The Eclipse, a film by Serbian-born and Oslo-based director Nataša Urban, the winner of this year’s main CPH:DOX DOX:AWARD Competition, is connected to the actual war in Ukraine in more than one way. Briefly put, it shows that those surprised by what is taking place in Ukraine today must have had a total eclipse; that is, they have completely forgotten the war in Yugoslavia from just a few decades ago. And because of this, Urban’s intelligently constructed, courageously frank testimony of the people who spent that war living almost literally on the war front came just on time. How can one not remember seeing this same ruthless looting by the recruits who were sent to defend their nation from the neighbours across the border but have been actually permitting the totalitarian regime of Slobodan Milošević to persist? It has already lost its political legitimacy and economic grounds, so for many, the looting was their main source of income. And how can one not recognise, in the cruelty of the restless shelling of public and residential buildings and snipers targeting people waiting for water and bread, the one and same criminal-military tactics?
Why did the Serbs not speak up
During the 1980s, I was an editor and a journalist of the main Slovene oppositional venue, the magazine Mladina and at the end of the decade, we were used to the threats. But we were only demanding freedom of speech, a more democratic form of government, and a more efficient economy. Most of the people of Yugoslavia, the leading politicians in several republics, and even some chiefs of the communist party were with us. The introduction of parliamentary democracy and a peaceful break up of Yugoslavia seemed the most plausible outcome. This had changed when one well-informed journalist brought the news that Russians would side with Milošević. I vividly remember that, at that moment, I got scared for the first time. Slobodan Milošević was not only personally responsible for fuelling the conflicts between nations in the Federal Republic after the death of Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito, but he was also the only one among the republics’ leaders who were openly dedicated to keeping the communists in power, whatever the cost. The costs – the 1990s war – were beyond our worst expectations. To this day, I am sorry that our endeavour ended that way. I wondered (and many others with me) what happened to the people in Serbia, people like you and me. Why did they not speak up? Why did they not stop this cruel machine? Yes, one can say that I have been waiting for this film for more than thirty years.
we were only demanding freedom of speech, a more democratic form of government, and a more efficient economy.
The work of the documentary film director, who is also the subject of their film, always demands outstanding efforts, probably exactly because it is so close to amateur cinema. Urban has used several “amateur” media, starting with her dad’s mountaineering logbook. She skilfully combined various formats, 16mm and Super 8, with archive footage to explore the fluid borders between individual and collective, private and public, personal and political. One example of her outstandingly subtle way of combining personal with the historical narrative is various episodes of the solar eclipse (1961, 1999) that demonstrate how much more totalitarian was Milošević’s regime compared to Tito’s. But the true advantage is her courage. The courage in giving word to her parents, other family members, and friends, and first of all, her fearless and intelligent aunt, who vividly remembers the cruelties of the war criminals, repercussions awaiting all those who dared to protest or in any other way differ from the dominant discourses, but also the times before that. The times of intertwined ethnicities, the love of couples from different nations, the softness and notorious generosity of Muslims. Things that, in Yugoslavia, we all appreciated and were proud of. This film’s approach is not one of nostalgia but of a quest for the fragments of memory that got lost and now needs to be revived if we want to regain our trust in humanity. Because in the end, this is what this film is about—the eclipse of humanity.
She skilfully combined various formats, 16mm and Super 8, with archive footage to explore the fluid borders between individual and collective, private and public, personal and political.
Meticulously deconstructing her own personal and family history, the director managed to expose the very bottom of what makes the war possible – the toxic masculinity of the culture that despises women; the cruelty of commonly performed practices such as the director’s grandfather’s slaughtering of pigs; and the silence of the common people.
When the war in former Yugoslavia was in full swing, the director’s family was hiking. Her father wanted them to live a normal life, he says. At one other point, as in an ironic, anticipated reply to the daughter’s inquiry, we hear her father read from his mountaineering logbook, “I have been hanging out with does, foxes, and wild boars for years”. Many of us can identify with this feeling, a sure sign that we are losing trust in humanity and willingly replacing other people’s company with animals or, say, plants. But one can not change the proper belonging. The Eclipse makes this very clear. It is about Serbs, but just as it is hard to be a Serb because of the 1990s war, so today, when our fellow humans all over the globe are eagerly accepting the war. In recent democratic elections, not only in Serbia, vote for dictators. It seems hard to accept this linkage. But, as one can not escape one’s nation, it is even less possible to escape one’s species. Looking away will not make humanity human again. The Eclipse is proof we can only do it ourselves.