Dec 30, 2010

Who's Singing Over There? (1981)

In the few years before his death in 1993, the late, great "Globe and Mail" film critic Jay Scott also lent his talents to the television medium for TVOntario's "Film International", which would show some unsung foreign films every Friday night. Before this show became a weekly entity in 1990, "Film International" simply existed as an annual six-week mini-series shown on Wednesday nights in the late 1980's. No doubt this venture exposed international cinema to a lot of people in southern Ontario who would not normally have access to it.

Even more, "Film International" offered immeasurable insight into foreign film which still remains elusive-- even to those in the big city. One of the true joys of the six-week seasons was the broadcast of the superb Yugoslavian film, Who's Singing Over There? (1981). Many consider this to be the finest film made in that country. North American cinephiles mostly associate the nation's cinema with the works of Emir Kusturica (Underground) or Dusan Makavejev (WR: Mysteries of the Organism)- not exactly inaccurate mind you, but I am told by a Yugoslavian native that this picture was a phenomenon in its own land. It is a crime that this gem is not commercially available (save, perhaps, from those dealing in imported DVDs). I am happy that I still kept my off-air VHS copy from "Film International" in 1988.

For his maiden effort, director Slobodan Sijan was inspired by, of all things, Roger Corman biker movies and Russ Meyer's southern-fried sexploitation films. In truth, this film seems to be crafted by someone immersed in Luis Bunuel. This funny, surreal, bawdy, harsh, violent road movie has a lot of trademarks of that director's work, yet transposed to an Eastern European milieu. However, the emphasis is less on religion than politics.

The film opens on April 5, 1941- one day before the Nazis would bomb Belgrade. As fate would have it, the story concerns a busload of eclectic characters who are travelling to that city. The old bus owner and his klutzy son (who does most of the driving-- sometimes even blindfolded) are joined by a fancy dan singer, a hunter (whose gun always fires at the least appropriate times), a retired Army veteran, a salesman, a newlywed couple, a TB sufferer, and two gypsy musicians.

Four times in the film, the musicians break from the story to sing to the camera- chiefly to advance the plot. This device is not new by any means, but it makes perfect sense in context with the rest of the film. A consistent verse in the gypsies' sung narration is "But to have dreamt it all." We are seeing this film through their eyes (they appear in every scene). As the movie escalates with hatred (especially towards them), they wish that this voyage was nothing but a dream after all. By the same token, the movie itself looks dreamlike. Almost entirely shot in hazy gray overcast, it has a slightly unnatural look to it. This is also complimentary of the metaphor of war, itself an act that is unnatural, yet a fact of life. It is not only ironic that these two are the sole survivors at the end once a bomb drops on the bus, but the gray haze of the day is replaced by gray smoke from which they emerge, wishing this life was but a dream.

But still, Who's Singing Over There? is worthy of Bunuel. The simple premise of a busload of strangers whose destination is consistently frustrated by the most outlandish of events is right out of Mexican Busride or Discreet Charm of the Burgeoisie. In most cases, however, the delays are politically motivated. Initially, the road is blocked by the army, so the bus has to detour over a farmer's field. The property owner, however, who is suing the government anyway, is making back revenue owed him by the state by charging people to travel across his land because of the barricade. Also, a bridge is out of service because it was weakened by the army carrying cannons over it. Then, the bus is commandeered by the army-- they even enlist the son!

Further, there is a subtly subversive tone to the whole piece. When the funeral procession appears, the dapper singer throws a stone at the horses drawing the casket to make them go faster-- suddenly the procession of mourners (on foot) is running to catch up to it! It is also at this point that the immature newlywed groom takes his bride to a meadow to consummate their marriage!! Naturally, all the passengers come to watch-- thus, their "holier-than-thou" behaviour gives way to expose the primitive beings they really are.

Another delightful moment occurs when the roly-poly man falls from the bridge that has been weakened by drawing cannons, the other passengers are unable to find his body. They put his bowler hat on his knapsack as a place for him on the bus! When the busload later stops to have lunch by the river, the man is spotted floating in the current! Alas, he runs into more bad luck when the hunter shoots him in the rear end while trying to bag a rabbit.

Throughout the movie, the people's petty conflicts are compounded by an unseen entity that all of the characters must pledge allegiance to. The old bus owner continuously grumbles that he must follow regulations to the letter or get reported (he even forces the hunter to walk another 200 metres to be picked up at the next designated bus stop, instead of taking him in right then). The army is continuously affecting their route -one man mutters that the impending German takeover would be a good thing because "at least we would have some order over here".

Another amusing facet of this journey is always the symbol of money as power. "Following regulations", the older bus driver rechecks everyone at a certain point to make sure that they still have their ticket stubs. The old farmer won't let them cross his field without paying -the wizened old man's goliath sons start to let the air out of his tires until he does- and then in order to leaven the pressure from that deflated wheel everyone has to stay on one side of the bus. This is already after they have been herded to the front after the old man has blocked off the last row of seats to put in pigs ("I make more on one pig than on all of you."). The gypsy musicians are always being accused of theft- the dapper singer makes sure the old man's wallet doesn't fall out of his pocket before the gypsies lift it. However, the owner of the bus pays them to play music while he sells food and drink to the passengers, and even promises a bonus if he sells everything! And of course, in the final fateful conflict, once a man's wallet does disappear (it has actually fallen on the road), everyone beats up the gypsies who are accused of theft.

In this one day, we get to see the characters evolve. The foppish son of the bus driver becomes a "man" (he surprisingly shows pride for his son). The suave singer puts the moves on the lovely young bride and tries to convince her that her new husband is a waste of her life. And the hunter... well, he's just trying to get back on the bus.

In this microcosm, we see people squabble over money, race, religion and class. (That the gypsies are constant butts of their derogatory comments are ugly reminders of the acts of genocide in World War II, and Bosnia's ethnic cleansing in the 1990's.) However, all of that is shockingly silenced by a bomb. The violence towards the gypsies is slowed as the sound of offscreen planes gets louder. The invading forces are treated as some invisible force-- an evil one to be certain, but they almost seem biblical in a sense, because the passengers' insolent behaviour is rendered meaningless by a (literally) higher power.

Who's Singing Over There? is a very funny, quite surreal black comedy, yet also a harsh portrait of human cruelty. Although this is set in the early 20th century, this film nonetheless has a medieval quality about it-- if you take away the bus and the sound of planes, there is really very little that is modern. People still live off the land, and the road is merely two little brown lines. The look of this film also has an engagingly primitive aspect. Many times it gives the illusion of being shot merely with available light, further adding to its gritty feel.

With such an ambitious storyline, scenes of hilarity and pathos, and, during a time of (more) war, it is a moving portrait of ordinary citizens always living under the threat of combat. Nearly thirty years later, we still can't find Who's Singing Over There? under the "Foreign" section at the video store. This is a real shame. This may be one of the greatest films you will never see.

(Adapted from a review originally published in ESR #9)

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