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KARLOVY VARY 2021 East of the West

Review: Roots


- Tea Lukač explores the traditions and the present of the area of her own roots in beautifully simple and emotionally effective fashion

Review: Roots

A van drives along roads, through woodlands, villages and the small town of Dvor in the region of Banija, Croatia, carrying different groups of passengers who share their stories. That would be, in short, a description of the “plot” of the newest documentary by Serbian filmmaker Tea Lukač, Roots [+see also:
interview: Tea Lukač
film profile
, which has just premiered in Karlovy Vary’s East of the West competition.

Four kids in meticulously decorated masks travel back from a carnival party, clutching their sweets. The energy and the dynamics they share are natural and playful, but they are acutely aware of what the adults around them do, say and think – who drinks and who puts the emphasis on social differences. A young foreign man, maybe a tourist, maybe a refugee, sits in the back alone, playing a game on his phone in silence. Two women talk about the petitions against storing nuclear waste on the territory of the municipality and the local administration’s lack of care for the citizens combined with its attitude of entitlement. In the emotional climax of the film, a middle-aged woman shares the painful story of her life, including the abuse she was exposed to, bad marriages, poverty and hard work as she brought up her three children whom she now takes pride in. An a cappella band of four sings sad, atonal local folk songs, joking a bit between verses. An old man shares his story about barely surviving a hornets’ attack in his childhood without any proper medical treatment, which made him immune to the Asian Flu pandemic later on.

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The last “passenger” is a bag of groceries; there is no human presence in the final story, which brings us full circle, from youth to absence. A lack of humans also marks the interludes between the stories, in which Lukač shows the surrounding nature in all its harsh and unforgiving beauty. Later on, the traces of human activities, like the stumps of young trees, a flock of sheep and pieces of infrastructure, are also shown in the interludes.

The way Lukač approaches the topic works wonderfully in its simplicity. All the rides are shot in single, static, continuous takes from the front seat of the van, looking back and showing the environment through the back window. The interludes, however, consist of a series of shorter, also static, shots edited by Nataša Pantić to relax the viewer a bit, before ratcheting up the tension again. The camerawork by Sara Preradović is cool-handed and stable, in sync with the natural-looking colours, and it serves the purpose perfectly here. The sound design by Bojan Palikuća speaks volumes by enhancing the sounds of nature and toning down the noises related to the human presence on the roads and in the towns.

The title Roots clearly alludes to Lukač’s own family roots in that particular area, whose traditions, history and ethnology she explores along with the challenges of daily life there. The term “roots” is usually used in a national or ethnic context, but not here. Lukač and her subjects never talk about the conflicts, World War II or the 1990s war in Yugoslavia, which hit the area hard and are definitely still present in the locals’ memories. The roots she explores here are more universal and more humane. Roots is simply a beautiful love letter to her own roots and to this specific geographical location in all its beauty and harshness.

Roots is a Serbian production by Nana 143 and Set Sail Films.

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