Thursday, October 12, 2017

Film Review                          The Other Side of Everything

By Gloria Geller

Director: Mila Turajlic – Serbian documentary
Participants: Srbijanka Turajlic, Mila Turajlic, other family members

In the late 1980s, early 1990s, we witnessed the impossible as the USSR fell and eastern European countries declared independence relatively free of violence.  We observed the citizens of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Eastern Germany, and Ukraine dancing in the streets declaring their newly won freedom.  These velvet revolutions did not extend to Yugoslavia a country that only came into being after the fall of the Austrian and Ottoman Empires after the first World War. After the Second World War under communist leader, Marshall Josip Tito Yugoslavia became a federation of the six republics of Bosnia, Herzogovenia, Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, Slovenia and two autonomous provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina.  The country could not hold itself together with the death of Tito in 1980 and the subsequent fall of communism in Eastern Europe.

The film, The Other side of Everything presents the experiences of one Serbian family through the eyes of a woman, Srbijanka Turajlic, an activist and academic, to the filmmaker, her daughter, Mila Turajlic.
We are familiar only with Serbian nationalists, with the sadistic behaviours of the military/paramilitary, of ethnic cleansing of Muslims and Croats.  Turajlic, a Serbian filmmaker presents us with another side of Serbia by filming her mother, Srbijanka ensconced in the apartment that has been in the family since the multi-family building was built in the mid 1900s by a great grandfather who was a doctor and member of the legislature.

She tells the story of the apartment on one hand and of the Serbian resistance to Milosevic and Serbian nationalism on the other hand through her mother’s political activism.  A thread running through the film concerns the portion of the apartment on the other side of the family’s apartment.  We wonder what is on the other side and why the two sections of the same apartment are closed off from one another.  To what extent does the symbolism of a locked door and an unseen apartment, represent a metaphor for the situation of Serbia, the country, a portion of which is locked away and out of sight.

The building is centrally located in the city of Belgrade across from government buildings, the Department of Defense, the Supreme Court and foreign embassies.  The family is able to look out the window on the second floor of the building and see history unfold before their eyes.  The family inhabited one floor of the building, an apartment of 2600 square feet until Yugoslavia came under communist rule and the police arrived to tell them they were over-housed. They were to have one room for their family which included Srbijanka’s parents and their two children, an aunt and another family member, the rest of the apartment would be given to other people.  Srbijanka’s father was able to talk them into giving them one more room while two other rooms and a hallway were given to others and the doors between the two sections were permanently locked.  A key sat in the keyhole on their side.  This was the only space Srbijanka ever knew and she maintained she did not want to see what was on the other side, nor did she want to request the return of the apartment.  She did recognize though that this may not be for her to decide as the apartment was her daughters’ legacy.

Srbijanka’s parents had been lawyers, the family clearly among the elite of Belgrade who were not trusted by the communist regime.  Her parents didn’t want her to study law as she would have to join the communist party.  So she studied electrical engineering, became a professor at the university and married a mathematics professor.
Srbijanka was an outspoken activist, frequently speaking out against Milosevic and the regime.
She tells us about the break-up of Yugoslavia, the efforts made to gain freedom and democracy which was crushed by Milosevic, about the demonstrations, police brutality, and sanctions which led to huge inflation causing empty shelves in groceries, lack of food, experiencing hunger and wondering how she would feed her children. She addresses Serbia as a pariah state, the NATO bombing and destruction, and the excitement over the October 5 Revolution which led to the fall of Milosevic.  The two women also explore Srbijanka’s political views and activities since the end of the Milosevic’s dream/nightmare.

As they hold their conversations, Srbijanka brings out family documents, the money they used during inflationary times  in the millions used to buy next to nothing, and family heirlooms, objects that tell the family’s story.  Mila films gatherings of family members and friends around the table sharing meals and holidays together.  At one point Mila visits the next-door tenant on the other side of the door, someplace her mother says she’s never gone.  When Nada, the tenant dies, they discuss whether Srbijanka will be applying to have the rooms returned to their family.

I found this film enlightening just to see and hear the story of one family caught up in Serbia’s turbulent history throughout the 20th century.  The mother, determined to fight for a democratic society, the daughter who was in attendance at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival), admitted to great ambivalence to her home country, manifested by the fact that she has lived away from Serbia for some time but is also drawn back there.  Certainly as a filmmaker she has an important story to tell to those of us who sat bewildered in front of the television set night after night for years wondering why people who had been able to live together in relative harmony over substantial periods of time could be induced to kill their next door neighbours. 

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