A Monument To Memory: Ognjen Glavonić’s “The Load”
Determined to dismantle the culture of silence and secrecy stemming from Serbia’s reluctance to reckon with shameful aspects of its past, director Ognjen Glavonić was driven to make his first fiction feature, The Load (2018), which defies political taboo to shed light on blind spots in his nation’s collective memory. Equating self-examination with the prospect of hope, with unflinching honesty, it bears witness to a war crime committed and covered up during the Kosovo War: the 1999 transportation of truckloads of bodies belonging to Albanian civilians killed by Serb forces, to be buried in mass graves in the Belgrade suburbs. Given the deeply controversial and risky nature of Glavonić’s project, it’s no surprise that it took more than six years to secure the funding. In the meantime, he was able to commit to the big screen some of what he found in his research as historical record with Depth Two (2016), a chillingly atmospheric documentation of the atrocity utilizing eye-witness testimonies. The two films, while standing powerfully on their own, make perfect companion pieces. With the factual context meticulously detailed in Depth Two, Glavonić frees himself up for a stark, restrained approach with The Load, albeit one no less engaged with issues of personal responsibility and truth, memorialization and legacy.
Pensive and disquieting, The Load relies on a creeping, slow-burn sense of foreboding that is in keeping with both its arthouse sensibilities and its wider ruminations on history. Gruff trucker Vlada (well-known Croatian actor Leon Lučev) is keen to earn some cash, since the factory he worked at has been shut down, and he’s taken on a job to collect and transport some mysterious cargo from Kosovo to Belgrade. Having promised to ask no questions and make no stops, he just wants to make it from A to B with minimal involvement, but a blocked bridge on the route throws off his plans, and he has to take a detour.
With the few individuals he encounters suspicious or desperate, and NATO planes hammering the region from above with bombs, there is something of the apocalypse about the landscape that he makes his uncertain way through. At times it’s on fire, and at others in darkness. At any rate, its drab and muddy, pothole-riddled stretches of road — air-dropped propaganda pamphlets boasting of NATO’s might occasionally fluttering across them — bare few indicators of robust life. Glavonić, however, is no purveyor of bleakness. His acute antenna for signals and traces in the environment points us time and again to look for scraps of hope and regeneration in the debris of human creation: in this film, memorials and music.
Within this desolate, battered terrain, it’s significant that Vlada chances upon a battle monument. While trying to retrieve a lighter engraved with a war remembrance his father gave him that a kid has run off with, he comes across “The Sniper” at Popina, where Tito’s partisans had clashed with the Wehrmacht in World War II. This is land that’s been blasted out of shape down through history. But someone built this structure against forgetting; even in ruins, memory is recoverable. Within the cyclical binds of conflict, the youngest generations seem here, bracingly, most inclined to return to authentic recollection and resist oblivion. Paja (Pavle Čemerikić) is a pale and melancholic 19-year-old drifter making his way to Munich via Belgrade. Vlada (reluctantly at first) gives the teen a lift, who in turn leaves him a tape of his punk band as a keepsake, which Vlada ends up passing on to his own son. Its lyrics, blasting from a tape deck, close the film: “I’ve long ceased to feel fear, for how I live or what I say… Some people will always be there, when everything sinks and breaks away.” This comes through not just as youthful rebellion but as the fighting words of a dissident type of societal resistance that suits a film about what we pass on to others to carry, that calls on citizens to join together in allegiance to the truth.
Back to the load itself — which is far from having any memorial built for it. When we finally learn what it consists of, and cast our eyes over hints left behind like a haunting, it doesn’t come as a massive reveal. We’ve partly guessed — and we know that Vlada on some level already knows the cargo’s sinister nature, if not its specifics. The concrete evidence is less a coming into knowledge than a realization that he can no longer choose willful ignorance: he must enter into responsibility as a citizen, or consciously admit to himself that he is an accomplice to atrocity. His role as an agent in the erasure of history or a keeper of its legacy hangs in the balance.
Ognjen Glavonić’s The Load had its world premiere in the Directors’ Fortnight section at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.