The Box is the tragicomic urban tale of three young men chasing their dreams while trapped under the yoke of UN sanctions in early nineties Belgrade. With the onset of isolation, the film shows Belgrade in a moment of transition between everyday normality and the abnormal conditions about to be imposed on it.
It is 1992 and governments are recalling their embassies in the face of the coming storm, leaving the packing to our three protagonists, who work for a removals business that specialises in moving diplomats. This should be good for them as they box the lives of the diplomatic corps, but they live in a country that is being cut off.
Rather than be crushed by this, these young men carry on their own lives until they are moved to find new outlets for their dreams, showing comical resourcefulness to break out of their isolation.
Stojković and Stanković
Directed by Andrijana Stojković and shot mostly in high contrast black and white, The Box is an engaging film version of the book by Belgrade author Slavoljub Stanković, which itself originated from a screenplay co-authored by Stojković and Stanković.
Using our natural habit of compartmentalising our lives as a metaphor, The Box conjures up memories of a time when trade sanctions were looming, UEFA champions Red Star Belgrade could not host games at their hallowed home ground, and foreign ambassadors seemed to be changing guard at an alarming pace.
Most people still have boxes in their attic or garage that remain unopened since their last move. Memories and experiences packed away, out of sight, out of mind. This film poses the question of which boxes Serbia is still storing in the attic, hidden but not entirely forgotten. Equally, that are not yet ready to unpack and confront their memories.
Serbia is a Country on the Verge
Set against the backdrop of a country on the verge of being cut off from the outside world, this story presents genuine insights into how people deal with the many aspects of normal life, even when the humdrum hides harsh realities and their future is nothing but uncertain.
Budget for The Box did not stretch to filming in the plush ambassadorial residences described in the book, but necessity is the mother of invention and Stojković chose to film pieces to camera, documentary and confessional in tone, with the diplomats. This fluke has turned the film from what might have been a pleasant take into an absorbing record of a rime of such great uncertainty.
The film is shot in an almost fly-on-the-wall style, with floor level framing and long distance shots book-ending monologues from embassy staff. Thankfully, the sparse writing style and tight interaction that was so successful in the book is still intact in the film’s stunningly crisp imagery and restrained dialogue.
At a time when travel was not an option and Yugoslavia was a pariah state to many, Cvrle, Vladan and Billy, are literally entering onto foreign soil, touching different cultures and meeting foreign people as they pack up the possessions of the embassy staff.
As work increases due to the diplomatic exodus, the three see the world boxing them in. Each has their own simple dream in life, but all that seems to be slipping away from their grasp. Enough is finally enough and the three plot to escape from their individual problems by coming up with quite extraordinary means to break out of the box and achieve their goals.
Wannabe rock star Cvrle, played by Ivan Djordjević, is in the moving game for one reason only: to raise cash to record demos with his band, One Hit. Cvrle is a grafter: he gets things done, makes the most of what life throws at him and does not ask for much more.
Ambitious student Vladan (Slobodan Negić) is Cvrle’s sidekick. His primary aim is to raise enough cash to escape Belgrade and continue his studies abroad. Again, this simple ambition has been stymied by the oncoming sanctions preventing him from getting the necessary visa.
Marko Janketic Scores For Red Star
The third in this trio of oddballs is energetic young Red Star Belgrade fanatic Billy (Marko Janketić), who is blocked from traveling to matches due to the troubles. Janketić commands attention on screen, with his supremely natural performance as the young football fan, full of spirit, excitement and single-mindedness. His incredible mid-film monologue bears repeat viewing.
Actor Janketić is the son of respected actors Mihailo ‘Misa’ Janketić and Svjetlana Knezević. His previous films include Šišanje / Skinning by Stevan Filipović, and White, White World by Oleg Novković. Recently, Janketić has been attracting praise for his Belgrade stage performance in the international musical Grease / Briljantin.
Although these were dark and uncertain times, the film is in no way depressing: it does not focus on the down-trodden, with times-were-hard tales we have heard elsewhere. In many ways it is quite uplifting, with our heroes using ingenuity to show that they cannot be kept down by their circumstances. There is always a way out if you chose to look for it.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Soundtrack
As much as anything, this is a rock and roll film and music drives the story along, maintaining its pace when the episodic repetition of the story could threaten to tire. The live music scenes also provide a splash of colour again the black and white cinematography.
For me, it is a shame that some of the classic bands so lovingly name-checked in the book – such as The Clash, Rolling Stones and Nick Cave – do not get a look in. It would have made for an uber-cool soundrack (but could have sent the film’s budget through the roof!). Instead, Serbian rock stars past and present were coaxed into recording the soundtrack to The Box, which was then produced by prominent local musician Boris Mladenović.
The musical device works especially well in Cvrle’s close-framed closing number, where the emotional struggle and determination to survive at all costs can be seen in his eyes. Indeed, the music adds to the effect of creating a Serbian film that should attract a cult following beyond its natural shelf life.
The Box received praise and interest from international distributors when it was screened at the Cannes Film Festival 2011 and at Cinema City in Novi Sad. It is currently running the festival circuit, including a UK premiere screening at London’s Raindance Film Festival, prior to a Belgrade gala premiere in the autumn. After that, it will return home for roll-out to cinemas across Serbia and beyond.