Tuesday, 9 March 2010

On things we take for granted (inspired by 'Selo bez žena/Village Without Women' by Srđan Šarenac, 2009)

There's been so many topics I've been thinking about the past few days, and that I really felt like I should write about, and yet I somehow never managed to get past the first couple of lines: everything that seemed so inspired and interesting while sneaking around the corridors of my mind would suddenly become so bland and uninspired when taking the form of black letters typed up on paper. I guess I was once again reminded of the fact that the only thing worse than knowing you have nothing to say is thinking you actually have quite a bit to share with the world, only to be refuted by the reality.

And then...then came the darkness of the other night. And this one film...

In all honesty, it wasn’t even such a good film. If I was to review it on any other day, I would have given it a proper three out of five, with possibly a half-a-point raise for the sole fact that I got to watch it sitting on the floor, dressed up as if I was going for a night out: for some reason, I’ve always loved taking different perspectives when watching films, and having the freedom to sit down and relax on the floor of a multiplex provided for one for sure – both literally and figuratively. And while I am normally a queen of politeness – properly raised to stick to my civic (citizen-esque) manners even when the situation would allow for less courtesy – there is something about film festivals that makes me forget that part of myself for a while, and just simply relax and ‘find my place’, wherever it may be. And sometimes some smiles in the crowd, some curious eyes and eloquent semi-strangers eager to share impressions, and a carpeted floor of the passageway (+ a box of Skittles!) are all it takes for happiness. Seriously.

But yes, the film...

I love running into things simply by accident, and then catching myself completely surprised by the effect they have on me. ‘Selo bez žena’ (‘Village Without Women’), a movie by a young Bosnian director Srđan Šarenac, was definitely one of those random, accidental surprises. It is a story about three brothers living in a small village in the south of Serbia. The village resembles a bit the end of the world: old houses, mostly empty and forgotten, left to be hugged by moss, grass and wild flowers before they collapse from the firmness of the embrace - and seven men of different ages, living in the nothingness and isolation, yet still dreaming of something...And one would guess, seeing how they live and where they are, that they would dream of the city, of bright lights and numerous opportunities, of good jobs and easier lives; instead, they dream of – women. The dream of someone to keep all ends of the house and the land together, even if they’ve learned to do everything on their own; and – though not once they will ever mention love – of some sort of closeness with another human being that is different from what they know, and what they have today. Yet, most of them have given up on ever finding a partner, seemingly having made peace with the fact that the only women in their lives are and will be the beauties cut out from the pages of old Playboys. But one of the brothers is still convinced that there is some chance of not staying alone, and he is willing to ‘work hard’ to find someone. And since there are no women ‘available’ in his surroundings, he takes upon a ‘logical’ next step, a journey: he gets himself together, gets all the papers straight and – like many Serbian men before him – takes upon a trip to Albania, to look for a future Misses among the women in the poor Albanian villages, whose families are usually willing to let them go in what should mean a better life. Of course, the mission could be a bit ‘tricky’, but no national tensions can stop our hero – when it comes to looking for a partner, everything other than things strictly personal (if she is young, pretty and willing to come and marry) becomes less relevant.

Šarenac’s film is shot and edited to resemble a documentary comedy, attempting to show also the sadness, but primarily the black humour surrounding the brothers’ lives. And it is true, to someone coming from the city, what they do, how they live, even how they communicate - with their complete lack of ability to speak of themselves as subjects of their own lives, who deserve something more than what they’ve ended up with; but also to communicate their quest for women as an emotional, engaging one, instead of just making it seem like a thing of practicality and comfort – could indeed seem somewhat odd, even entertaining on occasions. Yet what struck me as odd was the fact that, to me, even though I smiled at moments, and cheered for the persistent hero with the rest of the crowds, it wasn’t the humour that was the strongest line of the movie; nor was it really sadness I felt in the end, when everybody including our hero is confronted with the fact that his quest has once again been unsuccessful, his dreams once again destroyed. It was completely impossible not to share a sense of compassion, not to be touched in a way. Yet, even if I didn’t find anything in the story to really laugh about, the feeling that came over me as the movie was – slowly and painfully, as if preparing all of us for the final disappointment - approaching its end was not the one of sadness, but of gratefulness; Sitting there on the floor, with the ‘special someone’ closest to my heart constantly on my mind (and another of my favourite people on earth being right next to me), I felt grateful for the possibility to love – and in a way, the director’s choice to turn this simple thing, which should be so normal to everyone but so often ends up being a privilege, into a laughing matter seemed almost offensively rude to me.

Of course, I don’t really believe Šarenac meant any harm; young, eloquent and seemingly well educated (and talented), he was probably just looking for a story that seemed worthy of being told, and once he found one, he didn’t want to make it into the usual heartbreaking ‘lack of love’ tale, which people accept as a scheme for soap operas and sitcoms, but that are just unconvincing, and even irritating, as real-life stories. And even if he did go a bit overboard, he was neither first, nor the ‘worst’ one. Comedy, particularly American contemporary comedy, loves to ‘extract’ the comic out of people’s inability to find love (or even a simple physical connection, relation to another human being, for that matter): we are to laugh at nerds who can’t score with seductive blondes, to giggle at middle-aged shy virgins, to find humour in ‘uncool’ teenagers’ inability to go on a date and poor fat guys’ complete lack of self-confidence in front of breathtakingly beautiful women (at least until they learn the lesson of another ‘uncool’ fictional character, but a TV-one, and start thinking of themselves as of the ‘Barry Whites’ when foreseeing a romance). Literature is even far more cruel to ‘the outsiders’ of the love battlefield: thus, in the mind of Houellebecq’s hero, Michel, the only salvation for his colleague, Tisserand, from his grotesque, saddening and simply ridiculous state of complete loneliness (determined primarily by his physical appearance, and obvious in the eyes of every woman that looks at him, and then goes away), is a merciful death, for no other thing could ever do any good. In the edless layers and forms of popular culture that we are surrounded by, many, on a daily basis, strive to remind us of how there are numerous conditions for love (thus even Arctic Monkeys’ singer will admit that he would ‘still take her home’, because although she’s ‘just probably allright’, under these lights she looks beautiful), and how some are meant to score, and others can do nothing but to learn from them and try again over and over (just think of that MTV show in which the ‘cool guys’ compete over who will teach his ‘loser’ better to win over the girl). But all this is not at all what I am interested in at the moment (even if all of these are absolutely fascinating topics)...

The thing that ‘Selo bez žena’ inspired me to think of was the fact that we often take love as something that we – each one of us as a deserving individual, the big 'I' – are entitled to, and it is the problem of others if they are not willing to adapt to us, to understand us (the ‘me’ within everyone of us, the tiny little voice that sometimes can become surprisingly loud and dominant), to deal with the great ego that each one of us carries. In a culture that is more and more individualised on a daily basis, the question of finding someone to call a ‘partner’ becomes a question of finding one’s perfect fit, a person who should adapt to ‘my’criteria, my character, my desires...and if there is ever a problem, it is always the other’s fault - and I should just let go and keep searching, because it is just so self-evident that finding another partner is my given right, and therefore easy.

The real beauty of Šarenac’s film for me was that it served as a kind of reminder of the simple fact that, even if each one of us is indeed worthy of love as he or she is (and this is exactly how it should be; the phrase ‘not deserving of love’ has always been an enigma to me, as if love was something to work for, to earn, something one is entitled to because of what he/she has achieved, instead of what he/she IS: a human being, capable – and in need of – giving and receiving affection), realizing that ‘right’ is not always so easy; and we should be tremendously grateful for the fact that we have been given the chance to have this kind of relationship with someone (when this is the case), and do whatever is in our power to show that, to make that clear to the other, to take them as they are instead of simply imposing our own right to be ‘who we are’ under any cost. This is not to say that our expectations should not be high: perhaps the saddest thing about the brothers in the movie is indeed the way they talk about women and marriage, in a manner transforming not only the women, but also themselves into ‘objects’ of their own stories, in which the bride and groom, in their imagined roles, take the shape not of people who have the need to grow and change together, to take a joint ‘attack’ on the world, but one resembling much more the two figurines on the wedding cake, stereotypical in their roles and appearances. And no ties between two people which are empty on the inside should ever be kept just for their shell, no matter how polished it is. But in a world in which the biggest fortresses mankind has built disappear in a day, cities get wiped away by the rage of the earth and financial empires crash, destroyed by the same greed which helped them rise so high, the value of the possibility to have someone so tremendously close to ourselves that the boundaries between us get wiped away is something that should never, even for a moment, be taken for granted.

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