Polishing the Keys to the Future: The Other Side of Everything

By contrast to the first two films in our Slavic and East European series with the Ryder and REEI, Murina and EO (which I wrote about here and here), there is never any doubt about where we find ourselves in Mila Turajlić’s 2018 documentary The Other Side of Everything. Almost all the action takes place in an apartment on Birčaninova ulica in the heart of Belgrade. But like the other two films, this one rests upon a tense division between an intimate interior and what lies beyond it—outside our field of vision, on the other side of a threshold that is right before us. This tension drives all three films to some extent. It pushes Julija (the main character of Murina) out into the open sea of the Adriatic at the film’s end, towards liberation and independence, and it drives EO forth to his great adventure across Europe.

In The Other Side of Everything, by contrast, the tension begins at the level of a divided communal apartment, in which a remnant of the original “bourgeois” family that once owned the whole building still resides. But the filmmaker then deftly connects this basic quotidian aspect of Yugoslav life to larger historical, moral, and geopolitical questions, invoking and exploring other thresholds—between what is ours and not ours, those who agree with us and those who do not, patriots and traitors, this country and others. The major vehicle in The Other Side of Everything is thus a figurative and literal frame, a door to another space that is conceptually, at least, part of this space but which has been artificially, bureaucratically, and governmentally separated from it.

The film highlights the historical, material nature of the separation, the political and social realities of that moment (the 1940s), the lingering, sometimes traumatic memories of the people who experienced these sudden forced barriers, which were thrown up like the arbitrary borders of a country divided by outsiders. The clash of intimate, personal space and public, shared space is highlighted in the opening scene, where the protagonist and subject of the film, Srbijanka Turajlić, is shown diligently polishing the handles and keys of the doors that separate her family’s apartment spaces from those of the people who were moved into the adjoining rooms. The voice of the filmmaker repeatedly asks whether Srbijanka was ever tempted to open them, to which she repeatedly answers with a decisive no. Not even when you were little? No. What’s on the other side there? A closet. How do you know? You can hear; and they know what’s on this side for the same reason.

This could be enough for a certain kind of film, the story of the apartment’s current owner, along with the solitary, aging member of the “proletarian” family that was moved into the neighboring rooms, the sorting of the documents that might return those rooms to Srbijanka and her children when their ninety-year-old neighbor, Nada Lazarević, finally passes away, and the fact that Srbijanka has, in the intervening years, become something of a responsible party for Nada. People leave messages on her answering device: they haven’t heard from Nada in a while—could Srbijanka check on her?

But the filmmaker knows the context intimately, and the parallels and possibilities are too rich to ignore, as the backdrop of historical changes in Serbia, then Yugoslavia, then again Serbia encourage Srbijanka and her wide circle of friends and acquaintances to consider what it would be like to move elsewhere, crossing not just the apartment’s but the country’s thresholds. It’s a conversation that comes up multiple times. Do we belong here anymore, in this place that does not seem to want us?

A census worker is filmed asking questions of the building’s inhabitants regarding their ethnicity, language, religion, nationality. They are also apparently asked (this is not shown in the film, only in the heated conversations of the characters afterward) whether they might choose to leave the country and live elsewhere. These conversations, like the many that take place in the apartment, are often sharp and witty, and sometimes have the flair of the old Soviet anecdotes that came out of the forced labor camps of the USSR. Everyone claims to love Russia, says one old gentleman, holding forth at Srbijanka’s dinner table, and claim to hate Germany and America. But if you asked them where they would move to, they’d all say Germany and America, not Russia!

The question of what lies outside this country powerfully reenforces at the level of the nation the fact of the artificial, governmental, boundaries inside the apartment. Srbijanka—a name that an author of a fictional piece with this sort of content might have shied away from given its too obvious symbolism (though in this case, it is, indeed, her name)—reflects at one point on the fact that not a single border of her country was determined by the inhabitants of the country themselves; they were all imposed upon it by outsiders. When you realize that, she says, it does not make you feel good.

She is a character with a great deal of experience and accumulated wisdom. She’s also a strong public speaker with a large following. The scenes of the massive rallies where she spoke to enthusiastic, sometimes revolutionary crowds during the years leading up to the ouster of Slobodan Milosević, are especially strong, both in portraying her and in setting the scenes inside the apartment in historic depth. Srbijanka Turajlić also has strong opinions and often, even in intimate settings, expresses herself with a glib confidence that, one has the impression, she sometimes regrets just after she has spoken.

The most poignant moment in this regard is when she’s speaking to her daughter, the filmmaker, emphasizing the responsibility of the younger generation to make positive changes, to lead, to speak out. She seems to grow more heated, even aggressive as she speaks directly into the camera. I’m too old, she says. This is your responsibility now. You have to do this! What do you want me to do? her daughter asks, upon which the mother grows hesitant and seems to realize that not everyone has her gifts, or her certainty.

The story is about many things, and I have trouble focusing on just one as its core. A line that points to a theme that struck me—again in a moment of reckoning for the main character—comes when, amid the found footage of tanks heading off to Croatia in 1993, Srbijanka comments that “people cheered them along the way, and I thought, ‘Who have I been living with?’”

But mostly what remains with me is how Srbijanka cares for the things in her keeping, the things in the apartment—it is filled with things—that she has dreamed of re-uniting with itself. She is preparing to leave them to others, polishing, cleaning, putting them in order. The story is about this at its core as well, an ordering of the material and narrative past for the future, a reckoning of our own roles in this process, including our successes and our failure. Lest we forget things like how easily civil wars can erupt in our midst, how little revolutionaries know about running a government, how certain we become that the way things are now is the way they will always be.

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