VIFF 2020 Review: Father (OTAC)
The Serbian film Father is not one of the more featured films of the Festival. However it is a unique film that’s worth seeing.
The film begins with a woman taking her two children to a construction plant. Her name is Biljana and she has a gasoline tank in her hand. She shouts out that she threatens to burn herself and her children unless she receives her husband’s overdue wages. The men there try to stop her, but she sets herself ablaze. The men are able to put her out in time and take her to the hospital.
Word not only gets to her husband Nikola. Word has also gotten to the child and family services in his region. The leader, Vasiljevic, is very suspicious of what type of father Nikola is and conducts people to investigate both the children and the house. Those who investigate the children ‘notice’ some flaws in them. Those who investigate the house point out how lacking it is in modern functions or how out of date it is.
Vasiljevic has made it clear that if Nikola modernizes the house, he could have his children back. This is frustrating enough as he has had no income for two years and he is constantly seeing his wife as she’s in the hospital. He does everything he can in the period of a few days, but Vasiljevic is still disapproving. His children are in foster care indefinitely and he’s not allowed to even see them. Before Nikola leaves, he is told by one man about how corrupt Vasiljevic is and how he has close associates of his in every village. Vasiljevic takes the children and puts them in the foster care of friends of his and skimming government money for this. Nikola’s made aware what Vasiljevic did is a common thing he does.
Although it’s difficult, especially as he wants to be by the hospital bedside of his wife, Nikola decides to make a 300 km trip to Belgrade and meet with social services to get his children back. Nikola has a friend with a computer draft him with a letter to the minister, pack fruit and stale bread, and set out on foot to Belgrade.
The trip is long and Nikola witnesses poverty and barren wasteland as he walks on. He comes across buildings that have decayed over time. He comes across stores that have been abandoned. He witnesses the best of people and the worst of people along the way. Some help him out while some steal or fight with him. He also develops a temporary friendship with a dog he met at an abandoned gas station he slept at. He also gets some help from truck drivers and ‘good samaritans’ who drive him.
When he arrives in Belgrade, he is brought to the very government office he needs to visit. He tries to meet with the minister, but is told he can only meet with him tomorrow. He has nowhere to sleep or to eat and leaves himself to sleep outside right by the entrance. As he is sitting out, a media team notices him and his story and will interview him for an evening news story. One person who saw the news and saw his story drives over to see him and gives him food.
The next day, he meets face to face with the minister. He heard his plea, he learned his story from the news. The minister tells him of the guidelines he will direct in order for Nikola to get his children back. A man drives him back to his town and to his home. However Nikola comes across an uncooperative Vasiljevic. Vasiljevic tries to act like Belgrade has no control over him and even demeans him of the story in the news. However Nikola has had enough. He demands to see his children, if not have them returned to him.
His wish is granted and he hugs his daughter with no problem, but the son is embarrassed of him. Nikola pleads to him, but the son finally hears his word. As the children are led away Nikola, tries to stop them from hurting his children, and is able to hug his son, as he looks onto the foster family with mistrusting eyes. Nikola returns to his house, only to learn everything is stolen by the neighbors. He goes over, gets everything, and has everything ready for the start of his goal.
It’s a story that has a lot to say. I’ve never lived in Serbia so I don’t know what the laws are in terms of family. However this does have a lot to tell about corruption in Serbia the filmmaker knows about. Interestingly the corruption of the social services does seem to resemble how the US government has been like under the Trump administration. We see it as a case of an honest man being messed around by a dishonest system. Even how Vasiljevic tries to act like Belgrade has no control over him and he can do what he wants does remind us of Trump as well; a leader’s false sense of invincibility and how they think they can abuse power all they want.
The 300km trip to Belgrade is a telling story. Nikola sees poverty all around him. We see Belgrade as a city that’s been working to modernize itself, but the film makes it appear like the rural lands have been neglected or overlooked and people like Nikola caught in the middle. One notable scene is that scene of Nikola seeing a group of villagers, just as impoverished as him, engaging in a folk dance and holding a Serbian flag. It looks like it’s sending a message how people in even the poorest of areas seem to still have the sense of Serbian pride. They may hate the government or the system, but they love Serbia. Even that scene of Nikola being driven by a man with many Orthodox religious artifacts sends a message of the Serbian people.
SPOILER WARNING: Do Not Read This Paragraph If You Don’t Want To Know The Ending. The ending scene is also very key. Right after Nikola is done seeing his children for that brief reuniting, a woman who works for Vasiljevic is willing to give him some associates who could help. I think that sends a message that even people who work for the system are forced in their job to do things they don’t want to do, but have to because it’s their job. That ending scene where Nikola learns his house has been robbed by the villagers, but retrieves all his belongings by going to all the houses and taking them without a single one resisting also sends a message that his struggle is their struggle too. That scene at the end where he is sitting at the dinner table with no food, but the plates for all four set up, also sends a message of his next goal of bringing back his whole family and he will stop at nothing to achieve it. Just like he did on that trip to Belgrade.
This film is another great work for Srdan Golubovic. He first achieved international renown in 2001 with his 2001 film Apsolutnih sto. Two of his films, 2007’s The Trap and 2013’s Circles, were Serbia’s submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. This film which he directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Srdjan Koljevic and Ognjen Svilicic is a good work as it tells a story of a man and also sends a message too. It comes across as a story telling of the Serbia Belgrade forgot over time while at the same time telling of a father’s love and his willingness to do what it takes to get his family back. The acting of the main protagonist Goran Bodgan is excellent. Most North Americans will notice the Bosnian actor as Yuri Gulka from the Fargo series. Bodgan does an excellent job of speaking volumes of his character and his story without saying a lot. The supporting actors, both young and old, also did a very good job in the roles they had. The cinematography of Aleksandar Ilic is also excellent and is all critical to the storytelling.
Father has had a good run in the film festival circuit. It won Best International Narrative at the Calgary Film Festival and was a Best Film nominee at the FEST International Film Festival and the Minsk Film Festival. It was also a nominee for Best Balkan Film at the Sofia Film Festival.
Father is a film with the common motif of a long trip and people met along the way. Nevertheless it is a good story that has a lot to tell about Serbia, and even mirror the world as a whole.