from around the world.

Next up is a place of more recent interest: the town of Visoko, some 30 km northwest of Sarajevo. In the mid-2000s, a local (quasi) scientist claimed he had discovered remnants of pyramids older than those in Egypt. While experts have not supported the claims, the place has enjoyed something of a touristic boom, revolving around references to aliens, ancient civilisations and energy healing. One of the employees explains how they are not getting any political support, as the parties in Bosnia are separated along religious lines, and of course no Orthodox or Catholic priests, nor Muslim imams, will accept such "blasphemy".

Finally, we come to the newest of the attractions, Andrićgrad in Višegrad, East Bosnia. Once a predominantly Muslim city, Višegrad is now part of Republika Srpska, and Emir Kusturica has built a memorial town for famous author and Nobel laureate Ivo Andrić there, with the intention of making a biopic on him (which is still nowhere on the horizon). Drljača's interviewee holds back from saying anything political and instead focuses on praising the famous filmmaker's endeavour. But when you see the place, the first association that comes to mind is that of a Potemkin village.

Drljača got two very important things right: the decision to interview only older protagonists, who remember Yugoslavia well, in a country from which a startling proportion of young people emigrate to the West; and to let the places speak for themselves as a counterpoint to the voice-overs from interviewees, steering away from political issues, which are, in any case, unavoidable in Bosnia – they have indeed found their way into the film, and the director has treated them with restraint and respect.

The Stone Speakers is a co-production by Toronto-based Timelapse Pictures and Bosnia's SCCA/pro.ba.

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