Friday, March 25, 2011

The Border (Hranica)

THE BORDER (Hranica)                   C                    
Slovakia  (72 mi)  2009  d:  Jaroslav Vojtek 

Slovakian filmmaking still has a long way to go, as despite the compelling nature of this film which documents an absurd border dispute, a longstanding historical oversight between two nations, viewers will have a hard time distinguishing between different nationalities.  Next to no historical background information is provided, so instead of receiving an education on the subject, we are forced to accept overheard man-on-the-street gossip and hearsay, where politics and personal views are discussed.  Initially, however, a kind elderly gentleman leads the camera to his backyard where he counts out the few meters to the border between the Ukraine and Slovakia, which was divided by the Russians under cover of night way back in August of 1946 by entities then known as the Soviet Union, now independent Ukraine, and Czechoslovakia, which in this region is Slovakia.  Families that used to walk three minutes to visit one another were suddenly restricted from crossing the border, where a guard watchtower was constructed armed with regularly rotated soldiers carrying machine guns keeping watch.  We see them amusingly on guard walk past the gentleman’s backyard border looking for who knows what, but it’s their marching orders and their routine.  Today that family can shout at one another, perhaps a 30 or 40 meter distance over the constructed barriers, which we see them do for family updates, but they’d have to travel to the capital to petition for a visa request and back again to receive the decision if they wished to visit relatives today.  The country road between the towns is completely indistinguishable, hardly of any significance whatsoever, grown over by grass, perhaps used more for cows than cars.  But the division also separated the cemetery and the church, which exists only on one side.  Residents of the other side can see it, but receive no visa to actually participate.  As a result, families haven’t visited their parent’s graves in decades. 

Many of these families on both sides are elderly, nearly all on both sides of the border turn out to be of Hungarian descent, where from what we hear in conversations, the Ukrainians dread having to visit the Slovaks as their roads are in miserable condition and they’re forced to endure a meager existence, as the quality of life is much poorer.  We see cars on both sides backed up to a complete stop, as the processing of visas is unendingly slow.  One man dons a priest’s outfit in order to move quickly to the front of the line.  But time passes, and the separate nations eventually become part of the European Union, keeping hope alive that they’ll loosen up the border restrictions.  The Ukrainians get excited, getting their visas approved and their passports stamped only to be rejected on the Slovakian side, where things apparently move at a more slothian pace.  On the magic day when both sides agree to open the borders, there are public speeches and marching bands, families are thrilled to be united once again simply by walking a few meters.  One man walks about 5 feet and exchanges a bag of sugar for a bottle of vodka, enthusiastically beaming with pride.  An elderly blind woman is aided up to the border gate, where she doesn’t have a passport to walk across, but is reduced to tears just being able to get that far.  As we see citizens share drink and conversation, we hear villagers after awhile actually regret the border opening, as it does little to change the lives of most people on either side of the border.  Instead people come for miles to buy reduced priced goods in the cheaper Slovakia, which has become the local Walmart.  There’s a huge influx of noisy street traffic and congestion as cars line up early at 6 am before they run out of supplies.  Now citizens have fond recollections for much quieter times when the only thing that moved were the poor soldiers who could use a helpful pack of cigarettes now and then and the occasional cow that sauntered past.  It’s always ironic how progress and modernization only bring about unintended headaches. 

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