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A close-up case study of poverty and racism on the hardscrabble margins of modern Europe, this starkly shot contender for the Golden Bear in Berlin combines emotional force with aesthetic severity. After winning an Academy Award for his 2001 debut feature, the darkly comic Balkan war drama No Man’s Land, writer-director Danis Tanovic spent much of the last decade in European exile. But he has now resettled in his native Bosnia-Herzegovina, where he shot this timely docu-drama.
Filmed in the bleak midwinter in Bosnia’s impoverished rural hinterlands, An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker will not be an easy sell to overseas audiences. But it is a robust and compassionate work with surefire niche appeal to hardcore Eastern Bloc glumfest gluttons who find the grim social realism of the Romanian New Wave a little too happy-go-lucky.
The film’s slender script closely mirrors a real incident that became a national scandal in Bosnia, in which a dirt-poor family belonging to the persecuted Roma minority came up against a potentially fatal brick wall of state bureaucracy. Returning from his job foraging for scrap metal to his shack-like house in a remote village, Nazif (Nazif Mujic) finds his pregnant wife Senada (Senada Alimanovic) in pain. After rushing to hospital, Senada finds she has miscarried and urgently requires surgery to prevent septicaemia.
But as the family are too poor to pay for valid medical insurance, the hospital demands 980 Bosnian Marks for the operation, the equivalent of around 670 US dollars. Unable to muster such a grand sum, Senada and Nazif return home defeated. The pain worsens, but their increasingly frantic appeals to penniless relatives, hospital bosses and charities fall on deaf ears. Only by breaking the law can Senada cheat the system and save her own life.
In an inspired coup for cinematic naturalism, Tanovic contacted the real couple at the heart of this story and persuaded them to re-enact their near-death ordeal on screen. The couple’s winningly cute young daughters, Sandra and Semsa, also play themselves. Impressively, so do some of the real doctors involved in the original incident.
Camerawork is hand-held and intimate, with a raw aesthetic that matches the harsh subject matter. The central medical trauma is framed with long wordless scenes of Nazif foraging for metal on snowy garbage dumps and roadside wasteland, underlying the gnawing desperation that underpins life without a safety net. At the height of their crisis, the family’s ancient car seizes up and the local power company disconnects their home in sub-zero temperatures. At times we could almost be watching a Bosnian remake of Winter’s Bone.
Given Tanovic’s unorthodox casting methods, Nazif and Senada can be forgiven for their occasionally blank and underpowered performances. An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker is not a comforting watch, and it lacks the editorial context of a more conventional documentary, which might have made it more accessible to viewers outside the Balkans. That said, this is a universal human story at heart, a bleakly compelling family drama with a coldly furious edge of political protest.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival
Production companies: SCCA, ASAP Films
Producers: Amra Baksic Camo, Cedomir Kolar
Cast: Senada Alimanovic, Nazif Mujic, Sandra Mujic, Semsa Mujic
Director: Danis Tanovic
Screenwriter: Danis Tanovic
Cinematography: Erol Zubcevic
Editor: Timur Makarevic
Sales company: The Match Factory
Rating TBC, 74 minutes
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