IFFR 2016: Brat Dejan [Brother Dejan] (2015)

Brat Dejan - Poster

(Russia, Serbia, 2015, 113mins)

Dir: Bakur Bakuradze

Cast: Marko Nikolic (DEJAN STANIC), Misa Tirinda (SLAVKO)

Screenwriter(s): Bakur Bakuradze, Ilya Malakhova

DOP: Nikolay Vavilov

Editing: Ilya Malakhova, Ru Hasanov

Set Design: Nikola Bercek

Sound: Saulius Urbanavicius

Aspect Ratio: 1.85

Viewed: 12:15pm, Pathe 7, Rotterdam, Thursday 28th January 2016

 

Synopsis: General Dejan Stanic has been on the run from the European Courts and the new government regime in Serbia, post-Balkans conflict, for almost fifteen years. Wanted for war crimes he is holed up in the hills with an old army friend Slavko. Whilst Slavko diligently attends to his bees, the General is moved from location to location in a desperate attempt to get him out of the country before the police, or his many enemies, catch up with him.

 

Review: Bakur Bakuradze’s remarkable film is a monumentally oppressive dirge of a character study. As off-putting as that may sound the film’s great strength lies within the carefully constructed air of wounded fatalism that seems to stalk the central protagonist at every turn. Bakuradze is banking upon his audience identifying with a person who has perpetrated war crimes, yet the director isn’t willing to make this identification trite or easy. Frequently in the film, including most memorably during one of the closing shots, the camera frames Stanic in a close-up headshot from the rear, making the back of his head the clearest possible obstacle to understanding. This repeated visual motif, almost always satisfyingly well framed, comes to embody the certitude with which the film answers the question how well we can really know anybody.

From the opening scenes of the film the audience are made aware of the way in which General Stanic is at the mercy of various different interested political factions within Serbia. Bakuradze’s further imposition of the rehearsal footage adds a meta-layer of meaning to this all-pervasive idea of management and mediation. Not only is the General being moved around his country like a harried and imperilled king on a chess board, but Nikolic’s performance is likewise being carefully handled by Bakuradze’s exacting notion of narrative. In a very real sense the General cannot escape himself, he cannot transcend his past, he is cursed to embody the war criminal he has been condemned as. Likewise, Nikolic cannot break free from the strictures of Bakuradze’s narrative and the insistent demands of the director’s blocking. The revelation of rehearsal footage at key moments within the film effectively blurs together performer and character, forcing the audience to experience the fixedness that relentlessly traps both within a narrowly proscribed framework (the film and the law).

Bakuradze is a Moscow-trained Georgian filmmaker with two well-regarded previous feature films Shultes (2008) and The Hunter (2011). It is interesting to consider how the filmmaker came to shoot a project so rooted in recent Balkan history, and so well aware of the nuances of the conflicts of the 1990s. Bakuradze has mentioned in interviews that the germ of an idea came from the fate of the Bosnian-Serb military leader Ratko Mladic, who was arrested in Lazarevo, Serbia on the 26th May 2011, having spent fifteen years on the run from an arrest warrant issued in 1996 by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. It is tempting to draw parallels with Bakuradze’s own homeland, which has been riven with civil war and secessionist conflicts since the dissolution of the former USSR. The factionalised nature of Balkan politics does have a mirror within the Caucasus, where competing nationalisms and ethnicities stake their claim for sovereignty. What is more despite being inspired by the events of Mladic’s fugitive life, Bakuradze has been at pains to detach Brother Dejan from oblique biopic status. This isn’t a film that seeks to document an individual existence, but rather one that is attempting to imagine (and reimagine) that existence. Again, the director’s inclusion of rehearsal material as a key constituent of his finished film is a formal decision that reinforces this notion of working and reworking a narrative and a character.

Brother Dejan - Back of Head Shot
Brat Dejan presents General Dejan Stanic’s head as a key visual obstacle to empathy and understanding. It is a film saturated with inscrutable back-of-head shots.

 

In competition at Locarno in 2015, Brother Dejan was received with a degree of disappointment by a number of critics. A central criticism of the film seemed to be the opacity of the character of General Stanic. Supposedly there is an absence of access to the inner world of this character, which has been interpreted as a failing of the film, especially in the light of Bakuradze’s interview comments about seeking to explore whether or not a man accused of ‘war crimes’ is in fact capable of change. I am not so convinced of these perceived ‘failings’. To these eyes Bakuradze has chosen to intricately construct a near wordless central performance that is consistently drawing attention to both past ‘glories’, present circumstances and future projections, all of which are connected by a nexus of disillusion, guilt and foolish pride. Nikolic’s richly ambiguous passivity as the General neatly vacillates between arrogance, insecurity and stoicism. It is a model of minimalist acting, thoroughly convincing in its minor detailing.

There were three sequences that stood out as exemplars of the tactics deployed by both director and star. The first of these sequences occurs early in the film when General Stanic is first housed with Slavko, a former soldier turned farmer and beekeeper. Slavko (played guilelessly by the non-professional actor Misa Tirinda) is also the caretaker for a hilltop site that includes a dilapidated radio station and radio mast. The General accompanies Slavko on one of his clean-up trips to the site. Wandering around the decayed, and decaying, structure of the radio station the General comes to a collapsed outer wall that allows him to survey the rolling hills up which he has just struggled to climb, the implication being that he had once scaled them with far greater ease at the head of a military outfit. Bakuradze switches from handheld camerawork that has stalked behind the General as he journeys through the building, to a wider shot that shows the building in profile, balanced precariously overhanging a precipice. In this wider shot the General is shown to be right at the edge of this precipice, looking first outwards and then downwards. The radio station is both a testament to the destructive impulses unleashed by the conflict – for which the General must take some responsibility, at the very least, for channeling – as well as a first potential site of self-destruction for the General. The peripheral presence of Slavko, working away on some wiring and completely oblivious to the General’s activities, only further enhances the concentrated remoteness of the General’s predicament. He literally cannot move forward, and no amount of mundane activity will help him to lose himself. It is striking just how little the General actually does throughout the entire film. Labour offers no succour, no respite, no escape. What is more, where once the General forcefully shaped the world around him, now his actions don’t even impact upon the one person forced to endure his company.

Brat Dejan - Precipice
General Dejan Stanic (Marko Nikolic) balanced upon the precipice between life and death. A precipice formed from his own wanton pursuit of destruction.

 

The politics that swirl around the General are perfunctorily outlined by a meeting with former colleagues. These men in the aftermath of the Balkans conflicts have since become mainstream opposition politicians, looking to manage the General’s situation for maximum populist publicity domestically and minimum negative consequences on the international stage. It is because of the General’s affiliations with this group of powerbrokers that he is being consistently moved from one location to another and prevented from showing his face in public. Midway through the film, having eluded his minders, the General goes down into Sarajevo simply so that he can eat a sandwich on a busy city street. This impromptu appearance in public makes headlines and thwarts the political campaign to have the General officially recognised as ‘dead’. Prior to this appearance he had not been seen in public for almost a decade, making it legally possible for his wife to have him declared ‘dead’. As a result of the political fallout from this ‘sighting’, including further demands for Serbia to take a more active role in pursuing the war criminals wanted by the International Criminal Tribunal, the General is moved to a villa in the north of the country in an attempt to smuggle him over an international border.

In the villa, that is decorated in an obscenely baroque fashion, the General decadently drops into drunken dissolution. A bravura sequence shows him, framed in a wide shot once more, sat by an empty swimming pool, like some squalid king surveying his own inner desolation projected outward into the physical surroundings. Bakuradze then cuts from this external shot to a similarly composed and framed internal shot, showing the General alone in the palatial drawing room of the villa. Sat upon a throne-like chair, surrounded by garishly ornate works of art and sculpture, the General appears to be drunk. Staring into space, his face assuming the vacancy of a stroke victim, he is suddenly animated into an incongruous fit of laughter, before he drifts off into slumber and drops his glass upon the floor, which brings one of his minders into the room to check upon him. What Bakuradze achieves within this sequence is an impressive compression and conflation of memory and fate. The film has opened with the director rehearsing a seizure. The General’s posture and attitude evokes a memory of this opening scene. Simultaneously the sequence also foreshadows what will occur to the General later on, an event that is directly linked to that earlier rehearsal. There is no obvious indicator as to what the General is laughing about, yet this isn’t necessarily opacity. The manner in which this scene has been edited, with each shot being very carefully composed, brings to the surface the absurd emptiness of the General’s present existence, as well as the manner in which it is so tightly controlled and managed. Although ostensibly a free man, he is a prisoner of political circumstance, a ruler without subjects.

Perhaps, the single most troubling and disturbing sequence in the entire film is one that seems at first to be incoherently related to the whole. It adopts the raw, unvarnished camerawork of other rehearsal scenes within the film, but operates more like a fantastical and nightmarish projection of the General’s inner fears and insecurities. Whereas the sequence at the radio station can be viewed as a first approach toward self-annihilation, this sequence in which an execution is rehearsed, seems to represent the General’s horror with the idea of divine retribution. What is implied throughout this sequence is that the actions of the militia are predicated upon the belief that they are exacting an eye-for-an-eye sense of justice. This sequence is framed by the General having earlier in the film overheard the news broadcast of another war criminal being captured. With the proposed crossborder escape becoming a rapidly approaching reality the General is shown to be experiencing an inability to sleep, whereupon the rehearsal footage begins. It depicts in claustrophobically close handheld camerawork the stopping of an elderly destitute looking man by a self-appointed militia. The militia are very clearly of the opinion that this man is a war criminal, despite his protestations to the contrary. The militia men force the man to stand up against a wall, at which point they spray him with a round of bullets. The man slumps to the ground apparently dead. The home video quality of the footage enhances the sense of witnessing an ‘authentic’ execution, with echoes of that chilling Saddam Hussein footage. It makes the manner in which the bullets pierce the body seem somehow more visceral and terrifying. The fear exhibited in the elderly man’s features give way to a deathly emptying out of consciousness as the body slumps to the floor – vacated. However, this ‘authenticity’ is immediately shown to be constructed manipulation, as the director verbally intervenes in the sequence and demands that the executed man fall more convincingly. This imposition of the rehearsal technique here foregrounds that central idea within the form of the film that the General’s life is manipulated and mediated, worked and reworked, for meaning, for message, for the benefit and agendas of others. It actually situates Bakuradze as a filmmaker attempting to approach the idea of the General and his life in a manner that actively seeks to sabotage the grand political narratives that can be attached to such a figure. It also plainly points up the crafted and fictive nature of the film by showing the processes and craft of this fiction.

It is rare to come across a work that so seamlessly marries together two conflicting realms of action and activity as Bakuradze does in Brother Dejan. The filmmaker is effectively making a film about the listlessness and lassitude of an old man who has become absolutely fed-up with the present circumstances of his existence. Yet by aggressively pursuing this sense of inertia and inaction, by demonstrating the utter lack of significant agency that the General has over his day-to-day affairs, Bakuradze imbues this character study with a contrary desire to survive, and continue surviving, that makes Stanic such a tragic figure worthy of our empathy, if not necessarily our understanding.

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