Tuesday 12 November 2013

When Day Breaks - Serbian cinema at the UK Jewish Film Festival

Regular readers will know that I have recently visited Belgrade and that I am extremely fond of both the city and its friendly and welcoming people. So when I discovered that a Serbian film was showing at this year's UK Jewish Film Festival, I was intrigued. It was interesting to recognise Kralja Petr Street and the interior of the Belgrade synagogue in the film - both of which were used as locations. And that recent familiarity with the city added to the experience of watching this excellent film.

Misha Brankov, the central character, is a retired music professor who by chance discovers that he is not who he thought he was. Workmen repairing a water pipe at a former concentration camp in Zemun within the Belgrade city boundaries discover an old tin box containing an unfinished musical score composed by Misha's father and enough information for his true identity to be revealed. His parents, Belgrade Jews, had been amongst the 4,000 gassed within the city itself and had hidden him as a small child with a non-Jewish family who brought him up as their own.

The film, based on a true story, follows his journey of self-discovery and also his determination to honour his father and the other victims from the camp, which had originally been built as a fairground. Questions of identity and belonging run throughout the film. We meet a Serbian woman on the site of the camp and learn that she is a refugee driven out of another part of the former Yugoslavia twenty years earlier and still living in appalling conditions with no help, forgotten. We see a broken former opera singer whose son had been killed during the wars of the1980's and we meet a group of gypsies who are also on the outside of mainstream society. And of course the central character struggles with his "new" identity as well as the prejudices and exclusions faced by older people. His wife is dead, his son has little time for him and so he seeks the company of other outsiders - the lonely, the forgotten, the gypsies.

I do not intend to reveal the outcome of the story, but I will say that this is probably the most moving piece of cinema I have seen in many years. The soundtrack, the dark interiors and the overcast Serbian winter combine to draw the viewer in and it is entirely possible to feel yourself walking in those Belgrade streets and like Misha, seeing people being loaded into the killing vans which were driven from the camp to the city whilst gas was pumped into the van until all were dead. 4000 Serbian Jews were murdered in this way before at least another 32,000 Serbs, gypsies and anti-fascist Croats, Greeks and Albanians were murdered in the camp itself during the German occupation. To this day there is no real memorial to the victims and the film is partly a protest about continued official indifference.

There is an excellent lead performance from Mustafa Naderervic as Misha Brankov (Weiss) whilst the two young men who play the part of the gypsy violinists taught by Misha also shine. Interestingly the many reviews on the internet do not seem to carry their names. Director Goran Paskalejevic has been making films since the late 1960's and has won a number of awards. This film should introduce him to a much wider audience.

More from this year's UK Jewish Film Festival here and here.

Interior, Belgrade synagogue

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