Skinning (Srb: Šišanje) tells of high-achieving Belgrade student Novica (Nikola Rakocević), and how he falls under the spell of far right extremism to set off an horrific chain of events. From Serbian director Stevan Filipović, this is a strong film that sticks with you long after the impact of the end credits and their victims roll call.
Opening scenes see Novica suspended from school by his maths mentor Professor (Dragan Mićanović) after helping his charismatic friend Relja (Viktor Savić) cheat in an exam. They attend good schools and clearly have access to money but such a simple act of rebellion sets in motion a rapidly spiralling series of shocking events that tear life apart for them all.
All too soon, Novica is seduced into a sense of belonging by skinhead leader Relja, who heads up a group of hooligans draped in Nazi symbolism.
After attending right wing lectures and taking part in running battles on the terraces, Novica is sucked into a world of extremism, violence and hooliganism.
Novica passes the point of no return when, in an attempt to fit in with the gang, he goes on a drunken graffiti-spraying spree along the New Belgrade riverside below the Branko bridge.
They spot someone they believe to be Roma and, ignoring Relja’s calls to leave him, Novica charges in and inflicts a brutal beating. As his victim lays motionless, something snaps in Novica. He sees red and slams a slab of concrete into the boy’s head, smashing him dead.
|Nikola Rakocević. Used for promotion only.
From that moment, everything changes. The gang reels in denial while we witness Novica’s mind unravelling as the shockwaves of his act threaten to tear him apart. A subsequent confession to his teacher (Mićanović) does not help matters. He is told to stay silent, before being physically propositioned by the gay teacher (who later ends up on the bloody end of Novica’s boot).
In an attempt to rationalise his conscience, Novica takes further refuge in fascism and the new-found hero status he adopts within his group. That way, he can avoid seeing the victim as innocent, excusing his actions in misplaced racist ideology.
This is rammed home further following a bizarre cocktail party with the dubious leaders of politics and the church, where Novica overhears corruption and political manoeuvring that shows that things are moving slower than he would like.
|Image rights retained by copyright owner.
The combined impact of these influences is to tip Novica over the edge. Head shaven and wearing a new uniform of bomber jacket and boots, he takes over leadership of the group and instructs them on how to make Molotov cocktails for an attack on a Roma shanty town. As they gather in their underground lair, surrounded by Hitler posters, beer crates and fitness equipment, the fascist thug clichés can seem stretched to the limits.
A key theme of the film is choice and, if we choose a particular route, we must carry the responsibility for our actions. Novica is an intelligent young man, yet he chooses each time to go one step further towards the precipice. The road down which Novica rapidly careers can only end in tears but something drives him on and he seems unable to halt his downfall. Through Novica, Filipović reminds us of personal responsibility for our decisions and actions.
|Viktor Savić. Rights retained by owner.
Fine performances from the lead actors carry the film and partly allay doubts about the likelihood of such a swift downfall by an apparently intelligent young man infected by an ideological contagion of cold hatred and unhinged violence. Rakočević is hypnotic as a youth on the edge of innocence and in the handling of his physical and character transformations. Savić is engaging as the charming neo Nazi-poseur who admits to wearing the skinhead cut and uniform more for style than ideology.
Filipović has done a great job, making a genuinely astonishing, visually arresting film that should definitely raise issues and open a debate on all levels. There can be no avoiding the visual impact of the messages within this film, as graphically violent scenes rack up alongside black and white archive footage from football hooliganism in Serbia, riots at the American Embassy in Belgrade, and the abhorrent beatings around Belgrade Gay Pride.
But the film is not flawless and sits a little awkwardly alongside international cinema. While previous international films dealing with racial violence, ultra nationalism and extremism explored the psychological and sociological triggers of the characters and their environment, this motivation is absent in Skinning.
By focusing on points of ideology and political corruption to drive the film, Filipović and co-writer Dimitrije Vojnov do not leave themselves space for any convincing motivation behind the (re)actions of the main characters. Why Novica, an intelligent maths student from a good family, tips overnight into a violent, fascist killer is lacking. A deeper level of understanding of Novica’s inner conflicts is required, leaving us disconnected from their story.
Filming took four years, due to delayed funding. In that time the script allegedly underwent major rewrites. It begs the question of what was left on the cutting room floor.
This film shows that personal responsibility should override any situation. There is a line that should not be crossed and, if you choose to cross it, there is no going back. There are consequences to be faced for all actions.
In the final scenes, Novica is arrested and it is revealed to him that his murder victim was in fact a young architecture student from Vienna who was visiting family in Belgrade. This news shocks Novica and we see that his greatest punishment could be the realisation that his victim was, like him, a quiet and intelligent young man with a good future ahead of him.
The film closes on Novica being released to his own form of imprisonment as a puppet police informer trapped in a world he was never meant to be part of.
There is more than one victim in this story. There is more than one message.
|Viktor Savić. Image rights retained by copyright owner. Used for promotion only
Trailer: Click here (Serbian) or here (English subtitles)
- Skinning was screened in London as part of Serbian Week in Great Britain, jointly organised by the Serbian Council of Great Britain, the Serbian Society and Serbian City Club. The screening was attended by the film’s director and crew, as well as the Serbian Ambassador to the UK.