Eye For Film >> Movies >> As Far as I Can Walk (2021) Film Review
As Far as I Can Walk
Reviewed by: Nikola Jovic
Although he doesn’t like making a habit out of spoiling audiences with too many treats, we’ve seen enough of them from Stefan Arsenijević, both big and small, that when he announces a film covering a hot-button issue such as the migrant crisis, we know better than to write it off as just that. In his sophomore feature, Arsenijević, a winner of the Golden Bear for his short film (A)Torsion (2003), returns with a loose adaptation of the medieval Serbian poem Strahinja Banović, which he uses as a springboard for launching himself into a contemporary exploration of not just the migrant crisis, and the challenges thereof, but also the ethnic and gender depravity that is put on display. Strahinja Banović (Engl. translation: As far As I Can Walk) won the Crystal Globe award at last year's festival at Karlovy Vary Film Festival, and had its Serbian premiere at the 50th installment of FEST (International Film Festival, Belgrade).
Strahinja (Ibrahim Koma) and Ababuo (Nancy Mensah-Offei) are a young couple from Ghana who, at the height of the migrant crisis, managed to reach Germany, only to be deported to Serbia because refugees from Ghana are not prioritised in the asylum process. But far from being demoralised, Strahinja seems to be working this to his favour, by becoming a part of the community, volunteering at the Red Cross, and playing soccer for a smaller, semi-professional, team he is doing his best to secure a permanent stay and stable living conditions for himself and his wife in Serbia. Ababuo, on the other hand, wasn’t as fortunate since her opportunities are quite limited as a foreign actress in Serbia, depriving her of dignity and ways of expression. But when a group of Syrian refugees passes through the camp where Strahinja and Ababuo are volunteering and Ababuo decides to go with them, Strahinja will be forced to make a choice: either remain in Serbia and get his permanent asylum status, or leave to find the love of his life, and perhaps lose the opportunity to restart his life in Serbia as a professional soccer player.
The original poem about Strahinja Banović, itself part of an anthology of poems depicting the period after the Battle of Kosovo, stands out within myriad others for the fact that most of the other ones sing about the effects of the grander events and/or beliefs on the group of individuals or perhaps a handful of people. In other words, these poems are usually communicated with the entire collective, and have been passed on as an oral tradition for centuries. Not to say that the Stahinja Banović poem isn’t archetypal in the same manner, but what differentiates it from the rest is that it ultimately deals with a sole individual, and although his heroic calling is an extension of his tradition and upbringing, the decisions he makes are entirely his own and run, in a certain sense, contrary to the tradition, and are more a celebration of universal values such as bravery, honour, grace, and ultimately forgiveness, thus transcending the initial traditional calling, making him the hero. That is the aspect Asenijević highlights in his modern retelling as well, not dwelling on the minutiae of the myth and simply going for the broad strokes, but in so doing, consciously or not, he and his co-writers have given the heroic image a mirror, and the reflection is returning back a scornful look.
Above all else, Arsenijević actively subverts some of the most commonly held narratives and beliefs around not just the migrant crisis, but people on the margins in general. In Serbia, one can easily get used to the attitude of constant self-patronising and whining about the predicament of living on the outskirts of Europe, but ultimately it only limits your potential for bringing forth the awareness of your own privilege. To some, Serbia is a prison, but to Strahinja, from Gana, it’s a place where he could make his dreams of becoming a professional football player come true. But even that is a circumstance of privilege when you compare Strahinja to his wife Ababuo, an accomplished actress from Ghana who is quite limited with her options in Serbia because of the language barrier. Privileges of one gender over the other, one ethnic minority over another… the honesty of this story brings out the disparities in these societal relations. But that’s merely one part of the puzzle, aside from it being a story about 2016 migrant crisis, it is also a retelling of an epic folk song about a knight, and it is at this plane of storytelling where the film pulls some of its most surprising and yet also, some of its softest and unfocused punches as well.
Although the original song also touches on the themes of obligations to the community and humanity, Arsenijević’s honest and unfiltered approach in his storytelling results in a sort of disarming of the hero, showing the mere concepts of heroism, obligation, and honour, to be covered in layers selfish intentions. Heroism here ultimately ends up as an action done out of spite and envy.
When Strahinja first sets out to find his wife, he does so out of love, but once he reaches her, it becomes clear to both him and us that he’s doing so mostly for himself. In the poem, the act of letting his wife go is an act of forgiveness, but here it’s not just that, it’s recognition of your own selfishness as well. That is an interesting discovery, but an accidental one at best and the one that the film doesn’t know what to do with, leaving the story on an open-ended cynical note, which is fine in itself, but it works in an opposition to the original myth.
Maxwell Scot in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) said that: “When a legend becomes fact, print the legend.” It looks Arenijević desperately wanted to follow the well-known line of thinking, by printing the legend, but the contemporary setting kept him closer to the cynical facts, perhaps leaving him in this unresolved therein. Furthermore, if you take the metaphor a step too literally it leaves us with even more questions: who plays the role of the Turks and other side characters here, and what are the implications of such interpretative gesture? These ponderings are better left untended, because the whole metaphor is done in a broad stroke manner, which only reveals the whole storytelling strategy as a mere comment on the primary line of action (struggles of migrants), than as a strong and organic cohesion between myth and fact.
Almost as if to tell a story unfiltered, without the meta-commentary on top of it by a means of adding myth to it, would be too conventional and commonplace, so in Arsenijević’s mind, that invites another level of action and symbolism. Something which becomes more apparent with the addition of the narration (read by Branka Pujić), tying even more closely the myth to the story of Strahinja and Ababuo, but by unevenly spreading it throughout the film it leaves the impression of being merely a comment to the main story, not the extension of it. To the uninitiated, it provides very little narrative substance, and for those who are, it draws more attention to itself, perhaps inviting comparisons that are better left barred or implied, when following the main conflict of the story of Strahinja and Ababuo. Having said that, although all of these questions and concerns are left open-ended, the film is honest and brave enough to plunge itself into the midst of this challenge, with all the traps that lay ahead on that path and conquering most of them.
Strahinja’s whole journey leaves the feeling of participating in a sort of pilgrimage with him, via a vérité shooting style that works all the steady-cam shakes in its favour, adding to the film's authenticity. Certain sound design choices where indistinct and muffled noises from the surroundings add to the atmosphere should be highlighted as well, and where most indie films fall flat in nightime scenes, here Srahinja Balović flourishes. But what carries this film most of all, besides good storytelling, are outstanding and layered performances by Koma and Mensah-Offei that add warmth and nuance to the characters. Giving decency to the characters that are usually relegated to the one-dimensional portrayal of victimhood within the dominant discourse, and the same can be said about the side characters as well. Despite its soft thematic punches, the honesty and bravery of the film allow it to walk the distance.Reviewed on: 19 Jul 2022