Saturday, June 14, 2014

HRW ’14: For Those Who Can Tell No Tales

Tragically, the bridges of Bosnia-Herzegovina have been irrevocably altered by the war. The most widely reported example is the obliteration and reconstruction of Mostar’s Stari Most. Such a fate would have better fallen on the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge in Višegrad. Once best known as a symbol of permanence in Nobel Prize winning native son Ivo Andrić’s The Bridge on the Drina, it is now a carries the baggage of wartime crimes atrocities. Of course, the locals do not exactly advertise its recent history. Australian theater performer Kym Vercoe had to uncover it for herself. She revisits the process in Jasmila Žbanić’s dramatized documentary, For Those Who Can Tell No Tales (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York.

Vercoe (who plays herself), brought two books on her Balkan tour. One was Andrić’s famous novel. The other was Tim Clancy’s guide book. Wanting to see the bridge, Vercoe plans an excursion to Višegrad, booking a night in the Vilina Vlas Hotel, based on Clancy’s recommendation. She spends a fitful, sleepless night there, feeling physically ill when she checks out. A quick bit of internet research back in Australia reveals the hotel was a notorious rape camp maintained by Bosnian-Serb paramilitaries. Approximately two hundred women were held captive there, but most of their bodies have yet to be found.

Haunted by her proximity to genocide, Vercoe returns once more to Višegrad as a sort of investigative tourist. This time it is winter and the reception she receives is just as chillier. Yet, she doggedly films the scenes of the crimes against humanity, in hopes they can form some sort of documentary record. She also becomes driven to somehow craft a memorial to the victims of Vilina Vlas. That impulse led to the creation of her one-person show, which ultimately evolved into the film at hand after Žbanić saw a performance.

Even though she is playing herself, Vercoe shows tremendous range and subtly. We get a sense of her artistic sensibilities, but also the fortitude it took to withstand intimidation from Srpska’s finest. This is her first screen performance, but it should not be the last. Old Tim Clancy will probably never live down the deliberate omissions of his guidebook, but Simon McBurney’s brief portrayal is certainly memorably turned, if not necessarily sympathetic.

Given the genesis of Tell, an autobiographical work created by an outsider, there is obviously a risk the film treatment could build drama around Vercoe at the expense of the underlying subject. However, Žbanić and her co-adapter-lead maintain a palpable awareness of just what happened at each Višegrad location. There is an overreliance on the video diary convention to convey exposition (they probably knew it too, but were stuck for alternatives). Nonetheless, following the course of Vercoe’s private inquiry is quite compelling.

Tell is a rather short, quiet film that does not have a lot of narrative fireworks. Yet, it packs a surprisingly potent emotional charge, thanks to Vercoe’s performance and Žbanić’s eye for visuals. Cinematographer Christine A. Maier capitalizes on the striking (if often wintry and severe) backdrops. As a result, it is surprisingly cinematic, especially considering its meditative nature. One of a few standout films at this year’s highly uneven HRW Film Festival (along with Sepideh Reaching for the Stars), For Those Who Can Tell No Tales is recommended rather highly when it screens Monday (6/16) at the Walter Reade and Tuesday (6/17) at the IFC Center.