Goran Dević and Zvonimir Jurić: The Blacks (Crnci, 2009)
reviewed by Lorraine Mortimer © 2011
The films’ credits scroll on and then—we are in the dark, along with combat men in a vehicle. The driver gets out and breaks a shop window to get what he needs, then gets back in the truck and goes on driving. There are vehicle lights on a dark road, channeling everything into the men’s tunnel vision. Once the men are out of the vehicle, the only audible sounds are those of the forest and water. Ivo (Ivo Gregurević), the squad leader, soon identifies an American boot that belonged to one of their men, Alen. The group is then seen on the water, in a canoe, as the sun comes up and the spectator is immersed in the sounds of their paddles, wind in the rushes, bird sounds and crickets at dawn. Light comes down through the trees onto fresh green leaves, black trunks, and sticks on what must be soft, lush earth breaking under the men’s feet as they move along. These bucolic images, however, will become the site of the starkly contrasting visual and ethical weight to become apparent in the subsequent shocking sequences.
Goran Dević and Zvonimir Jurić have suggested that Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) was an inspiration in their writing of The Blacks, with its rising tension, confined spaces, and sudden shift in time—all contributing to a haunting film about tragic realities. Much of The Blacks looks and feels like a combat film, combat that is grim, intense, and in the end, hopeless and absurd. But the film’s power builds with the unfolding from a flashback of what led up to the fatal mission, and what was going on in the minds and bodies of the combatants, revealed as humans, whose individual fates were not preordained, even if they were likely.
The initial journey that opens the film is punctuated by Ivo crouching to fathom his map, and by a moment in which the new recruit, Vedran (Krešimir Mikić), a “land-miner” who knows nothing about hand weapons, let alone mines (he lied about his skills), has to take a shit. His question about protocol brings some of the first dialogue in this minimalist film, and highlights his nervousness, underlining for the others that it’s his first time out. Ivo lays his hand on him, and tells him it’s going to be fine. Vedran lies to the seemingly hardiest member of the group, Šaran (Nikša Butijer), when he asks if he has buried the shit. And it becomes increasingly evident that all will not be fine when, after a while, we hear the buzzing of flies around the excrement, and we see the men anxiously gesture to one another after having realized that they have been going around in circles. An additional signal of a fractured world is conveyed when Ivo stumbles and is irritated as the young men lift him to his feet. His “shut up and walk” becomes his symbolic chant—better to walk in circles, to do anything, than not to act.
The next time we hear flies buzzing will not be for something banal and natural. We are now in flashback mode and the reversed chronology begins to examine the logic and ethics (or lack thereof) that led to the opening scenes we have just seen. Temporally later in the film, but on the day before the mission, Vedran has walked into a space where Franjo (Franjo Dijak) is crouched in the dark, alone by a wall. The newcomer’s curiosity is more than sated when Franjo switches on the light, and, to the camera as well, reveals a white room with a large bin and bucket, blood on the floor, on the back of a chair, and across the wall. The camera pans to but doesn’t dwell on the bloodied clothing that gives away the crime that took place there. The use of sound, not dialogue, is masterful here too as we hear creaking and buzzing, a light swinging down from the ceiling, and, like one of the perpetrators, Franjo himself, we can’t escape into a realm of ideas. Vedran’s body will register all this, immediately vomiting up what is not hard for him to imagine, just as he vomits after sighting the dead comrades, who are at last found in the minefield in the woods.
On a second viewing of The Blacks, you can more deeply appreciate the economy with which Goran Dević and Zvonimir Jurić crafted this dark gem of a film. Right at the beginning we see more clearly blood-spattered clothing that makes a nest in which a black cat feeds her new kittens, clothing that belongs to people who have been tortured and killed. Like much else in the film, including its title, the garage where these events took place is both a concrete element of a small, claustrophobic world that leads to particular fatalities in this particular story, and a metaphor with historical-political resonance. (“The Blacks” was an actual military unit in the service of the Croatian Nazi-puppet state during World War Two. Croatian Parliament member Branimir Glavaš was convicted of the torture and killing of Serb civilians in the garage of a municipal building in 1992—in Osijek, the city where Zvonimir Jurić was born.) On a second viewing too, we appreciate so many details of what has led up to the time in the woods which makes up the first third of the film, because we’ve seen the flashback to twenty-four hours before the mission is undertaken by the men, and know that whatever else it was, it was a journey into self-destruction.
A strong and refreshing aspect of The Blacks is that it’s rooted in the beauty of nature, but to the opposite ends of those films of the 1990s served up in Western art-houses where a Kusturica-type hystericized viscerality and runaway physicality went along with what has been called “self-Balkanization” or the “Balkanoid” perpetuation of stereotypes. There is no effervescence flowing between the brothers-in-arms here. One of the problems with the stereotype of violence and war being “natural phenomena” in the Balkans, part of a special, mysterious region “trapped in an endless cycle of ethnic conflict and crime,” is a failure to acknowledge that social, like organic, processes are marked by transformation as well as reproduction. To refuse to acknowledge this is to perpetuate death by the perpetuation of a myth. The Blacks, with that “rough naturalism” Jurica Pavičić describes elsewhere in this issue, presents some young men who try to change the fatal course the group is on, who have had enough of killing. They can’t shut down reflection about what they have done (the torture and killing of Serb civilians indicated by the bloodied room setting) and what they are now doing, or may do. “Boss, let’s talk. What is it we’re doing?” Ivo is asked, as they struggle on in the rain and storm, in a nature that is neither malignant nor benign, towards their goal—nominally to get the bodies of their comrades—yet Ivo also wants to blow up a dam though this will be an illegal act since a ceasefire has been called. It is significant that the area into which he can’t believe his members went was mined by both Serbs and Croats, as Darko (Rakan Rushaidat) tells him. When the camera tilts to a portion of the sky, releasing us from confusion and claustrophobia, we realize that the birds we see are circling over their comrades’ dead bodies.
When Ivo learns that the miner Vedran can’t do the job expected of him, he is angry, and it’s Franjo, “hopelessly” addicted to drugs, according to Šaran, who makes a choice and aims his rifle at Ivo, who is aiming at Vedran: “No one’s going to kill any more.” To complete the standoff, Šaran, in turn, lines up “junky motherfucker” Franjo, who still follows through with his stand. Šaran then places the muzzle of his rifle under his chin and kills himself. As Šaran falls to his knees, his head bent over as in prayer, the droning organ used sparingly in the film becomes church- or funeral-like, carrying us across a cut to a corridor of green-tinged light, surrounded by darkness, a cat crossing, halting in doorways, meowing and finally hopping up on Šaran’s bed, twenty-four hours before.
In this vastly different setting in a clinical white room, the men are listless and Darko is being told that it’s not his fault. We don’t know what they mean at this stage, but he is lying on his bed in a fetal position, and we soon learn that he didn’t hear a call for help on his comrades’ walkie-talkie when they found themselves in a minefield. It’s in a supremely cruel way that—like Darko and Ivo after him—we learn of this cry for help and the subsequent carnage. Captured on Serb radio, we hear a supposedly listener-requested replay of a “unit of Croatian fascists who went where they shouldn’t go.” Alen is desperately calling Darko as his comrades lie dead:
“Do you read me? What am I to do? Call File! Fuck, what did you plot on our map? Call File. Call File, brother.”
Once we hear a final explosion, the smooth-voiced female announcer says:
“As for Darko and File, here’s a little tune for them.” And she plays the song, “It’s been a long time waiting for you…”
“Banality of evil” is the phrase that comes to mind, because evil here is not ecstatic and energetic, alcohol-fired violence, but a cold and callous viewing of people as nothing, the part of a perpetuation of hatred over which no person or group in the world has the monopoly.
While the film is bleak, small gestures pass between the men, who aggravate or else look after each other in telling ways. And the cat is in here too, sidling up to Darko, as he sits alone. Ivo threatens Vedran when he kicks the cat, protecting her from random violence that, he warns, must never occur again: and here, with so little dialogue, we learn so much. The first time we see Ivo soften and smile is when he is talking to his son on the phone. But when he speaks to his wife, Silva, afterwards, he gives no hint of that tenderness, his smile evaporating as he accuses: “Why’s the kid awake?” Yet we’ve learned from his conversation with his brother-in-law that Silva will seek a divorce if he keeps taking part in the activity she has heard rumors about. On the phone with her, Ivo swears on his only child that the rumors are not true. We presume it is her he calls shortly after, before going on his mission—telling her it’s nothing, just wanting to hear her voice. And he doesn’t answer the phone when he is called back, the ring carrying across as Ivo walks through a purple-hued neon doorway and, in a fraction of a second in which we have moved forward in time, as his dead body is being pulled through the grass. The other men’s bodies are pulled in the same way, with the dragging and the effort in the breath of the bodies’ collectors heard on the soundtrack. Darko is the only one who has survived.
There is something I’d call spiritual about The Blacks, though it’s a spirituality not necessarily tied to the Catholic or any other church. It’s related to the idea of reflection and remorse, and of sinning no more. When Franjo goes missing from the bunker-like headquarters, he walks down the aisle of a church to its altar. Instead of white walls and neon, all is quiet, warm, and ordered. Peace can descend. When he meets his old drug dealer there is the small friendly gesture when Franjo taps the taxi roof as the car leaves, and when the dealer backs up, Franjo gladly gives him The Blacks’ emblem from his uniform that the man’s son has requested. When he starts to prepare the drugs, however, he no longer has the stomach for them. A nice detail is that he can’t take part in a last, unholy communion when Ivo offers each of the men a swig from a bottle before they go on their suicide mission. When Franjo says that he cannot go on killing, Ivo replies: “You think it’s easy for me?” And he’s right, of course, given that, as military experts tell us, parts of us have to be broken down and conquered for us to lose our “normal” inhibitions about taking other people’s lives.
I was surprised to hear that this film had an “all-star ensemble cast.” We’re not getting enough films from Croatia and other Yugoslav successor states to know these actors, which is a great pity; and it also means we could be learning much more than we are. But the acting in The Blacks is so understated, so perfectly natural, that we can believe in these characters completely. They are just one of the great strengths of this small, unpretentious film that is a significant triumph in itself.
2] The first well-known quotation is from Emir Kusturica, in Dina Iordanova, Cinema of Flames: Balkan Film Culture and the Media, London: BFI, 2001. The second is from Zoran Samardzija, “Bal-can-can,” Cineaste 3: 32, New York, 2007. Both quotations appear in Jurica Pavičić's “Cinema of normalization: changes of stylistic model in post Yugoslav cinema after the 1990s,” Studies in Eastern European Cinema 1: 1, 2010.
Pavičić, Jurica. 2011. “From a Cinema of Hatred to a Cinema of Consciousness: Croatian Film After Yugoslavia,” in this issue.
Pavičić, Jurica. 2010. “‘Cinema of normalization’: changes of stylistic model in post Yugoslav cinema after the 1990’s,” Studies in Eastern European Cinema 1: 1.
The Blacks (Crnci), Croatia, 2009
78 minutes, color
Directors: Goran Dević and Zvonimir Jurić
Script: Goran Dević and Zvonimir Jurić
Director of Photography: Branko Linta
Music: Jura Ferina and Pavle Miholjević
Editing: Vanja Siruček
Art Director: Mladen Ožbolt
Costumes: Ivana Zozoli
Cast: Ivo Gregurević, Krešimir Mikić, Franjo Dijak, Rakan Rushaidat, Nikša Butijer, Stjepan Pete, Emir Hadžihafizbegović, Saša Anočić
Producer: Ankica Jurić-Tilić
Production: A Continental Film release of a Kinorama presentation in co-production with Croatia Radiotelevision
Goran Dević and Zvonimir Jurić: The Blacks (Crnci, 2009)
reviewed by Lorraine Mortimer © 2011