The warm love of family against the cold ignorance of state authorities: “Safe Place” at the Samizdat Festival of Central and Eastern European Film5 min read

 In Review, Reviews, Southeastern Europe

Safe Place is the autobiographical debut film by Juraj Lerotić, which explores the aftermath of a suicide attempt within a family of three. Although dealing with a deeply emotional topic, the movie is raw, warm, touching, and unassuming, just like the love shown to the person who attempted suicide by his mother and brother. Besides directing the movie, Lerotić, who was born in Germany but grew up in Croatia, plays the main character in the film, basing the role on his own personal experiences. It is an impressive choice, both in terms of how invested he is in the topic, but also in his willingness to deal with and expose himself in such a way to a subject that still has a marginal role in the public discourse of our society.

The opening scene is a misleadingly calm, wider-angle shot of a residential neighbourhood in Zagreb. For a minute or so, we observe two boys playing at dusk, a dog sniffing around, and neighbours passing by. Then, suddenly, a man runs into the scene. He is in a hurry to enter the building, breaking down the door, running up the stairs, and frantically trying to enter an apartment. Soon, we come to understand that the man, Bruno (Juraj Lerotić), is trying to prevent his brother Damir (Goran Marković) from committing suicide. The scene’s setup demonstrates how such an event cuts through everyday life with force, and from that moment on, everything revolves around Bruno and their mother’s (Snježana Sinovčić-Šiškov) efforts to make and provide an ever-elusive safe space for Damir. In their effort to do so, they will knock on many doors and even journey from Zagreb to Split as Damir expresses his wish to leave the hospital and return to their hometown. The fact that all this takes place within the timespan of 24 hours shows that Bruno and their mother have only one mission in mind – to save Damir.

Even though the central event of the movie is a suicide attempt, it can be argued that the movie is more about the love and relationship between the two brothers than about this painful event and its devastating consequences for the family members. This is especially true in the first 30 minutes of the film, in which Bruno and Damir are the sole protagonists  before the arrival of their mother from Split. The unconditional understanding and support Bruno has for his brother is obvious in the first conversation they have in the hospital.  In a room where the only light comes from the half-open doors, Damir utters a “sorry” and Bruno replies “It’s all right, don’t be.” The intimacy of their bond also resurfaces when Damir asks whether their mom knows what happened, and Bruno, with a hint of a half-smile, answers “I don’t think we can hide this from her,” referencing the probable secrets their younger selves have kept from their parents. 

At the same time, the love provided by family members to Damir is sharply juxtaposed with the cold and disinterested bureaucratic system whose employees barely lift a finger to help. This is obvious from the very beginning, and is a recurring theme throughout the film, such as when Bruno is not allowed to drive in the ambulance car and when the police officer makes him leave Damir in the hospital just so he can be in Damir’s flat and answer the over-repeated and completely unimportant question: Who wiped the blood from the walls? A similar lack of empathy is also seen in the work of psychiatrists and psychologists who, for the most part, only do their job superficially. It is by showing this disinterest that Lerotić directs well-founded critique toward state institutions and bureaucratic structures. Even though this criticism can feel a bit repetitive sometimes — as each interaction with a state employee is a renewed disappointment — perhaps the repetition is a function of the director’s real-life frustrations when it came to his own brother’s treatment. As Bruno says to Damir in one of the film’s meta-moments: “I did not change the names of the doctors in the film” — instead, he is trying, through cinema, to hold the relevant authorities accountable and to expose their missteps to the wider public.

Last but not least, the topic of mental health is omnipresent in Safe Place, although it is not necessarily discussed in a straightforward manner. We never come to know the motivation behind the suicide attempt, as family members try to prioritise Damir’s present well-being over digging through his potential motives. This mimics real life, as it is often impossible even for the person who attempted suicide to lucidly account for all the reasons why they decided to take this step. At one point in the movie, the mother comments: “Who knows what is going through his head,” and this nicely sums up the complexities of mental health. Nevertheless, and even despite the criticism directed to psychologists, Bruno does make attempts to seek professional help for his brother, which demonstrates a healthy way of dealing with mental health issues — something that still needs to be normalised in Southeastern Europe where there is still a strong stigma surrounding mental health. 

Safe Place has already received multiple awards at the Locarno Film Festival, and similar success was repeated last month at the Sarajevo Film Festival. Although the movie can be endlessly lauded for the difficult and often unspoken topics it discusses, its greatest value lies in the warm and close relationship between the two brothers, which is rarely seen in Croatian and regional cinematography. In that sense, Lerotić not only openly discusses the taboo topics of suicide and mental health but also demonstrates that brothers (i.e. men) can love unconditionally and with tenderness. In the end, at least in my reading, the point of the movie is not solely about whether or not a safe place for Damir is found, but rather about the beauty of gestures and the perseverance of family members to create one.

Safe Place will be screened on 12 September as the festival opening at the CCA Glasgow. Find full event details here.

Feature Image: Samizdat Festival of Central and Eastern European Film
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