film review: A Serbian Film (2010)

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A Serbian Film posterIf you haven’t heard of A Serbian Film by now then… you probably don’t want to. Just, you know, go and look at another review. Might I suggest this one perhaps?

Ok, ok, I’ll tell you what it is. A Serbian Film is probably the most notorious film you’ve never heard of. Well actually, you might have heard of it but just not realised. It’s the film that, in the UK last year, became the most censored film in 16 years – the BBFC decided to cut 4 minutes 11 seconds out of it for it to get a cinema release. Or perhaps you heard this – it’s the one that, earlier this month, got a Spanish film festival director accused of showing child pornography. No? Ah ok. Well, it’s that one…

A Serbian Film is an example of transgressive cinema. There may be more extreme films out there on the fringes of legal but if there are, I haven’t heard of them. To boil it down though, it’s a horror film about a retired porno star. If none of these things I’ve mentioned about it have in any way piqued your interest then definitely, move along. Nothing to see here.

Still here? Ok, so either you’ve already heard of it or you’re curious about it.

Right, two last things before I get to talking about the film. Firstly, I’m not here to cater to sick weirdos, nor am I here to save you from watching it. I’m not going to describe the various “shocking” scenes in this film. If you must know I’m sure there are various sites on the internet that will tell you. Hey, you can probably find some of the scenes on YouTube, off you go. Secondly, I decided I’m not going to give a rating out of 10 on this one. I don’t see how I can. I just going to tell you what I thought of it. That’s it.

Context. I’m a very curious person. I’ve seen quite a few “extreme” films. I’m not easily shocked. I’m not particularly squeamish. I don’t watch it myself but I’m not rabidly against porn. I like to make up my own mind.

I’d first heard about A Serbian Film in August 2010 when it was announced the Film4 FrightFest would not be showing it because of the cuts demanded by the BBFC. Then I read about it, about how horrific it supposedly was, all the “ban this sick filth” kind of stuff. It’s not that I particularly get a kick out of seeing stuff like that but I’m just that curious – I’ve seen some bad things happen on screen, how bad can it be?

The first thing that struck me at the end of it was that it was far more of a film than I expected it to be. To be honest I was rather expecting a mish-mashed collection of exploitative horrific scenes of gore. I thought it might be a bit of a laugh with a few good kills. At worst I thought it’d be a more extreme version of Hostel. I did not like Hostel.

That’s not what this film is at all. It is actually a film, with characters and a plot and everything. Granted, it’s not an enjoyable film. I find it impossible to say that I liked it. It’s challenging, no doubt, but that’s really the point. And it’s technically good. It looks great. This is not dodgy hand-held, “sure, we’ll just knock together any old crap” film-making. There’s real skill in this. Now, perhaps that’s so surprising that I’m giving too much credit, but this is a debut feature so credit where credit’s due. The director, Srdjan Spasojevic uses simple but effective devices to enhance the story-telling and he manages to (mostly) weave all those horrific scenes together into a coherent narrative.

The film-makers are adamant that it’s an allegory for how Serbian people and Serbian artists are being treated by their institutions. You can read their statement here.

I buy that. I don’t believe this film was made for pure exploitation. I think it was made by an angry man who wanted to put his point across in the strongest way that he felt he could reach people. The problem is, amidst the numerous scenes of rape, torture, porn and, from time to time, child abuse, it’s not an allegory that’s easy to make out – As in, I don’t see how you could possibly see it if you weren’t told. I suppose that’s why they have to keep going around telling people. Honestly, there’s no way. I know, I know, he even called the film “A SERBIAN FILM” but I’m sorry dude. There’s just no way.

I guess in a sense then, it’s not a particularly effective film. Or maybe that means it’s too effective. You’re so overwhelmed by watching poor Milos getting fucked over that you don’t notice that it’s not just Milos getting fucked over, it’s everybody. And man, does he get fucked over or what…

I forgot to tell you who Milos is. Ok. Like I said earlier, it’s a horror film about a retired porno star. Milos is the porno star. Quick intro – Our friend Milos is a nice family man who’s having trouble making ends meet. He used to, apparently, be the greatest porno star there ever was but that’s all behind him now. Until he’s made an offer, do this one last job and you and your family will be set for life. All you have to do is act natural… It’s never that simple is it?

So. I’d better get to talking about what everyone else has talked about. You know, the rape, the torture, the murder, the porn, the child abuse, how it all happens at once… Yeah. That “newborn porn” thing? That happens. Awful things happen in this film. If you watch it you will see horrible, horrific things happen. This is a fact. Let’s get this clear though. There is absolutely no suggestion that these things are ok. You’re not supposed to be looking dumbly at this, laughing away. All these things are portrayed as terrible acts. This is not an amoral film.

Some might say that this goes beyond the boundaries of what you should commit to celluloid. Having watched this, I don’t think there should be boundaries*. I don’t think anyone should have the right to stop a film-maker making a film like this. Undoubtedly this will mean that that “mish-mashed collection of exploitative horrific scenes of gore” I feared, will be made. I’m sure A Serbian Film has opened that particular flood gate, but so be it.

Personally, I haven’t been scarred for life by watching it. I said on the facebook page earlier that, how you find watching it will depend on who you are, and particularly on how you are affected by what you see on a screen. To me, scenes like these are fake. I’m sure some stuff this bad does happen to people but it’s not happening in front of me now. It’s not the news, it’s just a film.

Which is not to say that I’m never affected by the films I watch, but it’s generally emotional films that get to me. Ones that I can relate to and empathise with. I think the film that affected me the most was Grave of the Fireflies. The turn of phrase is that one “can’t imagine what it would be like”. That’s not true. I couldn’t know what it would be like but the film certainly makes me imagine it. A Serbian Film does not make me imagine what it would be like to be Milos – I don’t relate to it like that.

I’m sure that means that I didn’t experience it the way the film-makers wanted me to. I know I said it wasn’t exploitation, but at the same time I’m sure that the film-makers do want you to be disgusted, horrified, repulsed. They felt they needed to show the nasty, ugly side of whatever it was that they were railing against, by showing you something nasty and ugly. And it is nasty and ugly and all those other things. But I won’t be dreaming about what I saw. Hell, I’ve seen it twice now and I can still close my eyes at night.

Don’t get me wrong. It is horrifying. And disgusting. And repulsive. It’s not like I felt blasé watching it. I’m not that jaded. Even though I’d heard about some of the things that happen, I hadn’t heard about others. It is shocking stuff, it just doesn’t prey on my mind now.

Anyway, if you’re asking yourself “Should I watch A Serbian Film?” then… well. I can’t tell you that. I could not recommend that anyone watch it. And I deliberately leave out the “in good conscience” modifier there – I could not recommend anyone watch it – even to be cruel, even for a laugh to see them squirm. But conversely I can’t say that no-one should watch it. I would possibly tell certain people I know not to watch it, because I know them well and I know it would disturb them, but that’s as far as I would go.

Fact is, you’ll have to make that choice for yourself. I do think people should be warned – if you watch this film you will see horrific, extremely violent things happen to people. And a lot of sex, that seems to get forgotten over violence sometimes. You probably haven’t seen anything like A Serbian Film before. You’re probably not going to enjoy it. Remember you were told this. I’ve seen Martyrs, I’ve seen Visitor Q, not even close.

I had the good fortune, the second time, to see this with a group of people. A group who didn’t know this was what they were going to see. I liked that, it was nice to get to talk about it afterwards and hear what other people thought – certainly it was better than sitting alone in my room wondering what the hell I was going to do with the rest of the evening… One person remarked that it was a conversation starter. Perhaps…

Have you seen A Serbian Film? No, what’s it about? Err…

Have you seen A Serbian Film? Yes. Ah, ok, did you enjoy it? Err…

Like I said earlier, I’m not doing a rating out of 10 on this one, I’ve chickened out… To sum up, all I’ll say is that, in my opinion, it’s not shite.

So there you have it, it’s up to you now.

* = Well, there should be legal boundaries in the sense that no-one taking part in the film should be exploited or subjected to any risks but I mean artistically.

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