Saturday, 23 November 2013

MOVIE: A Serbian Film (2010)

Before proceeding, I will point out that this isn't just one of my usual reviews. It's evolved into something of an essay, if you like, on a film which it has taken me a full three years to actually watch, and a personal explanation and exploration of exactly why it has taken me that long. If you simply want to read about what I think of it, you are most welcome to skip through the next few paragraphs. Really, I won't be offended.

Still reading? Well, thank you for bearing with me. Get yourself comfortable, and I'll begin.

Our story starts back in October 2010. Some enterprising people decided to hold a horror film festival at Bournemouth's Pier Theatre, and A Serbian Film was scheduled to be screened in its original, uncut form at the festival until the local council protested. The film had not yet been passed by the BBFC, which had already stated that they would not grant it an 18 certificate until cuts totalling four minutes had been made. Although holding the powers to permit a screening of the uncut version, the council refused to do so, despite the impassioned argument put forward by the festival organisers.

The re-cut film was granted its 18 certificate on October 28th, but did not appear at the festival, held two days later.

In any event, its non-appearance didn't really spoil the day for my wife and I, but then it had never been one of our main reasons for attending in the first place - we just wanted a fun day watching some horror movies. The remaining programme was reshuffled, a screening of Black Death was added to open things, and amongst others we enjoyed the rather good (and, in my opinion underrated) Needle, along with the excellent short Nursery Crimes. It was a good day.

Meanwhile, the controversy around A Serbian Film continued apace, and it presented me with something of a dilemma. It might be worth pointing out here that, like many others who write about cinema (and indeed music) online, it isn't how I make my living, that being the very fortunate profession of the few. I do it because it is an art form I am passionate about, but with the limited time available to me I also have to make choices in what I watch, which will inevitably be guided by my own tastes and prejudices, and these choices tend to be films which I actively want to see. I have to indulge in my passions outside of my day job.

The truth is, the more I heard about A Serbian Film, regardless of whether those things were positive or scathing, the less inclined I felt to actually sit through it. As part of an all inclusive bundle of films at an all-day event, I was willing to give it a go. As a stand alone filmic experience? I didn't fancy it.

There was another factor. I'm always wary of films which stir up controversy. I confess to being somewhat cynical in my outlook here, but I'm always slightly suspicious that the makers of such a film might be actively seeking the reaction to get publicity. In the past, I have ended up seeing a fair few films which didn't deserve my time, having been coerced into seeing them by a mixture of over-zealous outrage and over-enthusiastic coverage. Allow me to illustrate my point...

A little while ago, I set myself a challenge. I was intending to write a piece about the films which had been involved in the video nasties controversy of the 1980's. As part of this, I decided that I would watch all 72 films which were shortlisted by the Director of Public Prosecutions. My original plan was thwarted, simply on the grounds that I found most of the films unwatchable. I don't mean they were too graphic or gory. I mean that, with a few notable exceptions, there were some really, really terrible films on that list. The end conclusion I drew from the failed undertaking was that the whole video nasties furore had simply given a cachet, a badge of honour if you will, to a lot of dreadful movies which would otherwise have quite rightly been consigned to the minor footnotes of cinema history. There have since been other films, given massive publicity boosts by adverse media coverage, which I feel the same way about.

All of this inevitably pushed A Serbian Film further down my list of priorities, as I grew ever more cautious of being pulled in by what could have been a massive game of bluff and double-bluff to sell cinema tickets and DVDs. As self-appointed guardians of public morals continued getting themselves into a lather, and defenders of personal freedom sprang to the defence, any thoughts of seeing it faded even further from my mind. There were plenty of other films I actually wanted to see.

Fast forward just past three years, and I received an e-mail from those lovely people at Safecracker Pictures. They are releasing a special edition DVD of the film (original distributor Revolver sadly went out of business earlier this year), so this seems as good a time as any to finally see it.

Why watch it now? Well, my studies into the aforementioned video nasties scandal had reminded me of the battle between the festival organisers and the local council, and I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the film in a purely academic sense, on its own merits, without the media hoo-ha.

Or... Perhaps my curiosity finally got the better of me. Here are my findings...

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A Serbian Film (Srpski Film)

Serbia 2010, 99m (UK Edited Version), Contrafilm

DVD: Safecracker Pictures - Cert 18

Hoping to make enough money to give his wife and young son a comfortable life, retired porn star Srdjan is tempted back for one more film, helmed by the mysterious Vukmir Vukmir. However, what seems at first to be a niche art film reveals itself to be a vile snuff movie. When Srdjan tries to leave the project, he finds himself drugged and forced to take part in the most unspeakable acts...

Director Srđan Spasojević has put forward his argument that he set out to present the audience with a stark allegorical depiction of the way in which he believes the state, under a veneer of political correctness, is rotten to the core and rapes its citizens from the the day they are born to the day they die, and then continues to do so after death.

These are lofty intentions indeed. With this in mind, it's tempting to see A Serbian Film as a tragically misjudged undertaking, which may have started out with the best intentions but unfortunately reveals itself as an extreme torture porn. I certainly wouldn't deny that the film is extremely well made on a technical level, and very well acted by the principal cast, but any allegorical intentions get lost amidst the increasingly outrageous violence, both physical and sexual.

Make no mistake, even after just over 4 minutes of cuts by the BBFC, this is still a very uncomfortable watch. Perhaps the most notorious cut was to a scene involving the graphic mistreatment of a newborn child. This edition largely circumnavigates this intervention by including a 5-minute making-of featurette on this most contentious of scenes. You know something? I don't think the UK cut misses this scene at all. Which begs the questions:

Has Spasojević's point been made any more successfully for all the explicit content? Would his allegory be more recognisable and effective without it? Regular readers will be aware that I am not averse to quite graphic horror movies, but I'm also a strong believer that the horrors which are sensed rather than seen are often the more chilling. I personally found some of the most graphic scenes almost as silly as I found them unpleasant, so I do wonder whether the German censors were doing the film a favour when they cut a whopping 13 minutes before passing it for release.

Whether I recommend A Serbian Film or not is probably a moot point, as it's a film whose reputation precedes it and if you haven't already seen it, you will have likely made your mind up about whether to do so. Any score or rating I would award seems largely pointless in this context. However, let me be clear. This is not a film you have to see. It is not an uncomfortable experience which must be endured as part of your film education. A Serbian Film simply isn't that important, and do not let anyone try to convince you otherwise. Whilst I don't especially regret seeing it (at least, on an academic level), and it hasn't left me with nightmares or psychological scars, nor is it likely to have a repeat screening in this particular parish. Still, if you found The Strangers a bit soft, or thought Hostel was too coy for your liking, then this is the film for you.

A Serbian Film - Special Edition is released in the UK by Safecracker Pictures on December the 2nd 2013. More details here.

A full breakdown of exactly what was cut by the BBFC can be found at by following this link. However, please be forewarned that this page contains visual material some may find offensive.

The BBFC's own report can be read via this link.

Original Teaser Trailer:

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