A Film a Week - No Man Is an Island / Septemberska klasa

 previously published on Cineuropa

Back in the Yugoslav times, military service was compulsory for young men between the ages of 19 and 27. They had to leave their homes and their lives in order to spend a year away paying their duties to the country. Slovenian filmmaker Igor Šterk, known for his fiction films 9:06 (2009) and Come Along (2016), remembers his days of service in the Yugoslav Peoples' Army in his documentary No Man Is an Island that premiered at the 24th edition of the Festival of Slovenian Film in Portorož.

Šterk opens his film with excerpts from home videos from his personal archive, with his own quite poetic narration on the topic of seas, sailing and islands, stating that his love for the sea and sailing prepared him for the military service in the navy. He was stationed in a small garrison named Smokovo on the island of Vis in nowadays Croatia in the late 80s. Smokovo and most of the other military objects on the island are now abandoned, but back in the day, the whole island was dubbed The Fortress of the Adriatic Sea.

Šterk then turns to tracking and interviewing his ex-comrades from all over the former country in order to reconstruct the personal and collective memories about the year they spent there. He starts by describing the first encounter with the place and people there, goes through the basic training and, due to specific circumstances and structures of both formal and informal power, some excessive hazing performed by the “older” soldiers at the expense of the “younger” ones, and ends with their days of routine and leisure when they achieved the status of “elders.”

The Slovenian title of the film, September Class, which actually suits it better than the international one, is explained only in the last third of the film when their commanding officer appears: the recruits who came to service in September were regarded as the “cream of the crop” and as guys with a lot of potential, since they were, in average, college boys, better educated and smarter then the rest of the bunch. Unfortunately, that also explains the torture they were exposed to during their days as rookies – the reason for it was the other guys’ envy.

The film is at its best when it sticks to interviews. Šterk's position is quite special: he is the insider with his own memories, but he lets his buddies, many of whom he has not seen for two or three decades, do the talking. Those interviews are quite informal and take place at the men's houses and yards, so the interviewees, ten of them, are relaxed enough and have enough time to reveal themselves as complete and complex personalities.

However, the drone shots of the island and the now abandoned rotting military objects that are used as a filler of sorts become inflationary, touristy and even a bit sensationalist, while the music in different instrumental arrangements, from piano and acoustic guitar to wind instruments, feels over-bearing on certain occasions. There is also an elephant in the room that Šterk barely addresses and fails to examine in depth – the destiny of the country that fell apart a few years after the guys' service, and the question of whether they had to take part in the events of the early 90s. But all things considered, No Man Is an Island still serves as a legitimate artefact of personal memories around one particular institution at one particular period of time.

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