Someone once said that art isn’t about limits. It’s about challenging convention until the commonplace is reconsidered and the truth is revealed or eventually rediscovered. Another famous quote extols that desperate times call for desperate measures, and visa versa. Thus we have the combined rationale for the horrific hot button “masterpiece” A Serbian Film. Often explained as the last 40 years of perverted government sponsored oppression and persecution in the Balkans, as viewed through the world of underground pornographer, it has gained a notoriety that has far surpassed other aesthetic affronts such as Salo, Irreversible, or Larry Clark’s Ken Park. Indeed, filmmaker Srdjan Spasojevic has been labeled everything from sick to State criminal by a public outraged by his narrative metaphor for man’s often unthinkable inhumanity to man.
The story centers on Milos, a semi-retired porn star who is looking for one last well paying job to secure his growing family’s future. When former co-star Lejila comes to him with an offer from wealthy XXX director Vukmir, our hero can hardly say “No.” Even when he learns the parameters of the shoot—Milos will not be told in advance what he will be asked to do—he agrees. Lead to an orphanage and instructed to rape an abused woman before the camera, he refuses. The next thing he knows, he is waking up three days later—battered, bloody, and with no memory of what has happened. Over the course of the next few hours, he see videotapes of his drug-induced escapades. They are truly disturbing. Finally, he his forced into another situation which threatens not only his own safety and sanity, but that of his wife and child as well. In the end, tragedy is the only option anyone has left.
Now, the above description is really a ruse. It’s a literary walk around the far more disturbing truth. A Serbian Film is shocking in its level of envelope destroying content that can barely be imagined. Children and infants are placed in gruesome sexual situations (all simulated and faked with F/X), while adults are defiled in various stages of voluntary (and involuntary) participation (and, via the ‘magic’ or movies). All the while, Milos is viewed as an unwilling collaborator forced into his often reprehensible acts by unseen forces that hold absolute control over him. The political overtones are clear; people on the precipice can be pushed over the edge when hope is replaced by the inevitable sadism of state-sponsored cruelty and torture. Sure, many movies have addressed this concern, but few have decided to visualize the truth in such a outrageous, gratuitous manner.
When asked about the absolutely abhorrent level of graphic material in this movie, Spasojevic responded with the following explanation: “This is a diary of our own molestation by the Serbian government… It’s about the monolithic power of leaders who hypnotize you to do things you don’t want to do. You have to feel the violence to know what it’s about.” Just as Salo assaulted the Italian government and autocracy’s complicity in the rise of Fascism and the Third Reich in Europe during World War II, A Serbian Film uses exploitative metaphor and allusion to show how, over the course of generations, the Serbian power structure debased and destroyed its own people. It’s a noble, if no less noxious explanation for what we see onscreen, the viability of the argument often dulled by moments so unmentionable that even discussing them suggests something illegal and illicit.
With its extremely limited commerciality and lightning rod ability to draw attention—both good and bad—many who’ve seen A Serbian Film have done so either illegally, through foreign release DVD, or via special showings at film festivals. This has lead to the case of Spain’s Sitges festival director Angel Sala being charged with “exhibiting child pornography” by local law enforcement. According to the complaint, two scenes in the film—one involving the defilement of a newborn baby and the other revolving around a similar act on a boy of five—constituted a violation of the country’s strict rules and regulations, demanding that the exhibitor, not the maker, be punished in the process.
Logically, the argument is ludicrous. No children were harmed when the movie was made. No child was forced into the disgusting “adult” acts depicted. Instead, filmmaking technique, editing, and puppetry were used to suggest the two salacious sexual encounters. Spasojevic has even confirmed that the children used were not even on set when those scenes were shot, that they were protected by their parents throughout, and that nothing remotely illegal happened. It’s all smutty smoke and mirrors. Indeed, no country in the world would allow a director, no matter his reputation, to screen a movie made where actual criminal acts were committed in the making. For Sala, the charge is akin to holding him as an accessory for the murders committed in Goodfellas, or arguing that he condoned sexual battery by allowing the Jodie Foster film The Accused to be screened.
Granted, the material being discussed here is far more disturbing and arguably with little of the redeeming social or moral value that a mainstream movie would have. It’s extreme for the sake of same, a means of making a point with a sledgehammer instead of something more subtle. Yet for someone whose lived their life under the oppressive thumb of Serbian rule, this is how they choose to illustrate their plight. No one is forcing the film on an unwitting public. Even the current release schedule in North America (an NC-17 version in theaters, an ‘almost’ uncut release through an online start-up company called FlixFling) makes it clear that Spasojevic’s entire “vision” won’t be available, and few will have access to it. Of course, those who know their way around a torrent or two can circumvent such censorship.
All of this begs the questions often accompanying artistic expression: (1) is it indeed art? and, (2) if it is, does the government have a right to repress it out of a sense of state-mandated propriety? No one would ever question a law which bans the sexual exploitation of children, but where do you draw the rest of the line? Implication? Fictional inference? Just discussing the subject? If that’s the case, a lot of movie’s violate Spain’s legal protocol. Again, A Serbian Film is not showing actual events. It’s not a documentary. Instead, it’s using the medium as a means of impressing upon the viewer the feelings and fears of its creators, albeit in a nauseating, nasty manner . Does it go too far? Certainly, because in the mind of those who lived through it, it has to. No one is suggesting its ‘right’, but A Serbian Film is not a crime. “Art”—and the debate over same—never is.