Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: Eurovisions (Serbia) / In category: 6 of 10 / Overall: 72 of 100
"This is a diary of our own molestation by the Serbian government. It’s about the monolithic power of leaders who hypnotise you to do things you don’t want to do. You have to feel the violence to know what it’s about."
These words are Srdjan Spasojevic’s, quoted in an article in The Guardian following the withdrawal of his controversial feature ‘A Serbian Film’ from London’s FrightFest horror movie festival. Westminster Council ruled against it being shown uncut and the BBFC stipulated 49 cuts (totalling four minutes of screen time) to comply with current guidelines for an 18 certificate. Ian Jones, the co-director of FrightFest, made this statement: "FrightFest has decided not to show ‘A Serbian Film’ in a heavily cut version because, as a festival with a global integrity, we think a film of this nature should be shown in its entirety as per the director’s intention."
Not that I had a ticket for the screening anyway, but I already knew where to look on the internet (tip of the hat to a gentleman of my acquaintance). I’d been putting off watching it, because everything I’d read about ‘A Serbian Film’ convinced me it would be graphic, unpleasant and difficult to watch; that it would be one of those horrible ‘2 Girls, 1 Cup’ kind of things that you can never unsee. Did I actually want to let this film into my head?
On the other hand, this is a film blog. I’m passionate about film. I believe directors should use the medium to the fullest of its possibilities and engage with an audience at whatever level they feel their work needs to connect at. And as such censorship can only ever be a negative tool used by moralists and prudes. I have never understand why, if the members of the BBFC see all manner of films in their uncut form, none of them are ever irredeemably corrupted and turn into chainsaw wielding psychotics with a predilection for rape, cannibalism and running away from exploding buildings in slow-motion. And why, if violent movies have no effect on them, do they get to demand cuts and exercise the bureaucratic power over filmmakers and then justify their interference by claiming that they are protecting us, the great unwashed public, from the very dangers to which they have proved completely immune.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There are some vile pieces of exploitative trash out there which deserve to have an 18 certificate slapped on them. There needs to be a rating system. But the BBFC, in providing this rating system as well as having the authority to demand cuts by essentially holding the film itself hostage (no cuts, no rating; no rating, no release), gets to play judge, jury and executioner.
The censorship of any form of art is a step along a certain path. At one end of the path there’s tutting and curtain-twitching and grumblings about whether there’s any need to show those kind of things (for those read anything from graphic violence to two people of the same sex kissing). At the other end of the path there’s book burning, imprisonment, a fatwa. They’re poles apart, these types of behaviour, but the same mindset, the same prejudices, the same phony and sanctimonious sense of morality connects them.
But of course these comments contextualise the piece of work threatened by censorship as art. Was ‘A Serbian Film’ art? And by art I mean an aesthetically and intellectually valid work. Or was it just another entry in the increasingly generic torture porn movement? I’d read a lot of things about it, and a few reviews/articles had hinted at content that promised to push the envelope about as far as it had ever been tested in terms of what can be depicted onscreen.
I took the plunge and watched the film.
Yes, ‘A Serbian Film’ contains some scenes that are hard to stomach. Yes, it pushes the envelope. Yes, it’s shocking and nasty and provocative. Kudos, then, to Spasojevic for having the courage of his convictions in bringing it to the screen. Because ‘A Serbian Film’ is not a work of exploitation. It was not made with the intention of being controversial for controversy’s sake, nor is it a gross-out exercise in bad taste like many entries in the torture porn cycle. For all that it’s gut-wrenching, sickening and wired into the most venal depths of man’s inhumanity to man, I would not make the mistake of bracketing ‘A Serbian Film’ as torture porn.
A glib review could make use of a "no, actually it’s porn porn" gag, but that would be to miss the point. Spasojevic makes his nominal hero Milos (Srdjan Todorovic) a former pornographic actor and sets the narrative in motion when the cash-trapped Milos, now a husband and father, accepts a dubious offer to participate in a mysterious project that is part skin-flick part reality-TV. These choices are metaphorical. Pornography represents objectification and depersonalisation. Men and women are reduced to things to be positioned in a specific way, made to perform in a specific way, their identity and individuality ruthlessly subjugated towards an equally specific end: the gratification (sexual and/or fiscal) of others.
Any serious analysis of ‘A Serbian Film’ has to begin with its title. Just as Kieslowski’s ‘A Short Film About Love’ and ‘A Short Film About Killing’ give you the subject, intention and aesthetic right there in the title, thus ‘A Serbian Film’. Short of calling it ‘A Unapologetically Nasty Film About Serbia’, Spasojevic couldn’t have been more explicit. Nor is it question of the critical viewer needing to know up front that the film is intended as a political metaphor in order to see beyond the dark and unpalatable things Spasojevic unflinchingly depicts: two scenes in which Milos converses with Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic) – the director of the project in which he has reluctantly agreed to star – cement the political agenda emphatically and unambiguously. Beyond this, the quality of filmmaking is self-evidently intelligent, focused and purposeful. The performances are awards-worthy. The overall effect is shatteringly powerful.
You may have read about the film’s most contentious scene (I’m not giving anything away, purely because it would involve a description I’d rather not make myself type up, but if you really want to know, it’ll take you about 30 seconds on Google); conceptually it’s the single worst thing in ‘A Serbian Film’. But not viscerally. There’s a moment close to the end, all the more horrifying for the audience being way ahead of Milos in terms of the revelation that awaits him, which is even more awful and despairing.
It should be noted that most of the terrible stuff happens after the halfway mark. Spasojevic doesn’t catapult the viewer headlong into depravity; instead, he takes his time in establishing character, motivation and context. This for me is the key element of ‘A Serbian Film’: at no point was I ever in doubt that Spasojevic had anything less than a definite and valid agenda.
I’d hesitate to recommend ‘A Serbian Film’ in the traditional sense of the word. But I wouldn’t warn anyone off it either. I’d offer caution and be interested in hearing their opinion afterwards. I don’t know if I could watch it a second time. I don’t think I’d need to.
(Addendum: click here for a Total Film article on the withdrawal from FrightFest, including a video interview with Srdjan Spasojevic.)