Monday, 12 July 2010

Adnan Mahmutović, the Scriptwriter

As stated last week, this is Adnan Mahmutović month here at Thus Spake the Mighty Wha-keem, and this week we will take a look at Mahmutović the Scriptwriter. This seems especially fitting today, since his short film Gusul (Eng. Washing, 2010) was shown yesterday at a memorial to mark that fifteen years have passed since the massacre at Srebrenica, Bosnia. Swedish news program Rapport showed a brief segment on this event (the segment starts at about the 14 minute mark, and the clip will be available till 18 July) and included interview snippets (in Swedish) with Mahmutović, who had a hand in organising the event.

Washing is written by Mahmutović (who is also credited as set and costume designer) and directed by Armin Osmancevic (who is also credited as production designer, production manager, storyboard and the telephone voice part of the imam Atif) with whom Mahmutović previously worked on his first book, the miscellany [REFUGE]E (which Osmancevic designed). The film is not outright about Srebrenica, nor an overt comment upon the subject, but Mahmutović has expressed that remembering the horrors of Srebrenica is not only about the horrors themselves, but also about the daily moments in the lives of the survivors. It is this, at least in some part, which Washing is about.

The film is centred around Emina Begovic (played by Aida Gordon) and her mother (played by Sena Mahmutović, i.e. Adnan's grandmother), Bosnian refugees in Sweden, and it opens on a longish monologue (more or less). Emina is talking to her mother, who is old and bedridden. She talks about the atrocities of the Bosnian war, of the loss of her father. While it certainly introduces a lot of these matters to the viewer, this is actually the weak part of the film. The dramaturgy lacks a beat in some sense and the acting never really takes off but rather becomes too much like a theatrical stage performance. This is because Mahmutović and Osmancevic too obviously want to inform the viewer about these things. They do not show us, but instead tell us things (by many often considered a cardinal sin in a visual narrative medium); and the visual dimension does not offer any form of shielding against this problem here.

This might come across as a harsh judgement (and perhaps it is, on some level), but importantly it is not my final judgement. After a quick pie baking scene (which to my mind lacks a certain sense of verisimilitude – it may be that my skills in baking are lacking, but merely throwing some sugar and flower on plums, and pouring some oil over it, does not strike me as a functional way of making a pie; nor does putting said dish into a cold oven to bake – but these are nagging details), Emina's mother passes away, and this is where the film takes off. If Gordon's performance in the opening "monologue" fails to impress, convince or properly pull me into the film, she certainly captures my attention during the telephone conversation with the imam Atif. Still, the core of the film is the act of the washing itself, a Muslim funeral rite. Emina tears a towel into strips and cleans her mother's dead body in a ritual manner. The imagery here is visually strong and convincing. This part of the film is wordless, but absolutely not lacking in either emotion or expression. Also, the previously introduced and repeated idea that the living should not shed tears over the dead, lest they burn the souls of the latter with these tears, is felt throughout.

After the washing, Emina goes out into the hallway outside the flat, sits down on the stairs and awaits the ambulance personnel who have been sent to collect her mother's body. She has brought the plum pie which she made her mother and some coarse, dark bread to go with it, and she eats it forcefully where she sits. This is perhaps the strongest image of the film; this image of Emina forcefully eating her own grief, as it were, not crying because of the traditional prohibition against that, but swallowing her own tears and grief together with that coarse, dark bread and that plum pie; forcing down every single bite. It is strong, memorable, and I dare say an image that will stay with me.

As such, despite its initial shortcomings, Washing comes through as an interesting short film with a definite value, and I would recommend you all to watch it if you get the chance.

For a very moving and enjoyable behind-the-scenes account of the making of the film, I recommend you to read Mahmutović's blog post "Grandma and Death", which talks about the casting of his own grandmother in the role of Emina's mother in very tender and caring words.

Also, do not miss to check out Tom J. Vowler's blog How to Write a Novel where Mahmutović's ongoing blog tour stops by today. Next stop on that tour will be right here, next week, when "Adnan Mahmutović, the Author" (part three of four in my in-depth study of Mahmutović) will be posted. I hope to see you again then.

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