Tuesday night Sadiqeh, Ivan, and I went to the Quad Cinema on 13th to see Darko Lungulov’s Here and There (Tamo i ovde). Robert (David Thornton) is a down and out musician in New York evicted from his apartment. His monotone mood is unaffected, and Robert is easy to initially read as disdainful and somber, but truthfully, he is disconnected. He is so numbed by alcohol and what he sees as a failed career to even have the energy for true anger or sadness.
Robert’s few possessions are moved out by Branko (Branislav Trifunovic), a Serbian immigrant with a one person moving company, USA Movers. Branko hires Robert, who helps with one move, but that proves to be too much of an exertion for his otherwise couch occupying body. Eventually Branko, knowing Robert’s need for cash and a new place to live – Robert’s welcome at his friend Rose’s (Cyndi Lauper) house is short-lived – asks Robert if he will go to Serbia to marry his girlfriend Ivana (Jelena Mrdja) so that she can come to the US. Robert agrees for more than double what Branko can pay, and so begins the journey of a man who up until this point had no purpose. Robert lands in Belgrade, his luggage missing, to an eager Ivana and her politically aware and angered taxi driving brother, Mirko (Goran Radakovic).
Mirko views the US and US citizens as colonial thugs out to screw of the rest of the world. There is humour and sadness to his observations. His anger comes off as comical, but when faced with the numbed presence of Robert, who has no response other than to defend himself personally, it is difficult to not see truths in Mirko’s anger. The irony here is that Mirko means the US government, and speaks in defense of the Serbian people, but Robert as an individual is essentially screwing Branko over, financially anyway, in order to also help. So Mirko is not only speaking on behalf of Serbia and Serbians, but his own family as well.
The film then parallels the struggles of Robert in Serbia as he waits to receive money from Branko, and Branko’s own struggles in New York as he works to recover losses from his stolen van and send Robert money to bring Ivana back to the US. As Branko is faced with the unforgiving nature of New York threatening to crush his upbeat and hopeful character, Robert’s zombie-like existence is livened by Branko’s mother, Olga (Mirjana Karanovic). Robert and Mirjana’s attraction is inevitable, an obvious plot development, so it is the how the story is told through the simple straight forward cinematography and acting, that is enjoyable.
David Thornton is brilliantly frustrating, his depressive demeanor constantly challenged by Olga’s welcoming attitude and the overly friendly and curious Tosha (Fedja Stojanovic), a neighbour who pretty much forces his friendship on Robert. As one audience member noted in the question and answer session after the film, Thornton was so great, it was difficult to not want to strangle him. Yet his transformation on film is believable and profound in its simplicity. Lungulov’s brilliance resides in the film’s point of view. The story is told from an outsider’s point of view. Robert is always in the frame with whoever he is currently engaged. Even when he is in the foreground, he is detached, sometimes slightly out of focus, and rarely making eye contact. Physical barriers tend to be present as well. Either a doorway obstructs a clear view of Robert and whoever he is with, or they are separated by furniture. This story cannot be told from Robert’s point of view because in many ways, he has none. He is a living breathing person, but he has no life.
Most of Robert’s interactions are shot from afar, his physical distance from other people emphasized more by the camera’s distance. It is difficult to not feel discomfort in these interactions, Robert’s emotional and physical distance is so profound. And then change comes. Robert and Olga are no longer separated by closed doors and separate rooms. Eventually Robert and Olga go out to dinner. they even dance at his suggestion, and the next morning they awake in the same bed. These two moments sandwich perhaps the most intimate shot of the film. Robert and Olga share the tiny elevator in her building that up until now has not been working. The shot is so close and shot from a slight high angle, their bodies only separated by a few inches. There is an obvious sexual tension that lingers as they stare at each other. Until this point Robert has never been so close with someone. Not even the shared dance or obvious morning after sex is as affectionate. They have willingly entered close quarters, and Darko revealed to a questioning audience member that in order to achieve the shot in such a small space a mirror was used. The camera could not fit inside the elevator.
It is not until Robert and Olga have grown close that the story is told from his point of view. During a brief conversation at her kitchen table the camera shoots from over Robert’s shoulder, allowing the viewer to see Olga from his perspective. Nothing blocks the clear view of her beautiful face.
Here and There is a story about growth and cultural commonalities. Given recent immigration laws that have passed, aimed primarily at Latino/as, Here and There has a much larger impact and illustrates the fact that we are all immigrants and at times strangers even in our own homes, and at home in another land.
Here and There is also a reminder that stories can be told simply and with subtlety. It is not about the budget or special effects, but how the story unfolds.