A Serbian Film: Is It Art?

by Jessica Howard

Post image for A Serbian Film: Is It Art?The definition of art is one that has been debated for centuries, yet never truly defined. Most will agree that art should move us; it should stimulate us emotionally and intellectually; or at the very least it should be aesthetically pleasing. It is accepted that;

“…art refer[s] to intentional, conscious actions on the part of the artists or creator. These may be to bring about political change, to comment on an aspect of society, to convey a specific emotion or mood, to address personal psychology, to illustrate another discipline, to (with commercial arts) sell a product, or simply as a form of communication.”

With such a broad definition, it is possible that almost anything can be viewed as art. Maybe there can be no clear-cut definition, because if the basis of art is to affect oneself, then art becomes something personal; and what may be deemed as art by one person may seem meaningless to the next.

But can films be considered art? If a film has the power to touch us, to make us think and deeply consider a message or story, then surely films can be considered art as much as any other medium could be. But can A Serbian Film be considered art, or is it just gore for the sake of gore, thrown into the sub-genre of ‘torture porn’ along with films like Hostel or A Human Centipede?

Released in 2010, it didn’t start making waves throughout the film community until 2011 when it was met with both loathing and admiration by critics and banned twice in this country. A Serbian Film whipped up a storm of controversy for its twisted and detailed scenes of torture and sexual depravity, but Writer and Director Srdjan Spasojevic and co-writer Aleksandar Radivojevic who have spent their whole lives in Serbia, have made it clear that this film is a metaphor for the political situation within the country over the past twenty years. Under the regime of Communist President Milosevic who ruled from 1989 until 1997, violence became a part of everyday life and oppression was everywhere, with media being censored and free speech being all but wiped out. Milosevic was arrested in 1999 for war crimes and crimes against humanity and died in prison in 2006. Despite the fact that Serbia is now a democratic country, it is still struggling to completely break free from the influences of the Milosevic regime.

Whilst there are many instances within the film where parallels can be seen between the violence depicted and the message the writers want to convey, a lot of the brutality seems completely unnecessary and an unimaginative way of getting the message across. In an interview, Aleksandar Radivojevic said that:

“We think that some of our own emotions that were caused by our inspirations are very strong and must be shown in strong means and extreme metaphors. We feel extremely violated and we want to put that into pictures.”

The oppressive regime of the state is skilfully represented in the beginning of the film. When main character Milos arrives for his first day of shooting, he is immediately confronted with men dressed as police holding video cameras; everywhere he turns there is one of these nameless uniformed figures pointing a camera at him, and the viewer does get the unnerving sense of being constantly watched, judged and ultimately oppressed.

A serious mistrust of authoritarian figures is evident throughout the film.  At one point, one of the characters asks, “Who can you trust if not a child psychologist working for security?” As the film progresses we can’t help but relate to this character as a symbolic representation of the Serbian government, and we soon learn the answer to that question: no-one. As the film develops, we can’t help but empathize with Milos and feel the hopelessness of one who truly has no choice.

In contrast, the second half of the film lacked what the first half strongly represented. The thought-provoking and powerfully symbolic depictions of a dehumanized nation were gone, and whilst the brutality does indeed shake you to the core, by the end you feel desensitized to it. This was definitely a case of ‘less is more’ and by the end of the film I was unfortunately in agreement with previous critics; this is quite simply torture porn. If you have a strong stomach I recommend you watch this film; for if you want a film with a thought-provoking and cleverly conveyed message that plays strongly on one’s emotions and adheres to nearly all of the qualities that a piece of art should as outlined in the opening, I can’t think of many other films that will deliver as much as A Serbian Film. This film is indeed a work of art.

Well, the first half of the film at least.

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