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Venice 2020: Unsung Heroes

Zbanić’s devastating "Quo Vadis, Aida?," Tamhane’s "The Disciple," and Ayr’s "Milestone" are three early highlights from Venice.
Leonardo Goi
Above: Quo Vadis, Aida?
When the Bosnian war broke out in the early 1990s I was three years old. We lived a five-minute ride from a U.S. military base, in Northern Italy, one of Europe’s largest. Two memories survived from those days. One is a noise: the deafening roar of the F16 Fighting Falcons taking off in the dead of night to bomb Serbian targets in the Balkans—and the other is a picture, printed on the front page of a newspaper: a single loaf of bread hovering above dozens of Bosnian refugees. That picture came back to life again yesterday, rippling on to almost identical halfway through Jasmila Žbanić’s Quo Vadis, Aida?, a devastating look at what was possibly the single most atrocious event in that war, and arguably the worst crime on European soil since the Second World War: the Srebrenica genocide.
Between July 11-22, 1995, over 8,000 civilians from the eastern Bosnian city were massacred by the Serb troops led by General Ratko Mladić. Today, 25 years later, 1,700 former Srebrenica residents are still missing, and Mladić is locked in a cell in The Hague, where he was extradited and convicted of genocide in 2017, and where he’ll be spending what’s left of his miserable existence.
Quo Vadis, Aida? chronicles those nefarious few days in July 1995, when the city fell in Serbian hands and the U.N. stood and watched as Mladić executed civilians across ostensibly “safe areas.” But Žbanić’s film isn’t a history lesson. It’s a story told with present-day immediacy and unbearable vividness, a relentless chronology of how those days unfolded, the timid efforts that were made to avoid the worst, the indifference of the outside world before Mladić’s threat, and the price thousands of Bosniaks paid for it. Entry-point into the massacre is eponymous Aida (Jasna Duričić), a middle-aged teacher hired by Dutchbat soldiers as an interpreter and thrown in the midst of negotiations between warring parties. Aida has a husband and two sons to look after, but as the Serbs close in on Srebrenica and the U.N. base turns into a makeshift shelter, the three are locked outside, and Aida must pull all the right strings to protect them.
And yet Quo Vadis, Aida? isn’t exactly a plot-heavy film: the wrecked souls who populate Žbanić’s drama spend most of their tragic last days waiting for a death sentence that hangs over them like a Damocles sword—and Žbanić makes us wait in close quarters with them. Mladić’s troops are approaching (rumor has it they’re executing civilians in the forests) and once the city capitulates to Serbian shelling, Aida finds herself shuttled from one crisis meeting to the next, all while the fate of her family—non-U.N. personnel the Dutch have orders to keep away from the base, lest other refugees may wreak havoc over the favoritism—hangs in the balance. Mladić promises all Bosniaks willing to leave the U.N. base safe shelter in a nearby city. As it turns out, this is not an invitation, it’s an order. People are abducted and shipped away, nobody knows where exactly, much less what happens to them once they leave the buses. Diplomacy fails. New, lugubrious rumors spread.
Words, not action, rule Quo Vadis, Aida? And that the film still turns into an indelible tour de force, locking one into state of soul-crushing turmoil, is a testament to the astounding writing, editing, and acting that sustains it. There is no moment of respite, no chance to breathe: editor Jaroslaw Kaminski’s ensures the tempo stays fast throughout, and the rare moments Žbanić’s script makes room for some glimpses of ethnic harmony, of the Srebrenica that once was and never will be again, the film accrues in pathos. Before the war broke out, the classes Aida taught included Bosnian and Serbian kids. When a Serbian former pupil spots his teacher inside the U.N. base and asks for her son, the words acquire a harrowing and sinister echo. But there’s a person who deserves her own separate praise, and oodles of it: Jasna Duričić. She is the film crowning glory, and her Aida powers through it with indomitable courage and pride. Even as a coda ships us back to the present, and the woman’s struggle to exhume whatever’s left of the family will force her to see something no mother should ever see, Duričić imbues her grief with dignity and stupefying resilience.
Above: Milestone
It took me a while to recover from Quo Vadis, Aida?—when I did, I walked into the Casino Palace to catch up with Ivan Ayr’s Milestone. This was Ayr’s second trip to Venice: a couple of years ago, Orizzonti was home to his debut feature Soni, a look at two Delhi policewomen tackling rapes in the city. Like Soni, Milestone—another Orizzonti entry, incidentally—homes in on a character faced with a Sisyphean task. Cue Ghalib (Suvinder Vicky), a veteran truck driver from northern India, who’s been working for the same company for years. As the film opens, he’s just broken a record: his truck is the company’s first to touch the 500,000 kilometers mark. But no sooner is he congratulated for the milestone than a sudden back pain starts afflicting him. Ghalib is not meant to load his own vehicle, but when clients don’t bother sending help he’s forced to lift the goods himself, and break his back shoving them aboard. He’s not meant to work this hard either, as his coworkers keenly remind him: “why do you push yourself so much?” is a question that ricochet all through Ayr’s script, and there’s a sense the self-destructive work ethic may be tied to a recent tragedy. Ghalib has lost his wife, with whom he left their rural village to settle in the city. She suffered from depression, and committed suicide. When the late spouse’s relatives issue a compensation claim, Ghalib must come up with an appropriate way to pay them back, all while a new truck driver just hired by his company threatens to make him redundant.
And so Milestone unfolds as a character study, a portrait of a man pushed to the limit by the neoliberal law of the survival of the fittest (which aligns Ayr to Ken Loach’s forays into the struggles of the have-nots), and by a personal story of grief. Still, I find it difficult to think of Ghalib’s arc as a redemption story, all the more so when Ayr crafts him as this saint-like figure, and his selflessness is constantly trumpeted all through the film. “He’s a good man,” the village chief reminds the community during the compensation claim hearing, and small acts of kindness pave his daily routine. Even as the boss decides Ghalib should teach the newbie, Pash (Lakshvir Saran), how to handle a bigger vehicle, and the youngster joins the seasoned driver aboard the truck, the exchanges between the two never precipitate into an all-out war between employees. Yes, this is all a zero-sum game, and you know what Pash’s ascent means for Ghalib’s work prospects—you can hear it in the spaces of his boss’s voice as he tells his old employee to train the lad and not worry too much about the future. But the bond the drivers establish gestures toward a working-class fraternity that vies with the humiliating environment they’re trapped in.
And herein lies Milestone’s subversiveness: the idea that Ayr can conceive of some form of solidarity in a world where the latter should ostensibly hold no value or meaning. Pash understands Ghalib’s predicament, and embraces empathy, never mind the price that comes attached to it. It’s as if this martyr-like predisposition could be passed on through generations, almost by osmosis. And if Ghalib’s driving lessons won’t help Pash much, Milestone ends by suggesting the man has passed on a far greater, revolutionary lesson: one of boundless humanity.
I cherished that teaching as much as the world Ayr conjured and ushered me into. All through the breezy 98-minute journey, Milestone retains a peculiar dreamlike undertow. The film was shot in winter, in the north of India, most of it in the early morning, and the misty landscape graces Ghalib’s rides with a fairy tale aura that makes for a strident contrast with the industrial wasteland the truck hobbles through, while Angello Faccini’s widescreen cinematography is a perfect fit for the sprawling vistas—a mystic and haunting world captured through a windscreen.
Above: The Disciple
I was happy to find and bask in a similar atmosphere all through the late-night meanderings of the hero of another Indian film unveiled just last night, Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple. As Ayr, Tamhane screened his first feature in Orizzonti. His debut was Court, which I had missed as it nabbed the sidebar’s top prize in 2014, and caught up with on my way to Venice. Court follows an Indian folk singer who finds himself accused of having incited a worker to commit suicide, a farcical trial that sheds light on how social inequalities plague India’s judicial system. The Disciple chronicles the quest of an aspiring Hindustani music vocalist to master a centuries-old tradition, while struggling to find his bearings in contemporary Mumbai. And yet the leitmotif tying the two films together has much less to do with music than with the greater-than-life struggles it zeroes in on.
The disciple is Sharad (Aditya Modak). We meet him at 24, in a concert hall in Mumbai. He’s playing an instrument while his master sings, cross-legged next to him, before an enthralled audience. If The Disciple could boil down to a single image, a scene that lays bare the energy the film will radiate for the remaining two hours, this would be it: a slow tracking shot that singles out the young man from the musicians around him and closes in on Sharad’s face as he gapes at his master in a clinical spell, bobbing his head to the vocal acrobatics. This is the look that resurfaces on Sharad all through the 16 years The Disciple chronicles, and it’s still on his face as we leave him, a 40-year-old man with a wife, a young daughter, and a lifelong dream that may have changed shaped, but which he’s never truly abandoned.
The Disciple is the story of that dream. It’s a Künstlerroman that starts off by laying the scaffolding of a rags-to-riches parable, only to abandon it as time goes on, and Sharad comes to grips with the terrifying realization that dedication, alone, won’t suffice to turn him into one of the musical legends he venerates, and whose teachings he listens to, earphones plugged as his moped glides along the streets of Mumbai. “Being in the company of talented musicians doesn’t make you talented yourself,” one of them recites, and it percolates through Tamhane’s script as a sort warning. In that, The Disciple trades the quiet rage of Court for a story of resilience and artistic awakening—an awakening to one’s limitation as artist, perhaps, but an awakening nonetheless.
And even as some prior knowledge of Hindustani music will no doubt help one appreciate the breadth of references covered, Tamhane parcels out just the right amount of information for the script to help orient one without ever reeking of didacticism. All through The Disciple, we are reminded that Hindustani music is dying: as an oral tradition rooted in a rigid master-disciple transmission that can span decades before students are allowed to perform in public, chances of it succumbing to modernity—amid impatient audiences and intermittent patronage—are high. Which turns Sharad into an untimely combatant, and that shared untimeliness into the ultimate link between disciple, master, and art. 


Festival CoverageVeniceVenice 2020Jasmila ZbanicIvan AyrChaitanya Tamhane
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