Though his timely satire No Man's Land earned him the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, Bosnian director Danis Tanović hasn't exactly become a household name since, floating between smaller homegrown projects (Cirkus Columbia) and international co-productions that haven't truly registered (Triage). On paper, An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker doesn't seem as if it will change that low profile, seeing as its theme is the plight of the Roma people and the institutional racism they suffer from; a social issue that has been appropriated by documentary filmmaking and that, in fiction, may open the door to earnest but blandly admonishing melodrama. The way Mr. Tanović handles it, though, makes literally all the difference.

     Short and sharp, filmed in almost real time with a minuscule budget, An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker follows, in apparent documentary fashion, what happens to a Bosnian Roma day labourer (Nazif Mujić), living hand to mouth from scraping abandoned car bodies for iron, when his pregnant wife (Senada Alimanović) suffers a miscarriage. The family is uninsured and can't afford the treatment that will save her life, and the medical authorities won't open an exception for them since they're Roma and don't have any fixed salary. This peripatetic, Kafkian odyssey puts one in mind of Cristi Puiu's masterful The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, only made more chilling by the apparent real-life trappings surrounding it; Mr. Tanović puts the viewer in the man's shoes through his handheld vérité camerawork, but though this is a true case that shocked Bosnia, the film isn't a straight documentary. Instead, it's a factual recreation performed by the actual people who lived through it - it was Ms. Alimanović that almost died, it was Mr. Mujić who struggled to find the money, and even the doctors who had to turn them back play themselves.

     That makes An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker, with all its limitations and its badge of social earnestness, a truly intriguing proposition that settles right at the heart of the contemporary debate about the borders and limits of fiction and non-fiction film. The effectiveness of the project is measured by the fact that Mr. Tanović puts the people front and center, making us care for them first and only afterwards realise the reason for the situation they're living in - quite a feat in a film that could easily fall in the problem picture/documentary of the week mold. Not only is An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker a more personal and heartfelt project for Mr. Tanović - it could also mean a brand new start for the director.

Cast: Senada Alimanović, Nazif Mujić, Sandra Mujić, Šemsa Mujić
Director and writer: Danis Tanović
Cinematography: Erol Zubčevic  (colour)
Editor: Timur Makarević
Producers: Amra Bakšić Ćamo, Čedomir Kolar (Sarajevo Center for Contemporary Art in association with ASAP Film and Vertigo Emotion Film)
Bosnia and Herzegovina/France/Slovenia, 2012, 74 minutes

Screened: Berlin Film Festival 2013 official competition advance press screening, Berlinale Palast (Berlin), February 13th 2013


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