Croatian director Masa Drndic describes her filmmaking as ‘documenting everyday life… where figures, spaces and situations mirror shadows’ – and certainly one gets a strong sense of the philosophical aesthetic in her films, which grasp these metaphorical ‘shadows’ through a creative use of sound. Layers of meaning are added above the central narrative, but what’s really unique is the way she does this visually. Are her films about their ostensible subject, or something else?
Her 2013 documentary The Waiting Point is a good example, opening with an exquisite bird’s-eye shot of a bus terminal in Rijeka on a wet, dark night, revealing a stationary coach and two solitary figures waiting for connections. The soundtrack is a news report: “an earthquake with a magnitude of 4.6 degrees on the Richter scale struck Japan early this morning. There are no reports on either damage or casualties”. By the time the news reporter announces that “a tsunami warning has not yet been issued”, the last remaining traveler has vanished into Drndic’s shadows.
In one shot – playing on contrasting metaphors – the direction has, intriguingly, introduced the themes of this film: loneliness, shipwreck and uncertain destinations . Enter Zabica bus station, microcosm of worldly musings, featuring a cast of jaded locals- discussing anything from politics to gossip – lost travellers and stationary destitutes, who occasionally zigzag across the narrative like Shakespearean jesters – to shake people’s consciences with their reality bites. The exchanges are sharp and witty: “Can you spare a kuna? … Never mind but you have nice legs”. A customer to an exasperated cashier: “Sorry, I’m not very bright, I didn’t read the board properly”. Patiently reassuring him, the cashier mutters, upon his exit: “I know that man, I’ve known him since he was young. Truth is, he was never that bright then either”. Such dialogue is often dubbed over other images that follow, resulting in carousel-like sequences across a spectrum of emotions – the vignettes by turns amusing, sinister, and tragic.
Particularly praiseworthy is the black and white photography. Luscious townscapes create a visual poetry, stylish and never pretentious. Some scenes are engaging simply because they’re beautiful to watch. In the terminal-shop where assistants go about their daily business, the mundanity is transformed into a fascinating sociological glimpse of daily life, without ever resorting to purist fly-on-the-wall ideals. The assistants are clearly aware of the camera at the back of the store and at one point even discuss its presence with a customer.
On the whole, the film’s narrative carries these vignettes very well; they’re gracefully presented and underline the themes of economic despondency and marginalization. Certainly there’s a classic documentary structure in the way Drndic presents things but there’s also a looseness which allows situations to breathe and real characters to remain authentic even when they’re performing to the camera. It’s only when eerie music’s jarringly introduced halfway through the Waiting Point that the pace seems to flag – the menacing score undermining the delicate balance of objectivity and artistry we’ve seen in most of the film.
That aside, the documentary is masterful both in tone and execution. As Drdnic explains; ‘In my works I often focus on relationship between locations and its inhabitants, exploring individual as well as collective expressions of identity, belonging, memories, dreams and desires.’ The people and situations in her documentaries she calls ‘the doppelgangers of one’s subconscious’. Indeed, part of Drndic’s appeal is how she goes about this mission, producing a result whose fragments are inadvertently revealing yet always mysterious: not unlike the subconscious itself.
Masa Drndic’s The Waiting Point screens on June 20th at Deptford Cinema, as part of the Open City Docs 2015 Festival, London.