A film is successful to the extent that it succeeds in portraying life – in extracting the narrative and thought-provoking potential that life contains. By all measures, the siege of Sarajevo was an extreme situation and this makes it an ideal subject for film but also a classic trap for directors with a penchant for the extreme. Such situations may fulfil their true cinematic and artistic potential only when the extremes they contain are subdued and suppressed, when they are artistically transposed and reduced to that subtle substance which tells a story in an entirely different way. Which is how 1395 Days without Red came to be, a minimalistic essay about extremely difficult times.
We are constantly subjected to the relentless terror of the Hollywood film. Its key means of expression are the detonation, the car chase, the fight and the pole dance; its leading character a helicopter. This helicopter will, at some point between minutes 45 and 80, inevitably explode, inevitably whilst airborne and inevitably accompanied by a spectacular pyrotechnical display. The more there are detonations, flames and incredible, near-atomic mushroom clouds rising from common fires, the greater the success of the film. The chief narrative quality of this dominant genre of the contemporary film industry is its remoteness from life. Where Hollywood ends, life begins.
Šejla Kamerić chose a city butchered by detonations and turned it into a film without pyrotechnics. As a bonus, she succeeded in stirring up our memories of the horror that lasted 1395 days. Instead of explosions, the story of bombing in this well-composed, obsessive, compulsive film is told through mime, looks, grimaces, the legs of a person running, filmed just so, as legs independent of the body, as carriers of something that ought to be a human being, but got dehumanised precisely by this act of running, it being the main form of body language in the city under siege.
1395 Days without Red can be seen as a very successful anti-Hollywood experiment: it achieves an expressive maximum using minimal resources. Everything in the film is stripped to its core. There is no traffic in the streets. Not even people. In their place are pedestrians, robbed of their human status, making their way through the city on foot, trying to retrieve (that is, regain) their lost status. Pedestrians are life-like, and not just a bunch of extras. The success of your survival technique in the besieged city was all about your technique of moving through that city. Some of the methods used can be seen in the walk, pace, look, posture and the grimace of unforgettable Maribel Verdú.
Crossroads were places of trial, locations where lives were decided. To sprint across a difficult crossroad was a demanding operation, an extraordinary trial for the body. Elderly, sickly men, barely mobile women, they all had to be somewhere – to get bread or medications, trace a package or information, find some kind of shelter, a roof over their head. And between people and their aims stood crossroads, those factories of death where getting killed was quick and easy. It was on the crossroads watched by snipers that you could see how cheap one's life was, and how easy it was to extinguish it. A single shot, a single moment, and it was all over.
In one scene we see the actress walking on shards of glass. The reality of this is terrifying. After each round of heavy shelling, Tito Street would be paved with shattered glass and pieces of concrete, bricks and mortar. It is not easy walking on such a path: every step echoes so loudly that you think those watching you through sniper crosshairs can hear it too.
In the film these toponyms are as important as they were important during the siege. Each time they went out, people would first map out the safest route for their journey, urban imitations of underground tunnels that were life-saving shortcuts (or long detours, regardless, as long as they were life-saving). We plotted our routes across the city accordingly. The more passageways there were, the greater the chance of your getting to and from your destination alive.
Can anyone who has not lived it imagine the psycho-physical and chemical processes taking place underneath that coat? Fast walking and sudden sprints make you sweat profusely – your blood boils – and then you have to cool down, sitting in freezing cold rooms with no heating. A whole day passes in a constant change of rhythm, state and position: fast – slow, cold – hot, tensed – relaxed. Yin and Yang in the game of life and death.
The city is under siege. It has been reduced to its ugliest manifestation. All traces of the urban, the refined and the beautiful have long since disappeared. The rural now plagues its once-refined urbanity. It brings on frustration, and a desire to resist the consequences of destruction, hence every exhibition, every concert or successful song is proclaimed to be "yet another demonstration of our resistance of spirit to the aggressor in the hills". That phrase made sense the first, the second, perhaps even the third time it was uttered, and after that it turned into a caricature, a platitude of the war’s propaganda, as well as one of the most-joked-about stereotypes of the besieged Sarajevo. Yet despite its banality, the phrase survived all criticism and for a long, long time it existed as the official definition of everything that was going on in the city.
Well, if that were indeed the case, could we perhaps proclaim this elegant, dressed-up woman, slowly walking through the film, in no rush, showing no fear, to be some kind of an aesthetic, or at least sartorial resistance to the aggressor? Amongst all those grey, shrivelled bodies there comes a woman who is alive and lively, who refuses to be greyscaled and instead creates her own film. To be sure, this is insufficient to be defined as any kind of meaningful resistance, but perhaps it’s enough to make you feel good. And that is something already, to retain your dignity when no one expects it or demands it of you. The woman in the film was not an isolated instance, nor an exception that proved the rule, but rather a rule that proved the importance of exceptions: that they are the safe-keepers of dignity. The women of Sarajevo were a miracle. They made our lives possible, easier, better. To make something out of nothing, to design and create food in an almost Sai Baba fashion; it was a true example of wartime and existential magic...
Translated by Irena Zlof.
Ozren Kebo watched Šejla Kamerić's film in Sarajevo.
Ozren Kebo was born in Mostar in 1959 and now lives and works in Sarajevo as editor-in-chief of the magazine Gracija. He has published two books, Sarajevo for Beginners and How is Beautiful My Vectra, and his articles have been published internationally.