Let me first start off by saying that I think A Serbian Film is a fantastic, thought provoking film. When I first watched it upon its release, (a very close friend of mine got an imported version) I was not disgusted by the film (as many were) but unsure about how I felt. After thinking about it for a few weeks (it is a film you cannot erase) I realized that it was a brilliant piece of art. It discusses different elements on society (not just Serbian society) while commenting on the political condition in Serbia (or what has happened in Serbia) within the last fifteen years. An enormous amount of critics and everyday people wrote off the film as filth and refused to look past the aesthetics.
A Serbian Film began to circulate right around the same time as The Human Centipede and was thrown into the “shock horror” genre. While The Human Centipede was more of a “fun” movie (not terribly good but to my liking anyways), the deeper and more intellectual parts of A Serbian Film were overlooked because it was too gross or to be put simply, it was a horror film. I don’t want to discuss A Serbian Film as a movie (production, cinematography, directing, etc.) but more as to what it represents and the context that it belongs in because, ”A Serbian Film’ refers both to Mr. Spasojevic’s movie and also, perhaps more directly, to the movie inside it, which Vukmir [the porn director in the film] envisions as a transcendent expression of Serbia’s national identity. (Scott 11). Serbia’s identity became very fragile because “During the 1990s Serbian society faced difficult historical circumstances: the disintegration of their state and bloody civil war characterized by genocide, ethnic cleansings and war atrocities, economic and cultural sanctions and isolation, stigmatization of their country, the Kosovo conflict and NATO bombing in 1999, the oppression of Milosevic’s authoritarian regime, and the extreme criminalization of ordinary life” (Kronja 17). These historical and social aspects cannot be ignored and I refuse to let this film be denied the intellectual justice it deserves. In this essay, I want to educate the haters and prove that there is more substance than meets the eye. Lastly, I want to talk about art and what it means. Buckle up bitches.
A Serbian Film is probably most vocal about the political issues within and surrounding Serbia. “As is often the case with movies like this, ‘A Serbian Film’ revels in its sheer inventive awfulness and dares the viewer to find a more serious layer of meaning” (Scott 11). The serious layer is there, referencing the bloody civil war and the authoritative government that raped (figuratively) the people who inhabited Serbia. To understand the movie better, it is necessary to first touch briefly on the politics in the early 90s in Serbia, “Following the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, the Serbian community, ruled by Slobodan Milosevic’s authoritarian regime, was exposed to armed conflict for the territories and civil wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, economic sanctions and poverty, political oppression and cultural isolation, NATO bombing, and, as a result of the tremendous spread of fear, crime and violence” (Kronja 17). So, out of the uniting brotherhood that was a part of the Yugoslavian world, there was a violent break up and once a country is put on their own, they need to create an identity. Unfortunately, in the midst of this break-up, Milosevic was running Serbia in his own violent ways by giving gangsters and criminal’s authority by working for him.
“Ordinary people in Serbia found themselves in poverty, deep insecurity, and a devastating social and moral crisis. Violence and harassment infiltrated all human interactions. All these circumstances significantly reduced quality of life, causing indigence and psychological despair, a permanent feeling of instability and deprivation, and early death. They were stuck between the destructive and oppressive regime and foreign sanctions, intolerance, and isolation, of their country through no fault of their own” (Kronja 18). There is a sense of dispossession that the Serbians experienced that created fear and lack of identity. When I say, dispossessed, I mean that they were taken out of the normalcy that they were comfortable with (like less violence and being taken advantage of by thugs). The citizens of Serbia are raped of any rights, whether constitutional or human and forced to do whatever they are told. You see now where I am going with this? Milo, the main protagonist is required to do whatever he is told when filming the porno. You couldn’t just say no. When he does say no, he is forced into a drugged state and then does the most disgusting acts without questioning (until the end but that is to be discussed later). The idea that Serbians are “fucked from birth” is most poignant in the obviously fake “NEWBORN PORN” scene. It is a rather disturbing, yet effective metaphor to growing up in Serbia, people there are (were) just…fucked.
The violence that rattled the country began to define it. After the creation of the Milosevic regime, violence was an everyday part of life. Like commercialism and capitalism in the United States, these elements worked their way into just about everything. “Violence as a way of life found its expression throughout the cultural domain, from popular music and culture, music videos and tabloid press, to the theatre and cinema” (Kronja 18). What we have now is a culture that embraced aggression in the media and popular culture. So the rather explicit violence and the gratuitous nature of the film is playing on a media outlet that most people outside of Serbia do not understand. Serbia has a whole catalog of films that were overtly violent and political; A Serbian Film was a part of this wave of exploitative films. In the depictions of brutal and unsettling situations, the main points have been missed all throughout Serbian cinema in terms of the effects of violence on culture.
“In general, contemporary Serbian cinema fails to provide insight into the mechanism of social violence, to trace its origins and its cancer-like spread. This failure seems due to two main causes: a lack of historical distance and the fact that poverty, humiliation, victimization, and violence in Serbia were so severe that no symbolic representation could match the real violence in the streets, the media, the battlefield, and ultimately in people’s homes, where violence entered mainly through media propaganda and hate rhetoric but also through dissatisfaction, distress, and lack of perspective. No matter how violent these films are, they remain only a weak reflection of the real violence in the society”. (Kronja 28)
With all its over-the-top grotesque acts of bloodshed, A Serbian Film is unable to truly present what happened in Serbia during the civil war. Why was only A Serbian Film made a big deal, if most of the Serbian cinema is filled with just as horrid acts? Pretty simple explanation really, because A Serbian Film was bold enough to go international and try to throw these messages about Serbia in our faces.
Pornography is a large element (of course) to the film as well, though its attack on the sex industry is mostly used to prove more political points, there is some talks about the effects of commercialized sex. The film loses its balance and forms a bit of hypocrisy by “An initially confrontational but gradually abandoned exploration of the debilitating effects of pornography on participants and consumers (the opening scene features Milos’ young son Petar illicitly sampling his father’s back catalogue) becomes an attempt at special pleading, with Vukmir complaining about Serbia’s pariah status while producing highly specialized (and explicitly ‘Serbian’) porn for export” (Brooke 74). The intention was to attack the sex industry and show the effects of “bought and sold” sex and then use the rape, drugging, and murder as allegorical material to Serbia. The sexual deviance of the father and Serbian politics leads to the death of the family and creates a nihilistic picture. After they are dead, their corpses will now be used as sex toys (more or less) as if death cannot bring an escape. Your vessel is still going to be used by the government for whatever purposes. Very grim indeed.
Welcome to Art
I want to use this section to talk about A Serbian Film in a more abstract way but at the same time remind you that art is something that will constantly challenged what others think or awaken those who are asleep. I defend art and will do so until I am dead and no longer part of this earth. Being a Literature major I am very keen on things that are either abstract or use other notions to convey meanings. A Serbian Film is quite capable of doing that. Already I have pointed out what historical context it derives itself from and also what commentary it makes on culture and media. I want to talk now about the human condition and then why this film is important.
While A Serbian Film is very much a negative discourse on nihilism (Fight Club) and politics, there is still a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. The human condition or what separates us from the animals becomes a large topic at the end of the film. Now, while we are just the highest evolved form of mammals, we are still at our cores, animals. We have our carnal side and we also have the side that is educated and human. Vukmir puts Milo into a drugged state and forces him to do appalling things, such as rape a woman, slice her throat, and then rape her decapitated body (in case you somehow forgot all that). In this state, Milo acts out the most carnal and animalistic emotions possible. The section I just mentioned was more being told what to do, like a dog with a master. There is a scene in which Milo is in the street and begins masturbating at the sight of an attractive female; he has zero filtering in his thought process, just acting out what makes him feel good.
Then we get to the very end in which Milo is forced to rape his wife first (unbeknownst to him) then rape his son. When the bag is removed from his son’s head, there is a moment of realization in Milo’s eyes, that this is his boy, his own blood. Even in a hormone raging state, he still has compassion and emotions that bring him back to being human. That is what saved Milo but ultimately led to destruction. They are called “The Serbian Family”, a family that represents the downtrodden people of Serbia, forced to do whatever they are told, raped of any rights, and left to figure it all out.
Art has challenged authority and the ratings system for many years. Art is always attacked because it has the audacity to point out things that are wrong with a society or government. The Catcher in the Rye was banned but now we all have to read it in high school. James Joyce’s Ulysses was banned from the States and numerous other countries because it was pornographic and was demeaning to religion. A Clockwork Orange is a tale about a group of individuals who go around and rape whoever they want, yet you can easily pick up a copy at Best Buy. Is a Serbian Film any worse than that? Maybe, but these are different times. Something like A Clockwork Orange was violent for its era but now it is just tame compared to things like A Serbian Film or Martyrs. When can we stop looking at just the aesthetics and begin to read the subtext?
I hope this semi-dense article helped give context and understanding to A Serbian Film. Like I stated before, I liked this movie and think it is a smart take on politics and culture. One if these days, someone is going to agree with me who is very high up and this film may be studied in universities and have lectures given on it. It is just a movie, just images that were created to make a point. It’s not real! It represents something. People need to learn to separate fiction from reality. This film was made with intentions, its script was written with intentions, and it has all been made to prove something. It is less of a narrative and more of a commentary. I may come under attack for liking this film so much but I don’t mind. I defend film, I defend horror, but most of all, I defend art.
Brooke, Michael. “A Serbian Film.” Sight &Sound. 21.2 (2011): 74-75
Kronja, Ivana. “The Aesthetics of Violence in Recent Serbian Cinema: Masculinity in Crisis.” Film Criticism. 30.3 (2006): 17-37. Print.
Scott, A.O. “Torture or Porn? No Need to Choose.” New York Times 05/13/2011: 11. Print