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DOK LEIPZIG 2023

Review: El Shatt - A Blueprint for Utopia

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- Croatian director Ivan Ramljak's meticulous and inspiring archive-footage documentary looks at the Dalmatian refugee camp in Egypt during World War II

Review: El Shatt - A Blueprint for Utopia

Croatian director Ivan Ramljak has 13 directing credits, including shorts, fiction and documentary features, and his best-known outing so far, Once Upon a Youth [+see also:
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, but it could be said that he is finally coming into the mainstream with his new documentary, El Shatt - A Blueprint for Utopia, which has just had its international premiere in DOK Leipzig's competition.

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The picture deals with the titular refugee camp in Sinai during World War II. As Italy capitulated in 1943 and left Dalmatia, and before the German army came to occupy the Adriatic region, the local population and the by then excellently organised partisan resistance movement led by Josip Broz Tito were afraid of German retribution, and sent children, women and old people to Egypt.

After tens of thousands of people gathered on the island of Vis, they embarked on the long journey and arrived at a place in the desert that already had an infrastructure, as it was a former Allied Forces base: there was electricity, water and transport vehicles. But the Yugoslavs had to lift their own tents, and build a makeshift school and hospital. As one of the nine survivors who are interviewed for the film says, it was all organised ahead of time, leaders of groups were assigned on departure, and soon, every person had their respective tasks.

The three camps had their own bulletin newspaper, translated from the previous night's news on Radio London, a football team, artistic groups including a choir and a ballet troupe, and even little gardens with plants growing out of the sand. But this was no paradise, and even if the film has a definite romantic, nostalgic streak, we learn that many of the refugees couldn't take the harsh climate, while epidemics were regular. Eventually, 900 of them died in El Shatt from measles and other diseases, or just weakness, including many young children.

The film consists of photographs taken by Ljubomir Garbin and stored in various archives, including that of the Library of Congress, and video footage from the time, which does not always necessarily show this exact time period in this place – many excerpts come from unknown sources, and Ramljak slows them down, making them fit more naturally with the photographs and, at the same time, increasing their intensity.

The interviewees, who we only meet through their voice-overs, were all children at the time, and their recollections are coloured by the fact that they were young and impressionable. So their testimonies often focus on small details, remembering smells, songs or little objects they cherished.

The flow of photographs and footage is interspersed with fictionalised segments in which actors from the City Youth Theatre of Split, which was founded in El Shatt, appear three times throughout the film. Dressed in partisan outfits, with ubiquitous red stars on their caps, they stand on a makeshift stage proclaiming news of key events and dedication to the resistance movement.

There is no traditional music score; instead, only two battle songs from the 1940s are used, one a recording of the El Shatt choir and another sung by one of the protagonists. The sound design faithfully follows the images and words, but it is elegant and unobtrusive, colouring the atmosphere, rather than straight-up creating it.

As Croatian politician and one of the El Shatt refugees Savka Dapčević Kučar says in the opening narrative title, “If the idea of ​​communism was ever realised anywhere, then it was in El Shatt.” In this way, the romanticism of the ideas the protagonists lived and fought for is brought down to earth, making the title of the film all the more precise and poignant.

El Shatt - A Blueprint for Utopia is a co-production between Croatia's Kompot and Kino Klub Split, and Serbia's Horopter. Split Screen has the international rights.

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