Sophie Vukovic’s thought provoking and well-structured meditation on everyday experiences of teenagers growing up in a multi-cultural world of the XXI century, challenges the notions of a nationhood and its effects on forming the identity.
A detailed, personal narrative of this documentary feature debut cuts across stereotypical categories of thinking present in education and a public discourse alike. It questions assumptions on how a sense of belonging and self-identification spring out of one’s nationality, asking about individuals whose lifestories place them on the cross roads of multiple countries and traditions. The self-portrayal of Yugoslavia-born, Australia-, China- and Sweden-educated adolescent narrator of the film, captures a world of under-represented and under-comprehended in-betweens within a firm, single national traditions that make a lived reality of a growing number of people. The unnamed, but empirically perceived vacuum of spaces between nations manifests here in results of educational process of a child in its institutional and personal dimension, hunting for answers that sooner or later need to be formulated.
Answering the questions is not however an aim of Shapeshifters. The film is a personal story of a child, who with innocence and awe asks the first fundamental questions about surrounding world. Its subtle and sophisticated construction goes between memories of school experiences, reflections on emotions they caused, and conversations with narrator’s parents that bring in an additional inter-generational perspective. The historical events of the 1990s and 2000s: immigration from Eastern Europe to the West, the rapid development of Australia and China, the Balkan War, the open-society policies in Scandinavia come across unnoticeably as they form and influence narrator’s biography. The narrative moves from the 2013 immigrant demonstrations in Sweden back to home video movies from the 1990s, and further forward to a letter to a school friend, and is put in frame of an impressionistic study of a growing individual with all the anxieties and uncertainties characteristic for this period. The next points of a story: relations with friends and colleagues, and journeys to Croatia that is now narrator’s ‘home country’ after the split of Yugoslavia, enrich a tale further, opening subjective individualistic impressions to a wider authentication. The personal view becomes a sign of times, a representation of a wider trend, shown in an inobtrusive and insidious way.
The girl’s and the daughter’s perspective builds additionally up into an intriguing dialogue with experienced, understanding and quietly disillusioned parents, who left Yugoslavia before the war. The parents’ view is individualistic, stressing importance of self-definition; devoid of weight and traps of the concept of nationality that their daughter is struggling with. In one of the conversations mother underlines a value of being just herself, detached from a sole idea of a nation, while father seems to be annoyed by daughter’s sudden search for information about Croatia. The narrator’s argument is that it is the world outside that imposes a nationhood on her in everyday situations trough different questions and behaviours of people around her. The world forces her to respond and explain who she truly is, as she is a stranger not belonging anywhere what people notice instantly if not by her looks, it is always by her language – an accent, a word or a phrase she is using. Narrator cannot however give the answers as she lived in countries other than the country she was born in through all her life. Her identity is devoid of the specific nationhood not by intellectual process and choice as in case of her parents, but by the lived experience that have given her three different traditions (Australia, China, and Sweden) without her internalizing fully any of them. The Japanese manga’s characters of the Shapeshifters that she watched with her school friends provide a useful metaphor for hers and her class mates’ standing in a world which through cultural differences inspires them to change shapes: their beliefs, reactions and convictions depending on a geographical place one happens to live in.
This slow, full of empty spaces itself, observation and meditation on identity of a child brought about in various cultural contexts in the XXI century is revealing and opens new doors for discussion. It challenges hitherto ways of thinking formed by life experiences of previous generations with escapes from conflict areas, career movements, and progressive schooling being the milestones of their life patterns. These experiences are now moulding the next generation through formal and informal education process, and their effects – as the narrator’s struggles show – can leave other kinds of scars on human psyche and divisions within society. The film’s beginning and end presenting immigrant protest in Stockholm in December 2013 exemplifies this with the protesters’ cry for acceptance and acknowledgement of a lived experience as more binding for one’s being a part of a group than a theoretical construct of being born in a given country if the everyday participation would not back it further. There is a tension here between individual and social sphere, the earlier accepting one’s humanity and point of view, and the latter classifying and sanctioning, enforcing order on a basis of long tradition. Could the social sphere abandon a concept of the country of origin and form its classifications of citizens on a number of years spent on actual existence within borders of a group? Would it be possible to set the rules for gradual inclusion of an immigrant into a full-fledged member of society? As the protesters ask – how many years of living in a country should pass in order to society stopped perceiving them as strangers?
The narrator’s naïveté allows the film to point to a new and rising social phenomenon that calls for serious consideration and search for solutions. There are more and more people living for years in a space between traditional, rooted in the XIX century European history, confinements of national cultures. Their process of self-identification goes between various elements characteristic of a multiple in contrast to a single traditions, forming unique individual mosaic compositions. The social sphere necessitating comparisons, grouping, and approximation should come across new categories of classification more adequate for the XXI century experience. It could be only done by first exploring and naming common traits for the in-betweens, through designing a language and concepts fitting the changing nature of human existence, and Shapeshifters is an early call for such action.