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The Stone Speakers features four places in Bosnia-Herzegovina where, in the aftermath of the civil war of the 1990s, tourism is tinged with nationalism, fantasy and deceit.

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  • The Stone Speakers
  • Written and directed by Igor Drljaca
  • Classification N/A
  • 92 minutes

rating

3 out of 4 stars

The Bosnian-Canadian film director Igor Drljaca has a remarkable eye. In his film The Stone Speakers, cinematographer Amel Djikoli’s camera lingers with magnificent stillness on scenes of town and country in Bosnia-Herzegovina. So pronounced is the effect you have to check the movement of clouds or the tiny figures of pilgrims climbing a hillside to remind yourself that these artful compositions are moving film, not still photography.

The national tourist office might think that it couldn’t commission a better advertisement for the beauty of the River Drina or the green hills at Visoko, if it weren’t for the odd political undercurrents swirling just beneath the surface. The Stone Speakers features four places where, in the aftermath of the civil war of the 1990s, tourism is tinged with nationalism, fantasy and deceit.

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The first is the site at Medjugorje, where a group of youths experienced ecstatic visions of the Virgin Mary in 1981, just as anti-clerical Communism was about to collapse. One witness explains how a new priest had been organizing youth prayer groups with an increased regularity frowned on by the authorities; the notion that semi-sanctioned religion offered a more-or-less safe outlet for rebellion under Communism is not new, but here the link with the youths’ communal ecstasy hovers tantalizingly without being fully explored. Instead, we see contemporary Catholic pilgrims from around the world gathering to sing cheerily on the hillside where the visions took place.

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Drljaca also takes a hands-off approach to the so-called Bosnian pyramids at Visoko, letting viewers judge for themselves what is actually a much clearer case of delusion – and of outright fraud. Visitors follow a tour guide around the supposedly magical forms and through the underground tunnels of a former mine where the earth is said to exude some kind of healing energy. It sure sounds like mumbo-jumbo, but you would have to Google the pyramids to discover they are actually naturally formed hills. The New Age charlatan who is perpetuating this archeological hoax deserves an investigative documentary all of his own; instead, we get stunning views of the hills from the air.

At first, all seems pleasant on the River Drina, where happy day-trippers enjoy a regatta accompanied by picnicking, dancing and a playful tug-of-war – until one interviewee casually regrets that the boats are motorized now because damming has turned the swift-flowing river into a lake.

The River Drina was once fast-flowing, but damming has turned it into a lake.

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The Drina is the subject of Nobel laureate Ivo Andric’s novel The Bridge on the Drina, a historical saga that follows relations between Christians and Muslims from the Ottoman Empire to the First World War, and a side trip to a historical theme park dedicated to Andric’s memory again raises more questions than it answers. Are his contemporary followers sympathizing with his vision of a multiethnic state or looking for a national bard?

The ways in which political history is being sanitized in the aftermath of the civil war is made more explicit in a section in which old Communists self-righteously commemorate an anniversary in their victory against Nazism. The psychology behind all these movements, some more or less benign, others with the potential to gloss over war crimes or reopen old wounds, is fascinating as it lurks beneath Drljaca’s quiet landscapes and resolute refusal to judge.

The Stone Speakers is an intriguing film that leaves the viewer wanting more.

The Stone Speakers opens July 26 at the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto

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