Jazmin Dizdar's beautiful film
By Scott Heller
MARCH 6, 2000: "Spoiler alert" is a phrase film critics use to urge you not to read farther if you don't want to know a plot twist or who dies in the end. But it's not used often enough to let readers know that a film has an unparalleled moment of cinematic magic. A moment that, if you know it's coming, won't be very magical when it unfolds on screen.
Midway through Jasmin Dizdar's Beautiful People, the first-time director achieves such a moment, a fusion of theme and content that encapsulates everything he's wanted to say and might just put a big fat "How'd-he-do-that?" smile on your face. The film follows a cross-section of modern-day Londoners who find that war in the former Yugoslavia is spilling into their backyards, drawing rooms, and hearts. Portia, the rebellious daughter of a stuffy Tory couple, falls in love with Pero, a poor refugee who winds up in the hospital where she works. Dr. Mouldy, an overworked physician, ministers to a young Bosnian couple about to give birth but can't repair his own marriage or control his hell-raising sons. Kate, a sculptress, anguishes when her journalist husband is dispatched to the war zone.
Only Griffin, a blank-eyed slacker, and his soccer-hooligan friends remain unaware of the brutality a few nations away. They kill time scoring smack and shaking down Caribbean immigrants. What gets them really excited is the upcoming match between their local favorites and a Dutch team. Scraping up the money to attend the game in Rotterdam, they arrive at the airport buzzed on booze and aggression. The woozy, stumbling Griffin takes a wrong turn on the tarmac and falls asleep in a cargo bin.
A bin, as it turns out, filled with United Nations supplies destined for Bosnia. As quickly as you can say BBC, Griffin is mistakenly parachuted into the middle of a war that had come no closer than the family telly. He's put to work, too, an accidental humanitarian gaping at the gore in the medical tent, his conscience pricked by the plight of the orphaned and homeless. After an ambush, he is shuttled back onto a military plane and strolls through the doorway of his parents' house in time for afternoon tea.
More than many, British filmmakers remain intrigued by how blurring class and ethnic differences are remaking their nation. Dizdar adds the collapse of distance: Sarajevo and Shaftesbury Avenue are really not that far away. Born in Bosnia, he's spent the last 10 years in London, and his film combines British social realism with the bitter, jagged humor of Balkan directors like Emir Kusturica (Underground) and Srdjan Dragojevic (Pretty Village, Pretty Flame). Beautiful People begins on a busy London bus, with a chance meeting between two former Bosnian neighbors who still have a score to settle. Their fistfight ruffles some veddy British feathers ("This is London -- we don't behave this way!"), careers into the street, and continues across the city. Eventually, the two end up in adjacent beds in the hospital, where -- between efforts to unplug each other from the life-support machines -- they befriend an injured Welsh anarchist with grudges of his own.
As the other lead characters slowly come into focus, Dizdar introduces his vision of cosmopolitan London. Yes, racism is plain and hostility always seems ready to bubble up into violence. No one is immune; when Dr. Mouldy's sons have a pillow fight, one plays England, the other Ireland. Still, the center holds. Chance and coincidence, even war, braid together these disparate lives. This fundamentally hopeful world view is in stark contrast to that of other directors, who blend comedy and tragedy to describe how Europe has experienced the horror of the Balkans. A blood feud that doesn't respect the doors of a hospital caps off Pretty Village. Violence circles back, unceasingly, in the stunning Before the Rain, where (spoiler alert) an unexpected shooting born of age-old ethnic hatred shocks a London restaurant full of placid diners.
Beautiful People doesn't stint on the horror. The good doctor discovers that his pregnant patient doesn't want to keep her child because it was the product of a gang rape by soldiers in her former nation. Griffin watches, slackjawed, as an injured Bosnian has his leg amputated, and we watch, or look away, as the bloodied leg is paraded front and center before the camera. For every brutal sequence, though, there's a comic or tender moment to relieve the pressure. And Dizdar's cast of actors, most of them unknown here, have a scruffy charm that makes even the most difficult stuff go down easy. Nicholas Farrell, as the decent Dr. Mouldy, is the standout.
Throughout the film, I kept expecting the director to wave a stern finger at the West, to set up Bosnia as the nightmare that other multi-ethnic nations will wake up to if they don't get over their internal differences. He's too generous, too enamored with human foibles, to be so pushy. The film wobbles a little at the conclusion, not sure whether to end on a note of hope or despair. Consider yourself warned: Beautiful People chooses hope.
Happy accidentsHad he been raised like any other Bosnian Muslim, Jasmin Dizdar would have been given a regular name, like Muhammad or Peter. But Dizdar's mystical grandmother took a special interest in the boy and named him after a flower. She let him stay away from school more than his parents liked; she allowed him to play pretend games in her garden. Meanwhile, she'd hold court for the young and the old, the professors and the peasants, who came for a piece of her unorthodox wisdom.
"She brought me up to see that it's the humanity that matters," says Dizdar, the 38-year-old director of Beautiful People. His film takes the message to heart, following a cross-section of Londoners who are bruised -- but never beaten -- by the horrors of a Bosnian war far closer than they realize. How apt that a big sunflower figures prominently in the ad campaign for the film, which won Dizdar a prize at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival.
Only 10 years before, the director was another immigrant with a British girlfriend trying to find his way in London. He had a degree from Czechoslovakia's most prestigious film school, and many short features under his belt. He had written a book about another expatriate, the Czech director Milos Forman. What he didn't have was anything more than fractured English. "When I came there I couldn't ask for a packet of crisps in the shop," he says now, the heavy tones of Central Europe blurring into plummy Britspeak.
After looking at his short films, the BBC commissioned him to write a radio play, then several television dramas. The British Film Institute jumped to develop his treatment for Beautiful People, making the Bosnian outsider the very model of a model British filmmaker in just a decade.
He drew on years as a beneficiary of the nation's notoriously good manners, a habit he treats with humor and affection in the film. "If you're a Bosnian and you come to dinner, your appearance is explosive. There's this enormous pressure to behave diplomatically: 'Are you all right there? Are you sure you don't want anything else?' They'll hold your hand: 'I'm really sorry about what happened to your country, it's really terrible.'
"My mission was to open them up, to say, 'You don't have to do that. We can talk at different levels. We can be friends.' In Britain, that takes time."
Promoting the film gives the director a chance to look at another nation with fresh eyes. In between interviews, he breaks out his video camera and shoots the intricate arrangement of glassware and napkins in a hotel conference room. "When you enter a new culture, you're a bit like a teenager, you start learning again. You're extremely sensitive, and you absorb everything."
Coming from what he calls a "cultural earthquake zone," Dizdar remains surprisingly optimistic that England and other nations will adjust to new racial and ethnic realities, not to mention the influx of refugees from the former Yugoslavia. After all, his life and his film are both accident-filled tales with hopeful endings.
And he has the fingers to prove it. As a kid, he sliced off most of a finger playing in his grandmother's garden. Frantic, his mother wanted to call an ambulance. His grandmother said there was no need. She placed a pinch of tobacco in the wound and pressed the flesh together. "My mom said, 'This way it'll be crooked.' My grandmother said, 'So what?' " He holds out the finger. It is still crooked -- as crooked as the path that took him from the Balkans to Boston, to talk about a film made in Britain, the country he now calls home.
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