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Review: Sava


- Young British director Matthew Somerville's first feature-length documentary tells the story of the river that runs from Slovenia through Croatia and Bosnia to Serbia

Review: Sava

Screened at the Belgrade International Documentary Film Festival Beldocs, the first feature-length documentary by the young British filmmaker Matthew Somerville, Sava [+see also:
film profile
, deals with the titular, 990 km-long river that runs from Slovenia, through Croatia and Bosnia, to Belgrade, where it joins the Danube. Once the longest river in Yugoslavia, it still connects the now separate countries. 

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Filming the river and people living around it over a period of six years along with co-cinematographer Dan McCrum, Somerville makes the best of his outsider status: he is removed enough to take political issues that still plague the region in stride, and close enough to understand them and respect his protagonists. In this sense, it is significant — and poignant — that the legendary Yugoslav actress Mira Furlan, who died this year, delivers a voice-over in which she takes the role of the river. She speaks in first person in a lyrical monologue over the alternately breathtaking and dream-like images of the river, shot both on-the-ground and by a drone. These intersperse the narrative parts where we meet people in several cities and villages along the river's course. 

Captioning with narrative titles each of the 12 points on the river from Zelenci, Slovenia to Belgrade, Serbia, Somerville and Macedonian editor Gorjan Atanasov take us from one intriguing person to another, a group of friends or a family. What the filmmakers focus on is each person's personal connection to the river, with their inevitable views of its social and cultural dimension, but also acute awareness of its environmental significance and history. Once poisoned by numerous factories along its flow, the Sava "recuperated" when Yugoslavia and its industry fell apart, as a Slovenian steel worker explains. Now a new wave of industrialisation and pollution, driven by foreign investments and lack of environmental policies, endangers it again. 

Most of the interviewees in the film are engaging, strong characters. Starting with two boatmen in Slovenia who share some right-wing views of refugees and moving on to two drag queens in Zagreb who do the complete opposite, through a group of Bosnians in their late thirties who say they have little money but wouldn't swap their life on the river for Western promises (even though one is seen again six years later, after he moves to Germany), to an imam in the Brčko district who likens the rhythm of the river flow to the nature of people living around it; a romantic old couple in a city in Vojvodina; and finally to an anti-gentrification activist in Belgrade — the filmmakers create a comprehensive social kaleidoscope.  

Clocking in at 70 minutes, Sava makes for an enjoyable watch, even though this trimmed-down running time sometimes works against it. The Belgrade segment feels rushed, almost like a barely remembered dream sequence, not least because it was filmed at night and uses some double exposure in images of Dubai-style high-rises of the corrupt Belgrade Waterfront development. While it works in its own right, it feels more like the beginning of another film, along with the activist's brief thoughts on gentrification. 

Despite a few such shortcomings, Sava runs smoothly, often dipping into a sort of magical whimsicality and nostalgia with Furlan's voice-over, partly written and partly improvised. Even though Robin Schlochtermeier's score uses a variety of genres from ambient to jazz to disco, sometimes with subtle local folk coloring, it enriches the atmosphere of the documentary without being overbearing. 

Sava is a production of London-based Sava Films

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