Director: Ivan Ramljak
During the opening minutes of the film, El Shatt – A Blueprint for Utopia gently extends a hand to the viewer through long shots of the memorial cemetery situated on the banks of the canal dug between the Mediterranean and Red Sea and draws the audience into the landscape nestled in the twilight. The golden hue of the sky and the soft light of the setting sun suggest that, despite the central figure at the graveyard being a statue of Our Lady of Sorrows amidst crosses, crucifixes, and five-pointed stars, someone’s memories associated with these landscapes are dear and beautiful. That someone is the grandfather of the director Ivan Ramljak, Karlo Pansini, one of the camp doctors whose diaries inspired Ramljak to make a feature-length documentary about the escape of 28,000 people from Dalmatia to El Shatt. Here, the film loses its colour and is based on black-and-white photographs and film recordings (including some whose authorship and origin could not be determined) as well as the memories of survivors. The photographic material is impressive and opulent (one-third being original photographs by Ljubomir Garbin, the former head of the photography club in El Shatt) and is accompanied by testimonies of the participants who we do not see but who freely allow memories to spill over the photographs without any directorial intervention or guided questions.
After the capitulation of Italy, aiming to protect the population of the Dalmatian islands and the coast incapable of combat from the Germans, Partisan forces led by Tito, in collaboration with the Allies, initiated an exodus of women, children, minors, and the elderly, first transferring them to Vis and then to Italy, ultimately ending up in the Egyptian region of Sinai. Although the journey was long and arduous, Ramljak avoids falling into the trap of portraying the escape from war as despair, misery, and suffering. Instead, he allows the individuals to be guided by romanticised memories and nostalgia for youth as they speak about life in the camp as a place of difficult yet beautiful and just existence. They spent two years here, living, as stated in a quote by Savka Dapčević-Kučar that opens the film, in the only place on Earth where the ideal of communism was achieved. Every member of the community contributed to the common good as much as they knew and could through their own work. They all tried to be useful, and, having almost nothing, they shared and helped each other in creating and sharing what they collectively built. Literacy programs were organised for the illiterate, schools for children, foreign language lessons, artistic, sports, and cultural events, interactions with other camps and the local population, political gatherings, religious activities, and participation in them was taken freely as per their desire and affinity. Natural and health hardships occasionally halted normal life, but even these were collectively addressed, creatively and through improvisation. Some seventy years later, what remains are mostly beautiful memories that bring not only laughter to those telling them but also keep the audience smiling. The smile occasionally turns into hearty laughter when the participants start listing the names of children born in the camp—Logorka, Kairka, Elšatka, Zbjegan, Sinaj…—expressing not only the spirit and humour but also the desire to preserve a memory on a period of peace, industriousness, and extraordinary freedom through the child’s name. One of the participants will clearly state that for her the time spent in the camp was a time of greatest freedom. Stories about creative solutions regarding cooking, tailoring, furniture production, or daily newspaper-making with fresh world news strikingly remind one of the resourcefulness of citizens of Sarajevo during the four-year siege and the laughter with which, thirty years later, wartime anecdotes are often recounted. The paths of collective historical memory are strange as are the ways in which the human brain erases bad memories while preserving the cheerful ones, worth retelling within families and passing on to future generations. Additionally, the current political and historical moment is not, or not sufficiently, favourable to the preservation of partisan memories, especially those showing that it was possible to realise the idea of communism. This film therefore definitely has historical significance as well as an artistic one.
The camera of the experienced cinematographer (who is also the author of several documentary films), Boris Poljak, is steady and gentle in the opening and closing shots, while in the scripted segments, he plays with wide and medium shots, also revealing his preparation for shooting. The sound is perfectly and subtly managed, accompanying the photo and film material excellently from the background giving you the impression that the sounds are not dubbed but actually happening at the moment the photos were taken. Gently underscored beneath the narration, sounds of boat and train journeys, children’s cries, wind, crickets, or music all seem so natural, as if they are emerging from the photographs.
If we were looking for flaws in this film, the first thing that comes to mind is the scripted parts where actors read news from the world related to wartime events happening quite far away from El Shatt. It’s clear that their function is to counterbalance the romanticised image that has moved away from the historical moment in which World War II still rages on, but they somewhat stand out from the rest of the material. And yes, perhaps the insertion of a dark screen, which is not dramatically necessary, could have been avoided.
The undeniable effort and time invested in telling the story titled El Shatt – a Blueprint for Utopia have certainly paid off big time. The film premiered at the 16th Mediterranean Film Festival in Split and immediately won two awards – the Audience Award and a Special Jury Award. The tenderness, poignancy, touching moments, and warmth that radiate from the film spreads from the screen to the audience, making the film a joyful and nostalgic viewing experience, reflecting on a time of social support, reconstruction, and development that is unlikely to be repeated. Everything that happened between the photographs is left to the imagination and feelings of the audience, and it is easy to follow the emotions when listening to very personal and highly emotional stories. Human kindness, selflessness, gratitude, and humanity, those somewhat overlooked categories, are vivid and tangible in the ninety minutes of this film. Even if they are utopian, it’s nice to surrender to them, at least for a short while.