Stefan Arsenijevic's short film (A) Torsion (2002) is a collaborative project: The production is Slovenian, the director is Serbian, and the screenwriter and cast is Bosnian. The preparation for the film took half a year, shooting seven days and postproduction two months. (A) Torsion won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 2003, was awarded with the Prix UIP for Best European Short by the European Film Academy, and was well received by the audience.
"The Cetniks [Serbs] picked out Muslims whom they either knew about or knew, interrogated them and made them dig pits. […] During our first day, the Cetniks killed approximately 500 people. They would just line them up and shoot them into the pits. The approximately one hundred guys whom they interrogated and who had dug the mass graves then had to fill them in. At the end of the day, they were ordered to dig a pit for themselves and line up in front of it. […] [T]hey were shot into the mass grave. […] At dawn, […] [a] bulldozer arrived and dug up a pit […], and buried about 400 men alive. The men were encircled by Cetniks: whoever tried to escape was shot." (Quoted in Danner 1998).
This is the testimony of an eyewitness to the massacres at Nova Kasaba in July 1995 recorded by Human Rights Watch. Nova Kasaba lay just outside the Bosnian town of Srebrenica.
The Balkan war in the 90s is one of the great European catastrophes of the 20th century. There are numerous accounts that confirm the brutality of the war. Accounts of torture, assault, murder, rape, and ethnic cleansing. The war stripped man of civilization. For that reason it ought to fill much more in our consciousness than it actually does.
The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the most malicious and genocidal battlefront in the Balkan conflict, began in 1992. It ended in 1995 - four months after the massacres at Srebrenica - when NATO's bombings against Serb army positions forced Slobodan Milosovic (now indicted for crimes against humanity at The International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague) to accept the Dayton agreement. The Red Cross lists 7,079 dead and missing at Srebrenica - the worst massacre of any kind in Europe since World War II. The loss of human life in the Bosnian-Herzegovinian war was in December 2005 estimated at 93,837.
Stefan Arsenijevic's short film is set in the besieged Sarajevo, the main city of Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 1994. (A) Torsion is not a war film in a traditional sense but it is played out with the war as a continuously present background. The hope it expresses is turned towards the future…
The fabula, or the line of action, can be summarized as follows: Members of a local choir, trying to escape the war-torn Sarajevo to perform in Paris, have to wait for the clearing of a tunnel, which is secretly dug out under the runway of the Sarajevo airport. While they huddle amidst grenade and bomb blasts, a nearby farmer's cow - named Spotty - has difficulty giving birth because of the "torsion" affecting its calf (i.e., it's in a twisted position inside the uterus). Not knowing what to do, the farmer leaves the stable to find a doctor, and in the alley outside, he desperately calls out for help. Fortunately, one of the choir members has some veterinary training and at the risk of missing the flight to Paris he decides to help. Back in the stable, the "vet" realises that the cow is in distress - in fact it's frantic - because of the explosions. He will not be able to help it survive and potentially save the lives of the many mouths it feeds unless the sounds of war are drowned out in some way. His solution is to bring in the entire choral group, hoping that their singing will distract the cow from the shelling. At first the choir members are a bit reluctant to sing for a cow. They quarrel and are out of tune. But when the cow is very near death they join and find the tune. Their singing provides the cow with the calmness needed for it to be turned over on its back, and from this position the "vet" is now able to pull out the calf. After the calf is born there's a sense of relief, but not for long. Although salt is rubbed into the fur of the calf, the cow will not lick it. It's too exhausted and lies almost lifeless on the ground. Some fierce dogs are brought in. Their threatening behaviour towards the defenceless calf awakens the cow's dormant maternal instinct: it gets on its feet and chases them away. Everybody smiles. The choir leaves the stable. The tunnel is now clear. On their way down the tunnel a member of the choir tells the "vet" that she has fallen in love with him. The last shot shows the farmer's son in the stable holding and rubbing the calf. Spotty is standing in the background.
A Schematic Overview of (A) Torsion
A. The title of the film: "[a] torzija"/ "(A) Torsion" (6 sec.)
B. A title setting forth the place and time of the film: "Sarajevo 1994" (3 sec.)
Segment 1: Waiting time by the tunnel and a frantic cow (shots 1-32; 2 min., 14 sec.)
- Ext. The alley: Black humour-sequence and establishing of space and characters: The "hand grenade"; the "vet's" conversation with the soldier guarding the tunnel; the choir waiting; the fake bomb blast simulated by the farmer's son; the real bomb blast (shots 1-16; 72 sec.)
- Int./ext. The stable: Spotty is frantic; the farmer's son runs to for help; the farmer's trying to calm Spotty (shots 17-27, 30 sec.)
- Ext. The alley: The farmer calls out for a doctor; the "vet" decides to help (shots 28-32; 32 sec.).
Segment 2: "What a calf" (shots 33-138; 7 min., 36 sec.)
- Int. The stable: Conversation between the "vet" and the farmer - diagnosis: "A Torsion" (shots 33-44; 35 sec.)
- Int. The stable: The choir arrives; an unsuccessful attempt to turn Spotty around; out of tune; quarrels; Spotty is dying (shots 45-82; 2 min., 13 sec.)
- Int. The stable: A member of the choir starts singing - and the rest of the choir join in; the cow is turned over; the calf is pulled out; "What a calf"; laughter (shots 83-101; 1 min., 52 sec.)
- Int. The stable. New worries. Salt is rubbed into the fur of the calf; Spotty refuses to lick it; the "vet" requests that some fierce dogs be brought in; the soldier from segment 1a announces that the tunnel is now open and that the choir has seven minutes; the "vet" and the rest of the choir decide to stay; the dogs arrive and threaten the calf; the cow lies with open eyes, but doesn't move; the cow's maternal instinct is awakened; Spotty chases the dogs out; everybody smiles; the soldier comes back to announce that this is their last chance to get into the tunnel; the "vet" wipes his hands with straw (shots 102-138; 2 min., 56 sec.)
Segment 3: Exit through the tunnel (shots 139-140; 1 min., 2 sec.)
- Ext. The alley/the tunnel: The choir walks smilingly towards the tunnel; a choir member tells the "vet" that she has fallen in love with him (shot 139; 24 sec.)
- Ext. The tunnel/Int. The stable: Sign showing the distance to Paris, London and Rio; the boy alone with Spotty and the calf (shot 140; 38 sec.)
C. End credits (1 min., 23 sec.)
Narrative construction and style
(A) Torsion, though a Slovenian short film, adheres completely to the basic principles of Hollywood film practice: the story as the basis of the film, the technique as a "transparent suture" (i.e. functioning invisibly to advance the narrative) and complete closure as the end of all action.
The narrative consumes a very short stretch of time - one or two hours. The film presents events in straightforward chronological order. As shown above, (A) Torsion is structured in three acts or segments (in accordance with Aristotle). The first segment (the set-up or exposition) establishes the space: a war zone, the principal characters and the two - though only on the surface - conflicting goals: to escape through the tunnel and to save the cow (and potentially the lives of the many it feeds). The second segment (developments and climax) is, of course, the core of the film - and it occupies almost three fourths of the total screen time. Within this segment, which actually consists of only one scene, we see a double crisis/climax/resolution pattern. The first one is connected to the complicated birth of the calf (at first the choir members collide and are out of tune and the cow is suffering, almost dying, then they struggle united, finally the calf is born and there's a sense of relief); the second one concerns the awakening of the cow's slumbering maternal instinct. The third segment (the coda or epilogue) is a traditional happy ending - confirming that the choir escapes through the tunnel (this is supplemented with the beginning of a love-story), and reaffirming the stability of the state arrived at through the preceding causal chain (Spotty as well as the calf is all right). One should notice that the film's last shot (the boy holding and rubbing the calf in the stable) responds to the first one (showing a hand grenade): Our attention has - through the course of the film - been shifted from an iconographical sign of war and insecurity to an iconographical sign of peacefulness and harmony.
The narrative drive of the film is achieved through a unified chain of causes and effects and a tight mesh of deadlines: the shelling has to be drowned by the choral singing in a hurry or the cow will not be able to give birth; the cow's slumbering maternal instinct has to be awakened in a hurry or it will not be able to survive; the choir members must hurry in their attempt to help the farmer or they will not be able to escape through the tunnel ("What's keeping you. The tunnel is clear. You have 7 minutes").
Although the "vet" is the character we follow the most, our knowledge about what goes on in the fictional space is not restricted to him. For instance, after the explosion at the beginning of the film (shots 13-16), the next scene shows the boy and the cow in the stable - which is not witnessed by the "vet". Thus the film's narration yields a range of knowledge beyond that available to any single character. (A) Torsion adheres to the classical tenet of omniscience rendered as spatial omnipresence (throughout the film the narration's viewpoint remains external).
Stylistically the film operates from a 'classical' base as well. Shifts of locale are motivated narratively and scenes rely heavily on rules of spatial coherence.
Unlike avant-garde films, (A) Torsion subordinates stylistic experimentation to the interests of emotional exhortation. It's neither difficult to watch nor to enjoy. The opening provides an example of the way in which Arsenijevic handles his scenes: an introductory title states that the place and time of this movie is "Sarajevo 1994". This title leads directly to a close-up of a hand holding a hand grenade, which - by a pan and a reframing - is revealed just to be a lighter. The next shot - the delayed establishing shot - is a long shot showing people waiting in an alley (the delayed establishing shot is not in conflict with classical norms, but a common alternative to the analytical breakdown of a scene). We see a man (whom we later will recognize as the "vet") walking towards the camera and then turning right. The camera follows the "vet" (by a tracking shot to the left) to the entrance of a tunnel. The shot ends with a plan américain framing, showing the "vet" beginning a conversation with the soldier guarding the tunnel. This 'two shot' establishes the 'axis of action' (or the '180 degree line'). From here on the conversation between the two characters (shots 3-7) is conveyed in a traditional shot/reverse-shot pattern (a definition of space through eyelines and reverse angles).
On the whole, Arsenijevic's editing style remains within the Hollywood continuity system. But it is worth noting that (A) Torsion's editing is not always completely classical. For example, in the scene depicting Spotty as frantic (see the beginning of segment 1b, shots 17-23), Arsenijevic violates the '30 degree rule' by his use of the jump cut. Arsenijevic has bent this art-film device (derived from Godard) to a narratively motivated function: the jump-cut - and this goes for the jerky hand-held camera in the scene as well - is used as a way to express cinematically the fears and violent sufferings of the cow. Thus it doesn't really confuse the audience, but rather intensifies the viewing experience and arouses our perception.
An important part of the film's fascination is, without doubt, its powerful iconographical motifs - the tormented cow's eye, the defenceless cow lying on its back with ropes tied around its legs, the messy birth of the calf… Arsenijevic's images, or at least some of them, are invested with a surprising alien beauty.
Arsenijevic allows the soundtrack a prominent place in his film. Throughout the film we hear the sounds of grenade and bomb blasts - constantly reminding us that we are in a war zone. Often the characters speak before we see them - this, of course, has the effect of greatly intensifying the spectator's attention. In the main scene, the complicated birth of the calf is sonically orchestrated by choral singing - in fact, the birth could not have happened without it. The choral singing reappears - this time though as a non-diegetic sound (marking the presence of an omniscient narration commenting on the action) - after another significant moment of the action: when Spotty's slumbering maternal instinct has been awakened. Thus the choral singing in the film both contributes to and emphasizes the narrative development. The choral singing is of course important in a discussion of the question: "What is Arsenijevic trying to say here?" I will return to it in the last section of this article.
One of the more salient features of (A) Torsion is its black (i.e. grotesque and macabre) humour, which comes forward in the film's first segment. Black humour is often said to be typical for the Balkan region (see for example the Bosnian filmmaker Emir Kusturica's Underground from 1995) - and presumably it's a way to survive in this war-torn area.  The first example of this black humour, we find already in the first shot of the film - the close-up of a hand grenade, which - after a momentary delay - is revealed just to be a lighter. Here we have a powerful signal of war (fitting with the explosions on the soundtrack during the titles), which is transformed to a narrational joke. Another example of this kind of humour we find in the clash between the fake and the real bomb blast at the end of segment 1a (shots 8-16). From here on there's a change of tone - the film becomes more serious and more dominated by traditional pathos as a story begins to crystallize.
(A) Torsion as allegory
As I have indicated above with remarks on the narrative construction and the style, (A) Torsion is a very straightforward and accessible film. In that respect it is similar to Ahmed Imamovic's short 10 minuta/10 Minutes (Bosnia-Herzegovina, 2002), a film that is also set in the besieged Sarajevo in 1994.
No doubt, (A) Torsion is a film that - on an allegorical level - has to be analysed in direct relation to its historical context in the period of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovia. Otherwise it loses an important part of its meaning.
(A) Torsion is evidently a picture of survival in times of war. It speaks of the importance of mutual assistance - of showing humanity. In the attempt to save his cow and his family, the farmer has to rely on strangers, and in turn these strangers are brought together: the struggle in the stable actually allows the members of the chorus to overcome disagreements and to achieve true communion.
We are inclined to read the birth of the calf as a symbolic manifestation of (Christian) salvation by the fact that the birth is taking place in a stable. Here we have a very straightforward reference to the New Testament (Lk. 2-1-20), which evokes connotations of humanity and forgiveness. Thus the birth depicted in the film becomes a picture of a new world releasing itself from the old world - in the context of the film: the times of war. Arsenijevic's film is an allegory of hope being born - hope of peace and of reconciliation with the past.
The choral singing is, of course, a metaphor of art. Thus the film can also be regarded - and should be regarded - as an allegory of the power of art, art as a way to survive in a period of crisis and despair.
If (A) Torsion is a "closed" film, almost too easy to interpret, it is also a film that makes you leave the movie theater with a strong impression of fresh air blowing from the Balkans. Arsenijevic's film is a genuinely anti-war film.
1 In an article from last year, the secretary general of the Danish Red Cross, Jørgen Poulsen, told the following story from Sarajevo during the siege in the 90s: "In Sarajevo was the powerlessness of the UN evident. The UN division was called "UN Protection Forces" but nobody could protect the inhabitants against snipers and grenades. With habitual black humour the Bosnians had badges made with the text 'Please don't protect me anymore!'" (Poulsen 2005).
Danner, Mark: "The Killing Fields of Bosnia," New York Review of Books, September 24, 1998.
Poulsen, Jørgen: "Den utænkelige forbrydelse," Hjælp, July 10, 2005.
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