On Invisible Dragons and People

Mirza Skenderagić: Review of the film „Flotation"

On Invisible Dragons and People

When it comes to documentary forms, a standout title from this year's selection of the Competitive Program of the 6th edition of the AJB DOC Festival is undoubtedly Flotation by the female authors Alesandra Tatić and Eluned Zoë Aiano. It brings the story of an abandoned man in an observational, almost meditative form of magical realism, choosing the space of silence where true life, full of sorrow and laughter, always hides. The authors enter the lives of the Marković and Bujezić families in the town of Majdanpek in eastern Serbia, trapped between two traditions: dragon hunting and mining, thus between the occult and the industrial, which provides the only income for the inhabitants of that mining town but also, like a shadow, takes over their world. The authors enter that world as guests, documenting one of its episodes with their camera and leaving it on a course that is unstoppable, much like nature itself.

The film Flotation, which was completed as part of the prestigious IDFA Project Space program, begins in nature, still untouched and unconquered, with almost magical shots from the depths of the forest. As one leaf flutters in the wind, disrupting the perfect silence, the third shot brings the crackling of fire and smoke. Magic is born. Then the central character of the film, Dragan Marković, a longtime miner and the last remaining dragon hunter, appears. While lighting a small fire inside a tree, he immediately explains his act: "This is how you burn supernatural forces, dragons. These are old traditional things. They are everywhere here, in caves and dens. Demons, dragons, all sorts of creatures can be found here." The harmony between nature and magic is, of course, interrupted by the sound of a bulldozer breaking branches behind the hill. In the next shot, the result of the "processed" open pit mine is revealed, while between them, the town appears, at the same time protected and suppressed, looking like it was asleep. In the sky above it all, the title "Flotation" appears, like a mythical name for the dark underground bunker where "machinery cannot reach," but also as a technological process of separating useful from useless components of mineral resources, known as beneficiation. This raises the question of where human life fits into all of this. In this way, Tatić and Aiano associatively lay the foundations of this film, both ideational and narrative. While on one hand, a man "cleans" his home from supernatural forces, the earthly forces created by authorities and large corporations conquer it without spitting fire.

Somewhere beneath the surface, in the mine of the world, another process takes place: life, banal and tragic, yet witty and beautiful. Dragan and his sister Desanka "play music" on leaves, trying to harmonize their rhythm by outdoing each other. "First, you don't have the right leaf. Don't play at all until you find the right leaf. This leaf is not good. You need a leaf from a pear tree," Desa says. In the next scene at the cemetery, Desanka recalls how her husband Ilija "was the president of the miners' union for ten years" and how he "fought like a lion for the miners of Majdanpek." However, "he got nothing out of it except for a stomach ulcer" and died "in just three months, at the age of 52." The composition of the central shot at the cemetery, the one with Ilija's and Desanka's common tombstone, is arranged by directors of photography Eluned Zoë Aiano, Milica Drakulić, and Vincent Laurin in such a way that the tombstone is "moved" to the right side, leaving a background space for the forest and hills that seem to press on both the dead and the living. When Desanka reveals that Ilija was "buried on November 30, 2005," and that his "pension arrived on December 1," it becomes clear that the main authorial goal is not the search for engagement, whether ecological or social, but for the absurdity of life that is always declared redundant during "flotation." Photography and its composition play a special role in the film. For instance, to transition between Desa and Dragan's story, where he lists the names of his seven wives (almost forgetting one), the image of their disappearing town is used, with the excavator getting closer to residential buildings, devouring all the remaining greenery. Additionally, the filmmakers insist on almost poetic image of the confrontation between nature and machines, like in a shot where the almost dried-up pond captures the reflection of the excavator passing above, and of course, posing as a threat. Currently hiding inside his cabin and tending a small garden in the yard, despite his compromised health due to the "dust" he has been exposed to in the mine for decades, Dragan speaks with a smile about how much he enjoys the fresh air and spending time with friends without any stress or anxiety, a completely different perspective on life compared to Desanka, who attempts to conceal her anger with cynicism, which is, like a fire against the dragons, the only thing still protecting people from ultimate invisibility.

At the end of the introductory story, Dragan announces the appearance of his son, the "rascal" Cvele. Dragan only wishes for him to find a job and continue the family tradition. The next film shot, borrowed from some Romanian New Wave movie, presents the harmony that evidently reigns in this charming family, despite the scarcity of their colourful room. With Cvele shaving one side of the face and his grandfather lying and watching television opposite him, and with Dragan playing cards in the deep shot of the kitchen, this image introduces the generational relationship that will not develop into a gap but will let each thread exist separately. However, the external threat must have reached their house too, as shown in the discussion between Dragan and Cvele about "Flotation" as Cvele „doesn't know where it is“. But a greater danger lurks from within, as 90-year-old grandfather Petar hints in his conversation with Dragan: "It's an invisible thing, and it causes various problems, kills people, devours livestock and turns everything bloody... You don't know what it looks like. It looks like a dragon. God save us. It's a dangerous thing!" The final union of these two worlds, the occult and the industrial, the natural and the modern, is achieved by the authors in a scene where they depict the process of ore processing, while Cvele's voice narrates in the background: "I will tell you a true story that no one can believe. It happened to me, my brother, and my grandfather. He had two horses and a carriage, and we went for a ride up through the hills. We were on our way when we saw a big tree. Grandpa said that something he called a dragon lives in that tree. I went there, took a look at the tree and I saw... blood, sliding down the tree. Grandpa said he would set it on fire and he did. It slowly started to burn, to blaze... and at one point, various screams, various sounds started coming from that tree... It was so terrifying that... even now, when I talk about it, I get chills, I feel a shiver running down my spine. From that moment on, I started believing in these things."

Occasionally evoking a post-apocalyptic feeling, like with the ruin of an abandoned school devoid of pupils, while simultaneously conveying a sense of life's transience in comparison to nature, the authors complete the enchanted circle with the grandfather's death and Cvele's employment, all while "the Chinese take everything." The fantastic element remains a part of this family, as do traces of socialist realism. Dragan will once again ignite the extinguished fire of his father, the dragon hunter, and Cvele will, with the arrival of a new day, carry on the mining tradition, taking on his father's helmet and heading towards the "Flotation."