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 shot in the film. In another scene, we see him gutting and skinning sheep, a skill most European youngsters don’t have.
With their father away in prison, the brothers have the time and freedom to dream their own dreams: the eldest wants to open his own business, not to be dependent on anyone; the middle brother says he is happy being a shepherd; it is his destiny and he accepts it, embraces it. But they also attempt to retain the order he imposed: Usama scolds Useir for playing on his phone when he should be reading the Quran. «Dad wasted his efforts on you; you’re as thick as a post», Usama says.
As time goes by, it becomes clear that Usama seems to be assuming his father’s strict mantle – not young Useir, a dreamy lad who shows little inclination to study the Quran, at school or anywhere.
All may not work out
As we move towards the end of this charming and affecting film, it is clear that the father’s wish to return home to a life unchanged is unlikely to be realised: the eldest son has moved in with his girlfriend and taken a job at a small engineering factory in a nearby town, the youngest shows no sign of following the path of the devout, and only the middle son has stayed the course as a shepherd and stuck with the Quran as a guide to daily life and prayer, arguing with fellow shepherds who think the father was wrong to desert the family and go to Syria.
When the patriarch finally returns, he finds all three brothers waiting: Jabir’s job has not worked out, Usama has lost around 50 sheep, and Useir has not got the grades that could put him on the path of becoming an Imam. All three are given much the same tasks as before – the eldest will stay at home but await a call to go and work in Germany to support his family, the middle son will redouble his efforts with the sheep, and Useir will learn the Quran by heart.
In none of this does the father recognise his failings, and in closing scenes that reveal the brother’s anger and frustration we glimpse – with a closing shot of the youngest boy running down a dark, rainswept road – that all may not work out as the Ibrahim trusts.
Screening as part of the 25th Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival