“No body, no crime,” reads a note taken during a meeting involving Slobodan Milošević presented during Ognjen Glavonić’s Depth Two. It’s haunting not purely because of the powerful lingering effect of a statement of this kind, which refers to the secret ethnic cleansing of citizens of Albanian descent during the Kosovan War. It is also haunting because the film, a combination of audio testimony overlaid with present-day images of the sites of these atrocities, seems to conjure their very spectre on the screen. Unlike many documentaries of this ilk, Depth Two doesn’t just discuss the ghosts of the past – it looks them starkly, squarely in the eye.
As those involved recount their part in the actions – with recordings from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Hague – he captures the locations in locked-off shots of stark and horrifying beauty. As the confessionals run, the words seem to seep into the earth or into the all-remembering Danube, threatening in their unavoidable endurance. Something is rotten in the state of Serbia and its articulated in cold harsh light and tableaux abandoned, and strewn with detritus. One image shows a tree almost buried in discarded carrier bags like a snow-laden sentinel in a corrupted hellscape. “Cleansing up the terrain is the most important,” states another official dictum, but this terrain is far from cleansed.
Hollow shells of buildings litter the vista like old scars, or unsutured wounds, gradually faded but grown necrotic. “Even today my body is full of bomb fragments,” says a survivor in the most harrowing of the accounts, reiterating the stinging immediacy and inescapable legacy of historic pain. One particular sequence juxtaposes the audio of a detective driving a Mercedes against a scrap collector with a bicycle and cart. The affluence and indifference of the past results in a present that recalls the bleak junker’s purgatory of Danis Tanovic’s An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker. The modulated testimonies that are from those in service of the regime recount a strange and unsettling narrative of a refrigerator truck pulled from the Danube near the village of Tekija on the Serbian-Romanian border.
The entire region couldn’t make enough coffins for the bodies pulled from the river but the subsequent transportation to hidden mass graves and systematic cover-up that follows chills even further. The extent and effort of the conspiracy to disappear the bodies is what interests Glavonić rather than the detail. At one point mid-transport they are buried to keep them hidden. A driver recalls his instruction from a superior: “It’s really important to mark the place where we buried them.” In this deeply troubling and affecting work, Glavonić does just that and more.
The Open City Documentary Festival 2016 takes place from 21-26 June. For info visit opencitylondon.com.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson