I have a disclosure I need to make: the thematic armature of the film For Those Who Can Tell No Tales so intimately reflects the scar tissues and haphazard growths of my self that I think I am incapable of performing the critical conceit of objectivity usually required of a review. How can I? I write at my desk in Sydney as a direct result of the cataclysmic outburst of Thanatos that strangled the Balkans in the early 90s, and once again I have to sit through yet another hackneyed, outsider’s imaginary take on Bosnia’s plight, its victimhood. How the hell can I be objective? I am either the most, or least qualified person for this review, I know not which. What I do know, is how much I despised this movie, with the full force of my withered being. Not because it was bad. But precisely because of how average and inconsequential it was as an “artistic” statement, of how it was just another routine addition to the West’s hypocritical incredulity and self-serving shock. I know how much I hate being torn apart, and temporarily deprived of the capacity to love this life with practically no corresponding increase in the fortitude of my wisdom. I feel cheap, because this movie is cheap.
Kym Vercoe plays Kym Vercoe in Kym Vercoe’s film For Those Who Can Tell No Tales. Kym Vercoe is, according to the film I had to endure on Saturday, a talented dancer and choreographer, who made an innocent decision to go to Bosnia as a tourist. Visions of being charmed by the twin influence of the Habsburgs and Ottomans presumably took her there. The brave divers at Mostar were photographed, a few laughs were had with some Sarajlije (inhabitants of Sarajevo), and a chance encounter with the glorious writings of the Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andric takes her to the town of Visegrad, home of the writer himself, and of the masterful, Ottoman-era bridge whose concentric half-circles straddle the emerald resignation of the river Drina.
Kym stays a night in the Vilina Vlas hotel there. The hotel turns out to be the site of a rape camp in the early 90s, where Bosnian Muslim women were systemically raped, then killed, in droves. That anyone can, in any review, both succinctly, and with brief but appropriate poignancy, speak of such an event is offensive, so I coldly relay the brute facts. Kym then returns home, then back to Visegrad to administer some retribution in what becomes, most saliently, a story about her inner journey to come to terms with the irremediable and shameful denial, nay pride, that the locals display about that period of history. She performed a play about it in Sarejevo, and then the critically acclaimed Bosnian Muslim (it matters, unfortunately) director Jasmila Zbanic contacted her to repackage her story into a film.
The film, with cringe-worthy predictability, begins with a juxtaposition between the summer sanctuary of Sydney, and the Hades-like, cloudy backwater of Visegrad. To be perfectly clear, parts of that failed state are Mordor, but so commences a nauseatingly familiar, and hardly guileless and politically fraught exoticisation of the barbaric Other, as compared to the moral centre of Kym. If you see For those who can tell not tales, keep in mind you are effectively watching two films. On one level it is an almost bearable, although mostly clichéd, account of one woman’s coming to terms with Evil and its cold, inhuman rationalisations, male violence, and the absolute injustice of the world. But equally, this film is colonial propaganda to smooth the conscience of a West which has seen itself as morally superior, and thus exempt, to the great multitude of this planet on which it has inflicted its misery.
Surely I exaggerate? Surely my passions have overcome my need to be cool, calm, collected. Nonsense. That the focus is on Kym’s distress, is disgraceful. All the more disgraceful because, as the film suggests, the voices and stories of the women that survived are not heard. The only person who has silenced them is Kym Vercoe, instead electing to exclusively depict her story. Even Angelina Jolie’s Land of Milk and Honey had a basic sensitivity to focus on the voices of the survivors, (viz. NOT victims), themselves. Here they are snuffed out by the gall of a woman, who, confessedly, only watched the stories unfold on the TV originally. That level of familiarity is barely exceeded by this film and watching it is an experience every bit as shallow and perfunctory. And so we become, after the fact, mere objects for the spiritual purgation of the Western Gaze, lounging on George St on a Saturday night, watching the extended tele-drama on Bosnia.
The film, above all, is morally abhorrent because of one simple insinuation – that the question “How could people be so cruel?”, can only be answered with “elsewhere”. That Sydney should be portrayed exclusively as the site for Kym’s oceanic catharsis, and safety, is repugnant. The scene wherein she receives an Aboriginal painting as a birthday present, presumably as a symbol of our cultural tolerance and progressiveness, is completely risible. The lucky country indeed.
It would be disingenuous for me to say there aren’t some powerful parts to the movie. The dialogue with the local Andric museum guide is good, although mostly a rehash of Santayana’s unheeded warning that “when we forget the past, we are condemned to repeat it”. One dialogue with a local offers a fairly perspicacious insight into the demented nature of nationalism: the “Turks” (within which a whole host of ethnicities can be subsumed) are to blame for everything, notwithstanding the fact that the builder of the bridge, Mehmed Pasha Sekolovic, was not a despotic Turk, but a Bosnian peremptorily taken as a tax-in-blood to the Turks. Ah, but you can prove anything with facts! The most beautiful scene is when Kym dances with a local street artist, and they join in spontaneous, spasmodic movements in a language of the body that is as every bit as eternal as the immutable bridge, scarified as it is by the flight of bullets. That is a story that could have been told with sincerity, but not one we were given on Saturday.
Sitting in a bar with my friend who went through the war as a child first hand, we both agreed how much of a sham the movie was, indeed, how much of a sham life is. Having been informed by Kym Vercoe that the voice-over stating that she “slept on the same sheets used at the time of war” was added “for dramatic effect”, we couldn’t help but feel manipulated and indignant, hostage to another facile, narcissistic account of that war. Yes, at times, as the movie suggests, words cannot articulate the hurt, and we cry inaudible tears that scold our mottled cheeks knowing that some questions will remain unanswered until we’re lowered into the grave. But it would be laughable to think that this movie could even begin to provide an answer. Or to heal. God save us when, after our silent complicity, the films about Syria start being made.