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Review: Observing


- Janez Burger mixes the horror of the real world with a genre-infused approach in order to raise questions of ethics and culpability

Review: Observing
Diana Kolenc in Observing

A couple of years ago, a live stream of the beating of a sole man by a group of people in the centre of Ljubljana went viral. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people saw it live and failed to react appropriately – for example, by calling the police. That real-life event served merely as the starting point for Janez Burger’s newest film, Observing [+see also:
interview: Janez Burger
film profile
, which has just world-premiered at the Festival of Slovenian Film, before heading to its international premiere in the Critics’ Picks section of Tallinn Black Nights, out of competition.

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Burger, who also co-wrote the script with late Serbian screenwriter Srđan Koljević, opens the film with a title sequence set against the audio of the vicious fight, before showing us our protagonist Lara (a newcomer to the feature-length format, Diana Kolenc), a young paramedic in a crew together with the experienced Joco (Vladimir Vlaškalić) and wise-cracking driver Rok (Benjamin Krnetić). Their break is cut short by a call for them to go and intervene. The subject is a man called Kristijan (Vito Weis), who has been viciously beaten and whom they take to hospital, where the medics put him into an induced coma.

As Lara gets more and more involved in the case, strange things begin to happen to her and the people around her. At first, she gets a message from the comatose man, which she passes on to his father, and this gets her in trouble with him. Then she starts getting updated versions of the beating video featuring observers who will soon end up dead themselves, after which she alerts the police, and then inspector Borut (Jure Henigman) gets involved. On top of that, the bin men are striking, the rubbish is piling up in bags around the bins, and rats start “visiting” both her car and her flat. But the real test for Lara begins when she sees her pregnant sister Ema (Nataša Keser) in one of the videos. Is she losing her mind, or is the world around her falling apart?

As is the case with most of Burger’s fiction films, here he also studies society, and its lack of empathy and humaneness. The question he wants to ask here is whether the act of observing a crime without doing anything (especially in a digitalised world) is in itself a crime, and what should be a just sentence for it. The choice of a seemingly innocent, professional and ethical character as the focal one is also a smart move, and so is the infusion of suspense in the narrative by showing more of the video upon each repetition, until finally revealing it in its entirety. The same goes for the directorial decisions to film in a narrow, 4:3 aspect ratio, which is further narrowed by the internal framing of the small, cramped spaces that our protagonist spends her time in, amplifying the sense of anxiety and fear both in her and in the audience. The novelty here is Burger’s toying with the ideas of genre cinema, lacing social drama with psychological thriller, suspense and horror.

Burger’s work with the actors is great, as expected. He basically launched the screen career of Maruša Majer in his previous films, and he is on the way to doing the same here with the brave and highly expressive Diana Kolenc. The technical components are also on a lofty level, with Marko Brdar’s persuasive cinematography, Miloš Kalusek’s resolute editing, and Julij Zornik’s and Igor Popovski’s sound design being among the standout elements. Observing is a strong piece of cinema that comments on the harshness of reality in a refined language, asking some important questions in the process.

Observing is a co-production between Slovenia, Croatia, Italy and North Macedonia through the companies Staragara, Transmedia, Propeler Film and Kaval Film, with the support of RTV Slovenia. Slingshot Films handles the international sales.

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