Sarajevo, the injured city
‘For we are like tree trunks in the snow. In appearance they lie smoothly and a little push should be enough to set them rolling. No, it can’t be done, for they are firmly wedded to the ground. But see, even that is only appearance.’ (Franz Kafka, “The Trees”)
DRVO is a film about the cyclical repetition of humanity in the flow of life. It is about a routine that never forgets that the present walks towards death. It’s a riverine, cold and nocturnal film.
An old man from a city under siege crosses the winter landscape on a small boat at night, and sees a child resting by a small fire, under a naked tree on a riverbank; on a riverbank, under a naked tree, a child whom fear has caused to run from war meets an old man. A mirror, a repetition, where an old man reconciles with himself and his memories, and a child finds warmth and hope to keep alive, while the river just follows its flux.
I landed for the first time in Sarajevo on a February night in 2013. The city was covered in snow and I was alone. I arrived at the place I was going to stay, a student residence in Bjelave. Slowly, I felt I was entering Eastern Europe, post-Berlin Wall – I think I had constructed an image of that time and of that ‘Europe’ by watching Kieslowski’s films. As I was climbing the hill the deserted streets were covered with more snow.
The buildings were all the same: the smoke coming out of the chimneys, the tall and heavy doors, the large halls of the residence, the rooms all the same, the single beds with the same beige blankets, the huge glass windows. From the window of my room I could see the valley, the white city and the lights of the opposite hill – Bistrik Hill. They seemed like stars in a very low sky. I walked down the hill in an attempt to find something to eat. The deserted street led me to the city centre. It was the first time I had been in a city with snow. That cold gave an immense feeling of peace.
Oppressed by the mountains
The buildings were covered with bullet marks. I wondered about the war, the sensation of being fenced in. As I was looking at those mountains, I felt oppressed. That feeling never abandoned me. A calm and peaceful prison, created by the strength of its surroundings. It was as if the memory I had from the TV and newspaper images of war in the 1990s were indelibly attached to the present.
I was there to study cinema and to direct films. But the city’s history made me feel powerless. I felt unable to film. The past, the people’s feelings towards it, was incomprehensible to me. How did people live their daily lives during all those years of the city’s besiegement?
That winter was long, and the snow and ice only disappeared at the end of April. One morning, I had to go to Ilidža, a neighbourhood a bit further west from the city. I crossed all of the town, and the further I went, the more I could observe the signs of the war – the destroyed and abandoned buildings, the run-down neighbourhoods, the sadder faces, and the street children asking for money. I crossed a bridge over the Bosna River. The water flowed across the snow and I spotted a tree; next to it I could see some smoke that went up into the sky. I thought about the strangeness of someone trying to get warm by the snow, next to a river. Yet, for the first time, I could take photographs.
A dark figure came out of that white, next to the naked tree. Only later, when I looked at the pictures, did I notice that there was no fire. The fire I had imagined had been suggested by vapour coming from the confluence of the Miljacka and Bosna rivers, whose waters have different levels of acidity. But that image stayed with me: the dark silhouette next to the tree, in the snow, trying to get warm by the riverbank.
The photographs had no temporal references. I could have photographed them at any other time. By looking at them, I imagined that silhouette was an old man’s body. Slowly, I started to mix these images with the images of war and the destroyed buildings, and with the feeling of that city, oppressed by the mountains. I imagined that man could have been there during the Second World War, and again, throughout the city’s besiegement in the 1990s.
The idea of someone who experiences two wars in his lifetime and in his city became an obsession. The idea of this film was born out of this image.
‘Who do you take me for?’
‘He thinks about tradition. He says to himself: I am being fed by the centuries, living drowned in the history of other men. And his soul is crossed by the primeval blow.
But he has a lost soul: he is an innocent who handles the fire of hell. (...)
Who do you take me for? – he may ask – what I want is love.
And always like that, always: inexplicable cities in the middle of the earth or immense meadows where one is afraid. Meadows for cows, not for a poet torn apart by a painful innocence.
He doesn’t write poems anymore nor does he ask people for their names. Himself, doomed for a total damnation, loses his name across the country. Now he watches the voracious peace of animals, things, immobility. I am departing – he imagines. Cities burn, fields go mad. A poet has to depart, divide, divide himself. A poet must be one. Hell does not let him be. Sometimes he regrets: I feel as if I had crossed the desert; I don’t know anything.’
(Herberto Hélder, “Os passos em volta”, in English: “The steps around”)
History comes as sound
DRVO lies in the relationship of the physical character, the physical strength of a man, facing the war that surrounds him, but also facing the austerity of nature, always marked by the snow that never stops falling. But also in the moment when a child has to face war on his own, with an innocence that transforms, in a few instants, tenderness into anger, beauty into rage, sweetness into fury.
These gestures of strength remind us that even a man who has already lost hope may remain firm – seeking the basics for his survival and that of those who surround him. A repetition of gestures and movements where the present arrives as memory, reality as inner landscapes, and nature is the set for the circular movement of time.
DRVO is a film in which the human figure is limited to Ibro, at two different ages, and to his mother. All other figures are shown to us off-screen, through sound, placing Ibro in a lonely confrontation, increasing the scale ratio between the landscape of mountains and snow that seems to always overwhelm him.
Ibro hardly believes in human existence: he lives alone, in the same house where he grew up, with his dog. Nevertheless, he dedicates his days to a repetitive ritual in search of water for himself and his neighbours, always accompanied by the dog.
The war is around, invisible, a menacing presence between silence and gun blasts. Every day the same thing. He removes the rope that ties the boat to the shore and holds the oars. In the background, the city becomes smaller. Now, the silence of the snow is broken by the clink of bottles for water, as they jostle against each other.
The high contrast of the photography reinforces the strength of the snow and the depiction of the river; the shadow highlights the key elements of the image.
The long sequence shots involve the suspension of the characters in time, in space, and in nature, while History comes as sound, inner movements.
The sound was reconstructed, creating a kind of second band of images. In this band, what is out of frame has a presence that enlarges the image, complexifies time, multiplies the mirror effect, and displaces the viewer. (André Gil Mata)