Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Alexandar Manic - The Shutka book of records

There’s something very unsettling about The Shutka Book of Records. On its surface, Aleksandar Manic’s film is a light-hearted look at Shutka, a town in the Balkans that boasts the largest Roma (gypsy) population in the world. The town is full of unique personalities, all of them claim to the be “champion” of something, be it goose fighting, vampire hunting or music collecting. Lurking beneath the film’s surface, though, is a darkness that, by its end, threatens to overwhelming the movie; the darkness stands in great contrast to the film’s general jaunty tone, and makes it very difficult to discern Manic’s intentions.

As portrayed in the film, Shutka is a place in which no one will accept second place. There is a daily verbal battle about religion in the town square, an annual contest to determine who has the best collection of Turkish music, and regular arguments about who has the loveliest (fake) designer suits. Manic spends time with a wide variety of residents (it appears that he, too, lives in Shutka), all of whom are thrilled with his attention and leap at the chance to display their talents, collections, or personalities. Their various exploits -- all of which are accompanied by cheerful music that, to untrained American ears, sounds appropriately Roma -- are shot in both traditional color and in a black and white that calls to mind archival footage, a technique also used in the more-accomplished 37 Uses for a Dead Sheep. In this film, the black and white sequences carry a surprising poignancy, because one gets the feeling that little has changed: Roma communities 100 years ago had a similar lust for personal triumph, and crowned unofficial champions of their own.
Much of The Shutka Book of Records is dedicated to boasting and posing, activities that, one senses, dominate life in the town even in the absence of a film crew. There are moments, however, when the bluster falls away, and we are rewarded with glimpses of what life in Shutka is really like. It’s mentioned off-hand at that nearly everyone in the town is on welfare; the former boxing champion is a morphine addict, and later dies during a robbery; in his final voice over, Manic describes everyone in the town as dreaming of flying away from Shutka (to make their fortunes, and be champions in a new way). Seen through this lens of poverty and suffering, it’s hard not to see a shadow over the faces in the film, and to get the uneasy feeling that, by assuming that Manic’s subjects are all happy with their lot in life, we’re willfully failing to see what’s really going on.

From one perspective, Shutka’s residents love their lifestyle despite the poverty and relative isolation, and enjoy their predictably combative existences. From another, however, the desire to be regarded as “champion” of something is less an embracing of tradition than a desperate quest for a role. In a town with very few jobs and less money, claiming a station gives the Roma something to do; a reason to get up in the morning. When, for example, the best vampire hunter gets a reputation, he immediately has status, and has made himself a crucial member of the community. By constantly working to enhance his reputation, he assures that no one will take over his role; his position is established. Looked at within a wider context -- literally provided by Manic when he moves his camera into the sky above Shutka, which is much, much larger than the small town its personalities seem to inhabit -- this system, while it keeps the community functioning, has a tragic air of desperation to it, as if the only hope for Shutka is a fanciful one of forced, artificial positions and conflicts. As Manic rightly points out in his flowery narration about flying away, despite the charming traditions at play in the town, one gets the impression that most residents would jump at the chance to leave if it meant steady work and a chance at a future. This realization, while incredibly depressing, adds welcome depth to The Shutka Book of Records, and makes the film more valuable than the travelogue it initially appears to be.

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