Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Forgotten Movies Week - Boro Draskovic's VUKOVAR

One of the points of The Forgotten Movies isn't just to shine a light on good films I think have been forgotten, but as an opportunity to take a second look at these films before I forget them myself. I'm not one to revisit films very often - too many films I haven't seen yet take prescience - but the really good ones, especially those that you think you might benefit from a another viewing, are always worth a second look. The downside to this is watching something you really liked ten years ago or so and finding that it's not really the movie you remember; this happens often to childhood favorites, but when it's a film that's more recent it tells you that your taste is changing, perhaps for the better. You've been exposed to more of everything, so something that was revelatory at 24 isn't quite the same at 34. It happens.

One such film I was reticent to revisit was Boro Draskovic's VUKOVAR, about the 87 day battle that marked a turning point in the Croatian-Serbian war, which I had seen once in December of 1995, just before its limited U.S. theatrical release. My original viewing was back in my days as a projectionist at the old HQ 10, where I viewed the film by myself one afternoon while the theater was closed to the general public (oh, the benefits of the job). The HQ 10 would play host to one of those "Sneak Preview" film series, where they show an upcoming film and get some kind of guest in to discuss the movie, so I would get the prints a few days in advance and check them out and then inform the instructor if the movie was any good or not. I hadn't heard of the film before it showed up at the theater - it played festivals but didn't get a lot of press - so this really was a matter of going into a film completely blind and the result was a film I was quite impressed with. It was the first dramatic presentation I'd seen about the war in Croatia, something I hadn't really understood much of at that point, and it was unquestionably an eye-opener and not an easy movie to sit through. But it was important viewing, too, and though it felt like a punch in the gut, it was a much-needed punch that we all need when we learn something about the ugly truth of the world around us. The film then came and went very quickly, had a VHS release in the summer of '96, and then it fell into the void like so many foreign films before it, victim to the collapse of its distributor, Tara Releasing (hard to say where the rights are now). While I'd never forgotten VUKOVAR, I hadn't seen it any since that original viewing, but I've long kept it in mind for The Forgotten Movies, and once I'd decided to do this week-long special, I figured it was time to check it out again. Having amazingly found a copy of a rather lackluster Chinese DVD (not a bootleg) in NYC's Chinatown in 2000 or so, I was pleased to see it holds up, but it isn't quite what I remembered it to be.

Made just a few years after the 1991 battle, VUKOVAR has the advantage in that its drama is all still pretty fresh; shooting in the actual location, the filmmakers could take advantage of newly-built locations for the early scenes and bombed-out rubble left over from the actual battle. Certainly the memories of those events were incredibly fresh, giving the film a sense of urgency about it, that the filmmakers feel this story must be told at once. The plot is a simple one: Croatian Mirjana Jokovic (later to star in Kusturica's UNDERGROUND) marries Serb Boris Isakovic just before the war breaks out (their wedding ceremony is interrupted by Croat and Yugoslavian protestors) and the two are soon separated when he is drafted into Milošević's army and she is forced to flee when the battle starts to move into Vukovar. What follows is a story of survival on both sides (very even-handed, too), as they each lose friends and family and find themselves without a home, and it's impossible not to be moved by all of it. But in seeing it again, the film also reveals itself to fall into the dramatic patterns of several other war films of this type: characters who say "I'll be back soon" never return or return to find others gone; characters who say they would never kill anyone find themselves willing assassins; the family pet will get killed for food at some point, things along that nature. It takes away some of the impact and makes you question the filmmakers abilities - did they really want to tell this story or did they just want to tell a story about the war - but I can't deny that it does get to you. There are some moments in VUKOVAR that are very difficult to forget; the truth behind them is simply too much to pass them off and they are well-handled with a dramatic urgency by Draskovic. More so, Jokovic's performance is absolutely superb, and as we see the bulk of the film through her eyes a tremendous amount of credit for the film's success has to go to her. Her character goes through pretty much an emotional tsunami and her face tells the whole story - beautiful and joyous at the beginning, then tortured and deadened by film's end. Draskovic is also wise to not play up the drama too much and to let some horrific images - like bodies floating down the Danube - speak for themselves. But the familiarity of the storytelling feels like a bit of a drawback at times. Still, VUKOVAR is well worth seeing, if only one could find a copy, because events like the ones portrayed here shouldn't be forgotten, even though they sadly can be and already have been in the time since this story took place. It may not have the same impact for me, but VUKOVAR is still undeniably moving and not easily forgotten.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I saw Vukovar in the form of a video screener from Tara around 97 or 98. Watched it once, but it left me with quite an impression. I've been looking out for a DVD release, but pretty much gave up hope and relegated it to the "forgotten films that I'll probably never see a DVD release of" list, like "The Chekist"...

- Flamen Dialis