Fresh from winning a Golden Leopard at Locarno for Filmmakers of the Present, Czech-based Italian director Francesco Montagner’s sophomore documentary Brotherhood is, he says, «a universal tale with a mediaeval touch.»
The story of three young brothers – Bosnian shepherds – who are left to fend for themselves when their civil-war veteran father, religiously radicalised by ethnic conflict, is imprisoned for terrorism after travelling to Syria, the director is keen to let a male coming of age story unfold that «could easily be a 200-year-old tale.»
Montagner, whose earlier memories as a child in the 1990s seeing the bodies of murdered Bosniak Muslims in Srebenica on the evening news deeply affected him, learned of the story of the Delić family and tracked down the father, Ibrahim and his sons, Jabir, Usama and Useir.
A timeless story
This is a timeless story, opening with bucolic landscapes of the boys and their sheep, mist rising from Bosnia’s rolling hills and woods. Not so long ago, that there was war here is revealed in the empty houses that dot the landscape – some half complete, others reduced to ruins by explosives and heavy calibre machinegun fire.
Montagner’s approach, alternating scenes of simple pleasures as the brothers feed the sheep – shaking crab apples off trees – build fires and bed down under the stars for the night, or tease each other about girlfriends they claim to have on social media via their mobile phones – with scenes that remind us of the strict radical Islamism of the father (glimpsed in a TV report recording his arrest on terrorism charges after his return from Syria; and also in online videos where he exhorts Muslims to «rise up to fight the infidels») balances a story that is about more than a partially disabled Bosnian Army war veteran’s radicalisation and imprisonment.
Although it is clear that the father is a zealous Muslim – we see him praying and instructing his eldest boy in what looks like a small madrasa on an upper storey of their country house, and giving them each a task (the eldest to find work and care for the family, the middle son to tend the flock and take sheep to market, the youngest to study – perhaps in the hope he will take on this father’s radical mantle one day) before he leaves for the two-year prison term a court has handed down – he is a slight presence in the opening act of the film, leaving the story as he is inducted into prison and only returning at the very end.
Not so long ago, that there was war here
Their own answers
Montagner’s concern here is how these brothers – the eldest a young man, the youngest still a boy – will cope alone and find their own answers, their own versions of masculinity without the strict guiding hand of their father, driven to extremism by a brutal ethnic war that threatened the very existence of his people and community.
It is a concern that the viewers will share in this gentle and elegant study of these three young men: the youngest, Useir, has bad grades at school – F’s across his subjects and his teacher is in despair. «I taught your elder brother; what is he doing now?» «Herding sheep with some others», answers Useir, a shy smile on his face. «Well, there is a clear example of someone who did not study – if you want to follow your brother», the teacher exclaims.
These are brothers growing up in the shadow of war. Useir tells one young friend that a Mujahadeen attack (his father among them) on a Serbian unit was launched from the very pastures where he grazes his sheep and boasts of what he would have done had he been there; he and his middle brother and friends play at war in the very fields and woods where just 30 years ago young men not much older than them faced death in battle. A casual remark about another shepherd who strayed too far from known safe pastures and was killed by a mine leftover from the war underlines the violence that lies just below the surface of a country still struggling to cope with the legacy of civil war.
But these are also normal youngsters finding their way in the world of contemporary Europe: Usama hanging around with a friend outside a disco, looking hungrily at young women as they pass by, nervous about trying to get into the club due to the «size of the bouncers.» Unlike urban youngsters, Usama’s nocturnal journeys also include tracking down lost sheep – and finding the carcass of one ripped apart by a local wolf, seen skulking through the forest in an early . . .
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