email print share on Facebook share on Twitter share on LinkedIn share on reddit pin on Pinterest


Review: Once Upon a Family


- Sead Šabotić takes us on a mesmerising, magical-realist ride in his sophomore feature-length piece

Review: Once Upon a Family

With his sophomore feature-length film, up-and-coming Montenegrin filmmaker Sead Šabotić challenges us to separate the terms of “faction” and truth, because the two do not have to be one and the same, although they occasionally are. Once Upon a Family has just premiered in the international competition of Beldocs, and given that it’s a very creative, poetic hybrid between documentary, fiction and film essay, it may seem like a nice addition to the more daring sections of the various festivals in the region and internationally.

(The article continues below - Commercial information)

The strange thing is that Once Upon a Family did not end up being as it was originally envisioned when it started life as Šabotić’s final master’s project at the Belgrade Faculty of Dramatic Arts. Due to administrative issues, the production moved completely to Montenegro, affording the filmmaker more freedom to play with different kinds of material and structure in order to tell a story of disappearance, loss of identity, and the search for others and oneself in the ever-shifting context of life.

As we are informed, the first protagonist, Gorčin Bojanić, the ward of an institution cryptically referred to as “the national depot of the rejected persons of Montenegro” (which the existing Komanski Most facility for people with intellectual disabilities actually stands in for) disappeared without a trace just before the filmmaker, first assuming the position of the narrator before appearing on screen, had been due to start filming him for his next project. Led by Gorčin’s friend Dragan, the filmmaker starts the search for him, guided by what shaky information he has about Gorčin’s past and background. Apparently, his family comes from the Piva region, specifically the town of Old Plužine, which was flooded after the construction of a dam and a hydroelectric plant in the 1970s, and as a baby, he was left by his parents at a home for abandoned children in the coastal town of Bijela. The duo embarks on a journey through the mountainous region in search of any traces of Gorčin and his family, learning about more tragic fates, and eventually about themselves, in the process.

Although hermetic and hard to decode, as were Šabotić’s short films (his previous feature-length documentary, the 2020 title Twins Woven from Dreams, which he co-directed with Lea Vahrušev, was a tad more conventional and accessible, but still quite poetic), Once Upon a Family is a work that grabs viewers and keeps them hooked. It tells true, heartfelt stories by carefully combining fragments of facts from rarely seen archival material, emotions and fiction, and even by opening a meta level at one point, channelling the literary works of 20th-century Yugoslav masters like Borislav Pekić, Danilo Kiš, Mirko Kovač, Filip David and the “keeper of their flame”, the recently deceased Goran Petrović, whose writing is quoted at one significantly meditative point in the movie.

The technical aspects of the feature serve its aesthetics perfectly well: while cinematographer Ivan Čojbašić treats us to vistas of the mountainous and coastal landscapes of Montenegro, and sound designers Antonio Andrić and Stevan Masnec discreetly complement the picture, editor Mina Petrović cuts the whole thing with a good sense of rhythm to end up at a perfectly fitting, meditative pace. In the end, Once Upon a Family is simply a mesmerising, magical-realist ride through the story of human destinies, thoughts, hopes and fears.

Once Upon a Family is a Montenegrin production by Code Blue Production. Visible Films handles its sales.

(The article continues below - Commercial information)

Did you enjoy reading this article? Please subscribe to our newsletter to receive more stories like this directly in your inbox.

Privacy Policy