The nationalist rivalries that re-emerged on the European scene in the 1990s with such devastating results in terms of cruelty and suffering have had their effect, too, as one would expect, on the emerging film landscape: some of the best contemporary shorts take these disturbances as their theme, often (but not invariably) binding the experiences undergone into the shape of an allegory. Two years ago Stefan Arsenijevic's film Torzija (A Torsion) , documenting an episode from the siege of Sarajevo, won the Prix UIP for Best European Short; while the previous year, a very different film on the same subject, Ahmed Imamovic's 10 Minuta (10 Minutes) - which in a single uninterrupted take of that length shows a boy leaving his house to buy bread and returning to find it destroyed by a mortar shell - was one of the truly memorable nominations for this award. In the post-Postmodernist epoch that we have moved into it seems that we are going back to taking "subject-matter" seriously; for, besides terrorism (to which anyway this topic is related), perhaps no subject is more serious than these wars and divisions that have sprung up in the European heartland, closer to home than such conflicts have been in most of our life-times.
The Dutch (but in essence Georgian) film Heritage belongs to this new wave of film-making whose sociological origins seem relatively transparent. Thus we can speculate that the director goes abroad to get his or her education, far from the distraction of gunfire. Yet, somehow, the memory of things that have been witnessed lingers on as a trauma that it is necessary to propitiate or expiate. ("Witnessed": or imagined - it doesn't matter. The point is that the events were close to the film-maker, and changed his/her life in some fundamental way.) Arch Khetagouri's film starts with an image of a man driving an old American car down a peaceful country track. His face has a lived-in look. His hand, as he stretches towards the overburdened ashtray, has a scar on the back of it. What decade and what country we are in are not obvious, and one immediately feels that this is deliberate. He parks the car in a wooded glade. From a grassy knoll in the distance a boy, about 10 years old, is looking at him - but no contact is possible since the child moves off as soon as our protagonist opens the car-door. He was there, and not there - like a phantom. Perhaps he was a mere flash of sunlight.
Pausing to notice the large tunnel-shaped exit of a water culvert, our hero walks down the path towards an old and deserted house: something about the way the location is photographed (and the way he is photographed) tells you he has been here before and that this is a place of vividly-felt, if melancholy, memories. Poking open the front door, he enters the brightly-lit hallway (the season is autumn, but sunlight is piercing: later it will rain) - proceeding upstairs to the first floor sitting room. Here he presses the palm of his hand against the mottled wall-paper, and with his forefinger wipes some dust off the remaining furniture. Looking around, his eye falls on a desk drawer with a little object in it: a child's home-made toy in the shape of an animal or bird, constructed out of acorn and fir-cone - whatever it is, it is something plangent and innocent, and he strokes it while re-living old memories.
Objects rather than words have a primary symbolic significance in this movie. A little later, when we have moved outside again, we are introduced to a rubber football whose journey is going to "carry" the story through its subsequent peripeteia. The ball belongs to the phantom-boy, and the boy is, of course, our protagonist who has come back out of some secret compulsion to visit the house of his childhood. Years ago, terrible events happened there, and they happened (as they always do) out of the blue, on an ordinary afternoon when he had run off to the woods to play by himself. So it happens that it is this football which he is carrying under his arm - falling out of his grasp and bouncing down the road - that gives his position away to the three soldiers who suddenly appear out of nowhere at the foot of the path, standing chatting by their stationary vehicle. "Come here!" they beckon him, at gunpoint: it seems they wish to know how to get to a particular destination. Seated on the jeep's bonnet, the boy innocently obliges them; but when they move off one of the soldiers (the youngest one) holds onto the ball - having previously proffered it but then snatched it back from the boy's eager grasp.
Ominous mockery! For this very same ball, retained by the youngest of the soldiers, carries the "punch" of the film's central scene: the rape and murder of the boy's parents in their own house, in the very room the protagonist is now standing - witnessed (from outside through the window) all those years before on that fateful afternoon in his childhood. Of all the details that come back to him in this trauma, none is more pressing than this memory: that the soldiers enjoyed it; that they were laughing; and that during the outrage, the soldier who had stolen the football was bouncing it slowly and rhythmically in the background, as if orchestrating these terrible events, or setting the time for them in sinister syncopation.
Change of scene: the hypnotic horror of the bouncing ball is interrupted when the child is spotted through the window and shot at (hence the scar on his hand). Escape is made down a well in the garden. Pursuing him, the youthful soldier fires some rounds into the dark emptiness of the well-shaft and then carelessly, or contemptuously, throws in the football ball for good measure.
We have arrived at Act 3 of the drama (this "short" is quite long - 24 minutes in fact - and allows us, I think, to speak in such terms). Resolution, expiation, "meaning of the events". Again it is the ball, as symbolic object, that holds the clue towards the settling of accounts, for when our protagonist, pursuing his memories, clambers down the well, the dented ball is still miraculously there - "proof", so to speak, that the fantasized events really happened. And now our protagonist picks the ball up and, with it tucked safely under his arm, feels his way through the dark escape tunnel whose exit he noticed earlier. Sunlight and freedom. And rebirth, in a way. (What is this tunnel except a birth canal?) Seated in the car is the boy himself, into whose grasp, wordlessly, after all these years (and with infinite tenderness) he hands over the once-treasured object.
The film's "meaning" is obvious in a certain sense: it is transparent, as dreams are transparent. Indeed the whole movie is constructed like a dream, and maybe best understood in this way. In feature-length films there is always a push towards realism, but shorts are more like poems, and they can put up with a fair amount of symbolism - indeed it suits them, they thrive on it, perhaps because the length of an average short corresponds so neatly to the brief and fragmentary nature of the dreamwork. In either case, there is a sort of compression operating, encouraging the objects discerned or devised to resonate and to take on multiple meanings. In a properly-working short, as in a dream, everything is plangent, vibrating and charged with mysterious significance. And of course, we need to remind ourselves, dreams are also about something - they are not merely decorative: it is not only Freudians who say so. In Heritage, the gift of the ball releases the phantom-child from purgatory. The journey we have witnessed is expiatory. The pain of unendurable memories is alleviated by the consolation of form. And this, surely, is what art is always doing.
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