In the Hallway of the Yugoslav Past

Hotel Jugoslavija

Nicolas Wagnières

2017, Switzerland, USA

As with the other nations once under Communist rule, the republics of the former Yugoslavia remain home to iconic buildings and monuments that are now being fetishized by the West as fading relics of a world outside capitalism.

Director Nicolas Wagnières in his debut documentary feature Hotel Jugoslavija (2017), which screened at the Berlin International Film Festival this February, considers such a flagship edifice as a prism to reflect on the past, and to mourn the loss of images that have lost their legitimacy.

Declining fortunes

Located at the Belgrade Danube banks, Hotel Jugoslavija opened its doors in 1969 and was in the years that followed one of the biggest and luxurious hotels in the former Yugoslavia.

Wagnières’ film argues that the declining fortunes of the hotel mirror those of Yugoslavia as a whole, as it broke apart amid rising nationalism.

At the time of the filming, the year is 2005 and the hotel – which the director only discovered as an adult when he rekindled contact with Belgrade – is about to be closed for renovation. Wagnières keeps returning to it «near-religiously» over the years, «filming to retain and regain», as he puts it.

The fading letters of the hotel name, emblazoned across its vast façade, now bares the witness of its past time glory that has been slowly fading after the end of the Yugoslav era. Perhaps it is known to some foreigners nowadays as a curiosity and a memorial to the Brutalist architecture commissioned by Tito, which characterised the era and appears to us as taken straight out of a sci-fi movie.

Hotel Jugoslavija Director: Nicolas Wagnières

Wagnières portrays sensory impressions of his past almost as a form of invocation – from catching octopuses in the Adriatic Sea to the smell of heating oil on the streets of Belgrade and Tito’s funeral on French TV. As he does so, the camera slowly and perpetually pans down the wood-panelled hallways of Hotel Jugoslavija – taking us through its sprawling foyers, lined with glass-cut chandeliers. The blue-carpeted, white spiral staircase of this impressive example of modernist architecture, gives testimony to the hotel’s former glory – even when the deserted hallway suggests its occupants have long departed.

A political and personal narration

Wagnières was born outside the region to a Swiss father and a Serbian mother who left Yugoslavia in the 1960s to be with her Swiss husband. His approach mixes a wider lens of political, nation-shaping events with a very personal one – imbued with an obsessive nostalgia for what was always out of reach but still somehow formative for his childhood.

Hotel Jugoslavija Director: Nicolas Wagnières

As Wagnières narrates, musing in his native French in a manner that suggests he is still trying to make sense of his impulse to make the film, we realise he feels both as belonging to the  country and completely distant from it. In attempting to recapture a childhood of holidays spent in his mother’s homeland – a country he is very conscious of that has now vanished – he searches his own recollections to find the key into its collective memory. His scattershot glances over an historical context feels frustratingly meandering and cursory at times, and comes off as a less ordered research than a chance collection of remembered impressions.

Still, the impressions stay true enough to the conception of a film that is less of a historical narration than an emotional and associative attempt to close a perceived gap in identity. The film also offers the viewer an intrinsic understanding of the erasure of an idea of socialism that has had a more positive reputation as a unifier than the more crushing Moscow-led manifestations.

Past time glory

Originally planned as part of a modern urban utopia project, the huge hotel structure of more than 350 rooms – designed by famed architects of the Zagreb school of modernism– hosted persons of high rank, including Queen Elizabeth II, Richard Nixon and Willy Brandt, as well as various film and pop stars. Wagnières has unearthed scant archival footage of the hotel in its heyday – including a German commercial for its bustling luxury from the ‘70s–- but this only increases the ghostly feel of a grand building lost in the mists of time. He interviews previous hotel employees as well as his own mother, who recalls the enthusiasm that characterised the youth group projects that assisted in rebuilding the country after the devastation of World War II.

Hotel Jugoslavija Director: Nicolas Wagnières

Yugoslavia was at that time united under Tito’s conception of a so called «third way socialism», which sought a non-aligned move from the East-West divide, and his motto of «brotherhood and unity» kept at bay the conflict which erupted after his death. Archival footage shows youth heartily digging on a construction site – the symbolic initiatives that invested such labour with a shared sense of history transcending ethnic divides. The suggestion being that the propagandistic slogans around these efforts of reconstructing Yugoslavia were embraced uncritically with an optimism for the future – a slant on the past that the fate of the hotel itself undercuts, while dissenting voices against Tito’s communist system are kept peripheral.

 War testimonies

As the hotel changed hands over time and was privatised, Hotel Jugoslavija mirrored the tumultuous fortunes of a country hammered by sectarianism, a return of war, and embargoes. Notorious career criminal Željko Ražnatović, commonly referred to as ‘Arkan’, was running a casino on the premises by the time it was hit during the 1999 NATO bombardment. We are presented with a Belgrade news station’s footage that shows the confusion and damage.

Hotel Jugoslavija Director: Nicolas Wagnières

The team of Luc Besson’s French-American crime world thriller 3 Days to Kill (2014), recently used the iconic hotel as a location to add exotic mystique to a shoot-out between the CIA and an arms trafficking gang, showing the windows across its facade blown out as a bomb is detonated. Wagnières has chosen to include a clip of the action scene in his documentary to illustrate how Serbia came to be stereotyped as an enclave of Balkan lawlessness.

Finally, we see the hotel complex today, re-opened with tacky neon accents, a slick iPhone store and an American-style diner with waitresses on roller-skates – portraying an erasure of the past, not by bombs, but by the drive of global capitalism to transform everything into its own commercial image.

The fading letters of the hotel name, emblazoned across its vast façade, now bares the witness of its past time glory.

Wagnières portrays sensory impressions of his past almost as a form of invocation.

Notorious career criminal Željko Ražnatović, commonly referred to as ‘Arkan’, was running a casino on the premises.


On the edges of Sundance 2018

The Sundance Film Festival, which takes place annually in Park City, Utah, is reputed for its slate of independent narrative and documentary films. NEXT and New Frontier are two sections that present exciting work that teeters on the edges of convention.

NEXT films are distinguished by bold and forward-thinking approaches to storytelling. Search, by Aneesh Chaganty (U.S.A, 101 minutes), is a film that’s set entirely on a computer screen (it may sound gimmicky but it works well). The film was a standout in this section and snapped up two awards at the festival.

«Also new this year, the festival unveiled a 40-seat mobile VR theatre.»

New Frontier is the avant-garde section of Sundance, focusing on innovative and independent productions and the convergence of film, art, media, live performances, music and technology. I think of New Frontier as the free-spirited child of the family, that sibling who’s always off doing something curious and inventive – with no interest in conforming. The section also programs a handful of films that fit their experimental and «forward-thinking» mantra. Standout was Narcissister Organ Player (U.S.A, 92 minutes), directed by Narcissister, a hybrid personal documentary/performance film that that explores how ancestral data is stored in our bodies. The film also offers up insights into what motivated Narcissister to become the masked, provocative, feminist performance artist that she is.

Virtual Reality

I’ve attended New Frontier for years. Early on, the exhibition was housed in a mall on Main Street and there was rarely a line to enter. Now, New Frontier is spread out across three venues and ticketed programs sell out fast. A decade ago, VR (Virtual Reality) was a twinkle; this year VR was the biggest buzzword at Sundance, with more than two dozen VR, AR (augmented reality), MR (mixed reality) and/or AI (artificial intelligence) projects in the mix.

As a sign of the times, SPHERES: Songs of Spacetime (U.S.A, 13 minutes, director: Eliza McNitt) -a VR experience where you dive into a black hole – was picked up for over a million dollars. This may be the most newsworthy bit of the festival: it’s the first time a New Frontier and VR project was acquired out of Sundance. For McNitt, science captures our imaginations and demands us to think. «But with virtual reality now we can we feel it too,» she says. «Virtual reality awakens our senses…. What once was invisible to our eyes, becomes an experience that transports you to other worlds.»

«Virtual reality is known as an empathy machine, but it needs to be practiced.»

Also new this year, the festival unveiled a 40-seat mobile VR theatre, «The Box at New Frontier at the Ray», created for Sundance by an experiential entertainment company called Two Bit Circus. On my first day at the festival, I went to The Box to watch The Sun Ladies VR,-an immersive live-action documentary about a troop of female Yazidi fighters called Sun Ladies. (U.S.A., 7 minutes, lead artists: Maria Bello, Celine Tricart, Christian Stephen). For producer Maria Bello, «Virtual reality is known as an empathy machine, but it needs to be practiced.» As such, The Sun Ladies VR experience is designed to include an after-screening live performance component.

VR creator Tyler Hurd

Overall, the communal aspect of the mobile VR theatre didn’t play out for me. At one point I removed my headset and observed people lost in their minds-or is it their imaginations?-swiveling around in their chairs. It actually felt a bit isolating. But I can see the practicality of a VR theatre for a group who wants to experience VR together. But I wouldn’t use the word «together». Alone together is more like it.

The next stop on my new media technology immersion tour was New Frontier at the Ray, a space right next to the VR theatre, but a different space all together. Here, you felt as if you dropped into a fun art/tech fair with hip happenings buzzing about in every corner. Experience Realistic Touch in Virtual Reality (Lead Artists: Andrew Mitrak, Greg Bilsland, Joe Michaels, Jake Rubin, Key Collaborator: Dr. Bob Crockett) showcased emerging technology by Haptx which allows users to feel the shape, texture, and motion of virtual objects.


I was fortunate to run into animator turned VR creator Tyler Hurd, who ended up being a New Frontier guru for me. When I told him some of the mobile VR experiences were disorienting for me, even nauseating, he pointed me to Battlescar across the room and explained how it used a different VR technology. He thought I’d like it better. He was right.

BattleScar (U.S.A/France, 9 minutes), by Nico Casavecchia and Martin Allais, uses VR to explore themes of identity and belonging. The story – told in part through wonderful vignettes floating in mid-air – also explores the 1970s punk rock scene in New York City. Lupe, the animated main character-a Puerto Rican-American runaway teenager-is voiced by Rosario Dawson.

A still image from BattleScar by Martin Allais and Nico Casavecchia, an official selection of the New Frontier VR Experiences program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

BattleScar opens up conversations around fact and fiction, about real stories and imagined stories, in virtual spaces. When an environment is constructed, how do we know what the source material is, and does it matter? And since immersive experiences can be more visceral, more immediate, can they create more impact than a film? And what kinds of impact are we talking about anyway?

I loved how BattleScar was presented. With some VR experiences, you enter a room with white walls, sit on a chair, face a computer, put on a headset. It’s antiseptic. Disconnected. With BattleScar, the experience is different. You walk into a room and it’s an actual room – there’s a bed, a bookshelf, it’s lived in. Atmospheric. It sets the scene for the gritty Lower East Side where the story takes place. So when you put on the headset and look around the virtual world, you’ve already begun the adventure.

Brian Chirls is creative developer based in New York

About a decade ago, I was exploring the New Frontier exhibition at Sundance with Brian Chirls, a creative developer who was involved with innovation in the independent film world back then. These days, he’s big into VR (he’s CTO at Datavized and a frequent lecturer at IDFA DocLab). I asked him about the shifts he’s seen since the time it was groundbreaking to play with a life-size Google Earth map (which was cool at the time) to today where VR experiences are being acquired for huge sums and magic gloves let you feel things that don’t exist. For Chirls, there are important issues still to be addressed. «I’d like to see the VR culture shifting in the direction of accessibility, not only how do we get good at the craft, but how do we develop a set of ethics around it-and make it widely available to diverse creators and audiences.»

What is the future of new media technology? Will virtual and immersive and augmented realities become mainstream? Who can say for sure, but money is being invested and creators are digging in, exploring, and working out technical glitches the way any artist or filmmaker would. And, importantly, technology ought serve the story. Without that, the work-the film or the VR or AR or MR experience – would ring hollow.













Sexism and Racism, Hand in Hand

These matter-of-fact words introduce a 90-minute long documentary about the 1944 gang rape of Recy Taylor, a 24-year-old black mother and sharecropper. “It is an unspeakable crime”, says one of the scholars in the film in order to illustrate the heroism of Recy Taylor, who spoke about it from the start, never hesitating for a moment, despite the threats and brutal retributions. But this also shows the heavy task faced by those making the film: how to talk about rape, how to visualize it?

«The numbers of black women raped by white men in our country’s past is staggering. Afraid for their lives, just a courageous few spoke up.

Only in the black press and in “race films”–films made by mostly black filmmakers with black casts for black audiences–would one learn of such brutal crimes.

We use “race films” along with vintage footage and home movies to tell Recy Taylor’s story.»

Not Heard

As we have learned through the #MeToo movement, rape victims’ testimonies have remained subject to doubts and skepticism to the present day. The huge attention by social and mainstream media given to Black Panther, the newest blockbuster movie from the Marvel Franchise, directed by a black man and with a predominantly black cast, indicates another difficulty in making this film: black people are only at present gaining public visibility. As one of the articles about Black Panther bluntly explained, “If you are white, seeing people who look like you in mass media probably isn’t something you think about often…(while) those of us who are not white have considerably more trouble not only finding representation of ourselves in mass media and other arenas of public life, but also finding representation that indicates that our humanity is multi-faceted.”

The silence and invisibility The Rape of Recy Taylor had to break were extraordinary, resulting from the gravity of the crime and from the person subjected to it. The filmmakers confronted this straightforwardly, creating a powerful discourse against sexism and racism. They mostly used materials that were already available and accommodated the visual means of expression to the development and requirement of the film’s narration. Choosing minimalist solutions, they produced optimum effects.

«Recy Taylor identified her rapists, though few women spoke up in fear for their lives.»

At the very beginning, her brother Robert Corbitt and her sister Alma Daniels explain what happened to Recy Taylor the night she was raped. We only see them talking, their voices accompanied by shots of (most probably local) landscapes. And these unorganized, poorly lit views of compounds, woods, and lawns gradually fill up with immense sadness. As their recollections evolve, we hear about their father guarding the house with a double-barreled shotgun day and night ever since, and hear the historians say that the rape of a black woman by a white man was not unusual because black people were not regarded as humans.

Not Silenced

We see old photos and race film clips with white men chasing black women, and the sadness turns into despair. The perpetrators told Recy to keep quiet, but she told everybody about what happened. They burned the porch of her home, but they did not silence her.

The Rape of Recy Taylor by Nancy Buirski

We see an old photo of Deputy Sheriff Lewey Corbitt, holding a stained white cloth in his hands. Recy’s family got Corbitt’s name from Lewey Corbitt’s family after the abolition of slavery, meaning the deputy sheriff’s family owned their ancestors. “Don’t say anything…don’t say a world…don’t talk about it to anybody,” Roger Corbitt remembers the deputy sheriff telling them, “and anytime he said that we talked as much as we could.” And we see the despair turn into rebellion.

«The film is a eulogy to the power of the media and a denunciation of the sexism and racism of the mainstream media.»

Recy Taylor identified her rapists, though few women spoke up in fear for their lives. In fact, the rape of black women by white men was so common at that time in the US South that The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the key civil rights organization in the United States to advance justice for African Americans, had a chief rape investigator. That person was none other than Rosa Parks who, eleven years after that, became a civil-rights hero for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man, launching the notorious Montgomery bus boycott. When Rosa Parks went to interview Recy Taylor, the local sheriff kept driving by the house and eventually burst in, threatening Rosa Parks with arrest if she didn’t leave town. After that, Parks launched the “Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor.”

Black Press

Nancy Buirski

Through the course of the film, sadness, despair and rebellion of a personal and emotional nature gradually change to the collective and political. As the news about the crime gets out of the Recy’s hometown Abbeville, the scope of the archival material used expands again. A whole new universe opens up, thanks to the work and testimonies of the female experts–most notably Danielle McGuire, the author of At the Dark End of the Street the book that inspired the film, Crystal Feimster, professor of African American studies at Yale University and author of the book Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching, and Esther Cooper Jackson, journalist and activist, who was one of the first people that reported about the case. Together with clips from an impressive set of “race films”, the so-called “black press” (its existence and its importance) is documented. In the face of what McGuire calls “infrastructure of injustice”, where the white press ignored these kinds of crimes and thus gave judges and juries plausible deniability of any knowledge, the black press–newspapers such as The Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, the New York Amsterdam News, the Baltimore Afro-American and the like–was the only place where a journalist was able to publish articles about Recy and others.

This is a film about the heroism of Recy Taylor. It is also a film about the black civil rights movement and other courageous activists and publicists who had to fight sexism and racism simultaneously. Demonstrating how rights and visibility go hand in hand, it is a eulogy to the power of the media and a denunciation of the sexism and racism of the mainstream media. It is a timely movie for more than one reason, an insightful companion to the #MeToo movement and a female counter-voice to the Black Panther hype.










The Devil is in the Distractions

When were you last alone? Really alone? Without people surrounding you and without all the virtual connections we’re constantly entangled in. For how long did this alone time last? A couple of hours, perhaps even all of 24 hours?

Being alone seems a thing of the past. We almost always find ourselves in herds, whether with people made of flesh and blood or on social media. We endlessly communicate via the bright screens we bring with us into public as well as private spaces. We share, comment on and like our own lives and the lives of others in a big common throng where loneliness seems almost like a taboo. We feel compelled to fill every opening we have with something. Waiting for the bus, for the light to turn green, for the wife to come off from work; all these pockets of time that could have been empty are instead filled with some kind of content.

What is the problem with this lack of alone time? They’re many, if we are to believe Michael Harris, author of the (at first glance) deeply interesting book SolitudeIn Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World.

Technology to blame

Harris sets out to investigate why we can no longer bear solitude, what we’re losing out on without it – and therefore what we can gain by its discovery. Solitude comes across as a diatribe against technology. The reader is long left with the impression that Harris, who is obviously himself an avid consumer of technology, deep down hates it and considers it the root of all evil: social media is always demanding our attention. The small, lovable smartphone games reward our brains with a shot of dopamine and force us to play again and again because it feels good.

Apps like Google Maps and Yelp ensure that we never get lost and can always plan our ventures into the unknown, making that, too, feel familiar. Even nature has been turned into a game – when going Pokemon hunting has become the purpose of outdoor expeditions, and when we can no longer merely stand and stare at a tree, but absolutely want to get the feeling that we’re doing something. «Daydream Destroyers», Harris calls it in his anti-technological lingo. Why spend so many pages on identifying technology as the main culprit, we may wonder, and Harris’s line of reasoning is occasionally somewhat facile. Like when he claims that the use of a GIF to communicate deprives us of a «personal style.» Couldn’t one just as easily argue that a personal can manifest itself through the use of a GIF?

As the book progresses, however, more nuance is introduced. Harris explains how humans have always had to relate to the inventions we’ve introduced to our world, and thus adjust to new ways of life. The invention of books, too, was a disruptive form of technology, for reading is not a natural activity for the brain – books are something humans had to learn to navigate through.

Self-centred serenity

What can solitude be used for, provided that we can rediscover it in our high-tech world? A jumble of good things, concludes Harris on his tour of various research environments. The best ideas come to us when we’re alone – when our thoughts can wander freely. «Creativity and originality are the companions of solitude,» we’re told. Similarly, in solitude a form of recharging of the body occurs. When we’re alone and don’t have to relate to others, we allow the body to recover itself more fundamentally.

Then there’s the self-awareness. The search for solitude may strikes us as an extremely selfish pursuit, but in Harris’ eyes it’s more about finding your peace of mind and serenity than about self-centredness and «me-time». From solitude follows an inner peace that also benefits the collective; it’s easier to invite other people into your life the moment you’ve attained a serene state of mind.

Photo by Drantcom

Every so often Harris interrupts his scientific focus with accounts of his own attempts at finding solitude. We’re told about his little wanderings, suggesting a longing for a Thoreauan disappearance into nature – if only for a week or so at the time. These everyday descriptions are often more interesting than the oft-repeated attacks on technology and praise of the value of solitude.

There’s something a bit too instrumental in Harris’s thinking as he attempts to «sell» us the idea of solitude. Nor is the author’s logic always particularly convincing, as when he claims that if you’re alone, you also become more like yourself.

Streams of thought

The book never quite feels like a whole – for that, it is too fluttering and incoherent. On page after page we’re lectured about technology’s many sins, only to be suddenly informed of what wonders reading can accomplish, whether it happens in solitude or in the company of others. We’re next told why many young people today want to learn how to write love letters by hand or on old-fashioned typing machines.

It is difficult to figure out exactly what Harris wants with all this. Perhaps he’s merely communicating his own fleeting streams of thought, created in moments of solitude – but if that’s the case, the book may be more interesting to Harris himself.



Useful Idiots

Victory Day (Den’ Pobedy) is a precise observation of the pro-Russian gathering at the Soviet War Memorial in Berlin on the 9th of May. Like in his previous documentary Austerlitz (2016), the acclaimed Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa questions the use of historic places. In Austerlitz, Nazi concentration camps are consumed by tourists, whereas Victory Day demonstrates how the celebration in Treptower Park becomes a tool in the hands of the Russian government to promote its official narrative about World War II in order to raise patriotism.

Soviet Nostalgia and National Pride

In the 90s the Victory Day on the 9th of May was celebrated more silently. But after Vladimir Putin became the president of Russia, the government started promoting this holiday to cultivate national pride. Nowadays huge crowds gather to celebrate all over the former Soviet countries and other places with a large Russian-speaking diaspora. Berlin, where the last great battle of World War II took place, represents the end of the war. People from many places across the ex-Soviet Union have come here to celebrate victory 72 years after the bloody fighting.

Victory Day (Den’ Pobedy) bySergei Loznitsa

Ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin once said, “The collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” This Soviet nostalgia is clearly visible in Treptower Park as well–people arrive bearing the red Soviet flags. Some visitors still live in the past: a woman in the film says, “We belong together, we are all Soviets.” A song is played, “Ukraine and Crimea, Belarus and Moldova, this is my country. Kazakhstan and Caucasus and Baltics as well. I was born in Soviet Union.” These words sound like a terrifying nightmare to most western Ukrainians and people in the three Baltic States. Probably the other countries mentioned also wouldn’t be happy to lose their sovereignty again. Present among the visitors at the Treptower Memorial are obviously many radicals who support separatists in Eastern Ukraine, openly admire Joseph Stalin and in their speeches refer to present-day Germany as fascistic.

«These young men certainly didn’t agree to die and become a propaganda tool for a political regime of which they could never have been aware.»

The Ukrainian director uses a fixed camera and long takes to patiently depict this party with lots of singing, dancing, public speeches and flamboyant visitors. Some are dressed in uniforms decorated with medals; others wear Putin t-shirts or traditional costumes. Red and orange colours are strongly present due to the attributes the visitors have taken along–most of which carry ideologically charged messages. A lot of people have brought red carnations, which in the Russian-speaking world symbolize the proletarian revolution. Also Georgian ribbons are widely worn. This controversial Russian military symbol became popular in 2005 and nowadays expresses a public support to Russian government. However, in Ukraine it is banned because of its association with the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the annexation of Crimea and the Donbass separatist movements.

Victory Day (Den’ Pobedy) bySergei Loznitsa

The Dead Can’t Speak

Details from the Soviet Memorial serve as a silent contrast to the extravagant crowd. We see dead bodies, crying women, children, soldiers, airplanes, horrors of war and signs of victory. Another tool the director employs to give contrast to the loud party is quiet off-screen music, which sounds much more nostalgic and serious than the famous Katyushka and other war songs sung by the Victory Day celebrators.

«Questions about memory, manipulation, ethics, correlation of the past with the present and the remembrance of victims stay with the viewer long after the final credits of the film.»

It’s important to understand that the impressive Treptower Park memorial, built to honour around 80,000 soldiers of the Red Army that were killed in the battle for Berlin, is also a military cemetery with more than 7,000 graves. In Loznitsa’s film, it’s made obvious that the dead soldiers are instrumentalized by the current Russian government. Once their bodies were used for war and now they are reused for achieving certain political goals. These young men certainly didn’t agree to die and become a propaganda tool for a political regime of which they could never have been aware.

Victory Day (Den’ Pobedy) by Sergei Loznitsa

In the Soviet Union there was an idiom useful idiot. The label was used by communists and the KGB to describe people in the West that they had successfully manipulated and cynically misused for Soviet propaganda or other purposes. Have the dead soldiers also become such useful idiots? Or perhaps the useful idiots are the ones celebrating today?

Victory Day, an outwardly simple observation of one event, turns into a philosophical study covering many layers. It’s hard to meet a German who would regret the defeat of Hitler. The loss of the war helped the country to critically re-evaluate its history and opened space for debate about humanism and democracy. In Russian-speaking society the opposite has happened–there is a lack of discussion about the horrors of the Stalin regime, which in a milder form continued even after his death and shadowed all of the Soviet era. These and miscellaneous other questions about memory, manipulation, ethics, correlation of the past with the present and the remembrance of victims stay with the viewer long after the final credits of the film.


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Varoufakis’ Magical Realism

The Greek professor of economics Yaris Varoufakis should be known to Norwegian readers through his part as finance minister (from January to July 2015) and politician under the economical crisis in Greece from 2008 onwards.

His book Talking to My Daughter About the Economy: A Brief History of Capitalism, published for the first time in 2013 and updated in connection with the new release, is written as a long letter to Varoufakis’ teenage daughter Xenia, who has travelled to Australia to study. The writer wants her to get familiarised with real and large correlations in the world in relation to the global world economy’s beginning and development. In addition, the book is just as much about how the global economy is working today, a topic that should concern most people.


Through very few pages Varoufakis manages, by simplifying and using fine storytelling, to distil the essence of what modern economy really is about. He quotes the Greek mathematician Archimedes in the text who allegedly talked about “the law of the lever” by using the Earth as an example: “Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world!” This means that with a pole that is long enough, he would be able to move the planet Earth only with one single hand movement. With this, Varoufakis shows that by looking at the way in which the world economy works from a distant perspective one can quite easily do something to change it, assuming one wants to.

«The book is just as much about how the global economy is working today, a topic that should concern most people.»

The writer has consciously removed several terms in his descriptions, and the most evident is perhaps that he avoids the word “capitalism.” The storytelling techniques are also effective in other ways, in which strategy is used in the form of a dialogue. He often introduces a chapter with a personal experience from summertime on one of the Greek islands–the birthplace of the ancient Greek culture. This serves as a basis for his further anecdotes where, among others, Homer’s achievements are mentioned. Varoufakis commutes unforced between literary and practical examples to illuminate relations of the world economy, and these work as bridges that guide the readers over a complicated and abstract theoretical-economical terrain.

Money and Debt

It has been said from as far back as the early nineties that “the great story” is dead, and we can easily say that Varoufakis brings it back. A wide historical tableau of examples is woven together from the history of economy, money and debt. Varoufakis’ great story opens with an anecdote about how the money system of old Mesopotamia emerged around year 600 BCE. Thereafter the writer explains how money and debt have been an inseparable couple throughout history.

Yanis Varoufakis

As a red thread, emphasis is placed on how a working market economy cannot be imagined without its twin, debt, by its side. This is one of the reasons why we can see the development of economy as a hazardous journey; the twins are always standing in an unstable and tense relation to each other. With the example from the cradle of civilisation in the old river cultures, Varoufakis shows what was one of Marx’s most central points, that work truly is the real determinative value in all economy. The value of “goods” stands in an inseparable dependant relation to the necessary labour required to produce them. The logic around this is complicated, but the writer justifies the point of view well.


Everything is connected in a symbiosis: work, money and goods. But power and interdependencies are unevenly distributed, and it is always the ones who produce or buy the values that draw the shortest straws, both during upswings and crises. Some of the “magic”–a word Varoufakis uses several times–lies in the way the finance and money systems work together.

«The twins, market economy and debt, always stand in an unstable and tense relation to each other.»

The recessions that follow the market economy, in the same way upswings follow the good times, are leading capitalism towards a series of devastating crises. The writer shows how this is built into the relation between debt and investments: To be competitive, businesses must regularly secure loans to stimulate new investments. In reality, this money is being printed by banks or simply typed into a screen with some sort of magical manoeuvre performed by the ruler.

«The book is about how the global economy is working today, a topic that should concern most people.»

The loans are realising the construction of new factories and production, but it is creating a collective expectation of the market needs. Over time this will always lead to bobble-like conditions, where businesses, but also finance institutions, are being threatened to fail. The State comes in to save the banks and the biggest corporations for the country not to fall into a deeper crisis. Again like magic, the most resourceful manage, while the ordinary man and woman must pay off debt, and endure unemployment.

The Oil Epidural

Varoufakis’ proposed solutions are rather limited, but a few things are mentioned. One of the things the writer talks about is that democracy should be expanded to also apply to the economy, but he doesn’t go further into details.

The historian Harald Berntsen, belonging to the left side and specialising in labour movement history, has pointed at the period 1945-1980 as a remarkable upswing in the history of capitalism. The crises have otherwise haunted the economy as a solid ghost regularly throughout the centuries. After the war a special revival climate with an inevitable request of goods was created. For decades everything seemed stable and safe. Most Norwegians who are living today have experiences from this particular period. For Norway, the oil revenues have also created a windshield for the big economical crises that have hit Europe in the 21st century.

“The 400 year night [the Danish reign over Norway] brooded over monkeys [Norway],” Ibsen writes in Peer Gynt. In our time it is the oil money being pumped into the Norwegian economy that numbs Norwegians for the economy crisis’ painful realities. This is precisely why Varoufakis’ book should be translated into Norwegian.

Jan Guillou recently mentioned in an interview that in 1968 the world was clear and ready, not only for him, but for everyone. Today it is far more difficult to orientate in it. This is also why enlightening and critical books such as Talking to My Daughter About the Economy should be welcomed with open arms.

Eckhoff is… XX






Focus Serbia: Fractions of history and the global area

The 18 documentaries selected for international film festival Visions du Réel’s Focus Serbia programme this year are a strong representative sample of Serbian documentary production from the past decade. Several films being screened either analyse or reinterpret important historical events from the country’s turbulent history – whether from the wars in the 1990s or the socialist Yugoslav period. As is often the case, many deal with society’s marginalised, or simply vivid characters that live their lives in the forgotten corners of the country. And quite a few are not related to Serbia itself, but other countries, cities and places in our globalised world. The Focus Serbia collection contains films from all three groups, with humour and bitterness, nostalgia, emotional and political issues often intertwined. All of them are highly personal and very different in terms of style and mood.

History revisited

On-screen personal interpretations of historical events take viewers down somewhat radical roads in recent Serbian documentaries. In Thetha Rhythm (2010) Bojan Fajfric painstakingly reconstructs a day in the life of a politician from the 1980s. The protagonist misses the chance to actively participate in the famous 1987 Communist League of Serbia session that brought Slobodan Milosevic to power and sat the wheels in motion for the breakup of Yugoslavia. But the politician in question was the filmmaker’s father – the reconstruction is not just an exercise in art direction and research, but a deeply personal history that reflects on the choices we may or may not make, and our own paths, often unaware of our bigger picture.

Using a mixture of interviews and archival sources bolstered by interactions with her mother Srbijanka, Mila Turajlic in The Other Side of Everything recreates her mother’s life story: she is a politician and an activist embodying The Other Serbia, an opposition group fighting against Slobodan Milosevic. But the story is also told using the symbolism granted by the divided apartment, half of it nationalised by the communist government after WWII and given to a poor proletarian woman. The narrative line leads Turajlic towards a story quite resonant in contemporary Serbian society: that of a bourgeois family whose struggle for democracy and Western liberal values is accompanied by a longing for lost privileges and its property.

Ideology and recollections of war

Marta Popivoda also uses archival footage and a voiceover in her experimental documentary Yugoslavia, How Ideology Moved Our Collective Body (2013), creating an essay-like audiovisual meditation on massive gymnastic festivals celebrating socialism, and mass voluntary labour activities that rebuilt the country after WWII. Both Popivoda and Dane Komljen rely on certain devices of experimental filmmaking and intend to touch on the political and the collective through the personal.

«Since Serbia is a country with many ethnic minorities, they’ve always been a topic of Serbian cinema.»

Komljen’s Tiny Bird (2013) assumes a more meditative, introspective tone – starting from his father’s documents, Komljen uses associational form to go deeper into the meaning of friendship and new beginnings. Although Ognjen Glavonjic’s Depth Two (2016) shares certain characteristics of the same minimalist style used by Komljen, it is the most grim of all in this category. A story of Serbian war crimes in Kosovo and the corpses of Albanian POW which were carried secretly in trucks to be disposed of on Belgrade’s periphery, Depth Two juxtaposes the seemingly peaceful landscape with voiceovers from witnesses that describe the concealment of mass death – if not for the witnesses, would we even know?

Yugoslavia, How Ideology Moved our Collective Body by Marta Popivoda

 Stories from the margins

A colourful cast of outsiders and eccentric characters from the margins of society have always been a strong trait both of Serbian documentaries and feature films (the obvious example being those of Emir Kusturica). Lena Müller, Vuk Maksimovic and Dragan von Petrovic combine such characters with a «history revisited» approach in Dragan Wende – West Berlin (2013). A mixture of Ostalgie, Yugo-nostalgia and sarcastic comedy emerges, set to a funky soundtrack and frivolous anecdotes from the life of whacky Yugoslav «gastarbeiters» (migrant workers) in Germany. On the other hand, Marko Grba Singh in Abdul & Hamza (2015) follows two refugees from Somalia but focuses on the ordinary, uneventful scenes from their everyday life in the north of Serbia, while they wait to cross the border. Marko Grba is interested in creating a certain atmosphere and a visceral effect – in this case one of waiting and uncertainty, conveyed by long takes and a slow rhythm.

– West Berlin (2013)

Mix of cultural identities

Since Serbia is a country with many ethnic minorities, they’ve always been a topic of Serbian cinema. Stefan Malesevic in Gora (2017) chooses a combination of ethnographic film and poetic documentary, combining landscape, villages, songs and portraits of the Gorani people (Goranci) – a small Slavic Muslim community from spaces between Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia.

«This coming of (a global) age is a central theme of the era that Serbian documentary filmmakers are currently living and working in.»

Zoran Tairovic’s Little Red Riding Hood explores an ethnic minority as well, but it is not your ordinary documentary, if even one at all. While it certainly presents itself as an attempt to tell the classic fable of Little Red Riding Hood, it does so with the ethnic Roma characters so characteristic of Serbia’s classics such as I Even Met Happy Gypsies (Skupljaci Perja, 1967) by Aleksandar Petrovic, to whom it directly refers, or Black Cat, White Cat (Crna macka, beli macor, 1998) by the aforementioned Kusturica. A Roma himself, Tairovic subverts the usual representation of Roma in Serbian cinema, most obviously by using three different narratives that often don’t quite match up: a narrator’s voiceover, subtitles and a character’s lines spoken directly to the camera.

Zoran Tairovic by Little Red Riding Hood

Yet, in this seemingly chaotic collage Tairovic signposts symbolism right from the start. The first thing we see is a swastika on the forearm of a Roma dressed as a Nazi soldier, who dances with the grandmother. In that way, the story of the big bad wolf that ate the grandmother becomes related to Porajmos (the Romani genocide).

A Serbian global era

A large Serbian diaspora started to develop in Western Europe in the 1960s, which snowballed during the war in the 1990s. Serbia, as well as other countries which constituted the former Yugoslavia, by that point had three generations abroad. Their life stories form a rich and often painful history of asylum seeking,refugee status, or economic hardship. Jelena Maksimovic’s and Ivan Salatic’s Heavens (2014) focuses on one girl, raised abroad, who is exploring her identity and the relationship with her father by using home-videos from her childhood that he shot.With subtle interventions and the juxtaposition of archival footage and freshly-shot scenes, Maksimovic and Salatic create a fine emotional weave of nostalgia, love and self-exploration.

Ivan Salatic’s Heavens (2014)

In the 21st century, Serbia no doubt became part of an even more globalised world – filmmakers could more easily study abroad, get scholarships, travel grants and source their potential topics everywhere. Srđan Keca is an excellent example of such a filmmaker – raised in Belgrade, he studied in Paris and London, and now teaches at Stanford University. His film Mirage (2011) is set in Dubai, and while sometimes expressive and almost lyrical in the composition of shots and sound design, it is a bitter depiction of working class life, the dark side of supposed economic growth and the illusion of prosperity that, obviously, does not have a positive impact on everyone.

«Serbian documentary films have clearly come of age and stepped onto the world stage.»

Stefan Ivancic’s Soles de Primavera (Springtime Suns, 2013) can certainly be categorized as a fictional short, without strong documentary signals. Set during last days of summer, the story about four boys, with its loose narrative, long-takes and everyday dialogue, certainly has a veristic quality. What is interesting is that all characters either study abroad or are preparing to study abroad.

This coming of (a global) age is a central theme of the era that Serbian documentary filmmakers are currently living and working in. After several respected films from a whole new generation of auteurs (of recent note is Mila Turajlic’s 2017 IDFA award for best feature-length documentary), and of course with this selection at Visions du Réel, Serbian documentary films have clearly come of age and stepped onto the world stage. Now we must consider what Serbia’s filmmakers can take from it and how world cinema can similarly benefit from them.


A Cross Section of Belgian High-Rise Existence

Set in three high-rise blocks that constitute the now-abandoned Rabot Towers in Ghent, Belgium, this documentary film is as epic and haunting as the buildings themselves. The constructionscocoonedseveral familiesafterbeing installed as low-cost public housing in the mid-1970s.

Rabot(2018)offers a remarkable and highly stylished collective portrait of the tower’s residents that traverses everything from love, loss and drug addiction to the fragility of social cohesion that exists among low income earners within Belgium’s urban areas.

The filmmakers focus on more than a dozen residents of the towers and – in keeping with the egalitarian nature of public housing – refuse to spotlight one narrative over any other and instead construct a lavishly detailed, compassionate and broad-ranging representation of life in post-welfare state public housing.

Waiting fordemolition

The Rabot towers have been slated for demolition since 2009 due to an inability to meet modernsafety standards, the need for constant repair and a general shift by governments away from tower blocks to lower rise medium density construction as the preferred means of delivering public housing. It is at this point of uncertainty that the filmstarts observingits subjects’ situations.

«Like any community existing on the margins of society there are both unsung heroes and unashamed villains.»

As the sequential demolition of the three towers looms and ultimately begins to take place, some of the apartments lie abandoned and in disrepair, others are vacated during the course of filming and a further group of residents continue to live their lives in front of the cameras in a remarkably unselfconscious manner as the first of the towers is demolished.

The filmmaker’s skill is unassuming yet breathtaking at times and the shunning of camera movement in favour of an almost total use of still frames showcases both the interior and exterior locations as melancholic yet theatrical spaces.Each still frame takes on the status of a meticulously detailed environmental portrait much in the same way that a still photographer may document such spaces for detailed examination. As a result the location itself becomesasignificant actor within the narrative of the film.

Christina Vandekerckhove

Urban anthropology

In fact the characterisation of the building is crucial to the realisation of the impressive urban anthropology that the film manages to portray. From shots of the inner mechanisms of the lifts, to the perfectly-balanced still frames showing thefront entrance at one of the tower blocks,the uneasy yet somewhat organic nature of the relationship between building and human is perfectly interpreted by the static cinematography and the action that is captured within the frames. This approach facilitates the creation of a genuine and holistic vision of the lives of the films subjects without the need for an overtly interpretative cinematography.

«The documentary is flawlessly complimented by an eclectic soundtrack.»

The documentary is flawlessly complimented by an eclectic soundtrack, a mixture of both diegetic and non-diegetic music that is always seamlessly positioned to providemomentary pauses that despite being characterised by the absence of noise manage to enhance the film’s narrative development. Whether it be a love starved resident listening to an Elvis hit, or a classical accompaniment to a scene of demolition, the music is always evocative of the lives and suggestive of the ultimate fates of the film’s subjects.

Rabot by Christina Vandekerckhove

Unsung heroes and villains

Theissues faced by residents cast a shadowover the piece – the filmmaker does not shy away from confronting vulnerability and regret. But there is an overall tenderness of approach and throughout the documentary a dignity is afforded to the people affected. Like any community existing on the margins of society there are both unsung heroes and unashamed villains, as well as everyone in between. While the antagonism is only hinted at though the use of suggestive devices such as shots of confrontational graffiti andscenes of residents making official complaints to the housing authority, it is the resilience of the film’s subjects that constantly reinforces the central narrative.

«The location itself becomes a significant actor within the narrative of the film.»

A life-affirming masterpiece

However, there is a majorunsettling undercurrent in this tentativelyoptimistic portrayal: the filmmakerdoes not hold back from relaying theconstant laments fromCaucasian residents about the lifestyles of non-white residents. But, as if to provide an editorial counterpoint, the filmmaker also capturesthe relationship between amentally ill resident, originally from Ghana, and her Belgian-born ex-husband who still cares for her.While difficult in parts, their storyserves as an expression of  interracial lovein an environment which is far from tolerant to it.

Rabot is pure and brilliant social realism, melancholy with elements of tragicomedy, yet irrevocably an expression of the power of human resilience. With its superb characterisation and painstakingly edited narrative it is laced with a dark tenderness and is ultimately a life-affirming masterpiece.



















Beautiful Miners

Ben Russell (geb. 1976, Springfield, Illinois) Good Luck (2017) Vierkanal-Digitalvideoinstallation, übertragen von 16-mm-Film, Farbe und schwarz-weiß, Ton Ca. 90 min Fridericianum

Good Luck

Ben Russell

France, Germany, 143 minutes

The opening shot of Good Luck is a collage of images set to the ominous beat of a drum and off-key trumpets–are we in Serbia or Suriname? Lush green trees, mists and a massive, bleak hill of sandy-coloured mine waste under a blue sky segues to a scene of a mournful brass band marching out of a ruined mine building, the white faces and scruffy Communist-era uniforms tell us this is Serbia.

As may be expected from Ben Russell, a prolific Los Angeles-based documentary filmmaker, the opening shots are hauntingly beautiful and very arty.

Russell is a renowned experimental filmmaker, whose central concerns “as an artist, filmmaker and curator… lie at the intersection of ethnography and psychedelia”, according to a write-up by London’s Tate Gallery where the film screened early February followed by a Q&A with the director.

From the bright primary colours of the opening sequence where a band member laments the loss of the mining village he grew up in (“It has all been swallowed by ‘the pit’ ”, he says without emotion), Russell cuts to a black and white shot of a miner, his face partially shaded by an old-fashioned hard hat, drawing on a cigarette. Again, the shot could be frozen as a still, framed and hung on the wall of a modern art gallery such is the silver-gelatine depth of its image.

«There is no dialogue, just men walking and then drilling with aged equipment into solid rock faces.»


The opening titles appear–Good Luck in parenthesis beneath the Serbian translation Srećno–signalling the Serbian half of a story that literally plumbs the depths of the fundamentals of contemporary capitalism by examining the lives and plights of men who mine copper in Serbia and gold in Suriname.

Good Luck Director: Ben Russell

The transition from the world of light and air to the depths of the earth is done virtually in real time: miners dressed in blue overalls and hard-plastic helmets, amble through the austere corridors of the pithead before entering a steel cage for the 600 metre descent to the mine tunnels. For anyone who has ever been down a copper mine (full disclosure: I have, twice–once in southern Russia and once in central Kazakhstan), the experience is a strangely moving and deeply unsettling one, bordering on the mythical, even the psychedelic, as one emerges into vast tunnels many metres in diameter through which gigantic mining vehicles move like some ancient beasts from another age.

«If you are afraid, then you are out of this mine.»

– quote from a miner.

The mine in Bor, Serbia looks rather anachronistic: it is not well lit and, as the men emerge from their cage to talk along dark tunnels, the sensation is one of swimming through a deep ocean trough lit only by the bobbing lights of their headlamps.

There is no dialogue, just men walking and then drilling with aged equipment into solid rock faces. When Russell turns to individual portraits of the men (there are eleven such sequences in the film) we see for many long seconds full face and full screen men who probably don’t spend nearly as much time studying their features when taking their daily shave. We begin to understand something of their world through fly-on-the-wall footage of their tea breaks, where they chat and smoke, swapping stories and anecdotes in Serbian (fortunately with English subtitles).

Good Luck Director: Ben Russell

“I’m afraid of heights, not depths fortunately!” one man quips, as he swiftly steers a conversation away from political matters. “We said no politics,” he reminds an off-screen interviewer, though later when asked, “What are you afraid of?” one man–lit by a small circle of light from a headlamp–answers, “That Prime Minister Vučić will win the election because then we are all fucked!” Another, more sober voice counsels: “We shouldn’t talk about this on camera.”

Joking apart, the men, who all deny they have no fear (“If you are afraid, then you are out of this mine…”), have ordinary concerns: for more pay; to ensure their children are educated; to get out of the mine.

«I spent months in these mines simply because I wanted to better understand how men persevere.»

– quote from Ben Russell (the filmmaker)

This is an exploration culled from many months of joining the men underground, seeking to understand the comradeship and shared dangers of men literally in the frontlines of what underpins capitalism.


Russell takes his theme further in the second part of this long (almost two and a half hours) film, a switch introduced almost exactly at the midpoint of Good Luck through flashing lights and a circular geometric pattern that looks like an old-fashioned editing mark.

Immediately we are in a totally different world: the lush tropical jungle of Suriname, where a man in a tattered T-shirt, with a pickaxe nonchalantly tucked down his back, is scanning a narrow pathway with a sophisticated metal detector.

Good Luck Director: Ben Russell

It may be a world away, and the mining technique is opencast and surface water panning, but here in the same type of devastated natural landscape men live lives parallel to those in the Serbian caverns.

The Suriname section follows the same leisurely pace as the first half of the film; it is, as they love to say in some parts of the world, “same, same only different.” (And its title Kölōku in Saramaccan, the local dialect, comes in the final minutes, an elegant bookend for the film.)

Russell returns to the same leitmotifs–black and white images of men staring into the camera between longer sections about their lives pumping water and scraping earth, in search of the same ideas of escape from poverty and the working world that traps them. It is perhaps not accidental that we never actually see the results of all this hard work: not an ounce of copper or a gram of gold is clearly shown.

Good Luck Director: Ben Russell

The film originally premiered in the 2017 edition of the contemporary art exhibition documenta 14 as a multi-room installation and Russell says, “From the outset, it felt too easy to critique a process that all of us are directly implicated in, to have a public opinion about the horrors and environmental destruction that are part and parcel of the mining process–be it legal or illegal. It ultimately wasn’t the process that interested me as much as the side effects of the process: the community that arises out of harsh conditions, the collective that manifests out of necessity. I spent months in these mines simply because I wanted to better understand how men persevere.”

Produced in association with ARTE France, with support from CNC and the Berlin-Brandenburg film fund.

Filmed at the RTB Copper mine, Bor, Serbia &  Kiiki Neigi Gold Mine, Brokopondo District, Suriname.
























Portrait of a Ghanaian Child Porter

The title of the film, Kayayo, conjures up a sort of hideous paradox – an amalgamation of a human slave and a self-driving commodity. The tiny bodies of young girls transport monstrous loads on their heads as they trundle behind brisk, overdressed madams, their thin necks somehow staying upright under the weight. The laws of gravity are defied on the dusty, noisy market streets of Accra, Ghana. Reality is merciless.


Highly moving

The already award-winning Norwegian documentary film has received an Oscar nomination. It is only 33 minutes long, competing in the short documentary film category. The family-run production company Integralfilm, which created it has already made waves internationally. Previous significant films included Manislam and A Balloon for Allah – both have a strong focus on minority issues, gender and sexuality via captivating forms of expression mixed with strong poetic elements. Kayayo fits comfortably alongside them.

In Kayayo, the camera trails the historic exploitation of young girls for labour through the eyes of eight-year-old Bamuni – an extraordinarily warm and vivacious protagonist given her circumstances. The film revolves around her and her living situation, through which she becomes a representative of the many «Kayayos». She trusts the camera completely, and displays a wide spectrum of emotion, drawing the viewer completely into her world. A world full of deceit and lack of control, and an early awareness of injustice.

Perfect victims

One scene shows a large woman looming intimidatingly over the child. Bamunu has just been released from carrying her inhuman load. The sound of something breaking is the excuse the woman has been waiting for: she hands out a smaller payment. Bamunu gazes at the coin. She has experienced this before. This time, she will not let the slick customer off so easily. Bamunu stares at her with a threatening look but the woman lifts her hand against her. Screaming, she chases the small human shopping cart away. After all, she no longer needs the girl now that the goods are where they need to be. There are plenty of others to choose from. It’s a veritable Dickensian nightmare.

My 12-year-old daughter looks at me. She is terrified and is wondering if this is real. Does this happen in real life, she asks. «Yes, it’s a documentary,» I answer. «So they are not actors, then?» «No.» «Terrible! They are being fooled!» The film is a kick to the stomach and shakes us to our cores, from the moment it starts. And some of these girls are half her age.
The children live without any rights or protections. Bamunu can’t keep the money she earns herself, safely, and therefore keeps it at a madam’s place. She cannot read or write, and has little idea how much she has saved or whether any has gone missing – which does happen.

Kayayo – de levende handlekurvene / Kayayo – the living shopping carts Director: Mari Bakke Riise

It is obvious that the madam views the money as hers – one day she even yells at Bamunu for not earning enough. «It’s not fair!» screams the Norwegian child next to me. I’m silent. Bamunu is so easy to like, with her wonderfully lively face. Her pain spreads. It has lasted for a long time, her pain – having spent two years away from home, she is so incredibly sad and tired. She works and works, and still, she can’t manage to save much.

Children’s games

Bamunu knows what to do. She goes to the coast together with a friend – another of the human shopping carts. The Ocean God can help them if they just sacrifice a few of those hard earned coins to the salty waves. «Don’t throw the money into the sea!» My daughter is freaking out – that won’t help them, rather the opposite. I carefully reply that your dreams might be the only thing you have in such a hopeless situation. Bamunu dreams about the day she will get a call from home asking her to return. And halfway through the movie the unexpected happens – she gets that very call. Her joy is heartmelting.

She doesn’t mention a single word of her suffering to her mother. Proudly, she says her goodbyes and swears never to return to the hated city Accra. A long bus ride later, she is greeted with joy by her extended family. Only now does it occur to me how lonely she has been in the big city. The whole time, the dream of coming home and learning how to ride a bike, just like her brothers did, has kept her spirits high.

Kayayo – de levende handlekurvene / Kayayo – the living shopping carts Director: Mari Bakke Riise

The film’s ability to communicate metaphorically gives it a big lift. Back in the village, one of the first things she does is try to ride a bike. When her father says that her little brother should have a go instead, she exclaims angrily that he already knows how to ride a bike.
A predicted betrayal.

Her parents tell her that she has to return to work. The other girls have brought home much more money than her. Did she take such bad care of her savings? Bamunu explains how the madam was supposed to conserve them and how her lack of math skills prevented her from keeping oversight. Her father gives a speech about failing crops and he insists on that her family is entirely dependent on her earnings. Her brothers are at school. The money she makes is required to repair the roof. Bamunu will rather have to go to bed hungry when she returns to the city

My daughter is angry because the parents let girls like Bamunu suffer due to the poor behaviour of the adults. She considers they may not be acting, after all. Is the life of these girls in the movie really like that? Why does Bamunu not just learn mathematics so that she can look after her own income? Why does the film crew not help her? Why don’t they save her from going back to hell? And seeing as how Bamunu has had such an awful time, the filmmakers surely pay her well for being in the movie? I explain to my daughter that documentary film has its own rules – in order to ensure that reality is accurately documented, participants do not get paid.

The chain of exchange

«But it’s her life that the film dives into,» my daughter exclaims. She unknowingly hits the nail of an important debate squarely on its head – the ethics of profiteering from the stories of the poor without giving anything back. The balance between getting the message about the chain of exchange across, and being an exchanger oneself, is indeed a tricky one.

The movie is available free of charge with the Deichmanske library card and movie code
After the film was made, Bamunu started receiving help in the form of voluntary donations via Kayayo’s Facebook page – she now receives an education and is able to stay in the village.

A link to a fund supporting the education of other girls currently working as human shopping carts can also be found here:

The film is a kick to the stomach and shakes us to our cores, from the moment it starts.

Bamunu dreams about the day she will get a call from home asking her to return.