SUTRA UJUTRU (TOMORROW MORNING) (PNA) Serbia / 2006 / 35 mm / Colour / 85 min / Dir.: Oleg Novkovic, Cast: Uliks Fehmiu, Nebojsa Glogovac, Nada Sargin, Lazar Ristovski, Ljubomir Bandovic, Radmila Tomovic, Danica Ristovski, Milos Vlalukin, Ana Markovic, Nebojsa Ilic An emigré’s return to Belgrade to get married becomes the occasion for several emotionally fraught and alcohol-fuelled reunions in this drama about how you can’t really go home again. Certainly not after a 12-year absence.
In most American movies, if the protagonist takes off to make a better life for himself, only to have his girlfriend take up with his best friend… who then commits suicide leaving behind an accusatory video-note…well, you’d be feeling sorry for our main character!
Not so in Sutra Ujurtu, which like so many movies from the Balkans examines how community is threatened by some people’s personal ambition. (I don’t know if it’s just me, or perhaps my choice of movies, but the various films i’ve seen from all these different ex-Eastern Bloc countries all strike me as a variety on this theme… and it’s a theme i like!)
Sutra Ujutru introduces us to Sasha, Ceca, Bure and Mare – four friends … though really that word isn’t strong enough, or complex enough, for what we have here. Rather this is a group bound together as much by what they have been through as by who they are, giving us what they really mean to each other. Family.
We meet these characters through Nele, who used to be one of the gang. Having left the others in Belgrade to pursue a better life in Canada, Nele’s return after twelve years affords us all a way of entering into this foreign world. A point-of-view character, the protagonist, but certainly not a hero at all.
That Nele is ostensibly returning home to get married is really beside the point, except to mark the distance he has traveled (none of his old friends are invited to the wedding, of course!). His unfortunate fiancée is forgotten almost as soon as he hooks up with the old gang, goofing off with the guys he has not seen since his youth.
There are as many angles here as there are characters. The men – Bure and Mare – are jealous of each other, and of each other’s relationships with Bure’s wife Ceca. They numb their pain with alcohol and heroin, acting like thirty year old teenagers. The women do likewise – Ceca less so as she must care for her child, Sasha to the point that she regularly wakes up outside, having passed out after a bender. The women feel pain because of the choices men have made, the men feel pain due to their own insecurities… but really what looms in the background is the threat to their community, to their family, symbolized by Nele’s departure twelve years ago, and by the subsequent suicide of his best friend Sima.
Director Oleg Novkovic does a great job and letting us feel the distance between Nele and his former friends, and the ambivalence each feels about bridging this divide. Truly, without anyone ever saying so, you feel he betrayed them. And he, in his way, feels betrayed, too, as once he left he was truly gone, not even receiving a phone call or letter to let him know of Sima’s death. (“I had to find out about it from some guy in a pub,” he complains.)
Yet bridge it they do, perhaps for Sima’s sake or simply the sake of old times. While the Festival write-up describes this as a story about how you really can’t go home again, i found it striking how Nele did in fact manage to return, grudgingly welcomed back into the circle.
If the four are like family, they are a family embedded in a broader working class community. The sense is there, in a way that is rare in white American stories, that this is the norm, the baseline, not something exotic or in need of explanation but simply the way things are, the way most people live. And, again, in movie after movie from the Balkans, this seems to be the norm.
So why do i like these movies so much?
Well, as i said, they all seem to look at this theme of community resisting, or failing to resist, the pressures to “get ahead” and “be successful.”
In Eastern Europe? Who’da thunk it?
It’s true: there’s something almost too obvious about this reading, of former State socialist societies thrust into the neo-liberal maelstrom churning out these stories of people grasping (with little success) to hold on to what they had. What is striking and perhaps less clichéd is that the “what they had” on display is not free education, healthcare or material security, but rather a sense of community and belonging, guarantees of family solidarity and a shared world. The same kind of community also celebrated in capitalist England, in world-famous cultural products like Coronation Street.
It is the community of the proletariat, not the dictatorship of the proletariat, that is celebrated and defended and mourned here.
The threats to this community can be malicious (movies like Ryna and Mila from Mars) or relatively “benign” (Something Like Happiness, What Iva Recorded) – some involve predators, others simply people “trying to get ahead.” But the tension between nurturing solidarity and pursuing “success” is always front and center. (The only recent American movie like this that springs to mind is the excellent June Bug.) And for each character who does “get ahead” – through securing a promotion, or emigrating, or getting a permit for his small business – there is always one who loses out. More often than not a woman. (Though in Sutra Ujutru this position is shared by both Sima and Sasha.)
Gender plays out in a similar way in all these different films. Now, i realize this could just be my foreign eye – see a bunch of stories from another society and you’ll see what’s simply normal there as being some kind of “theme” or “message” – but there it is all the same. Time and time again, some women are there serving as the foundation for these families and communities. The “good men” in these movies often being those most closely allied with the female characters.
When things go wrong, when men push hardest to get ahead… women are so often the ones to pay the price. And not simply in a job lost or a promotion she doesn’t get, but often in terms of violence and rape and mental distress… indeed, in this way Sutra Ujutru is much “lighter” than many other offerings.
In Sutra Ujutru the men may be useless, but they are mainly benign. Screw-ups and insensitive is the worst you can say. Which is not to say that the women do a much better job of navigating these encounters – Sasha in particular seems to have barely survived life, and jumps into what can only be another destructive episode knowing full well where that will leave her. She and Nele use each other, not so much for sex as to relive their past and recreate what once was. Through this Nele is humanized (he is one of the gang, and he feels things) and also allowed to be a cad all over again, this time for the audience to see.
When this year’s festival rolled around i got tickets to almost every East European movie i could… as much to see if they really are all of a sort as to enjoy them, because over the years i have found they are consistently amongst the most moving and – in a completely implicit, unspoken way – relevant movies i have seen.
With these expectations, Sutra Ujurtu did no disappoint. I’ll let you know about the others as i see them!