Review: The DNA of Dignity
- Jan Baumgartner turns his gaze to the meticulous work carried out by those attempting to recover dignity for the thousands of people who disappeared in the Balkan Wars
Presented in a world premiere within the Locarno Film Festival’s Critics’ Week, The DNA of Dignity [+see also:
film profile] by the young, self-taught Swiss director living in Sarajevo Jan Baumgartner is competing for the Prix de Soleure in the Solothurn Film Festival. Four years after his short film Talking Soil, which explored the consequences of the Yugoslavia War through the work of “mine hunters” who scour the earth looking for unexploded devices, Jan Baumgartner is once again taking an interest in the Balkan Wars.
Whilst, in his last short film, the director investigated the dangers hiding in the bowels of a wounded land, it’s the countless human remains lying unidentified in mass graves which he has decided to focus on in his debut feature film The DNA of Dignity. Here, rather than “mine hunters”, he homes in on the work of the anthropologists, forensic scientists and archaeologists who patiently attempt to piece together shattered family stories.
What’s striking, right from the film’s opening images, is the clinical precision with which Jan Baumgartner tackles a subject which remains incredibly tender to this day, entangled with memories, pain and resentment. The DNA of Dignity opens with a sequence shot of white bags lined up in a huge warehouse where remnants of human bones found in a forest in an unspecified location are waiting to be identified. This majestic sequence shot immediately sums up the director’s intentions: to open debate on the wounds left by a war which is still too recent to talk about without drowning in emotion and anger.
The Balkan Wars resulted in the disappearance of thousands of individuals to whom their loved ones have been unable to say a dignified goodbye because they don’t have bodies to lay to rest and, as a result, no place in which to convene. Summarily buried in indistinct locations, these bodies are decomposing more and more with every passing day, gradually lessening the chances of linking them with people still listed as missing.
Before focusing on the painstaking work of archaeologists, forensic scientists and anthropologists, and that of the everyday people who still refuse to give up, Baumgartner soars over the forests in question, capturing somewhat abstract images by way of dizzying aerial shots. How is it possible that nature in all its simple beauty can hide such terrible secrets? This is the main question the director seems to ask, ever determined to analyse reality without sliding into the fatally corruptive trap of sentimentalism.
The film gives no real clues as to the location in which the story unfolds, in order to sidestep accusations of bias. But the director isn’t looking to raise questions of guilt. What he does want to do is open debate, provide a space for sharing a pain which crosses all divides. Accompanying him on this voyage is a mother (played by Muniba Muftić) who’s looking for her son’s body, and an elderly man who willingly scours the forest surrounding his home looking for objects, clothing and bones which might belong to the disappeared.
The DNA of Dignity is a seemingly discreet film which takes a high-precision approach (much like the work of the people it depicts), and Jan Baumgartner deftly avoids dramatising the story without sacrificing any of the empathy shining through throughout the film.
The DNA of Dignity is produced by the director himself by way of Jan Baumgartner Filmproduktion.
(Translated from Italian)
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