Wednesday, February 07, 2018

SBIFF ’18: A Sniper’s War

If you want to see what ethnic cleansing looks like after the passage of time, visit the Srpska administrative district of the sovereign nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. At this point, most of the Serb residents refuse to acknowledge their legal central government or the war crimes committed against Bosnian Muslims that soaked the ground in blood. Today, hundreds of Serbian mercenaries are trying to help Russia achieve similar results in Ukraine’s Donetsk Oblast. Dejan “Deki” Beric is one of them. As a sniper, he has killed many Ukrainians for the sake of Russian imperialism, but he considers himself the freedom fighter. His extremist zeal never wavers in Olya Schechter’s chilling A Sniper’s War (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

Deki has a long history of fighting with war criminals, but everything that happens is the fault of America or the Ukrainians. Technically, he has been disowned by his own nation, who will imprison him if he ever returns. Watching Deki go about his business coldly and calmly is a little like watching a serial killer movie, but the real touchstone is Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer. Deki truly believes in the warped world views of Putin and Milosevic. Anything to the contrary are the lies of American. When Schechter asks if he realizes the rest of the world considers him a fascist, he looks like she called him a Martian.

Following the Barbet Schroeder playbook, Schechter maintains a policy of strict neutrality, which allows Deki to reveal his true self. What emerges is the portrait of a killer, who refuses to take responsibility for any of his actions. He is a monster, with a well-defined list of grievances and a rapidly escalating body-count. Wisely, Schechter mostly avoids showing Deki’s kills, but they are numerous—and they very definitely define who he is.

Ironically, the Deki probably would take a shot at one of its editors, if he had the opportunity and knew Dmitriy Khavin’s short documentaries on pre- and post-Maidan Ukrainian life, particularly the eye-opening Quiet in Odessa. However, as a frequent editor for Vice reports, Khavin is quite experienced cutting together extreme footage. He and Dmitry Rozin never stack the deck against Deki, so he should have nothing to complain about, but Schechter’s highly cinematic fly-over shots make the extent of the damage wrought by his war starkly evident.

Sniper’s War is a disturbing film, but it was meant to be so. Schechter largely adopts a fly-on-the-wall observational perspective, but what we witness is pretty ugly and hate-filled. Highly recommended as an expose on extremism (but not as a primer on the Ukrainian or Bosnian Wars), A Sniper’s War screens today and tomorrow (2/7 & 2/8) during this year’s SBIFF and on February 23rd at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.