Danis Tanovic, director of the Oscar-winning No Man's Land (2001), brings a shocking real story to the big screen with his latest film, An Episode In The Life Of An Iron Picker. The film was a great success at the Berlin Film Festival, where it won the Silver Bear Jury Grand Prix for Tanovic and Best Actor Award for Nazif Mujic, as well as Special Mention for Prize of the Ecumenical Jury. It feels like a personal film and the subject matter is clearly one that is dear to Tanovic's heart.
The film is a micro-budget docudrama that carries important messages. Shot on handheld camera, viewers get to take a close look at a socially underprivileged Roma family in Bosnia and Herzegovina living in conditions that most of us would only experience through watching films, television news or documentaries.
The real-life members of the iron picker's family all play themselves after being asked by Tanovic to take part in his film to retell their story: Nazif collects old scrap metal and sells them for money. His life is turned upside down when Senada falls ill but does not have a health insurance card or the required money to pay for the life-saving medical treatment.
Tanovic has treated the subjects of his film with respect and dignity. The iron picker's family is impoverished but loving, and Kazif is particularly resourceful and calm even when facing desperate situations. The times when he says, "Lord, why do you always make the poor suffer" and, "it was better in the war" show him at his most emotional.
Most of the people living in the poor neighborhood, especially the gentle Kasim, are genuinely helpful. The medical professionals, in contrast, are portrayed as cold, heartless and seemingly untouched even with Kazif begging them to save his wife. "No payment, no surgery," one doctor tells Kazif and Senada. There are hints in the film that there is a broader problem that certain communities in the country are denied their rights to basic welfare and medical treatment.
The main weakness of An Epidode In The Life Of An Iron Picker is that for a film that depicts such a life-and-death situation, it is surprisingly lacking in dramatic urgency. It is not hard to imagine the circumstances becoming more and more desperate for Kazif and Senada with every car trip they take to and from the health facilities, but there really is not a great deal of tension in the air. Perhaps this comes from the knowledge that Senada did not come to any harm because she gets to play herself in the film. In addition the filmmaker's decision to focus on Kazif's search for solutions to help his wife, rather than on her suffering and deteriorating health condition, has also made it harder for viewers to sympathize with the characters.
That criticism aside, this is an important story to share and Tanovic ought to be applauded for telling it to the world. At the beginning of the film, Senada tells Nazif that they have no firewood, and the film concludes with Nazif going home with a pile of firewood. So as the title of the film suggests, this is just an episode in the life of the iron picker. Life certainly goes on, and the fact that he and his family have managed to survive this crisis is simply a happy end to one chapter of their lives. It definitely does not represent the end of their difficulties stemming from racial discrimination and social injustice. One certainty the audience is left with is that Nazif and Senada will continue to bravely face whatever challenges life throws at them.
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