As matter-of-fact as its mouthful of a title, Danis Tanovic’s touching social-realist drama “An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker” offers a modest, low-key glimpse into the struggles of an impoverished Roma family. Re-creating a shocking instance of discrimination using the very people who experienced it, Tanovic (“Cirkus Columbia,” “No Man’s Land”) employs low-budget handheld visuals, marking a stylistic return to his roots as a documentary filmmaker during the war. Although perhaps too dramatically understated for significant arthouse exposure in the West, the film will certainly travel to fests, cinematheques and human-rights events.
The Mujic family — father Nazif, mother Senada Alimanovic and lively young daughters Sandra and Semsa — live in Poljice, a Roma shantytown in the Tuzla region of Bosnia-Herzegovina, far from the conveniences of the city. Nazif ekes out a precarious living by collecting scrap metal for recycling. Senada minds their home and the girls, cooking, cleaning and washing clothes by hand. The couple appear to be tender, loving parents as well as affectionate, respectful partners.
Although Nazif fought in the trenches for four years during the Balkan war, he has no government pension, child benefit or health insurance for his family. When Senada suffers a miscarriage, the hospital refuses to perform the prescribed D&C surgery unless Nazif pays 980 Bosnian marks (approximately $675), an unobtainable fortune for an iron picker. With Senada’s life at risk (she could develop sepsis), Nazif tries every means possible to facilitate the operation.
Per press notes, Tanovic read about the family’s story in the newspaper in 2011. Appalled and angry, he decided to reconstruct the event after meeting the couple. His underlying theme, something compatriot helmer Aida Begic also dealt with in last year’s Cannes entry “Children of Sarajevo,” is the lack of compassion for the socially underprivileged now prevalent in contempo Bosnian society, compared with the feeling of fellowship that abounded during the war years.
While their active daughters seem completely natural in front of the lens, at first Nazif and Senada come off as a tad self-conscious, although this manifests itself as their appearing slightly stiff rather than playing to the camera. The rest of the credible non-pro cast includes people related to the actual event, many of them relatives and neighbors of the couple. For practical reasons, doctor friends of the helmer play most of the physicians, including the surgeon who refused to operate on Senada.
As with last year’s Berlinale competition entry “Just the Wind,” which was also shot on location in a Roma settlement, the characters here are depicted with dignity, as the film resists the cliches of wild gypsy music, chaotic dancing and picturesque all-nighters by a campfire. More than anything else, we experience the mundane existence of the protagonists and their humanity.
Reportedly made on a $23,000 budget, the pic was shot over nine cold winter days with a Canon 5D Mark II. Gritty, mobile, natural-light lensing by Erol Zubcevic (who also shot “Children of Sarajevo”) mostly focuses tightly on the characters, cutting away occasionally to take in the snow-covered Roma village or the smoke-belching factories outside of Tuzla. Scant music is diegetic.
The story of Nazif and Senada now has a new development; they appeared at the press conference following the film’s first Berlin screening with their new baby boy, Danis.