Magic and harsh realities in East Serbia: “Flotacija” at the goEast Festival of Central and Eastern European Film3 min read

 In Review, Reviews, Southeastern Europe

Premiering at goEast, Alesandra Tatić and Eluned Zoe Aiano’s documentary Flotacija follows the Marković family as they navigate between retaining their Vlach traditions and growing environmental and labour exploitations from the modern mining industry. 

In the eastern Serbian town of Majdanpek, magic still exists, and Flotacija thrives in exploring the obscure folk traditions that survive, from turning pear leaves into flutes to hunting dragons in the woods. One of the film’s main characters is Dragan Marković, last in a long line of dragon hunters, who learned the craft from his grandmother, who lived to be 115. She taught him to look in the hollow trunks and cracked rocks that impregnate the nearby forest for any signs of blood — such smears are the telltale sign a dragon, invisible to human eyes otherwise, was there. To banish the dragon, Markovic lights grease to create an incense that burns away the magical being. Many of these traditions derive from the Vlachs, the Romaphone ethnic population of eastern Serbia whose relative isolation allowed for the survival of various pre-Christian beliefs.

For today’s viewer living in a disenchanted world, much of this might sound absurd. Is the blood just a form of sap? Are these markings the work of local animals? But for those living in Majdanpek, magical beings are real, or at least are within the realm of possibility, as anything else. For example, as children, everyone was taught to fear Muma Pădurii (En: “The Forest Mother”), described in Romanian folklore as being a mad old woman living in the woods. One character describes how when she was 18 and her sister 14, she heard a noise while walking through the forest. Though on the cusp of adulthood, she ran, leaving her sister behind, because her parents had told her Muma Pădurii would attack if she came across them. Though told in a humorous way, this story highlights how everyday life is entangled with folklore for the people in Majdanpek.

Interspersed between these explorations into Vlach traditions are short clips of machinery winding its way through quarries and mines located only a few hundred metres from the city centre. They are omens of the damage that the copper mining industry has wrought on the city and its surrounding environment. As the machinery drills and grinds the ore, it simultaneously chips away at the life of Majdanpek’s citizens, the majority of whom are employed at the mines. 

The Marković family is fully integrated into the mining industry, and it is through their stories we come to understand the consequences of such work. In one scene, Dragan, who has spent 40 years working in the mines, demonstrates how the dry ore gets everywhere, like flour in a mill. He protests that no one can retire early due to the low pensions: “It doesn’t count that you swallow this every day.” For his sister Desa, the main issue is housing. Her flat, along with 50 percent of the town, was mortgaged to the mines, a mortgage she has been paying for 40 years. When the mine was privatised and sold to Chinese investors, the mortgage was passed on as well, with no hope of ever paying it off. 

Flotacija does a good job of balancing the two narratives, revealing an often overlooked part of Serbia where Vlach magic coexists with the harsh reality of a destructive mining industry. Both Tatić and Aiano are visual anthropologists, this allows them to provide a voice to so-called ordinary people such as the Marković family, without taking over control, while also laying bare the larger societal processes. With a length of only 78 minutes, the film does not waste space on abstract shots or extraneous discussion, creating a truly engrossing portrayal of Serbia’s working class and the country’s ongoing industrial transition. It is clear the film has a strong future ahead of it on the festival circuit and for general audiences, whether for those interested in regional folklore or those more focused on labour rights and the effects of industrial decline.

Feature Image: Flotacija Dokuweb
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