Issue 52 (2016)

Bakur Bakuradze: Brother Dejan. The General (Brat Deian, 2015)

reviewed by Justin Wilmes© 2016

brother dejanIn one of the opening shots of Bakur Bakuradze’s new film Brother Dejan, we look upon the protagonist through a narrowly cracked door as he sits pensively in a kitchen. The framing of this shot initiates a two-hour glimpse into a life otherwise unknowable and unfathomable to us. Dejan Stanić, a former general of the Serbian army during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, has lived in hiding for 10 years and is wanted by The Hague for war crimes. The camera follows him as he sits smoking in cramped, hide-out apartments, hikes through woods, and looks down from hillsides at the country where not long ago he was a hero. Director Bakuradze’s characteristic long, silent takes accentuate Dejan’s nearly impenetrable stoicism. His post-war life, or perhaps “afterlife,” is that of a living ghost (his wife even petitions to have him declared legally dead). Although his freedom has been preserved, it is deprived of any vitality. Cut off from his wife and son, and society as a whole, he is left with only his devoted ward Slavko. Thus Brother Dejan depicts a sort of living purgatory for this alleged war criminal in hiding.

brother dejanEntirely devoid of tendentiousness, however, the film gives little indication of the culpability of the former general. It neither triumphs at cosmic justice nor shows him as a victim of shifting political winds, leaving the viewer to wonder about his past. Rather Brother Dejan is a case study in human suffering and alienation, one with which director Bakuradze clearly identifies. Breaking up the film’s “paradocumentary” aesthetic, the director inserts himself into the film, envisioning and staging the action. Before we see Dejan standing outside of his former home, gazing mournfully up from the street at his wife through the window, Bakuradze appears in the same spot, gazing at this window, trying to imagine the character and his emotional state. These unconventional insertions of the director into the film—rather than postmodern simulacra or playful nods to detractors of docufiction—draw a human connection between director and subject that is the true pulse of the film. As the title suggests, even the reviled war criminal Dejan is our “brother.” Bakuradze’s attempts to identify with his subject evoke the existential “staring down” of suffering and the imperative of human compassion.  

brother dejanBrother Dejan, Bakuradze’s third feature film, departs in a number of interesting ways from his previous work. The director continues his collaboration with cinematographer Nikolai Vavilov and scriptwriter Il’ia Malakhov, but leaves behind the contemporary Russian setting of his previous films Shultes (2008) and The Hunter (Okhotnik, 2011), taking his crew to Serbia and working with an entirely Serbian cast. Filmed in two phases in 2013 and 2014, Brother Dejan was shown at the 2015 Locarno Film Festival and Russian festivals Kinotavr and Window to Europe [Okno v Evropu]. The film also had a very limited box office release in late 2015, when it was shown in Moscow at only a single theater. It received no prizes at festivals, but enjoyed a positive, if somewhat muted, response from critics.

brother dejanBrother Dejan’s limited resonance is due, at least in part, to the uncompromising artistic decisions of its director. The film is thematically and aesthetically bold in conception, but its execution at times leaves much to be desired. If Bakuradze’s previous work demanded patience and attention from the viewer, neglecting action and plot in favor of documentary, material reality, Brother Dejan goes even further in its demands. It provides little-to-no exposition and the unprepared viewer may only piece together what is taking place halfway through the film. The narrative is a loose stitching together of roughly shot, documentary-style fragments. Lengthy scenes of Dejan hiking, shot with a shaky handheld camera, or sitting silent and immobile in Spartan surroundings, impart the authenticity of the real and everyday. But they also frustrate the viewer, forcing him or her to endure the tedium of this life along with the protagonist. Whereas in Bakuradze’s earlier films the heroes’ alienation was often redeemed by lyrically framed scenes and austere beauty, there is little of this in Brother Dejan. Subsequent viewings, however, allow for greater understanding and appreciation of the film. The director’s stalwart arthouse ethos denies easy forms of identification, but with the proper investment from the viewer, Brother Dejan's difficulty and ambiguities lead to a meaningful viewing experience.

Tbrother dejanhe portrait of Dejan is one of both suffering and resignation. Like Meursault in Albert Camus’ The Outsider, Dejan adapts to his bleak circumstances. He seems to find some meaning in the beauty of nature surrounding his remote confines and, remarks to old friends that the countryside where he lives is “very good.” He has a television but, apparently indifferent to current events, doesn’t watch it. Dejan lives primarily through memories. Fragmentary scenes from his past, shot with a sepia filter, are interspersed throughout without clear significance. In one, he recalls resting with his army detachment in the forest; in another, going for a swim in a picturesque lake. The editing and transitions between his present and past create a cinematic stream of consciousness, providing mimetic insight into Dejan’s existence. One of Dejan’s memories, however, reappears several times in the film—the cold-blooded execution of a man who has wandered into hostile territory during the war—suggesting that the General is tormented not only by his isolation, but also by his conscience.

Despite Dejan’s silent resignation, he makes several desperate attempts to reconnect with his former life. Risking capture, he sneaks away from his guards on multiple occasions and visits Belgrade. In one scene, he visits the grave of his daughter, who died during the war in the 1990s; in another, his wife, whom he has not seen for over a decade. In this poignant scene, husband and wife embrace in silence and stare into each other’s faces with pained expressions of understanding and love. Such moments reveal another human side of Dejan that has languished for over a decade in his bleak and apparently hopeless circumstances.

brother dejanAfter eleven years in hiding, Dejan is finally captured by the authorities, possibly due to his own incautious trips to Belgrade where he is spotted by various eye witnesses. We wonder – maybe Dejan wants to be caught? His isolated freedom is perhaps worse than captivity or death. He is a symbol of the trauma of the Yugoslav Wars that pitted brother against brother, the effects of which continue to be felt today. Bakuradze’s turn to the subject of post-war alienation and identity issues in Serbia is then an entirely logical choice. Having exhausted the alienation of the contemporary Russian subject—ideologically and historically adrift following the collapse of the USSR and the tumultuous 1990s—Bakuradze turned to a composite, fictional figure of a Serbian war criminal to explore post-traumatic society and the alienation of the individual. While Brother Dejan is indeed a “critics’ film” that will frustrate most mainstream viewers, it is nonetheless an artistic achievement, innovative, bold, and full of meaning. 

Justin Wilmes
East Carolina University

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Brother Dejan, Russian and Serbian co-production, 2015
Color, 113 minutes
Director: Bakur Bakuradze
Scriptwriters: Bakur Bakuradze and Il’ia Malakhov
Cinematography: Nikolai Vavilov
Editing: Rufat Gasanov, Il’ia Malakhov
Sound Editor: Saulius Urbanavicius
Producers: Sergei Selianov, Iuliia Mishkinene, Miroslav Mogorovic, Zaur Bolotaev, and Aleksandr Plotnikov
Cast: Marko Nikolić, Mikhail Tirinda

Bakur Bakuradze: Brother Dejan. The General (Brat Deian, 2015)

reviewed by Justin Wilmes© 2016