Following in the footsteps of a Roma family struggling to survive, Danis Tanovic’s An Episode In The Life Of An Iron-Picker finds the documentary in fiction.
Iron Man by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Between winning two Silver Bears at Berlin in 2013 and its rather belated release in the UK, a lot has happened in the small world of Danis Tanovic’s An Episode In The Life Of An Iron-Picker. Not only did his notoriously micro-budget film (shot in Bosnia-Herzegovina for only 17,000 Euro) win the Grand Jury Prize, it also snagged the film’s leading man, Nazif Mujic, the Silver Bear for Best Actor. And while there’s a crisp irony in the fact that Tanovic cast non-professional actors for his film, playing versions of themselves while reliving their own story, Mujic on his return after the festival to Bosnia Herzegovina was ostracised by his community and unable to find work. He’s since applied for asylum in Berlin, where he now lives in a refugee shelter, with even the Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick stepping in to try to help. It’s a bitter end to Tanovic’s film, and a cautionary reminder that there’s more than one episode in the life of this iron-picker.
Roma couple Nazif (Nazif Mujic) and Senada (Senada Alimanovic) live in Lukavac, where together they scrape a living. Nazif works as an iron-picker, scouring the local area for scrap metal which he then exchanges for cash. Senada looks after their two children, Semsa and Sandra, and takes care of the housework, even though she’s five months pregnant. Doubled up with pain one day, Nazif rushes Senada to hospital, only to find out that she has miscarried. But as Senada doesn’t have a medical insurance card, the intervention to remove the dead foetus will cost the couple an unaffordable 980 marks. While Senada suffers excruciating pain, Nazif, helped by his brother and neighbours, struggles to raise the money before (fraudulently) cadging a card off an insured neighbour, and getting Senada the life-saving operation she needs.
From its opening sequence of happy Romany children picking firewood, Danis Tanovic offers us a portrait of an ordinary family. It might be subsistence living, breaking down getaway vehicles for 153 marks or economising by making bread and cheese at home, but with their two daughters Semsa and Sandra making chaos and watching TV, Nazif and Senada lead a pretty normal life. As Nazif Mujic and Senada Alimanovic recreate an incident in their own lives that hit the national newspapers in Bosnia in 2011, An Episode In The Life Of An Iron Picker is caught in a realm somewhere between documentary and fiction. Tanovic’s neo-realist approach allows for some moments of family joy, as Nazif, going for an after-work drink with his brother after cashing in his iron-pickings, fears his wife’s recriminations. But as the movement shifts from watching Nazif picking through the rubbish to nervously waiting in hospital corridors, there’s something chillingly voyeuristic about watching this couple’s painful trauma recreated.
Perhaps that in itself is no small feat, as Tanovic brings a nervous documentary feel to his fiction. For while its social realist aesthetic brings an authenticity reminiscent of Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home or the Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta, An Episode In The Life Of An Iron Picker is most definitely fiction. There might be long, observational takes in which not much really happens, such as Nazif slowly starting his car, and at times the camera is so close to its subjects it feels like it might be swiped by passing ladders, trees or scrap metal, but there are also carefully structured moments of dramatic poignancy, such as the scene in which the two girls play on the hospital stairs while behind closed doors their mother’s fate is decided. And then there’s the plot twist designed to up the dramatic ante with Senada refusing point blank, if somewhat unfathomably, to go to hospital.
But go to hospital she does, and with his car cut up and cashed in to pay for Senada’s expensive medicine and the electricity finally back on, by the end of An Episode In The Life Of An Iron Picker life is back to normal. Until, of course, Berlin. And while Neither Tanovic nor his actors could know what would lie in store for them after the film festival, An Episode In The Life Of An Iron Picker is a cautionary warning, like the controversy that surrounded Nicolas Philibert’s breakthrough hit Être Et Avoir, of the life-changing power of film. An Episode In The Life Of An Iron Picker is beautifully shot, occasionally languorous but always heartfelt. And as the credits roll on this chapter in the lives of Nazif and Senada, Tanovic’s film it seems is just the first. Gone for now, but not forgotten.
An Episode In The Life Of An Iron-Picker is released on 25th April 2014 in the UK