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CPH:DOX 2022

Review: The Eclipse

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- Nataša Urban's CPH:DOX-winning film is a multi-layered exploration of collective and personal memory and responsibility with a remarkable stylistic approach

Review: The Eclipse

Serbian-born, Oslo-based director Nataša Urban's documentary The Eclipse [+see also:
interview: Nataša Urban
film profile
]
, which has just won the main award at CPH:DOX, is a remarkable exploration of collective and personal memory and responsibility. Combining 16mm and manipulated Super 8 footage with an exquisite analogue, tape modulation-dominated soundtrack, the director has created a multi-layered work that resonates on several distinctive levels.

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Urban hails from the northern Serbian province of Vojvodina, which is populated by a dozen ethnic groups, with her own grandmother being Romanian. It has a very different atmosphere than that of Belgrade or central Serbia, with its flatlands and low hills and focus on agriculture: pets and farm animals feature prominently in the film, with a special accent on pig slaughter as a symbol of violence, one of its main themes.

As the documentary opens with images of landscapes in the soft morning light, the viewer experiences a stillness that will soon be contrasted with an exploration of painful memories. The whole film relies on this often unnerving dichotomy, but the viewing experience is surprisingly smooth, much to the credit of DoP Ivan Marković and editor Jelena Maksimović.

Urban left Serbia decades ago, and as she says in the voice-over, never looked back. But she came upon her father's hiking journal, and started connecting the dates and entries with key events from the 1990s. She gets her father to retrace his steps, and we watch the slender, grey-bearded man as he walks through forests, villages and hills, and listen to him reading out those old sentences.

The first date is 24 November 1990. While Dad was visiting the village of Čerević, a narrative title informs us that the Golubinka pit in Croatia was opened, revealing the remains of 600 Serbian victims killed by the Ustaše in the Second World War. The TV footage shows Orthodox priests saying prayers over skulls and bones, which came to be heavily used in the Serbian propaganda of the 1990s. 

Similarly, Urban counterpoints the beginning of the war in Croatia and the bloody siege of Vukovar, the first democratic protests in Serbia, the siege of Sarajevo, Srebrenica, and the NATO bombing of Serbia, with her father's diary entries that seem to come from another world. Yet despite his self-imposed isolation from these events, the war is gradually closing in on him as well. The story of the family climbing Caucasus in 1995, when Sarajevo was still under siege, or a their photo on the mountain top of Maglić in Bosnia with a Yugoslav flag in 1991, when the war in Croatia was raging, are jarringly ambivalent.

Interviews with the director's family and friends make a trajectory from happy memories of the pre-war days to those of the strikingly sad and brutal events of the 1990s. To reflect those times, Urban filmed on Super 8, which was then processed to get the texture of a particular era. This simulated archive footage has a profound effect when coupled with Svenn Jakobsen's atmospheric sound design and the haunting score by Bill Gould and Jared Blum which appropriately nods to William Basinski's "Disintegration Loops," one of music's most potent explorations of memory.

Underlining the nature of memory makes Urban's confrontational approach to the issue of collective responsibility non-judgmental. When she reminds her mother of the times that she prefers to forget, she is not pointing a finger, rather, she is asking her to look deep inside herself. The solar eclipse in the title is similarly a symbolic framing device which reflects this same duality, which is in fact a singularity: it is possible to simultaneously love a person - or a country - and hold them responsible.

The Eclipse was produced by Norway's Medieoperatørene and the UK's Taskovski Films has the international rights.

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