How can you make a film about the fall of Yugoslavia? This is the question American documentarian Travis Wilkerson asks himself at the start of Through the Graves the Wind is Blowing, after acknowledging his own position as a foreigner in Croatia. We see him stating his name, age, height, talking about his family and occupation (a college professor), and what drew him to this corner of Europe. A frank, open narration is characteristic of Wilkerson’s films, and while the 2022 Berlinale Forum entry Nuclear Family (co-directed with his wife Erin Wilkerson) excavated deeply personal themes and transposed them over American nuclear politics, Through the Graves uses this sincerity as a springboard to tell a story that doesn’t belong to him in the first place.

We meet Ivan Perić (playing a version of himself), a police detective in charge of solving tourist murders in Split. Addressing the camera, he shares that he pursued this career only to avoid two things: becoming a fisherman, like his father, and working in the tourism industry. Croatia has become a tourist hotspot thanks to Game of Thrones and a hell for locals; Wilkerson uses this sentiment to craft a politically conscious satire and homage to the Yugoslavian Black Wave. As such, the film follows Ivan on doomed quests to gather evidence of these (humorously violent) deaths and recounts the bureaucratic and xenophobic obstacles preventing him from doing so. All the while he speaks with the voice of a “bad” actor, lacking any kind of performativity to relay the dissonance of being ex-Yugoslav in the first place.

Everyone despises tourists and no one would help Ivan, who says he only meets tourists when they’re already dead. The black humor feels like a natural extension of the surroundings; shooting in black-and-white feels like a nod to how easy it is to simplify a political context. But Wilkerson, a powerhouse of research and one-man crew, knows better than to leave us guessing. In addition to Ivan’s detective work, Through the Graves includes archival footage of decisive moments in the country’s history as told by popular culture. One such example is a scene of football players from the national team Hajduk crying at the stadium during the announcement of dictator Tito’s death. The stadium today becomes a stage for Wilkerson to walk the viewer through violent currents of the far right and ultras fans, channeled via Hajduk as a symbol of national pride.

Places are important; they carry the mark of dissolution and disillusion. The Olympic Centre, Coteks (the first, now abandoned, shopping mall), monuments of unsung heroes fighting against the fascist, ultranationalist organization Ustaše, and the city’s graffiti chronicling the resistance all testify to an attempt to recover history that is not so far from where we find ourselves today. In order to do so, Wilkerson includes not only his voice as a narrator, but also himself as an interviewer, asking Ivan questions while filming. Rather than relying on this meta-presence to legitimize his role as a director, he shows himself trying to understand the cycles of violence that have marked the country after the fall of Yugoslavia.

There are interludes, too, when history weighs on us too much, and they are tuned to beats by the New York electro ambient artist Hellish Cashstrap, bridging temporal gaps between the then and the now. That said, it’s perhaps the film’s intentional efforts to dislocate the viewer––by blending tone, as well as digital and analog aesthetics––that provoke intense reflections instead of handing out shorthand comparisons. The logic of ex-Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe as a whole is warped; the cause-and-effect chain is broken; Wilkerson’s work visa could be approved only many months after he has left Croatia; history is an indecipherable puzzle, but sometimes the best we can do is play detective.

Through the Graves the Wind is Blowing premiered at Berlinale 2024.

Grade: B-

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