The Enemy and Mothers Winners in Novi Sad

  • At the 2011 edition of the Cinema City IFF in Novi Sad, Serbia, jurors Blagoja Kunovski, Tonči Valentić and I judged films from two categories: National Class (10 Serbian films) and Balkan Box (6 films from Romania, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Greece and Albania). We came to our decision quite easily, as in each category there was a handful of films that clearly stood out from the rest. From the National Class, we chose Neprijatelj (The Enemy), directed by Dejan Zečević, and in the Balkan Box section, Milčo Mančevski’s Majki (Mothers).

    NeprijateljSet in Bosnia in 1995, shortly after the end of the war, The Enemy centres on a group of Serbian soldiers who are removing landmines from an area along the border. During a routine patrol of an abandoned factory nearby, they discover a man in the basement, imprisoned behind a wall. When they release him, and take him back to their base, bad things start to happen. Could their greying, scrupulously polite guest be the cause of their misfortune?

    The Enemy takes a well-worn topic and treats it in a fresh way: the film is both thrilling and humorous, and its theme is thought provoking and, importantly, universal.
    What is most intriguing about this film is its ambiguous stance on the nature of ’the enemy’. In most war-themed movies, the enemy is the man fighting on the other side. In this film, however, a Bosniak Muslim soldier becomes an ally as he warns the Serbians that by releasing the prisoner from behind the wall, they have released the devil. One by one, most of the soldiers start to believe that there is something supernatural about the man, in spite of his mild exterior. Faced with such a situation, the audience would expect just two possible answers: either the man is in fact the devil (making the film a strange hybrid of war movie and horror flick), or he is just eccentric, and the film intended to show how the mind can shape reality, and how humans seek scapegoats for their own misdeeds.
    Until the film’s end, though, both possibilities remain open: certain facts about the mysterious man cannot be explained (his ability to survive imprisoned without food or water, for a start). Equally, though, the man makes many observations that ring with rational truth: above all, his final words to the soldier in charge—’it’s not important who I am, but who you are’. As an allegory, the film is an open-ended question about where evil lies in relation to man.

    Considering the amount of bloodshed involved, the film is, almost to its very end, surprisingly funny (though the humour naturally becomes blacker as the film progresses). The tension is kept at a tight pitch by an eventful scenario, which moves quickly from one disaster to the next. This sense of foreboding is also supported by masterful cinematography: a very mobile camera circles the soldiers in the burned-out house that serves as their base, peering at them around corners and through holes in the walls like an ominous observer. It crouches like a sniper on ridges in the landscape, at the level of the tripwires and landmines that are a constant threat to the group. It swoops up above the characters’ heads like a spirit. An apocalyptic atmosphere is created not just through the developing series of disasters, but from the very beginning of the film in its setting and photography. The soldiers’ ruined house is supremely isolated at the crest of a hill, surrounded by minefields on all sides. The image is mainly an austere grey in tone, with the occasional flash of flame- or blood-red: in the film’s final images, this near black-and-white photography takes on the poetry of fable.

    MothersFEDEORA’s other award went to the Macedonian film Mothers. Mančevski took the daring step of dividing the film into three sections of strikingly unequal length (each successive part being considerably longer than the next) and, in the film’s final section, switching from fiction to documentary. It is surprising that more directors have not combined the two genres in this way, as it makes for refreshing variety: even though the film’s three stories are only loosely related by the title theme of ’mothers’, the switch to documentary was not jarring, but provided a relevant and engaging addition to the ensemble. Each of the film’s parts was complete in itself, and could easily stand alone as a court or moyen métrage.

    The first section of Mothers is about schoolgirls who encounter a flasher. As the girls who actually saw him are afraid to go to the police, two of their friends head to the station, determined to act as eyewitnesses in their place. With expressive close-ups of the girls’ faces and a lively script full of realistic schoolyard banter, this section makes for an instantly engaging introduction to the film.

    The film’s middle section concerns a film crew of young urbanites who set out to make a documentary about Macedonia’s dying villages. They come across a more striking example than they could have hoped for: a village composed of just two people, a goatherd and his sister, who have been ignoring each other for the past 16 years. Although they can only stay for a short time, the crew bond with the old woman, whose wits are as sharp theirs. This section offers a vignette of the region’s rural life that is so moving because it is enacted solely by the elderly, who have no one to pass it on to: their herding, bread-making, marriage traditions, and life experiences will only live on in museums or on film. Yet this section also insists on the current of life, from the noisy lovemaking of two of the crew members, to the camera operator’s wish that the old woman would act as grandmother to her baby.

    The film’s final documentary section adds hard fact to the wistful vulnerability of the other two sections. Quickly, it becomes clear that the talking-head interviews are with real people, and the newspaper clippings are genuine. They tell the story of the disappearance of three small-town mothers, victims of a violent rapist. But the story does not end with the discovery of the bodies and the identification of the murderer: the film also examines the perpetrator’s past, as well as his ultimate fate. Like the rest of the film, this section does not offer the sentimental portrait you might expect of a film called Mothers. What seems to unite the different parts of this film is less a maternal theme than the importance of storytelling: the stories our mothers tell us, and that we tell about them, are so important to our relationship to the world.

    Alison Frank,, 27 June 2011.