Saturday, May 23, 2015

BHFFNYC ’15: Dear Lastan

He looked like Archie and gave advice like Dr. Drew. For decades, the children of the former Yugoslavia and independent Croatia looked to the fictional advice columnist to guide them through the grossness of puberty and the challenges of growing up. Irena Škorić documents the lasting influence of the iconic teenage counselor in Dear Lastan (trailer here), an opening night selection of the 2015 Bosnian Herzegovinian Film Festival in New York.

Modra Lasta (“Blue Swallow” in English) was like Yugoslavia’s version of The Weekly Reader, but somehow it was hipper, despite being part of the state media apparatus. In 1969, they created “Lastan,” hoping kids would open up to a cooler older brother figure. It worked, as mailbag after mailbag quickly proved. Several writers assumed the Lastan persona, but only a few of their identities have been recently revealed. Many of Škorić’s interview subjects argue Lastan was the best kept secret in publishing history—and they are probably right. After all, Lastan predated Woodward & Bernstein’s “Deep Throat” and remained shrouded in mystery well after Mark Felt outed himself. Yet, that is really the least of the Lastan story.

Even if you are a Yankee who never read Modra Lasta, listening former readers’ affectionate reminiscences will bring on waves of nostalgia. Some of the letters are a quite funny, reflecting teenagers’ peculiar predilection for melodramatic self-importance, while Lastan’s often curt responses are wickedly droll. However, readers also wrote in with real problems that received thoughtful answers.

It is fascinating to see how the Lastan column evolved to reflect the tenor of the times. Although it never rocked the boat politically during the Communist era, it was one of the few outlets that provided teens frank sexual advice. As one would subsequently expect, there was often tragic subtext to the early 1990s wartime-era correspondence. In fact, many soldiers and homefront survivors kept reading and writing Lastan well into their twenties to maintain a sense of stability.

Škorić interviews dozens of grown Lastan fans, whose stories range from the eccentrically goofy to the surprisingly profound. She immediately taps into the universal essence of the Lastan phenomenon, so non-Balkan viewers will quickly feel like they too are well acquainted with his columns.

This is one of the biggest sleepers you could ever hope to find on the festival circuit. The story of a children’s cartoon advice columnist in the former Yugoslavia might sound narrowly specialized to potential viewers and programmers alike, but it is actually a film just about everyone can relate to. Consistently entertaining and often quite moving Dear Lastan was a real discovery at this year’s Bosnian Herzegovinian Film Festival in New York. Don’t pass up a screening, should the opportunity arise. Those who missed it can still catch intriguing films like The Sarajevo Assassination, A Quintet, and Racket when the BHFFNYC ’15 concludes today (5/23), at the Tribeca Cinemas.