Krakow Film Festival 2024

Survival and solidarity on Serbia’s polluted frontline

LABOUR / The eponymous collectors of plastic waste are just another slice of human history in Nemanja Vojinovic's Bottlemen.

For the gritty characters headed by an illiterate Roma group leader, Yanika, life on one of Europe’s most polluting landfill waste sites—seen in Bottlemen—is all about camaraderie and working together against the anonymous big bosses.

Bottlemen Nemanja Vojinović
Bottlemen, a film by Nemanja Vojinović

Lowest of the low

Making their living salvaging plastic bottles that are tipped along with other garbage at the vast Vinca dump situated just outside the Serbian capital Belgrade, Yanika and his band of characters – Salami, Elvis and Tile the Shoe, among others – work in the heat, dust and dirt of the vast and filthy landscape, where fires and fumes are among the hazards and dumper trucks and bulldozers grind across the site with no regard for anyone who may get in their way.

Working alongside other mammalian scavengers – the huge flocks of seagulls that also find sustenance in the garbage – the men are among the lowest of the lows in Serbian society. That does not mean that they don’t have their pride, or their own pecking order: constantly under pressure from bosses only ever glimpsed as remote voices on the other side of mobile telephone conversations, Yanika struggles to keep order with his young charges, for whom the money they scrape is immediately spent on weed and women.

Arranged around three episodes—’Pack Leader’, ‘Hungry Wolves’, and ‘Dinosaurs’ – Bottlemen is classic fly-on-the-wall documentary filmmaking. Pivoting around Yanika as the central character, with rich cinematography and a haunting score, Vojinovic has an eye for detail and an understanding of how to elicit audience sympathy.

That does not mean that they don’t have their pride

Emotional maturity

Yanika conducts all of his business on a personal level and with an endearing degree of emotional maturity. In a call to a government office, he successfully navigates his illiteracy (being asked to recite his case number in an alimony case that threatens him with prison if a €400 debt is not paid off) and negotiates a phased repayment of €50 a month.

In conversations with the big bosses – it is never clear who they are or how many, nor the precise role they play in securing permission for their men to pick recyclable waste from the dump – Yanika is frank, telling them he is fed up with dealing with workers who act like children, and even taking the news that he is suspended from work for six months for an alleged infraction with equanimity.

It is during this suspension that we find out more about his life, when he travels 130km north to visit his parents in the Roma village of Novi Becej. They are simple folk, complaining of being robbed by their neighbours and village policeman who do nothing (Yanika’s father remarks that the robbers «give the police raki and then nothing is done») and keeping horses, pigs and other animals.

Yanika sees his daughters and is clearly a good and loving father to them. He frets with them and his father Zoran about an ill horse; the vet says it is unlikely to survive, and later – after his father dies – he visits his grave and talks to him as if he were still there.

Bottlemen Nemanja Vojinović
Bottlemen, a film by Nemanja Vojinović

Extinct civilisations

In the opening prologue to the film – where the camera pans up through layers of the past, starting with the Vinca Neolithic civilisation of 7,000 years ago – we have a sense that the Bottlemen are just one part of waves of successive life here in this ancient part of the Western Balkans. And like the extinct civilisations that came before, our recycling heroes are also destined to become dinosaurs: plans to retrofit the landfill to collect gas and prevent harmful emissions are well advanced, and scavenging plastic from the surface is not in the scheme of things.

This, too, Yanika accepts with characteristic stoicism.

We never find out how much the men earn or what a tonne of waste plastic bottles is worth (I checked: mixed bottles of the kind Yanika’s men collect currently go for around €250-€300 a tonne), but that is hardly the point of this gritty documentary, which resonates with Bosnian feature director Danis Tanovic’s Berlinale Silver Bear winner of 2013, An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker.

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Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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