The solar eclipses of 1961 and 1999, both observable in Serbia, frame the events explored in the lyrical imagery of Nataša Urban’s first feature documentary. But because life so rarely arranges itself neatly along a definite timeline, they do so imprecisely, blurring a little at each edge, like memories do. As a metaphor, these astronomical events are also imperfect: our tiny moon can sometimes obscure the sun in the same way that an individual’s willful act of forgetfulness can anything but obscure a massive geopolitical upheaval. But an eclipse passes according to the immutable laws of physics; memory and calculation do not obey such a strict orbit. People are far less predictable than planets.
Yet our interpretation of celestial mechanics can be politicized, as Serbian-born Urban points out in the contrasting depictions of the two eclipses. In 1961, beautiful scratched-up archival footage shows excited Yugoslavs thronging the streets, at the express encouragement of the government, brandishing pinhole papers and shards of blackened glass to observe the event from safety. In 1999, however, the Serbian population, paranoid by protracted conflict and state-sponsored messages about the dangers of solar radiation, lowered their blinds and hung blankets from their windows. Urban’s brother Igor recalls being one of the few people on the street after the air raid siren sounded to signal the start of the eclipse.
Between the two dates, Urban traces the overlapping reminiscences of his family, who simply tried to maintain some semblance of normalcy despite the deprivations of war – a moral ambivalence that Urban faces but no apologies or judges. Interspersed with blocks of text recounting a roll call of now infamous battles and acts of genocide, his father Borislav, an avid hiker, is shown in sharp, contemporary images – older, white-haired but still lively – retracing some of the trips he documented in his 30-year-old “mountaineering diary”. When Urban gently points out the absurdity of Borislav taking his family to the mountains and trekking through the forests while their nearby compatriots committed atrocities, you can practically hear the cognitive dissonance in his shrugging response.
Her mother Lia is more often shown at home, tending to her garden and mildly berating her daughter for wanting to dig into the memories of a painful time “we all try to forget”. When Urban asks her grandmother if she remembers the war, she replies, “Which one? His friends are less circumspect; sometimes they even provide memories that Urban herself suppressed, such as a trip she took to the crumbling Croatian city of Vukovar, one of the first casualties of the protracted conflict. Better yet, there are conversations with a fantastically crass aunt, a pianist with some choice epithets for Serbian war criminal Ratko Mladic.
The images are only rarely directly from the events of which his characters speak. More often than not, Urban and DP Ivan Markovic create illuminating shifts between voice and image, which range from visceral scenes of pig slaughter to the delicate domestic details of pickling jars and pressed leaves in albums. They cycle through different stocks and qualities, and from close-up macro shots to expansive painterly landscapes, without ever feeling disjointed or scattered. Urban mentions that she went to study photography in Budapest in 1996 and “photographic chemicals still smell of freedom to me”.
This tactile, sensuous approach to form is particularly clear in its use of home-movie-style Super-8 footage, or crude stock footage, such as a recurring black-and-white image of our scarred and pitted moon, enlarged and blurred with warmth and grain. Coupled with Jared Blum and Bill Gould’s eerie, melancholic score, which is occasionally accented by the tinkling of a jew’s harp, it makes “The Eclipse” a heady tumble into a wholly subjective, yet wholly persuasive evocation of life. civilian family in time of war. Given the parallels with current world events and the ongoing debate around the complicity of civilian populations in acts of aggression perpetrated by their governments, this is a prospect that, unfortunately, could not be more timely.
There is hope, however. Lia tells the story of the hibiscus plant in her abandoned office that she kept returning to water despite the threat of bombing and which she says wryly she cared about more than most. these partner’work. She jokes, but her flippant anecdote highlights a resonant theme: how the artificial ugliness of war’s death drive cannot entirely conquer the beauty and life force of the natural world. The end of the second eclipse is not signaled, as one might expect, with gradual receding shadows but, in one of editor Jelena Maksimovic’s particularly inspired cuts, with a wet born piglet on the straw of a barnyard floor. Rebirth may not come easily, or nicely, or on schedule, but it has to come. Darkness cannot last forever.