Fillmofil.ba proudly represents the works of young critics done in program Talents Sarajevo of 26th Sarajevo Film Festival with participation of Goethe-Institute Sarajevo
Written by: Veronika Zakonjšek
Danijela Stajnfeld’s debut full-length documentary HOLD ME RIGHT received its world premiere as part of the Documentary Competition of the 26th Sarajevo Film Festival. The film opens with her in front of the camera, distressed and on the verge of tears, as she shares details of what caused a sudden departure from her native Serbia, with both the audience and her parents. Driven away by the hope of starting anew, her expectations of achieving internal peace and resolution soon crumble into pieces, as she realizes the trauma has followed her overseas, ingrained into her body. By putting herself in front of the camera, she now reclaims a voice once lost and immerses herself into the film. From there, she unapologetically erases the line between her bodily self and the recorded manifestation of her introspective journey, in a similar if only considerably more conventional manner in which, for instance, audiovisual artist Zia Anger reimagines the relationships between filmmaker’s physical body and their body of work, transformed into a cinematic narrative.
Mixing her personal story with interviews of survivors, Stajnfeld further plays with form by incorporating sequences of monochrome 2D animation that visualize the tumultuous recounts disclosed by voice-over testimonies. Guided by these narratives, the clips bring to life the experiences described by Stajnfeld’s fellow survivors, and do so in a sensitive, often rather abstract way. The filmmaker leaves no stone unturned, as she tackles every feasible manifestation of rape: among co-workers, married couples, soldiers, drunk teenagers, and defenseless adolescents. Uniting people from different social backgrounds, races, sexual orientations, and ages into sharing their harrowing stories emboldens Danijela to do the same. She uses their strength for her own support, but even when reading their testimonies as pillars to her own, their inclusion never starts feeling exploitative.
Drawing inspiration from their perseverance and sheer willingness to live, she thus gradually elevates herself from the victim mentality and ends this deeply personal film on a rather cathartic note. However, her attempt at tackling the universality of rape and the prevailing culture of silence surrounding it leaves something to be desired, as the documentary lacks any substantial acknowledgement of the Balkan culture, where the assault driving the narrative really happened. There, rape still epitomizes a deeply ingrained collective war trauma, when mass rapes committed by soldiers on Bosnian and Kosovar soil ruined the lives of several generations. Balkan features have been tackling this subject for years, but their focus often primarily lies in the children, born as a result of the atrocities taking place during the 1990s: Jasmila Žbanić’s Berlinale winning GRBAVICA: THE LAND OF MY DREAMS / GRBAVICA (2006) and her follow-up FOR THOSE WHO CAN TELL NO TALES (2013), Lendita Zeqiraj’s AGA’S HOUSE / SHPIA E AGËS(2019), along with documentaries, such as Muhammed İbrahim Şişman’s INVISIBLE CHILD (2019) and Annette Mari Olsen & Katia Forbert Petersen’s MISSION RAPE – TOOL OF WAR (2014). But rape is not an occurrence confined to wartime. It is something that has long been ingrained in Balkan’s masculine culture, and deserves to be put into a present-day context, which HOLD ME RIGHT does not necessarily achieve, as it primarily focuses on an American perspective.
It is only when Stajnfeld finally gains the courage to confront her assailant (in what can be understood as an attempt of getting closure) that the narrative rotates back to Serbia. In a still shot of a restaurant table, secretly captured by her mobile phone, we “witness” their uncomfortable exchange of words, with his electronically distorted voice radiating arrogance and a sense of Balkan machismo. “You should be honored, I wouldn’t do that to someone I didn’t respect,” he responds to the accusations, lacking any sense of reflective self-awareness, as perhaps expected of someone powerful and well-known, whose identity she never dares to disclose. The film provokes and challenges the viewer even further, pushing our abilities to sympathize, when it provocatively subverts the narrative by incorporating the sometimes deluded, other times regretful perspectives of other perpetrators. Giving men, who served time for rape, as well as a paedophile, who himself has been molested as a child, a chance to explain themselves opens up a vast array of questions about the (in)effectiveness of incarceration and the (im)possibilities of rehabilitation that linger on even when the closing credits are long over.
As the documentary jumps into a short collage of pop-cultural references, filled with snaps of violent acts towards female heroines, this sequence, too, remains limited to films from the Hollywood studio system: from John Wayne and Sean Connery to pre-presidential Ronald Reagan, men keep slapping women around, when not otherwise subordinating them in high-class fashion ads. Our visual world has long been built on flagrant misogyny, and Stajnfeld, who first made a name of herself as a Serbian actress, is fully aware of that. An ominous sound design with pulsating rhythmical beat follows the story, filling us with a sense of anxiety and dread that only intensifies with the inclusion of home-made cinéma vérité excerpts that complement an otherwise steady camerawork. Either by personal diaries, documenting her mindset days after the attack, or her subsequent immersion into the storyline, the filmmaker starts framing herself in close-ups of different body parts – her hands, eyes, a face exhibiting agony and sadness – as if suggesting an emotional equivalent to dismemberment experienced by victims of assault. Short intermissions, adopting the visual style of 1990s video games, further engage and challenge us, as they invite the audience into dialogue. “How would you like to proceed?” the letters keep asking us, while offering multiple-choice answers that hint the variable responses to experiencing trauma. Do we fight, flee or freeze? Stop eating, start cutting, seek help? We, the viewers, are not here to watch and observe, but rather to be part of a conversation.
HOLD ME RIGHT radiates boldness and honesty that turn this film into a rewarding, if challenging viewing experience. It explores the aftermaths of trauma, the struggles of addressing it, and the harrowing journey of gaining the courage to speak up, before being able to heal the wounds within. With archival clippings of the 2017 Women’s March, emerging towards the end, the documentary also establishes a link with the #MeToo movement – but this, too, remains limited to an American context, and the question about modern-day Balkan victims lingers on. Will this film reach enough Serbian people to spark a conversation? And will this be the end of Balkan women fleeing their countries in order to escape their all-powerful, possibly dangerous perpetrators? Only time will tell.