There’s no shortage of documentaries about Balkan atrocities – it’s virtually a sub-genre on Youtube – but few have been as affectingly or coolly told as Ognjen Glavonić’s Depth Two, which deals with events during the NATO bombing of Belgrade in 1999, when – soon after – a truck containing 53 unidentified dead bodies was discovered at the bottom of the Danube.
From the initial recounting of this truck’s discovery we’re taken on a relentless journey – to probe what, and who the truck contained, the labyrinthine cover-up that resulted, and the horrors of the crime itself, on the way plunging into the depths of the region’s culture of fear, lies, silence and bureaucratic obfuscation.
Glavonić’s fascinating technique – for nearly all the film – is to refrain from showing us a single human face. Instead, stories are told only in voiceover by the atrocity’s and its aftermath’s main actors: those who participated in the original massacre, those involved in the cover-up that followed, and a survivor who lost 49 members of her family – including her husband and 4 children – in one morning. Recordings are taken straight from ICTY testimonies at the Hague: speakers remain unidentified by name – only by role (and sometimes even their voices are disguised) seeming to come from the depths of the region’s unconscious: what it cannot – for whatever reasons of shame, fear or trauma – openly discuss.
Along with these stories we’re given an eerily effective – and spacious – montage: of river-beds, tunnels, roads at night, smouldering fires and rubbish tips. Sometimes the images are quite beautiful: they might, in different times, have provided the background for a promotional Kosovan tourist film, yet here gain a palpable menace: rarely has the disconnect between the ravishing Balkan landscape and its terrible recent history been made more stark.
Throughout, Glavonić’s control of his material is clear: he knows exactly when to fix on an image, when to let the words take over, and how to dramatise those images most effectively. The way the camera lingers on the haunting silence of a misty mountain landscape after the details of the massacre have been told to us by a survivor is masterful, and equal laurels must go to Yelena Maksimović for montage and Jakov Munizaba for sound design, both of whom do exemplary work.
When revelations come at the end – and we discover the real reason for the film’s title, and how far up the chain of Serbian command the atrocity and its cover-up went, the forensic tone never falters, and only in the final image, of a sprouting bud deep below ground – another, hidden subterranean thing pushing up through the earth and seeking the daylight – does the symbolism seem slightly contrived.
Meanwhile, it’s hard to think of a bolder or more innovative documentary to close the Open City festival with. This is serious film-making, by a director to watch: quite apart from its urgent subject-matter, students of montage and soundscape will have a masterclass here. Depth Two may ask more questions than it answers, but that’s surely Glavonić’s point. ‘Be careful or the darkness will eat you,’ a character is told at one point. Yet the culture of Balkan silence, we sense, is nearly overwhelming, and there is an infinity of riverbeds to trawl.
Ognjen Glavonic’s Depth Two (2016) can be seen on 26 June at the Regent St. Cinema (18:00) as part of the Open City Documentary Festival 2016. Bookings can be made by clicking on the image below.