SXSW Film Review: Serbian Film (Srpski Film)
Serbian Film (Srpski Film) (2009)
Directed by: Srdjan Spasojevic
Written by: Aleksandar Radivojevic
Studio: Contra Film
Review by: Britt Hayes
I’m going to be honest here: before SXSW, I hadn’t watched a trailer for any of the films playing. Part of me wanted to avoid having any expectations going in and be genuinely surprised. But then a friend pointed out the trailer for Serbian Film. As soon as I saw the trailer, I knew this film was something special. Serbian Film would be unlike anything I had ever seen.
And I was right.
Milos (Srdjan Todorovic) is a semi-retired porn star who only makes a film when his family (wife Maria and his adorable son) is teetering on broke. Then he gets a call from his old porn partner, Layla, who has a once in a lifetime offer for him. There’s a new director in town named Vukmir who is looking to make a high-art, high-concept, more “realistic” porn film, and he wants Milos for his fabled ability to get and maintain an erection without any visual or physical stimuli. Milos meets with Vukmir in a sprawling mansion-style home, where it becomes clear that Vukmir is well-connected, to say the least. Vukmir vaguely explains his concept and says that there is no script, but assures Milos that he will make so much money from this one film, that his son will be taken care of for the rest of his life. So Milos signs the dotted line.
The next morning Milos is picked up and taken to a warehouse where he is given an earpiece by his driver. A voice whispers each move in his ear, and he follows. It seems harmless and sort of banal at first, until a little girl shows up and things begin to get a bit violent with a co-star. It’s here that this high-concept porn film rapidly disintegrates into something sinister. Milos decides this isn’t for him (the first and probably only good idea this guy has during the whole movie), but when he tries to back out, things go from awful to…a word that hasn’t even evolved in our vocabulary yet. Fucking terrible? Appalling? Disgusting? Horrifying.
Serbian Film is not for the faint of heart. You can put a disclaimer at the beginning of a film (“Keep telling yourself ‘It’s only a movie!’”), but more often than not people are not going to take it seriously. If anything it’s a reinforcement of the old adage: tell a kid not to do something, and they’re going to be more inclined to do it. We innately desire what is forbidden, and that is just one of the many ideas that the filmmakers touch on here.
I don’t know much about Serbia. I know it’s a nation that has been rife with conflict for a long time, but here in good ol’ ‘Merica, we don’t usually talk about Serbia (you know, because they don’t have anything we want). When listening to the filmmakers talk after the screening, they were passionate, well-spoken, and had a very clear vision and intention for the film. Serbian Film is not a piece of cinema that seeks to be obscene for the sake of obscenity, and it’s not a film that’s all about shock value with no merit. This is a politically, emotionally, socially, and artistically charged movie. Would I want to see some of the same content in other films? No. But I do want to see more filmmakers this passionate and fearless about their subject matter.
To say that the content in Serbian Film is rough would be a severe understatement. There are images here that no other filmmaker would dream of putting in a film, and if they did, it’s a dream they’d keep to themselves. Imagine everything they would never put in a film – whether it’s a horror film or not is irrelevant – and it’s found its way into Serbian Film. I’ve heard people say that the filmmakers have crossed a line. I’m not going to argue that point because they clearly have, but I believe that in doing so they not only made their point, but they did a damn good job of it. I don’t question their choices because they don’t feel hollow and devoid of meaning. This is an angry film made by very angry people, inspired by their relationship as a people with their country.
There’s also some interesting commentary on what it means to be a family, and what you sacrifice for their happiness only to destroy them and yourself in the process. The filmmakers explained during the Q & A that the landscape of European cinema as they know it makes it nearly impossible to get a film made. Backers want a victim, and that victim has to have a confession as to what made them a victim. Vukmir clearly represents European cinema and its need to victimize, with the client he’s making the film for representing bureaucracy – there’s always an asshole that’s bigger, more important, and more in charge than you. There’s also some commentary on entertainment and how far people in that industry will go, or feel like they have to go, to please an audience. I think this part of the commentary is universal, and it’s the same kind of finger-wagging that Michael Haneke has done in the past. As an audience we are insatiable. No amount of violence or sex is or ever will be enough, and Serbian Film shows us all of those things we don’t even want to consider.
As a commentary on victims and victimization, the filmmakers are almost saying “You want a victim? We’ll give you a dozen of them, and we’ll victimize them so bad that you’ll never want a film about victims again.” Some metaphors in the film are so clear that you can almost see an arrow pointing right at them. I can’t get into details because I don’t want to spoil the film for you, and chances are, you wouldn’t want to hear about it anyway.
It’s hard to recommend Serbian Film to anyone because the content is so brutal, but the message and the motivations behind it are genuine, passionate, and should be taken seriously. This is a very important film, and I know I’m not alone in saying that I felt privileged to see it. More importantly, I felt privileged to see it unedited, the way the filmmakers intended. The Fantasia Film Festival recently picked up Serbian Film as part of a trio of subversive Serbian films they’ll play. I’m anxious to hear the response out of our neighbors in Canada, particularly because I don’t foresee Serbian Film getting US distribution in any form. I spoke with writer Aleksandar Radivojevic last night and asked about a DVD release. He seemed rather optimistic about getting it released, and said that he’s already had a few interested distributors step forward with offers.
When Tim League (owner of the Alamo Drafthouse) got up and said this was one of the most fucked up movies he had ever seen, we all knew we were in for something rough. Tim is a guy who has had a life-long mission to seek out and watch some of the most depraved pieces of cinema ever captured. If you don’t think you can stomach this movie (and not many people can), then don’t watch it. This film is not for everyone. But if you find that you can sit through it, you’ll walk away appreciative. Even if you are repulsed by the content and disagree with the delivery of the message, you will still find Serbian Film to be ultimately important – as a piece of cinema, and as a platform. Another thing I think everyone can agree on is that the film is beautifully made. Shot on RED, it’s executed perfectly and absolutely gorgeous. The music, sound editing, and actors all combine with the cinematography in one of those rarely seen but highly coveted and impeccable end results. Love it or hate it, Serbian Film is well-executed and well-played.
It’s a film that I want to show to people, but not because I want them to witness such horrible atrocities. I want to show this film to people and get them talking about what it is to them, what it means, and how much it impacts them on a conscious level.