“In the suburbs of Skopje, three days before Easter 2012, four boys were found dead by the lake. They went fishing the morning before. The case still remains unsolved. But this is not their story.”
This is, paraphrased, the title card of Teona Strugar Mitevska’s new film When the Day Had No Name, premiering in this year’s Berlinale section Panorama. It is clear that Mitevska is not trying to solve the police case, not even documenting the boys’ last two days (as another Macedonian author, Milčo Mančevski did with the last passage of his latest film Mothers). This is more of the re-imagination, not that much of the gruesome murder, but more of their coming to age in contemporary Macedonia troubled with poverty, lack of hope for a better future and shadows of ethnic conflicts between Macedonians and Albanians.
Mitevska takes her time to get us acquainted with the characters, all played by newcomers. Milan (Leon Ristov) lives in a recently built mansion with a step-mother (played by the filmmaker’s sister and one of rare professionals in the cast Labina Mitevska) he can’t stand. His best friend Petar (Hanis Bagašov) lives in a cramped home with a lot of relatives and has not so discreet crush on Milan. By the way, Milan is dating Renata (Ines Hodžić), but is not ready to come forward to his friends because Renata could be considered fat and undesirable in the shallow mindset of teen boys.
The rest of the gang are Vladan (Dragan Mishevski), Ace (Stefan Kitanović), Rapae (Ivan Vrtev Soptarjanov) and wheelchair-bound Cvetan (Igor Postolov). They spend their days wandering around the decaying post-socialist suburbs, talking trash on the school playground, getting in a fight with some local Albanian boys their age, boasting about their manhood and planning a night in town and a fishing trip together. In the background we can see the desperation and graffiti full of the on-the-nose symbolism like “No future”.
The film has a nice, deliberate pace and is heavier on the atmosphere than on plot, but it is not devoid of it. Mitevska stays discreet enough in her choices not to show everything, which is especially important in the “whorehouse” scene, where she stays on the corridor with the group, while they one by one go to the room to “have their fun”. The film is masterfully shot by French DOP Agnès Godard (The Falling, The Sister) and edited by Stefan Stabenow (Babai, In Bloom) and Sophie Vercruysse (Baden Baden, Our Children), and the strings drone by Jean-Paul Dessy dictates the mood in a delightfull way.
The problem is, however, the treatment of the teen characters. They function well as the group character, but they are not developed enough on an individual level. Milan and Petar actually resemble human beings, but the rest of the gang are stripped-down to one or two traits and quirks. For instance, Vladan dates a divorcée, so he actually knows a thing or two about women, Ace is a nationalist and a loud-mouth chauvinist, Rapae is “the crazy one” because he has long hair and a motorcycle and Cvetan, aside of his handicap, is the only one with moral doubts about having fun in an illegal brothel. That kind of sketching the characters takes its toll when they start to fall out with one another, which feels kinda forced.
The other trouble is much more common in cinema: the filmmakers rarely have contact with real teens so they could understand their world-views. Mitevska is no exception to that, her characters are more like how she imagines the boys of that age than what the boys are actually like. In the film a bunch of 18-year-olds are acting like infantile 13-year-old kids. That might work for the director to prove her point about some sort of arrested development in an impoverished country on a brink of the war, but that is pretty standard for nowadays East European art house cinema. When the Day Had No Name is a good example for that: visually polished, well-intended, but pretty unremarkable, almost ideal to be some sort of a festival “filler”.