P.O.V. No.21 - (A)TORSION

Because of a cow

Marina Kaceanov

Sarajevo 1994. Winter, incessant bombardment, the marketplace massacre. People waiting to get out of this war-torn town, lost in the mountains, by the only possible exit - through the tunnel dug under the airport. Not to escape, not to run away from the hell, but to compete for Bosnia at the European Choir Contest in Paris.

All this might seem like material for just another heartbreaking human tragedy in time of war. Perhaps it was a source of disappointment for some viewers, who expected tears but were forced to laugh.

Really - an acapella choir asked to sing for a cow with a serious pregnancy complication - a twisted uterus - to calm her from bomb blasts while she is in the process of giving birth. In addition a choir member, who is also a vet without diploma, physically tries to help the animal by using every means available and even following old folk-remedies and superstitions he probably remembers from his grandparents. Finally his efforts succeed - the calf is born, the cow saved, the cow's owner ensured the food needed to feed fifteen mouths, and the choir is on its way to Paris.

The film ends with no blood, no bodies, no adrenalised emotions. Instead there is life, hope and a set of thought-provoking associations.

What was most remarkable for me is the director's ability to interweave the normal and abnormal in capturing the complex reality of war, where the only guarantee is that nothing is guaranteed. This uncertainty unites everyone and everything: an acapella choir, a poor family father with responsibility for fifteen people, a dying cow and on the top of all that - bombs, a twisted uterus, vocal music and very "peaceful" human behavior.

For a boy to tease a frightened crowd by imitating the sound of a falling bomb seems absurd, but still very human; for a musician to complain of a choir member's false notes even while bombs are falling, also has a kind of strange logic; and words of hate between two women colleagues who might be killed at any moment can even take on amusing qualities because of the desperate circumstances. These brief moments leave us feeling that the entire siege of Sarajevo was perceived by the people themselves as surreal; that they lived in a reality of war while somehow not believing in the suffering that accompanied this reality. People apparently adapt to the situation, simply because they are there and have no illusions. Reality itself is twisted… a complicated torsion in the very substance of human life.

Trying to survive within such a reality, they do things they think are right, relying solely on their own resources, and despite the darkest circumstances surrounding them. And the surroundings surprisingly become a source of safety - both physically and spiritually.

Who knows how the situation would have ended for a cow with such dangerous complications that were not necessarily caused by the bombardment, if the war had not caused the paths of a farmer and a traveling choir to cross? Losing a cow is a great loss for a poor farmer even in peaceful times and it's very uncertain that he would have been able to get free veterinary assistance… But war has its own logic and rules.

Even after the calf is born, thanks to the resourcefulness of the vet and the choir's help with rolling the cow over and calming her down, it is not enough to be satisfied that the common effort succeeded - the cow, the mother is still not doing what she must for the newborn to survive: licking the calf. And the tunnel is now open for only seven minutes, the choir's way to Paris is clear and just a few steps away, after many hours of waiting. Yet no one moves, and a new solution is found: to get the mad dogs in - a powerful old remedy for evoking the protective instincts of a mother. I'm not sure how well known this is in Western Europe, but in Eastern Europe this trick (though not necessarily involving dogs) is commonly known and still believed in to this day.

In (A)Torsion, one may talk about a political metaphor, even an allegory, by finding meaning in a comparison of war-torn Bosnia with the cow, trying to survive in desperately stressful situations, with the help of its people, their beliefs, their creativity and resources. This is what the film is about: finding ways to turn reality around in order to fix the twisted circumstances.

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