Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 2
 Issue 4 
18 Feb

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Ibolya Fekete's Chico (2001) WAR FILMS
From the battlefield to a cinema near you
Pitfalls in representing the
Yugoslav wars on screen

Danis Tanović's No Man's Land and Ibolya Fekete's Chico have both won international attention for their depiction of Euorpe's recent "heart of darkness." Felicitas Becker explains why the former works and the latter doesn't.

The Yugoslav wars of the 1990s have in recent years formed the subject of several notable films, such as Srđan Dragojević's Lepa selo, lepo gore (Pretty Village, Pretty Flames, 1995) and—probably noted most widely—Emir Kusturica's Podzemlje (Underground, 1995). Due to the polarizing nature of conflict, these films inevitably take stances and purport to throw light on the bewilderingly complex origins of the civil war. Typically, their authors were close enough to the Balkans to have at least a semi-personal involvement with the subject. They could hardly fail to notice that their closeness to the conflict would influence the way their films were viewed abroad. Given the general bewilderment in the rest of Europe at the conflict, these films have the nimbus of dispatches from a new "heart of darkness," disconcertingly found in the middle of Europe.

Danis Tanovic's No Man's Land (2001)
No Man's Land : The comedy of war

Two films on the war emerging on the festival scene last year both bear traces of the awareness of their authors of the peculiar "straight from the war zone to a cinema near you" status which their films were likely to acquire. At the same time, they present very different ways of using, or dealing with, this status. One, Danis Tanović's No Man's Land (2001), is a comedy; the other, Ibolya Fekete's Chico (2001), is a biopic. Both are very partisan films, but in very different ways. Arguably, the latter especially shows the dangers inherent in the attempt to speak with a moral voice purportedly acquired by closeness to the conflict.

An exemplary character?

Fekete's Chico experienced Chile's feverish hopes during Salvador Allende's government between 1971 and 73 as a teenager. Looking back after his futile involvement in the Serbian-Croat war of 1992, the protagonist of the eponymous film suggests that his eagerness to fight in Croatia was partly compensation for his helplessness as a teenager in the face of the putsch that ended those hopes. It is one of the better moments in the account of a life that, while lived with passion, worked out to be pathetic, and in an often captivating, but ultimately failed film.

Ibolya Fekete's Chico (2001)
The guerilla spirit comes to Croatia

The failure, mind, lies with the film, not with the life that forms its subject matter. It lacks distance. Retelling the true story of the life of a man desperate to take sides—the right side, too—and given to acting first, thinking later, it accompanies each of his moves with wide-eyed seriousness.

While Chico's complicated heritage and many travels are retold with admiration, the main focus of the story lies with the conversion of his revolutionary, internationalist ideals into support for Croatian nationalism. Hence we are treated to images of fighting in Croatian villages accompanied by quotes from Che Guevara's manuals for aspiring guerilleros. An enlightening outside perspective, or an act of unbridled exoticism? This reviewer tends to think the latter. For Chico, the resemblance between Latin American guerilla warfare (itself of dubious moral merits) and fighting in the Croatian army may have been real enough at the time, but one person's life does not sustain moral statements about this war.

Ibolya Fekete's Chico (2001)
Exactly "as it was" for just warriors

Taking the character of Chico as exemplary, the film ends up aspiring to a spurious authenticity in its treatment of the war. The director, Ibolya Fekete, has claimed that the film is a call to kiss goodbye to ideologies of all kind, and especially to stop killing or dying for them. Bewilderingly, she nevertheless seemed pleased that a majority of the audience members at a post-screening talk at the Chicago film festival had understood it to take the Croats' struggle against the Serbs between 1992 and 1993 as a just war. Even more puzzling, she was happy to be told by a Croat ex-combatant in the audience that she had depicted the war "exactly as it was." This may be so, but one would expect the director to acknowledge that in a situation in which perspectives are as polarized as this war "telling it as it was" must be subjective and have nothing to do with objectivity. Failing to do so, the film becomes disingenuous as well as naïve.

The merits of not claiming too much

Conversely, it is one of the strengths of No Man's Land that the film never asks about the comparative merits of the nationalist claims of the different sides in the Bosnian war. It achieves something quite unlikely for a war film: It is, for a while at least, genuinely funny.

The first half of the film has three enemy soldiers trapped in a trench between the front lines, in various degrees of misery, both scared of and dependent on each other. The opportunities for black humour in this situation are obvious, and the film relishes them. This humour has little do to with exploration of character; rather, it works on the premise that people, especially young men, and including soldiers, are very much alike, making the battle lines drawn between them all the more absurd.

Danis Tanovic's No Man's Land (2001)
The peacekeepers causing all the trouble

The anger in this film is not directed at any of the sides in the conflict, but at the "peacekeepers" and the media. As it develops into a condemnation of media self-righteousness and the incompetence of international agencies, the film becomes less funny, and the simplicity of the characters more tiresome. Yet it still gets surprising comic mileage out of national stereotypes, and the end is again chilling. All told, No Man's Land with its plain appeal to the shared humanity of all the soldiers stands up to the subject of civil war better than Chico with its veering between post-ideological hangover and "just warrior" zeal. In making a film about civil war, it is advisable not to make big claims about delivering the truth to the screen.

Felicitas Becker

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