Wednesday, June 18, 2014

AFI Docs ’14: The Agreement

Not long after WWII, the Axis nations were fully integrated back into the international community. In contrast, the Serbs ousted Milosevic on their own initiative, yet they still carry baggage from the Balkan wars. If Serbia can forge a cooperative peace with her neighbors, they all stand to gain potential EU membership. They are not there yet, but EU diplomat Sir Robert Cooper will try to mediate a crucial baby step. Viewers watch like UN observing flies on the wall as negotiators from Serbia and Kosovo may or may not come to an understanding in Karen Stokkendahl Poulsen’s The Agreement (trailer here), which screens during this year’s AFI Docs in Washington, DC.

Considered a formative influence on Tony Blair’s foreign policy, Cooper argues the EU is one of mankind’s greatest achievements, except when it has failed spectacularly as it did in the Balkans. For good cinematic reasons, Poulsen gives us far more scenes of Cooper reciting poetry (usually Auden) than pontificating on policy. Theoretically, the film really is not about him, but his personality will greatly shape the proceedings.

Deputy Prime Minister Edita Tahiri will represent Kosovo, facing Borko Stefanović, Political Director of the Serbian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Apparently, they are trying to reach an accord to allow each country to accept the other’s documentation for border crossings, without formally recognizing Kosovo’s independence or Serbia’s right to care. However, it is hard to get a comprehensive sense of what the minor treaty entails, because most of their time is spent haggling over the tiniest of words.

Even the staunchest of Euro-skeptics (which now includes just about all of Cooper’s countrymen) will find The Agreement shockingly engrossing. The really is the sausage-making side of international diplomacy, where the power of personality is disconcertingly important. It is also fascinating to feel our sympathies shift from one negotiator to another. Initially, Tahiri’s aggressive posture is off-putting, especially compared to Stefanović’s professionalism.

However, when we learn Tahiri spent months hiding in a bunker-like basement during the war because Serb forces put a bounty on her head, it is easier to understand her skepticism. In fact, the roles reverse as the negotiations drag on, with Stefanović’s miscommunication threatening to undermine the deal.

Somewhat ironically, all three principles (Stefanović, Tahiri, and Cooper) emerge from the film looking like nice folks, who might have been chummy colleagues if they all taught at the same university. Since they are always interesting company, The Agreement never feels dry. Of course, there are also very real stakes involved—not so much the accord itself, but the macro effort to foster something like peace in the region that it represents.

Maybe The Agreement is a film for the wonkish, but at just under an hour, it has none of the Wiseman-esque excesses one might suspect. If you want to see Balkan diplomats debate semantics, it is pretty darn great, sort of like a caffeinated version of C-Span. Recommended for foreign policy eggheads, The Agreement screens tomorrow (6/19) and Saturday (6/21) as part of the 2014 AFI Docs.