Even though screened at 11:00 pm mid festival week, the world premiere of Stevan Filipović and Hypnopolis Film’s Next to Me (Pored Mene) showed to a packed venue in the Pula Film Festival‘s 7,500 capacity Roman arena. The film lays down its political and artistic cards early on. High-school history teacher Olja (played by Hristina Popović) smiles at the mention of her husband’s exhibit for Belgrade’s leftist Center for Cultural Decontamination and grimaces at the conservative National Museum’s labeling of the exhibit as blasphemous. Neither she nor her goth high-school student Isidora (played by Gorica Regodić), whose point of view closes the film, have much patience for the right-wing belligerence and nationalist rhetoric that some of the students display. The film aligns its more sympathetic characters with a critical and informed liberalism, but it does so through a well-paced combination of humor and drama. Claiming its filmic genealogy through an early reference to The Breakfast Club, Next to Me focuses more on the interactions between its adolescent characters than on plot. As the film moves from one encounter to the next across the school building in which the students have been locked for the night, it offers a cross-section of the ideologies and sites of struggle currently playing out in Serbia’s public sphere.
Political polemic and violence set the film in motion. Olja’s husband’s exhibit, which makes its political point by using religious iconography in ways considered blasphemous by his Serbian Orthodox interlocutors, is the ostensible motive for the masked hooligans that attack Olja and drench her with red paint. Both acts are symbolic. Both are confrontational. The underlying motive for the attack is entitlement, however. Olja’s attackers are a group of her students goaded into action by star student Sofija: she describes the exhibit to the classroom toughs as a threat that cannot go unchallenged after Olja gave her a 4/5 on her oral exam because she was unable to follow up her narration of historical facts with analysis that might challenge the royalist nationalism she espouses.
Bringing to the surface such unchallenged ideologies lays bare the identity categories that the students define themselves by. When Olja discovers her students watching an uploaded video of her attack the day after it happened, she confiscates their phones when no one accepts responsibility and leaves. When the students then discover that they are locked in, they weigh their various levels of involvement in the deed with the blame they are made to share equally, in an extended metaphoric take on Serbia’s current responses to its roles during Yugoslavia’s dissolution. Olja’s insistent lectures on the elements of the region’s history that are popularly ignored fall on mostly deaf ears, but a night locked in the school together without their cell phones or other internet connection leads to conversations and confrontations about divisive political and personal histories.
The students confront other hot-topic issues as well. The film treats sexuality in more identitarian than queer ways, but its exposition of the brutal harassment a gay boy faces nonetheless functions as important political advocacy for the very real homophobic violence still virulent in the region. On the other hand, its representation of social media as the primary distraction preventing real public dialogue among youth is reductive. Overall, the film mobilizes its broad range of character types to address Serbia’s public sphere and the legacies that young people must confront when they leave the schoolhouse’s confines. Its cinematic and thematic interventions were recognized by the Pula Film Festival with the “Golden Arena” award for best international feature film. The jury, which included Museum of Broken Relationships co-founder Olinka Vištica, controversial director of Pretty Village, Pretty Flame Srđan Dragojević, and Christopher Goodwin, described the film as a “courageous portrayal of the new generation of our times haunted by the ghosts of old ideologies and fears shattered by uncertain future, new values and technology.” The film will be released in Serbian theaters Sept 24th and will hopefully be distributed in the US as well.