HKIFF Hidden Gem: Balkan War Drama Carries a Heavy 'Load'

Courtesy of Cannes
'The Load'

A man is tasked with driving mysterious cargo through Serbia in Ognjen Glavonic's exploration of how the scars of war are passed down through generations.

It’s 1999 during the NATO bombings of what was then Yugoslavia. Vlada (Leon Lucev) is an ordinary man, earning money for his family by driving a truck from Kosovo to Belgrade. We don’t know what’s in his vehicle, but it’s soon apparent that the load is as symbolic as it is physical.

This is the setup of Serbian writer-director Ognjen Glavonic’s first feature, The Load, screening in the World Cinema section of The Hong Kong International Film Festival. For Glavonic, who was 14 during the 1999 bombings, the film is about what one generation passes to another and how his generation was left to deal with the wreckage of war after Yugoslavia made its bloody transition into Serbia.

In the film, Vlada spends time with two teenagers, one a hitchhiking punk musician intent on finding a way of escaping the realities of war for a better life in Germany. The other is Vlad’s son, who clearly isn’t leaving home any time soon. Glavonic says these characters represent the conflicting stories about his country’s troubled past — how some in Serbia employed denial to cope with the ravages of war, while others simply fled.

“I think that we inherited the stories our parents didn’t want — or didn’t know how to — talk about,” he says. “Maybe we have to find the way to articulate these stories, to learn how to use the rebellion and anger against something that was out of reach. I think that speaking up, just telling these stories, is the first step.”

Glavonic also sees the act of telling hard truths as immensely relevant in an age of rising nationalism and the spread of fake news. “I was thinking about the recent rise of populism, nationalism, right-wing movements and fascism in Europe and the U.S., and of the usage of fake news as a weapon,” he says. “This kind of propaganda is something that my generation grew up with and lived in. So it’s nothing new. The problem is always how to recognize and fight it.”

Vlada’s load is ultimately buried underground, a clear metaphor for the way Glavonic sees his generation continuing to cover up the past. “This system is still strong, and you could say it is already our heritage,” he says. “I want to use my films to fight this kind of logic and culture.”

As someone who lived through the experience, it was important for Glavonic to tell a personal story, not just another “Balkan war film” that focuses on war crimes. The audience is purposefully left in the dark about what Vlada carries in his truck as long as possible — the real load is the one weighing on his mind.

“In 1999, I felt isolated and occupied by the war,” he says. “There was no way out, except finding the safe place and peace within yourself. That’s the story and drama of my generation.”

A version of this story appears in The Hollywood Reporter's May 8 daily issue from the Cannes Film Festival. Click here to download.