When the moon obscured the sun in 1961 in what was then Yugoslavia, there was great excitement. Schoolchildren were educated on how to look at this celestial event so as not to damage their eyes. Since such an occasion only comes along every few decades, it was deemed to merit full attention. The eclipse had resonated with Serbian filmmaker Nataša Urban, who is in the frame of her debut feature, The Eclipse as interviewer and memory gatherer, as a more innocent time when history in Yugoslavia was treated as something worth participating in and remembering. That was before the devastation of the ’90s wars — which the population has been desperately trying to forget. After all, it is difficult to look at such darkness straight on and process the cognitive dissonance that the country one loves and which one has been formed by cannot be separated from such horror. In The Eclipse, the deserving winner of the top DOX:AWARD at the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival will screen at Dokufest in Kosovo and the Sarajevo Film Festival in August, Nataša seeks to redress the region’s willed amnesia by recording the recollected experiences of her extended family.
The Eclipse opens by slowly scanning, in black and white, across the lunar globe, which seems calm and otherworldly, as if detached from Earth’s daily hubbub. Then we’re deposited into a colour landscape, the moon small above — a reminder that we always view things, no matter how distant they may seem, from a place in time.
«Well, I guess I know about that. But I’ve forgotten, to be honest.» Nastaša’s father, Borislav, is responding to her question about whether he is aware of the 1999 discovery of the bodies of 83 Kosovo Albanians in a freezer truck from a meat-packing plant with no license plates, submerged in the Danube, which had been en route to a mass grave in Serbia. Serb forces had killed the victims as part of their campaign of ethnic cleansing, and the atrocity had been covered up as a state secret until it formed part of the evidence at the Hague’s war crimes tribunal. Remembrance blurs with forgetting a lot in The Eclipse, as horrors are revisited or edged around in conversation, and repressed blanks mean some things do not register. The impulse seems symptomatic not so much of a desire to downplay culpability or excuse those responsible but of minds unable to fully confront such a moral void, protecting themselves.
… a reminder that we always view things, no matter how distant they may seem, from a place in time.
Nataša left Serbia long ago. In 1996, she went to study photography in Bucharest (her ongoing interest in the material possibilities of film not only as a memory aid but a site for analogue experimentation is evident in a rich, visually evocative blend of formats), and she now resides in Oslo. She had made a point of not looking back to the turbulent war times until she discovered her father’s mountaineering journal, which he had kept for more than thirty years. Her father had continued with his passion for hiking, walking in Fruška Gora, a mountainous region near Novi Sad in what is now Serbia, in an effort to retain a grasp on normal life as the war raged around. These entries are read in voiceover as he revisits places he had trekked. Factual text of what was happening in the war on the equivalent dates is inter-spliced.
Chronology of atrocity
A historical chronology of atrocities is by this means set down for remembrance and wider circulation to audiences, as well as being welded to the family history. Genocidal crimes by Croatia’s Ustaše ultranationalists (footage of a memorial to the 1941 Prebilovici massacre of around 600 women and children is shown), Serbian armed forces, and Chetnik paramilitaries (the 1995 killing of nearly 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica under the command of Ratko Mladic is recalled) are both discussed. The film seeks not to settle degrees of blame but rather to forge a psychological portrait of how history and memory both function and fail for individuals caught in such an extreme ethical breakdown. «Both sides beat me», says a man from Vukovar (a city previously praised for its high number of mixed marriages), persecuted by Serbs because he was a Croat, and by Croats, because he had a Serbian wife.
While the facts, unembellished and undiminished, are burnt into the film without compromise, it is the suggestive power of details, coming through as inhabited oral history, as Nataša speaks with numerous family members and friends, that gives the film its flooring emotional force. An aunt, Branislava, affirms Nataša’s impression that her grandfather had real sadism in his eyes whenever he slaughtered a pig and her conclusion that this terrifying, incomprehensible impulse, as a feature of humanity, had a real part to play in the war. A hibiscus plant, four floors up in the Executive Council building in Belgrade, stays conscientiously watered, despite evacuation under NATO bombs, by a female inspector, who drags buckets up from the cellar, and is compelled to maintain a semblance of nurture and routine, despite or rather because of, the chaos around. And Nataša herself, who has blocked out, «as if it had been erased», a visit back to Vukovar in the ’90s, where she photographed ruined apartments and a pram in the snow, despite live landmines. The Eclipse, then, is her film of memory work and return, negotiating the pain inextricable from observation.