Friday, 21 September 2007

Go West (Bosnia & Herzegovina, 2005)

Director: Ahmed Imamovic.

Principal cast: Mario Drmać, Tarik Filipović, Rade Šerbedžija, Mirjana Karanović.

The war in Bosnia which took place between 1992 and 1995 was a grim affair. Its effects will linger on for generations and its heritage will haunt not only the Bosnians themselves but also the rest of the civilised world for many years to come. Some issues will only be dealt with properly when the biggest wounds have healed. As you can see in Germany, it has taken the country 60 years to produce „Der Untergang” (The Downfall, 2004) which offers a nuanced portrait of Adolf Hitler as a person and „Mein Führer - Die wirklich wahrste Wahrheit über Adolf Hitler” (Mein Führer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler, 2007) which is in fact a comedy. Since the end of the war, there have been made several films in Bosnia & Herzegovina dealing with the issue. Actually, most of the films recently produced in Bosnia & Herzegovina have been related to the war in one way or another. “No Man’s Land” even won an Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film in 2002. In many ways, Bosnian films dealing with the war and subsequently post-war traumas are expected, and hardly anyone would have batted an eyelid in connection with another film dealing with these issues, if it wasn’t for the fact that "Go West" evolves around a gay couple.

The film director Ahmed Imamovic became known internationally as a result of his graduation project from the Bosnian Film Academy, a 10 minute long film appropriately called “10 Minutes” which almost immediately won him the Best European Short Film Award in 2002 (see a separate blog entry for this film). I believe, this partly explains why he got the green light to go ahead with his first full length feature project “Go West” despite the controversial choice of main characters. And the choice indeed proved to be just that – controversial. Long time before the film was even completed, Ahmed Imamovic received death threats from upset Muslim fundamentalists. Commentators found it obscene that a film about such a great tragedy as the Bosnian war would involve portrayal of “sexual perverts” and argued that its "sacrilegious" premise would disgrace the whole Bosnian nation. However, the indignation mostly vanished after the film was released and shown in cinemas all across Bosnia & Herzegovina. The main message of the film is about humanity and the tragedy of war and it has seemingly also been received as such by the general Bosnian audience.

The war takes its toll on all people involved in it, willingly or otherwise, not just the righteous martyrs and war-mongering scoundrels as some wish to present it. Furthermore, some of the war’s victims have to carry the weight of a double stigma, and the war doesn’t discriminate when it comes to suffering and misery. The film’s main characters are Kenan, a professional cello player of Muslim origin, and Milan, his Serbian lover whom we first meet in Sarajevo on the brink of civil war. Kenan still doesn’t believe that an actual war will break out, but Milan insists this is their last chance to escape before it does. They finally depart, but the Serb forces have already surrounded the city and getting out of Sarajevo for the Muslim part of the population proves rather tricky as no circumcised men get past these madmen with weapons. But Milan gets an idea and they both manage to get to his native village, Kenan dressed up as a woman. Their plan is to find a way of leaving this country as it’s sinking deeper and deeper into the abyss of mass murder and pure insanity and simply “go West”. In the meantime, we see local men march off to the frontline only to be returned as cartloads of corpses some time later. We see a local Orthodox priest passionately igniting ethnic hatred in his preachings and singing about Serbia from Tokyo to New York. We see brutality and complete and utter indeference to the former neighbours’ plight. We see everything’s and everyone’s fragility, but most of all, hopelessness. And then in the midst of all this we see a scene where Milan tells Kenan about Holland, a country whose biggest export item are tulips. A country far away and yet so close, a country which is the complete antipode to their present surroundings. A ray of hope in the midst of hopelessness, a vision of normality, a different normality – one that doesn’t kill you for what you are, one where you don’t have to conceal your identity in order to survive. However, Milan is soon enough called to the trenches and Kenan is forced to fight his everyday silent battle alone in the company of Ljubomir, Milan’s father and Ranka, a local woman whose reputation keeps the other villagers miles away from her. The situation inevitably gets out of control and nothing will ever be the same again. Like in any war, there are ultimately no winners, only losers.

Some people criticise “Go West” for making a mockery of Serbs, generalising about a whole people. And yes, some scenes seem somewhat exaggerated and caricaturising: the singing well-wishers arriving at the wedding on what seems to be the biggest truck known to mankind, the war-mongering but legless priest, the chainsaw-playing twins. I was never there myself, so I couldn’t say for sure, but somehow even those characters don’t seem too bizarre and out of place and time. To be honest, the relative comic relief which they offer is rather reminiscent of some of the characters in Emir Kusturica’s film universe and you can hardly accuse him of being anti-Serbian. The madness of war brings out many things in people. Tim Judah, the author of the book “The Serbs. History, Myth and The Destruction of Yugoslavia” and a former Balkan war correspondent, quotes a psychiatrist who stayed in Sarajevo throughout the war saying that his mental patients “had had some improvement, by contrast normal people had got worse”. When seemingly normal people turn into mass murderers almost overnight, you can definitely believe a few bizarre characters in "Go West". On the other side, you also see ravaged characters, people without any future hopes, only past to turn to for comfort. People who also know it all too well. The totality of the ongoing tragedy weighs heavily on most characters in this film. The others, those taken over by insanity, will unavoidably have to deal with it later. If they survive, that is.

“Go West” is not a "black" film despite its rather "black" premise. Most of all, I think it is a film about the human spirit which will prevail in even the most unhuman circumstances. It is about that ray of hope. It is about immense loss, but also the courage to continue. The cello shall play on!

Here you can watch the film's trailer


Tisina said...

it is a film about all kinds of love!

Amy said...

I agree with tisina. I don't see this as simply a good 'gay' film, but so much more. In fact, because of the war, the fact that the characters are gay seems the least of their worries; Kenan would have been killed immediately for being a Muslim, even before anyone discovered anything about his sexual orientation.

I also agree with you that the comic relief characters did not seem to be an exaggeration. Any foreigner who has spent any time in the region would be aware of the fact that such zany characters can and do exist - I am reminded of the train ride from Mostar back to Sarajevo and the two blind guys who came into our carriage and stole the show for a while before they were forced off the train.

But since you mentioned the cello playing on, I have to admit that that was my only problem with the film - the last scene. I've watched it twice, and the first time that scene struck me as weak, overly sentimental, and the script just too poor for it to have any impact. I wanted to like it the second time I watched it, but I just didn't. Kenan's cello solo, which is interspersed through the second half of the film, is absolutely gorgeous, but I think the last line of the film almost cheapens it. I couldn't suggest an alternative, however...

Andrejs Visockis said...

I agree that the final scene with the imaginary cello could have been executed better. I suppose it was necessary for the director to have an optimistic ending, to show that the human spirit will prevail. Still, the way it was done seemed rather construed.

Anonymous said...

hey guys, does anyone know the cello music/score used in this movie? I love it! Kindly post a comment if anyone knows the name of the song/score or the cello player. Thanks in advance.

Andrejs Visockis said...

The name of the composer is Enes Zlatar. He is from Bosnia himself and often performs with his own group called Sikter. The cello player in the film is the main character played by Mario Drmac. However, the actor himself isn´t the one who plays in real life.

Twyla said...

Thanks for writing this.

Anonymous said...

I didn't understand the ending line of the movie first, I soon discovered from a Bosnian friend that it was a joke told by people in Bosnia. The ones that don't speak any balkan language wouldn't understand it. But it's meant to cheer the viewer after all the drama.

bathmate said...

nice posting....i like is a film about all kinds of love!

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