22 April 2013

Monday FILM Review: Serbian Hero

Today's Monday review is going to be a film, not a book!  It's time to get a little multimedia in my reviews.  For those following me on Twitter, you saw that I went to see "Slaughter Nick for President" on Friday at CIMM Fest.  I seldom get to watch movies about eastern Europe because my husband does not have the same taste, and my selections tend to be downers (which he wishes to avoid).  I have to be careful about my selections because he would not tolerate a film like "Sátántangó", which is 7 hours long.  I don't even know if I can get him to commit to "Dekalog" (which I cherish in my heart) despite that it's essentially like a TV series.  The point is, we both had to win.  I got Serbia in there and he got some feel-good.

via Toneko
The film follows Rob Stewart, a Canadian actor who's down on his luck, right after he receives an email from a fan site administrator in 2006.  The fan site is for "Tropical Heat," a TV series that ran for three seasons between 1991 and 1993.  The administrator tells him that he may not be aware that the show is a really big deal in Serbia and that the protagonist he played, named Nick Slaughter, is a popular figure.  Rob figures it would be a good idea to visit Serbia and understand this unexpected phenomenon himself, and learn more about why this show became a smash hit in Milošević-era Serbia.  He journeys to the Balkan state for 2 weeks only to be blown away by the significance of Nick Slaughter - people on the street constantly stop him to take pictures, he films a commercial as Nick Slaughter, he appears in several talk shows, a punk band called Atheist Rock wrote a song about the character, and it turns out that in Serbia they call a hairy chest a "nik sloterka", since Rob featured a healthy chest of hair on the show.  But most importantly, "Nik Sloter" was prominently featured in the student protests of Serbia of 1996 and 1997.

This is the part of the film I found most interesting, but frustratingly not elaborated upon. "Tropical Heat" was put on Serbian television due to the lack of appealing programming.  A network producer was looking for a good show to air that would be family friendly, feature a beachfront or be near the sea (he said it would remind Serbians of Croatia, a popular vacation spot they could no longer visit because of travel restrictions), and be rather light-hearted.  It started airing in the summertime and Serbians really resonated with the show, using it as escapism and inspiration for change.  Slaughter's importance is supposed to have started in Žarkovo when someone tagged a wall, "Sloteru Niče, Žarkovo ti kliče" (Slaughter Nick, Žarkovo hails you).  In 1996, after a fraudulent win by Milošević, students protested in the streets with the slogan, "Slotera Nika, za predsednika" (Slaughter Nick for president).  Srđa Popović, the former activist of Otpor!, who largely acted as Rob's guide, spoke about the use of irony and humor in their protests, adding that the regime does not have a sense of humor, making it a weapon that cannot be countered.  Atheist Rock's song, "Slaughteru Nietzsche," uses irony in praising Nik Sloter and Rob Stewart gets to perform with them on stage at a punk festival.  He regales us with how this was his childhood dream and now it gets to come true.  The film ends with Rob saying he realized that when he did that show, he was ashamed of it, but this experience taught him that one person and one act can change a whole country.

The producer of the film was there to answer a few questions and remarked that it won a prize at the Zagreb Film Festival, which, in case you people didn't know, is a big deal because of their conflicted history.  She said, "People in Croatia didn't know about those protests, especially during the attacks."  This is a great thing to showcase; it shows a more complicated picture of Serbia and encourages understanding in a region that is ravaged by ethnic violence. 

The film, in my opinion, is not all bad.  However, I really felt like the movie was trying to court Rob's self-esteem and venerate Serbia without really succeeding at the latter.  The marriage of his own self-interest (accolades and affirmation) with a humanitarian cause (the cultural and political impact of his character, who is not him) and a feel-good message about changing the world left me incredulous.  I do not want to demean the message that bridges can be inadvertently built by something as simple as a silly TV show, but every Serbian that was interviewed, including Srđa Popović, a highly influential political activist, said the same thing:  "Man, Nick Slaughter was so great!  It really helped us escape the horrors of 1990s Serbia and inspired us to turn our government over."  It seemed to me that Rob was trying to be polite in asking more about how it got famous rather than how the character was significant, leaving me feeling like Rob was thinking he was Nick Slaughter!  He's not!  I felt it was a little odd it focused on Rob since the character, Slaughter, was doing famously without the actor on the scene and only one person contacted him about it in 13 years.  The attention may have been used as a lazy way of indicating how important "Tropical Heat" was, instead of really digging more into that, but ended up feeling borderline exploitative.  This became more pronounced when his (adopted) brother shows up in Serbia without preamble.  It's not clear why he is there, only implied it has something to do with the fact that he is Serbian, making it a nonsequitor plot cul-de-sac.  To be fair, there were portions about Rob's stay in Serbia that were hilarious (the commercial shoot in particular) and well worth watching.

To back my claim up some more, this article about the film includes Rob explaining why they did it and still comes across as about Rob and not the Slaughter-Serbia connection.  Maybe I'm biased because I think it is way more interesting to learn about Serbia and that was exactly my expectation: Serbia would be the main focus, with Rob factoring in.  Had that been the case, it would lend more credit to the supposed moral of the film (one person and one act can change a whole country).  The way it currently stands, it seems like the moral is, "A small act can potentially make you famous in an obscure country and boost your morale."

I give it a solid B for effort, interesting subject matter, and a generally good message, but it lost points for being the cheerleading squad for Rob Stewart.

(For what it's worth, my husband gave the same grade and had similar thoughts despite his lack of interest in Serbia.  I think it counts for something!)