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ZAGREBDOX 2019

Review: Neighbors

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- In his new documentary, Tomislav Žaja examines the possibilities for former, or sometimes lifelong, mental patients to be reintegrated into society

Review: Neighbors

Croatian filmmaker Tomislav Žaja already has over 50 titles under his belt as a producer, director or writer, spanning various different forms and formats: fiction (including adapting stage plays for television), experimental and documentary, and short, mid-length and feature-length works. However, he is probably best known for his oeuvres in the field of observational documentary. His newest title, Neighbors, premiered locally in Croatia at the end of last year, while its festival premiere is taking place at ZagrebDox, in the regional competition. 

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After a quote on freedom by Franz Kafka and a couple of shots that serve to orientate viewers and familiarise them with the milieu of former mental patients, edited in parallel with a simple opening-credits sequence set against drone shots of the Croatian city of Osijek, another title card appears, explaining that, in accordance with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the mental institution in Osijek is being closed, and the patients are about to be reintegrated into society, slowly taking back control over their lives. In his previous 30-minute documentary Free, Žaja tackled the same topic of reintegration, homing in on people with learning disabilities who were relocated from a closed-off institution to a more open assisted-living facility.

Neighbors is not a sequel, though, nor is it simply a form of project development from a short to a feature-length title. The stakes are higher, and the group shown here is more heterogeneous. One thing that they all have in common is that they have spent a substantial amount of time in closed-off institutions like the one they are being released from (some of them have been in this situation their entire lives) and that they have to rebuild their lives. Whether they will be able to do so is still anyone’s guess.

Fortunately, they are able to get help according to their needs: some of them will stay in a halfway-house kind of facility, others have inherited property, while several of the former patients have seized the opportunity to couple up. They all want to live "like normal people", but this means something different to each of them: sometimes this entails work, sometimes love or dreaming about having children, sometimes emigration to Germany, sometimes getting back in touch with their family, finding a cat that was lost or getting support from the mayor's office for volunteering in the community. It is more of a challenge for them, but they are always able to rely on their upbeat and friendly therapist and their unusual doctor, prone to thinking outside the box.

Žaja has a gentle touch and clearly cares a great deal about his subjects, who willingly participate in the film. Sometimes they talk directly to the camera, but more often than not, they are filmed during their own interactions with fellow patients or the outside world. His main goal is to offer an insight into their world, and to achieve this, some production values had to be sacrificed. The end result is a soulful, informative and non-judgemental film that looks a bit plain, rather than stylish, though the camerawork by Jasenko Rasol has some nice touches, as do the sound design and the minimalistic original score by Vjeran Šalamon. The abundance of exterior and even situational wide shots also contributes to the relaxed feeling and the sense of optimism about the destiny of these people who have finally been given a chance for the first time. 

Neighbors was produced by Gral Film with the support of the Croatian Audiovisual Centre (HAVC).

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