Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Kite Runner: Redemption Within A Tentative Best

Two boys, Amir and Hassan, were spending the best of their childhood together as a series of personal circumstances and political events permanently molded their destinies. One was lucky enough to get a good life outside the relentless government of Taliban in Afghanistan; the other one not as fortunate as his devotion to his master and friend eventually cost his life. This is at least how I understood the film The Kite Runner which rolled in cinemas in 2007.

Director Marc Foster and the cast of the film adapted the script from the novel written by Khaled Hosseini. Hosseini drew inspiration in writing the novel from his childhood memories when he taught a Hazara man how to read and write during the family’s stay in Iran, and from the Kabul of his early years that he knew then. It is a drama film, the story revolving around the friendship between Amir and Hassan, and how personal and political conflicts shaped them into what they became eventually.

I will start with a summary of the film. Afterwards, some themes and techniques used by the filmmakers in the movie will be tackled. Finally, I will attempt to relate the film to political socialization, that is, how the film can contribute to the discussion on integrity and negotiation as the course’s theme tells us.

Amir Qadiri, a well-to-do boy, lived his childhood days in a district in Kabul, Afghanistan together with his father, Baba, and closest friend, Hassan, whom he all knew was their servant’s son. He always played games, read and wrote stories, and enjoyed doing things with Hassan. But his father regarded him as a weakling, and Hassan was recognized as the stronger one because the latter always defended Amir from the bullies. This remark has made Amir somewhat jealous of Hassan, and he attempted to regain his father’s attention by winning a kite flying event. However, Hassan was beaten and raped by the bullies, led by Assef, after he ran for Amir’s prize kite. This made Amir’s perception more distant to Hassan as guilt of maltreating a friend started to consume his entirety. Succeeding events would show how Amir became cold toward Hassan.

The political climate of the country was turning worse, from the fall of the Afghan monarch, to the invasion of Soviet Union that caused the exodus of numerous citizens to Pakistan and to the United States, and to the reign of the Taliban. Amir’s father was a known anti-communist, so he decided to leave the place with his son. The house was left to Rahim Khan, a friend, who looked after their property. They succeeded in escaping for the United States, and there, they became lowly refugees and started lives anew.

Amir graduated from college through the toils of his ageing father who worked hard in a gasoline station. He also helped his father selling goods in the flea market. There, he met the love of his life, Soraya. Despite the contempt that General Taheri, Soraya’s father, held due to pride and honor, Amir was able to marry her due to Baba’s request from the soldier. Although unable to conceive a child, Amir and Soraya were still happily married.

Amir received a phone call (in the opening scene of the movie) from Rahim Khan, and was told that “There is a way to be good again.” The context of this passage was for Amir to go to Pakistan and meet Rahim Khan. He learned from his father’s friend the fate of Hassan after they separated ways. Rahim Khan took Hassan and his family as caretakers of Baba’s house. But Hassan and his wife died in the hands of the Taliban after they dutifully refused to desert the house. It was revealed that Hassan was Amir’s half-brother. The deceit that fed his mind for a long time made Amir’s heart even colder, yet it was thawed and warmed after reading the letter written by Hassan a week before his death. It was now Amir’s task to search for Hassan’s son, Sohrab, in the Taliban-infested terrains of Kabul.

With the help of a driver named Farid, Amir returned to Afghanistan with a fake beard. They first visited an orphanage, where they learned of a Taliban official who takes a child from the place every now and then in exchange for meager donations. They went to the halftime of a soccer match to meet this Taliban official. They scheduled an appointment at the official’s heavily guarded house. And there, Amir once again met the bully, Assef, who presented Sohrab as a dance boy.

Assef told Amir that he can only take the boy home if he would win a fight against the bully. Amir was brutally beaten by Assef, yet Sohrab used a slingshot he got from his father Hassan and wounded Assef’s left eye. Together, they escaped the official’s house; and eventually, they reached America. Amir, who wanted to compensate with the loss that he did to a faithful friend and brother, attempted to console the traumatized and withdrawn Sohrab by defending the boy against General Taheri’s racist remarks and introducing him (Sohrab) as a nephew. Amir also flew a kite with the boy in the end, and cutting an enemy kite, he said, “For you, a thousand times over” and ran for the kite, just like what Hassan said to Amir during their childhood days.

The movie has several underlying themes. One is the concept of redemption. It is evident in the film how Amir tried to redeem his reputation in the eyes of his father as he felt he was responsible for his mother’s death. Yet, the greatest redemption that happened in the film is Amir’s attempt to save Sohrab, as this was the only way he found to cleanse his lingering guilt to Hassan. It was also his way in redeeming himself to finally stand for what is right.

Another possible theme is patriarchy, and love and tension between father and sons. As we all know, in an Islamic society, the father is a powerful figure; as a dialogue from Rahim Khan implies, a father is able to “fill the children with the color that he wants them to be.” Baba wanted Amir to be a doctor; yet he wanted to be a writer, and the father looked down on his son’s ambition. Amir loves Baba very dearly, yet he didn’t feel that he was loved back that much and he saw Hassan as a ‘rival’. Jealousy prevailed; the friendship between Amir and Hassan gradually broke up, despite the latter’s never-fading attachment to the former.

There is also a tinge of racial discrimination in the movie. There are references to Hassan and to Sohrab as the “Hazara boy”, and it points out the ethnic conflict between the majority Pashtun and the minority Hazaras in Afghanistan. The Hazaras had been discriminated against on the grounds of their faith, language, and ethnicity. Although the Pashtuns are successful in integrating the Hazaras into the Afghan state, they are not able to extinguish the nationalism that the minority group exhibits in the country. Thus, the conflict between these groups still persists.

In the film, the intersection between the political and the private spheres can also be considered a theme. The transitions in Amir’s life also marked the transitions that took place in his dear country. The political events greatly influenced the outcomes of the characters, particularly Amir and Hassan. Had there not been this series of political unrest in Afghanistan, the rest of the story would have been different.

Nostalgia is also an important theme in the movie. We can see it in Amir, who almost “forgot” his past yet the guilt toward Hassan still lingered. His father Baba was also very homesick, and it manifested with the locker containing Afghan soil. Each character has his/her own past that made them act the way they did in the present.

Regarding the technical aspects of the film, I say that the film has effectively used repetition, flashback, and symbolism. Here, we can see some details that repeated throughout the film: for instance, Hassan’s warning shot and Sohrab’s actual shot at Assef’s left eye; Assef’s molestation of Hassan and of Sohrab; the “Hazara boy” remarks of Assef and of General Taheri; Hassan’s “For you, a thousand times over” dialogue to Amir and the same dialogue of the latter to Sohrab. Each one foreshadowed an important happening that would highlight Amir’s fears and eventually overcoming of these fears.

Flashbacks are evident throughout the film. Actually, the technique was mainly used by the filmmakers in building the flow of the story. It gave emphasis on the childhood memories of Amir in order for viewers to fully understand what transpired prior to Rahim Khan’s call at the beginning of the film. Though some would say that flashbacks might confuse the timeline of a film, I would still say that The Kite Runner is successful in employing this kind of technique as it let viewers like me ponder more about the story while expecting for surprises.

Symbolism is used by the film in the kites and the allusions to rape. The kites might represent Amir’s happiness and hopes when he was still a child; ironically, it was also a sign of his guilt toward Hassan. Meanwhile, the rape scenes may be interpreted as the power domination of the majority over the minority (eg. Assef raping Hassan may symbolize the Pashtuns persecuting the Hazaras; the Russian soldier who showed interest in a woman passenger on the way outside Afghanistan may correspond to Soviet’s invasion of the country).

Finally, the film can be related to the discussion on integrity and negotiation. As Sir F would ask us in class, “What constitutes one’s integrity?” Perhaps, the greatest thing that contributed to the integrity of the characters is their memories of the past. They kept on remembering events that made them happy, and on forgetting things that made them shattered or bruised. To hold on to their integrity, they kept doing things which they think would keep their identity distinguishable despite the continuous processes of negotiations within a given context (eg. Practicing religion, observing traditions, speaking native language). However, it should be noted that remembering and forgetting is not clear-cut and inseparable—both are essential in delineating your own integrity. As I think it is unavoidable, there would come a time that you have to negotiate a part of your integrity in order to cope with a need, as in the case of Amir, who almost forgot his early days with Hassan, but were brought back due to circumstances. He negotiated his memory to redeem himself of the guilt he committed; as he replied to Farid during his visit to the abandoned residence, “I don’t want to forget anymore.”

It still touches and amazes me, though, that there would be someone that’s so devoted to you that he’s willing to compromise his own integrity just to make you better, just like Hassan to his half-brother Amir.


- Roldan Pineda

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Teorema: Propositions At The Core Of Integrity

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s works have always been controversial and Teorema has proven to be no exception although anyone who has seen his other films namely Salo would have to agree that Teorema is one of his relatively more tame and restrained films. Nonetheless, it has the ability to elicit responses from its audience ranging from shock to plain bewilderment. The film proves to be elusive to one central interpretation but perhaps it was intended to be that way. In my personal opinion, the strongest reaction that the film can draw out from its viewers is bewilderment and discussing the film has proven to be a challenging task. As such, this entry will employ three general frameworks namely Freudian psychoanalysis, Marxist class analysis and religion, and post-modernism as guides in an attempt to provide a coherent discussion.

The plot is enough to attract an audience. A mysterious and nameless stranger, played by Terence Stamp, is welcomed as a visitor to a conventional and upper-class Milanese family which is comprised of a father, mother, son, and daughter. He proceeds to have sex with each member of the household including the servant Emilia. Given the plot, people are probably anticipating a salacious movie but they are in for a disappointment because the sex scenes are far from explicit although this did not stop charges of obscenity at the time the film was made in 1968. This is because sex is only a metaphorical tool used by Pasolini to bring about the main part of the film which holds the central theme. Though these sex scenes hold an integral role in what Pasolini wants to convey, it is the scenes that follow the departure of the Guest in the middle of the film that proves to be more crucial and more effective in drawing out stronger reactions like disbelief and bewilderment.

After their sexual encounters with the Guest, each member of the household is thrown from his/her comfort zone and copes with the void that the Guest left behind. The servant Emilia leaves the household and returns to her rural hometown, becomes a miracle worker and is soon sanctified by the villagers for performing these miracles. On the other hand, the family breaks apart and is plunged into making existential self-assessments. The timid daughter Odetta, falls into a catatonic state while her brother Pietro who is a painter, deviates from his usual repertoire and isolates himself from the family by making artworks no one is able to understand. Lucia, their mother proceeds to pick up young men who resemble the Guest and engages in sexual liaisons with them. Finally, Paolo, the family patriarch who is a factory owner, decides to strip himself of all his possessions and takes it to the highest level by giving his factory to his workers and by disrobing in a busy station before taking off to run about in the desert. These scenes appear to be the cathartic response of the family members after the Guest pulls them from their life of conventions, order, and worldly possessions.

Pasolini makes use of minimal dialogue lines. If it weren’t for the brilliant soundtrack of Ennio Morricone, one would’ve mistaken the movie to be a silent film. Each scene occurs with no warning as opposed to conventional films where the climax is a culmination of events that makes it predictable. This is what makes discerning the film challenging. Therefore, frameworks for understanding must be used. Before anything, Pasolini’s work is not complete without a Marxist analysis given his communist leaning and his outspoken criticisms of industrial societies and consumerism. Using Marxism and incorporating the concept of God, the film can be seen as a critique of a bourgeois society shaped by industrial values. Given that the basic unit of society is the family which Pasolini views as a bourgeois structure, an upper-class family in Milan, which is the industrial center of Italy, breaks down after the Guest’s appearance. The film heavily hints that the Guest is an allegorical reference to God which has shocked religious groups given the Guest’s sexual nature. Some have proposed that he is a devilish seducer who breaks down families although given Pasolini’s orientation towards the family, the first proposition seems more likely. In an interview, Pasolini reveals that it is not important to understand Teorema and that he leaves it to the audience to decide for themselves who the Guest might be. The important thing is that he is a sacred and supernatural being, not necessarily a Catholic God, but a god regardless of religion (Flatley par. 6). Using content analysis as a methodology, Pasolini’s interviews reveal that because of industrialization, the family members are now incapable of recognizing what is sacred in contrast to the servant who comes from a pre-industrial society and is able to fully absorb the capacity for working miracles (par. 9). It is apparent that Pasolini is partisan towards the servant because of her peasant background which he favors. On the other hand, a bourgeois structure like the family, who cannot recognize the sacred because of their consumerist tastes, conventional values, and preference for material gains, cannot resolve their predicament. My main critique of the film however, is that in his preference of Emilia’s peasant background, Pasolini is inadvertently romanticizing the peasant condition with its simple but superior lifestyle which is divorced from the true conditions in reality. Hunger continues to be a primordial problem and it is highly doubtful if this can be addressed by feeding on nettles like Emilia. It may also cultivate false hope among the working class by planting the notion that one only has to cling to the purely simple peasant lifestyle in order for miracles to occur. Epidemic health conditions continue to hound these poor communities and making them believe that divine miracles will be their panacea institutes learned helplessness and passivity. This contradicts the Marxist stand that religion is the opium of the people.

While a Marxist framework provides a structure of explanation for the film, it barely helps the audience in clarifying the actions of the family members after the Guest’s departure. Each character’s actions must be assessed as a function of his membership under the larger frame of society. This is where I would propose Freudian psychoanalysis to address the gaps left by the Marxist framework. Each character in the film is essentially experiencing repression before the Guest’s arrival. According to Freud, their id which adheres to the pleasure principle has been so repressed to give way to their superego which ensures compliance with the standards of society. Because of their ego’s inability to find a balance between the two, the characters fall into a state of psychosis. The use of repression in Teorema refers to a dual conceptual definition. It is political because it forcefully censors what has been considered unacceptable and psychological because it is a process in which unacceptable desires are excluded from the consciousness and left suppressed in the unconscious (Peterson 215). Emilia’s devotion to her religion has made her suppress carnal desires which she might have viewed as a cardinal sin but as implied by the first framework, she was able to overcome this conflict because her peasant background allows her to recognize what is sacred. The family members are not so fortunate. Odetta, who is hinted to harbour an Elektra complex towards her father, is able to divert these forbidden desires with the Guest. She becomes catatonic as she is reverted back to her former state of repressing this taboo. Meanwhile, Pietro repressed his homosexuality to avoid condemnation from his peers and a society which views it as a pathological condition. As a result, he has ensured through his postmodern artworks that he cannot be judged. Lucia repressed her sexual proclivity to maintain the image of a chaste bourgeois wife and to conform to expectations of a woman whose life revolves around her family. She then finds consolation by picking up random young men as she comes to terms with these desires. Finally, the father whose whole life is anchored on material goods and a conformist family life based on the societal measure of a man’s success, breaks down and strips himself of everything in the most literal sense in an attempt to find his true identity, free from the dictates of societal standards.

The last framework in the attempt to analyze the film is based on postmodernism. The film exhibits one of the most ambiguous features that a movie can have and this deviates from the modernist view where a central Truth, order, and unity are required. Through Pasolini’s deconstructionist style, he uses the film to challenge conventional notions of family life, economic prosperity, and life aspirations. Standards are now expunged and there are now no judgments to be meted out. Pasolini hints that the family members are better off leading a life faced with conflict and contradictions which is better than a life of alienation and false consciousness under the hegemonic worldview of seeing economic prosperity and family life as the ultimate aspiration and valuing conspicuous consumption. The title Teorema is apt for it refers to something that must be proven. As the central Truth of each family member collapses after the Guest’s appearance in their lives, they are compelled to engage in dialectics to overthow their former condition. The central Teorema has now collapsed and each member must find his own teorema.


Flatley, Guy. N.d. “Pier Paolo Pasolini - The Atheist Who was Obsessed with God.” Accessed on 15, September 2011.

Peterson, Thomas. “The Allegory of Repression from Teorema to Salo,” Italica Vol. 73, No. 2, Summer 1996: 215-232

- Faysah Abdullah

Monday, September 12, 2011

Doubt: The Foundations of Certainty

Father Brendan Flynn: You haven't the slightest proof of anything!

Sister Aloysius Beauvier: But I have my certainty! And armed with that, I will go to your last parish, and the one before that if necessary. I'll find a parent.

What are the consequences of Doubt?

“Doubt” by John Patrick Shanley is the film adaptation of the Tony awards grand-slam winner con Pulitzer Prize winning fictional stage play “Doubt: A Parable”. Shanley was born in The Bronx, New York City, to a telephone operator mother and a meat-packer father. He is a graduate of New York University, and a member of the Ensemble Studio Theatre. The film was dedicated to Sister Margaret McEntee of the Sisters of Charity of New York who taught John Patrick Shanley in the first grade. He based the character of Sr. James on Sr. Margaret McEntee, who was known as Sr. Marita James when she was his first grade teacher.

Set in the 1964, the film focused in the events in St. Nicholas School, a private Catholic school, where Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) plays the staunch conservative Catholic principal. She is tagged as the “dragon lady” and knows the secret as to why teachers are mistaken (and feared) to have eyes behind their heads. On the contrary, the school also has Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a priest that promotes progressive ideas for the school – such as playing a secular song (Frosty, the Snowman) in their Christmas pageant. And seemingly employed to preempt the eventual clash of the two is the young and innocent Sister James (Amy Adams) who loves teaching and looks up high at Sr. Aloysius as her model.

After being intrigued by Fr. Flynn’s sermon about doubt (“Doubt can be a bond as sustaining as certainty…”) Sr. Aloysius ordered Sister James to watch out for anything unusual involving Fr. Flynn after seeing him in several occasions that have made her doubt about him. After being requested to pull the only African American student, Donald Miller, out of the class for a meeting and after seeing Fr. Flynn stuffing back the same student’s undershirt into his locker, Sister James suspects that there's something odd about Father Brendan and Donald’s relationship. Although Sister James didn't witness any inappropriate behavior, her observations fueled the fire of suspicion already burning in Sister Aloysius.

Sr. Aloysius eventually became successful in forcing Fr. Flynn to resign from the school by her made up phone calls to the latter’s previous schools regarding his “alleged” dark past. She then concludes that one also pays a price in pursuing wrongdoing. Finally, she broke down in tears in the last scene of the film and told Sister James: "I have doubts...I have such doubts."

One of the major themes of the film is the unending battle between conservatism versus change and progressivism. Conservatism, which was first used by François-René de Chateaubriand in 1819 following the French Revolution, promotes the maintenance of traditional institutions and supports, at the most, minimal and gradual change in society. While some conservatives aim to safeguard things as they are for stability and continuity, the others dispute change and pushes for returning to the way things were. In political science, it was introduced by Edmund Burke. On the other hand, progressivism is a political attitude favoring or advocating changes or reform through governmental action. The movement for progressivism began in the 19th-20th century when workers and reformers aimed to help those who are in harsh conditions at home and at work.

Taking the film literally, the film suggests apology to the issues attached to the Roman Catholic Church (RCC): sexual abuse issues, being one, and conservatism, another. Clearly, Sr. Aloysius was the personification of conservatism in the film while Fr. Flynn, of progressivism. This is particularly true in the 1960s when Pope Paul VI succeeded the deceased Pope John XXIII. The whole RCC was in the state of transition. From being more on the elitist side, the Church in 1960s reached out to the people, to the masses. He then introduced a lot of changes, hence pastoral progressivism. He reduced the Leviathan-like bureaucracy of the RCC and streamlined the positions; he reduced the eligibility age of the candidates for the papal elections; and he replaced the Papal Coronation with Papal Inauguration, among many other reforms.

Another theme that can be deduced from the film is the sufficiency of doubt to make judgments, or better put it, the politics of doubt. The film boasts Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Sr. Aloysius’ stronghold of certainty despite a lack of evidence and despite the fact that it only came from one thing, doubt. From this doubt, she was so paranoid to bring about preemptive actions partly because she “says” she’s concerned about the African American boy’s welfare and partly because he wants Fr. Flynn out of her toes.

Historically, or rather recently, we could recall that the Bush Administration of United States had done a similar thing, a preemptive strike (read: WAR) against Iraq which they have casted their doubts regarding the perpetrators of numerous terrorist attacks against them. This doctrine – the doctrine of Preemptive strike which replaced the doctrine of Cold war – aimed to pulverize the possible threat to their security before they become strong enough to proceed with posing and enacting the threat on them. The anthrax scare, the possession and production of nuclear weapons and othe weapons of mass destruction, the 9/11 bombing plus the minor “terrorist attacks” on the US: these were all blamed on the alleged conspiracy of the Iraqi government led by Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden. This led to an all-out war, exemplifying unilateralism and militarism against Iraq, and thus killing Hussein in 2006, bin Laden recently and other Iraqis, yes, including innocent lives. However, the judges at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders posed that “to initiate a war of aggression is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulative evil of the whole.”

After this paragraph a line from the story seems to echo, “Doubt can be a bond as sustaining as certainty.”

As a result to the discussion about doubt, if doubt is so powerful that it leads to people claiming their doubt as the truth, that it has its own brand of politics, we face the question how far is doubt from truth? This brings the question as to what defines the Truth. Or rather under what circumstance and indicators –who, what, where, when, how—defines the Truth?

John Patrick Shanley has genius-ly written “Doubt: A Parable” that it won numerous theatre awards, was adapted into film “Doubt” and was nominated several times in prestigious award-giving bodies. Now, we are probably facing the most relevant consequence of the film; for a setting not so distant from the viewers of today, we are bombarded with grand issues and themes that practically encompass much of our daily lives, thanks to the film.

You think Doubt doesn’t have consequences? I doubt it.

- Franco Oliva

Monday, September 5, 2011

Karaula: Borders of Action and Imagination

It is the uneasy calm before the bloody Wars of Yugoslavian Succession, and a group of young soldiers stationed on the border between Yugoslavia and Albania are battling lust, boredom, racism and authority in the 2006 Rajko Grlic film, Karaula.

Karaula is a snapshot of a time and place where racial tensions are obvious but the impending disaster is not; characters symbolize various aspects of Yugoslavian society and not a detail is out of place. It injects humor with its use of profanity and portrayal of youthful boredom, but audiences imbued with hindsight know what lies ahead. We begin with a summary of the film, then discuss the off-screen and more technical details before we proceed to the analysis each of the four main characters, and finally evaluate the film’s merits as an agent of political socialization.

The year is 1987, and the movie starts off with Sinisa Siriscevic (Toni Gujanovic) and Ljuba Pauvonic (Sergej Trifunovic) in all their youthful brazenness. Paunovic engages in casual sexual intercourse with an attractive barmaid then monologues about Sinisa's own pursuits of the night, before both men jump naked into Macedonia’s picturesque Lake Ohrid. The introduction reveals their attitude towards their duty as soldiers assigned to the border post, which is to coyly ask, "What duty?"

Only the perpetually drunk Lieutenant Porucnic Safet Pasic (Emir Hadzihafizbegovic) seems to take the job seriously – for more reasons than just allegiance to the Yugoslavian flag. He tells the soldiers that Albanian troops are lining up, and that no one is allowed to leave the border post. And this is only because of his syphilis – he cannot go home to his wife Mirjana (Verica Nedeska-Trajkova) with the disease. The Lieutenant’s directive changes many things. Sinisa has to regularly leave the post to get the Pennicilin and deliver the Lieutenant's messages and salary to Mirjana, while Ljuba slowly but very surely disrupts the devil-may-care lives of the soldiers.

Sinisa and Mirjana become sexual partners; we are not sure if they are anything else. Mirjana asks him to take her to the sea, and he promises that he will. The young soldier does not consider this a commitment, although it is evident that Mirjana does. Ljuba, in his desire to leave the border post, tells Lieutenant Pasic that he wants to walk to the grave of Josip Broz Tito in Dedinje, Belgrade, a journey of about six hundred kilometers. Despite Lieutenant Pasic’s better judgment he was allowed to appear in front of the Colonel to declare his advocacy. Ljuba pretends to have a breakdown and accuses the Lieutenant of forcing him to undertake the pilgrimage; the Colonel does not take this lightly and promises Lieutenant Pasic that he will “never move from that mountain.”

The story reaches its inevitable ugly end when Ljuba returns to the border post and he and the Lieutenant clash in the rainy night. In the confusion someone shouts “Albanians!” Panic ensues, and with tensions already running high at the border post, a soldier opens fire at an oncoming car, reminiscent of a scene in Waltz With Bashir. The car contained, as the audience knows full well, not Albanian terrorists but Mirjana, Yugoslavian soldiers, and the Colonel. Mirjana dies; the film ends with Sinisa in civilian clothing, looking forlorn onboard a steam train, his destination left to the audience’s imagination.

Perhaps the most interesting off-screen fact about this movie is that it is a collaborative effort among Serbia and Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, the UK, and Austria, and was supported by the Council of Europe’s co-production support fund, Eurimages. This is the first time that the former Yugoslav countries collaborated on a film, and what else should it but a military comedy about the period before the Wars of Yugoslavian Succession, dark years with some of the worst human rights violations in human history. It is amazing how they decided to make not a full-blown Schindler’s List but instead a comedy superimposed over the heavy themes of racism, infidelity, loyalty, authority, and consequences, set before their country broke down.

The style of the director is familiar. As in Die Ehe Der Maria Braun, we glimpse the zeitgeist through the news reports we overhear. We know that Slovenians are mobilizing, that there are riots in Kosovo, and that a Youth Relay Baton is on a pilgrimage to Tito’s grave. The busy town is juxtaposed against the lonely border post, the intimate encounters between Sinisa and Mirjana is juxtaposed against the conquests of Paunovic and the crude references to sex made by the soldiers. The change in Ohrid, from warm and sunny to rainy and gray signifies that things are about to turn for the worse. There are many other devices that are used in the film, and notable among them is the use of sound. The long low alarm at the border means alertness and impending crucial events, the Yugoslavian pop songs that Ljuba and Sinisa listen to seem to be youthful and carefree, but the lyrics say otherwise. Even the song played at the bar before the vertiginous slide into disaster relates all too clearly to the story. Every detail is relevant.

Interestingly, the movie opens with Sinisa’s eye. We see through his eye the explosion in a lake which looks suspiciously like a mushroom cloud. It closes with Mirjana’s eye; her dark pupil becomes the tunnel from which the train carrying Sinisa emerges.

The negotiation of identity within the context of racial tensions is the most obvious theme of the film. Everybody seems to know where everybody comes from: Sinisa is the Dalmatian Boy, Paunovic is the “Belgrade idiot,” Lieutenant Pasic is the “stupid Bosnian,” the Colonel smiles at a Montenegrin leader on television, and a soldier remarks, “The Slovenians are breaking up the country.” Nations, as Professor Benedict Anderson would have it, are imagined communities. And in Karaula, thrown together by the charismatic Tito’s national project, the different nations are all too painfully aware of their imagined differences.

For most of the film Sinisa wears a pleasantly befuddled expression, as if he found surprise in both everything and nothing. He treats life lightly, and does not seem to care for ethnicities and races, but he is the one who oversteps his boundaries the most.

The only woman who plays a significant role in the story, Mirjana is a die-cut tragedy. Referred to as an “officer’s wife,” she is intelligent but depressed, and desperate. “It’s so stupid to be a woman. Everything leads to goddamned marriage. Before you learn how to walk they already start putting together bed linen and towels for your dowry.” She complains of her fate but accepts it, that is, until Sinisa comes along. Desperate for escape she latches on to him, puts all her faith in him who never committed to her, and through a series of unfortunate circumstances meets her demise. Her desperation is heartbreaking, perhaps symbolizing what “officer’s wives” go through all over the world. Is her infidelity only truly what meets the eye?

Ljuba is the most conflicted character, but the source of his rather bipolar tendencies seems to be because of his relationship with authority and frustration about his current situation. His actions only seem to make sense when evaluated within the framework of anarchy. He comes across as carefree but he is the most observant of them all.

As mentioned, Karaula is classified as a military comedy. Most of the truly comedic scenes involve Lieutenant Pasic and his drunken antics, from cursing when he is given Penicillin shots to standing at rapt attention even when talking to officials on the telephone. But Pasic is important in that he is tasked to keep together the motley crew of soldiers from different and often conflicting ethnic backgrounds. In this microcosm of Yugoslavia he is the authority figure – albeit a blundering and unconvincing one. He fabricates a story to unite the soldiers, to his own end of course, but he fails in the sense that he unites them in paranoia and ultimately and unwittingly turns them against each other. He symbolizes the incapable elite who contribute to the breakdown.

It should be emphasized that there is a very important character that never actually appears in the film. Present only through the countless mentions of his name and yet all too important is the former Yugoslav “President for Life,” Josip Broz Tito. The text at the beginning introduces us to a world that he shaped, and one that we already know collapsed only a decade after his death. This tells us that the memory of a dead leader is not enough to hold together a country, no matter how much they reaffirm his contributions and honor his life’s work. Identity evolves.

The greatest tragedy in the film is the death of Mirjana and several Yugoslavian soldiers, but not from the Albanian “enemies” they so feared. The soldiers stationed at the border post were the ones who fired, thinking the oncoming jeep contained Albanians. Thus the breakdown comes from within, a blatant reference to what the Wars of Yugoslavian Succession were all about.

As an agent of political socialization, Karaula requires some knowledge of the history of the Balkan States and of Balkanization in order to be effective. Many of the important points are subtle ones, hidden in the profanity and the entertaining playful banter. The film has a lot to say on the issue of nationalism, identity, loyalty, and the national project and should not be taken at face value.

In the end, Sinisa does not betray Ljuba even when he knows that Lieutenant Pasic is mortally injured because of him. They are bound by shared experiences, and that is where loyalty truly lies. The film is also a cautionary tale: there are so many things that can go wrong in creating a nation, and it is not only the means which shape the ends but the objectives which underlie them. Karaula provokes us to evaluate where we are as a people and as a nation, where we want to go, and how we plan to get there – three questions that are becoming increasingly important in a digital age where new borders are being built up and old ones are being broken down much faster than we can even begin to imagine.


Grlic, R. (Director). (2006). Karaula [Motion Picture]. Republic of Macedonia: Refresh Production, Vertigo/Emotionfilm, Sektor Film Skopje, Propeler Film, Yodi Movie Craftsman, Film and Music Entertainment, Concordia Film, Invicta Capital, Macedonian National Television (MTV), Novotny & Novotny Filmproduktion GmbH, Pioneer Pictures, RTV Bosnia-Herzegovina, Studios, Viba Film.

Karaula. (n.d.) Retrieved 4 September 2011, from

- Roseanne Ramirez