THE LOAD (Teret) B+
Serbia France Croatia Iran Qatar (98 mi) 2018 d: Ognjen Glavonić
A bleak look back at the Serbian/Kosovo conflict of 1999, brilliantly filmed by Tatjana Krstevski, densely atmospheric, opening with the night sky on the mountains lit by anti-aircraft fire and the sound of bombs dropping from the sky during the daily rounds of NATO bombing. What began as a Serbian military venture of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo only escalates in scale, where the entire Serbian country is suddenly engulfed in a war zone, where there is no democratic input from citizens whose voices are muted, with no one asking for their opinion, where the entire nation is blanketed under an oppressive silence that remains even decades after the war, with no one talking about it, at the time reflecting a normalization of war, capturing a mood where there is no escape from the paranoia and fear of daily living. According to the director, mass graves were discovered in 2001 just ten miles from his home in Batajnica, a suburb of Belgrade, where 750 bodies of civilians were buried, 75 of which were children younger than 16. From this stark revelation comes an existential road movie that premiered at Cannes in the Director’s Fortnight, made without an ounce of pretension, a day in the life of an everyman, Vlada (Leon Lučev), a beleaguered middle-aged factory worker recently laid off when the plant closed down, forced to find alternative means of support for his family, resorting to clandestine missions driving a transport truck back and forth between Kosovo and Belgrade. Receiving explicit instructions by Serbian military officials not to view the contents of their cargo, or make any stops along the road, making sure they avoid drawing attention, where drivers are paid upon delivery with no questions asked. It’s a morally ambiguous assignment, but a man’s got to do what’s necessary to survive. Alone in his truck, it’s a precarious journey, weaving his way through narrow mountainous roads that come under attack, with anxious thoughts running through his mind, alarmed by eerie sounds coming from the back that evoke suspicion, creating a feeling of unease that never relents, digging deeper into his already burdened subconscious, stopping intermittently to call his wife about medical tests, where each stop becomes significant, particularly in light of his instructions, adding an underling element of tension that is everpresent, where he is a stand-in for what everyone in the country is going through, deeply suspicious of what they’re officially told, developing an inherent distrust for authorities. This apprehensive mindset becomes a cultural phenomenon that spreads throughout the nation, a burden they all carry, crossing through multiple generations, though no one ever mentions it, avoiding direct contact with each other, where the title itself becomes an underlying metaphor for the film.
Ostensibly a suspense thriller, the film is notable for no action sequences, no graphic war imagery except for the lights flashing over the distant hills, becoming instead a lingering interior odyssey that develops sequentially, growing more intense by the end, leaving audiences perplexed, yet also mesmerized by what transpires. Initially encountering a blocked bridge from several burning vehicles at the entrance, which may have been targeted by air, but all that really matters is he can’t cross, requiring an alternative route, stopping where a group of men have gathered asking for directions. No one is initially forthcoming, staring at him as an outsider, until one man recommends the “the old road,” not exactly providing detail, but it’s a start. A young kid promises to show him the way if he’ll give him a ride to Belgrade, but Vlada defers, preferring to go it alone, pressing ahead with caution until noticing something in his side mirror, which turns out to be the kid holding onto the back, riding like an unseen stowaway for untold miles. Asking to sit inside, away from the cold, this teenage kid turns out to be Paja (Pavle Čemerikić), playing him a tape from his band, though they’ve already broken up when the guitar player moved away. Neither has much to say, but the kid reminds him of his own son, claiming he’d be worried to discover he was out on the road alone. As it turns out, both have “old-school” fathers, guys who served in earlier wars, in what is described as “different times,” both exceedingly hard on their sons, with Vlada coming to appreciate the hard life his father led and the sacrifices he made, while Paja is fleeing from his family, hoping to find a better life in Germany, where his goal is to start a new band. Making a quick stop to call his wife, the kid steps out to take a pee, allowing delinquent kids to break into the truck and take his cigarettes and lighter, a gift his father gave to him, but the kids escape into the woods, finding shelter in a mysterious WWII War Memorial, with Vlada unsuccessfully giving chase, losing a precious gift that meant something only to him, revealing the story later in the film of how it was given to him, though the transgressors are clueless, likely tossing it away. This single act expresses the personalization of meaning, showing how memory is individualized, mirroring the conflicted Serbian consciousness and the effects of blatant historical revision, with the state offering competing narratives, as if they can institutionally eradicate war crimes and erase them from memory. Serbian prime minister Ana Brnabić still refuses to acknowledge acts of genocide (Serbian PM Ana Brnabic: Srebrenica ′a terrible crime,′ not ...), with Milošević’s former ministers still holding positions of power with hard-right views now representing the political mainstream, leaving a nation demoralized and collectively traumatized from guilt by association, left adrift in a fog of delusion. Until the nation can publicly own up to their role in what happened and bring it to light, a disgusted public will feel the lingering effects of ostracization and social dysfunction, where each has their own way of processing this memory and passing on its significance to the next generation.
What’s unique about the film is how it continuously probes under the surface, growing surreal at one point when a stop for coffee breaks out into a boisterous wedding party, with a melancholic song about a “dawn without a sun,” wistfully hoping to “Take me away from here,” suggesting they leave this place behind and move somewhere far away, where this promise of something new alerts viewers to the poisoned grounds of the nation, where unspoken historical events have stained any possibility for growth, becoming a lament, a depository for lost hopes and dreams. Whatever nationalistic aspirations started this war have left a besieged nation dealing with the scarred consequences, still not speaking openly about what occurred twenty years later, burying their own history, blurring the lines of truth, where each individual must go it alone to seek enlightenment. Everyone seems to know, but no one is allowed to speak of it, where this film becomes a wordless exposé, a turning of the page, allowing viewers a glimpse into the past, but it remains poetically shrouded in ambiguity and allegory. The film recalls Nebojsa Slijepčević’s documentary on the filming of a controversial play by Bosnian theater director working in Croatia, Oliver Frljić, entitled Srbenka (2018), where Croatian war atrocities are publicly revealed before Croatian audiences, having significant impact, as consequences still ensue along with a blistering hatred for Serbs, where these issues are only exacerbated and haven’t even begun to heal. Similarly, Vlada drops off Paja before arriving well past all the other transport trucks, sent into the closed administrative offices for his payment. Late at night, mostly in the dark, this plays out like a haunted house, nearly tripping over a large bust of Slobodan Milošević (who died in 2006 during a lengthy war crimes trial prior to a rendered verdict), who hovers like a ghost, tainting everything he touched, where the nation still hasn’t risen from the ashes of his legacy, still inhabiting the ruins of what he destroyed. When the wretched contents of his truck are revealed, with unseen bodies buried by excavating equipment in the middle of the night, just the foul odor alone sickens him, ordered to clean up the truck afterwards, where the water actually serves as an ethnic cleansing, literally wiping all the sins away, finally realizing his mission is basically an undercover clean-up operation that attempts to erase any evidence of war crimes committed by the police or military forces. By the time he gets back to his wife and teenaged son, he has a different perspective (the camera as well becomes more deliberately explorative), something that can’t exactly be shared, so instead he tells the story of the lighter to his son, a poignant moment fraught with meaning, given to his father on the 15th anniversary commemorating a notorious WWII battle where his father and uncle joined the partisans to fight the fascists, whose heroism captures the elegiac mourning of war (as opposed to a nation now committing fascist atrocities), but it’s hard to tell if his son understands, more intrigued by the tape his father hands him from Paja, which he listens to with his sister, defiant punk music that screams for liberation, fiercely appropriate for the coming future, blaring over the end credits.
Interesting comments on the film’s reception in Serbia, taken from the Erik Luers interview with the director from Filmmaker magazine, August 30, 2019, “There Was Almost a Competition to See Who Could Spit on ...
Filmmaker: How has the film been received back home?
Glavonić: There was a big attack on the film (and on me and on the crew) when it was announced that The Load would premiere in Cannes. Colleagues, tabloids and even politicians took it upon themselves to create this narrative that the film was anti-Serb, that the film was about a crime that didn’t happen and lies like that. They created a narrative that the film shouldn’t exist, even though they themselves had not yet seen it. Their negative campaign lasted for six months until we had the local festival premiere in our country at the end of November 2018. But from May to November, there was almost a competition to see who could spit on the film more and who could say worse things about it. They never saw it! I have a thousand or so pages from Twitter/Facebook/Instagram of people saying awful stuff. There were even two or three reviews of the film by critics who didn’t see it. The union of police were writing to the president and wanting to censor and block the film from being shown. There’d be a campaign from one tabloid every single week for twenty weeks, all for a film they couldn’t bother to see. They were imagining stuff, like, “Oh, they must be being paid by the Muslims” or crazy, crazy things like that. I think someone should make a film or write an essay about how the imaginations of these nationalists work, how they shame something they don’t even have the time to see.
When we finally announced that the film would be screening [locally], the chatter stopped, because everybody could go and see that the previous chatter was all bullshit. We had a great premiere, like six sold-out screenings. However, when we were discussing distribution plans last December, we realized that their shade campaign had actually worked, as now cinemas were afraid to take on the film. Cinemas around the country didn’t want to take the film, because they were afraid that there would be neo-Nazi groups or right-wingers trying to block the screenings. Since most of the theaters are publicly-owned, the theaters were worried that they wouldn’t receive money from the Ministry of Culture in the future if they chose to screen the film. Due to the party that’s in power, they were afraid that they would lose their jobs if they screened the film. In the end, economically, the negative word-of-mouth succeeded and that’s why a lot of people still haven’t seen it. It’s playing in Belgrade for one or two weeks and that’s it. Around Serbia, only two or three towns showed it for more than a week. The rest have been one-off screenings. And in the second biggest city in Serbia, the cinema didn’t want to rent the screening room to us. We were willing to rent it outright for a single screening and they didn’t let us. We took to some guys from outside the city who went on to organize a screening that was full, but then…nothing.
It’s very sad. I’m sad that many people haven’t seen the film in theaters, even if, yes, they can now find it online (piracy is big in my country). The film is worth seeing in a cinema and, really, with a community. I think it would be especially important in Serbia. Maybe we’ll try again to organize a screening in Serbia, but the problem is that even the cinemas don’t want us to. With that said, the film has played more than 80 festivals and has received 25 awards. On the festival circuit, forty or fifty thousand people in total have seen the film and I’m very happy with how it’s been received.