For Those Who Can Tell No Tales – Jasmila Žbanić gives a voice to the silenced. (SFF Film Review)
For Those Who Can Tell No Tales is currently showing at the Sydney Film Festival.
I saw Kym Vercoe’s play, Seven Kilometers North East, and was so moved, I jumped at the opportunity to see the film inspired by that play, For Those Who Can Tell No Tales. The film is made by Bosnian Film Director Jasmila Žbanić who co-writes the film version with Vercoe. It is part recreated drama, part documentary of sorts, based on the real life tourist visit and subsequent revisit of Vercoe to Višegrad that so shocked her it caused the writing of her play and now the film version to be taken up. Vercoe is a talented woman, with a warm and beautiful presence that makes her very easy to watch and she is able to imbue tragedy with a subtle poignancy that underlies the seriousness of an issue. However, the play is a very different creature to the film, and it was interesting to witness Vercoe’s story, this time primarily set in Bosnia-Herzegovina, as it transformed some of the nuances, despite it still being a powerful story that is terribly moving to watch.
The play was set in Sydney, in front of a Sydney audience listening to a Sydney woman talk about something that happened overseas. I didn’t recognise it at the time, but that dynamic made a stark difference, because when Vercoe is in Višegrad, looking at the locals and wondering about their role in the massacres that occurred there, it is impossible to forget Australia’s treatment of its indigenous peoples, and although Vercoe’s point is well made, the problem of international mud-slinging raises its head – something I didn’t have to deal with in the play. Particularly unfortunate are the Australian “shots” Žbanić chose to include, that are playfully taken around Sydney harbour, the site where the Gadigal nation lost almost all its tribe in three years due to white settler imposed restrictions to food producing land and the introduction of small pox into clean Aboriginal communities. Vercoe makes the observation that in returning to Višegrad she becomes a thanotourist, but she never makes mention of her own countries relationship with genocide. Vercoe’s trip to Višegrad and her relationship to its tragedies are personal because they are recent, most of the townspeople were present, and the women she remembers are killed in a uniquely female way, but placing her there does rankle a little against her point. Surely, if the people of Višegrad are refusing to speak honestly about the slaughters that took place in their town, then that mirrors our own countries inability to speak of past horrors, which includes the modern day “hiding” of Aboriginal people and the on going human rights crimes inflicted against them.
However, just as the above point should be mentioned to maintain integrity, it is equally disingenuous to use it to avoid the shocking realities, exacerbated by the subsequent cover up that occurred and the Višegrad tourists casual approach to a cheery future embraced to mask a devastating horror. Kym Vercoe is initially drawn to Višegrad after reading Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andric’s novel, The Bridge on the Drina, and at first playfully crosses the bridge, takes selfies and marvels at the beauties of the waters of the Drina that flowed beneath. She is charmed by the beauty of Višegrad, and on the advice of a trusted guide book, stays at the spa resort of Vilina Vlass, only to read up on the horrors that occur in that very hotel when she goes home. It is at this point Vercoe is faced with a dilemma. She finds she can’t forget – but is it that she can’t forget that she paid no respect, that the terrible crimes committed there have been white-washed by the very community that committed them, or some other perverse attraction that we can feel when we encounter horror? We follow her as she returns to Višegrad, in search of some way forward, some possibility to live with the knowledge she now has.
What is fascinating about For Those Who Can Tell No Tales is the presence of film maker Jasmila Žbanić, winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival 2010 for her film Na putu. Her involvement increases the poignancy of Vercoe’s tale, and goes in some way to repair some of the problems I highlighted in the second paragraph of this review. The camera casts its eye ominously over the town, particularly over the famous bridge, noticing the particular sites where the ethnic cleansing massacres took place. But most of all, Jasmila Žbanić knows how to keep the filming low-fi and concentrate on Vercoe herself, who is a rich screen presence and has a remarkably expressive face. The way she looks on her return to the town in the snow, with her skin blueish and mottled is deeply engaging. Žbanić paints her tainted by knowledge, a young beautiful goddess of a woman, touched by a horror that has become part of who she is. It is Vercoe’s transformation, her assimilation of understanding, her desire to remember something simply to honour the dead, that makes For Those Who Can Tell No Tales such a deep reaching film. It is short, coming in at only seventy minutes, and I confess I would have liked to see a little more, but its economy of scale is part of what increases its poignancy, something a master film maker like Jasmila Žbanić is well aware of. This is a thought provoking film that will leave you with knowledge and information that you will not soon forget.