Review: Another Spring
- Mladen Kovačević's new documentary tackles the 1972 smallpox epidemic in Yugoslavia with an approach that combines a procedural account of events with a horror-film atmosphere
The latest effort from Serbian filmmaker Mladen Kovačević, Another Spring [+see also:
interview: Mladen Kovačević
film profile], which has just world-premiered in Karlovy Vary's Proxima competition, deals with the last-ever epidemic of smallpox in Europe, which broke out in Yugoslavia in 1972. Consisting fully of archive footage, this documentary takes an approach that combines a procedural account of events with a horror atmosphere, and leads the viewer to explore the social and political differences and similarities between the era of 50 years ago and that of today.
Narrator Dr Zoran Radovanović, Serbia's foremost authority on epidemics, who was at the centre of the events of 1972, tells the story in the present tense, chronologically, with precise dates outlining the chain of cause and effect. Patient zero seems to have been a man from Kosovo who went on a hajj to Mecca and Medina, with the bus that transported the pilgrims making unplanned stops in Baghdad, including its famous bazaar. It was only after the outbreak in Yugoslavia that Iraq admitted they had an epidemic on their hands.
The man returns to his hometown and infects a schoolteacher from a nearby city, who subsequently spreads the disease to 38 people. By the time the virus arrives in Belgrade and the epidemic is officially announced, resulting in an unprecedented rush for vaccines, patients in Kosovo are already dying horrible deaths from the most destructive smallpox variant, known as variola vera.
This is also the title of one of the greatest Yugoslav films ever, made by Goran Marković in 1982. While this was a disaster movie with a socialist twist, the way Kovačević, editor Jelena Maksimović, and sound designer and composer Jakov Munižaba treat the archive materials is more akin to a visceral, almost primaeval approach to horror. The footage, except for the excerpts from TV interviews with doctors, nurses and patients from the era, is slowed down to what feels like 50% speed, and accompanied by a brooding, droning, screeching soundtrack low in volume but high in intensity. The predominantly black-and-white recordings and photographs are often zoomed in to highlight the frightening physicality of the disease.
Inevitably, the viewer will compare the actions of the 1972 government and the population to the situation with COVID-19. What transpires is that even if the authorities were initially slow to recognise the disease for what it is – due partly to the fact that it was eradicated in Yugoslavia in 1932, meaning nobody was expecting it – the response was quick and extremely well organised, resulting in 18 million people (almost the whole country) getting vaccinated or re-vaccinated. The process of eradicating smallpox was still under way, and the World Health Organisation and many individual countries, including the USA, banded together to help Yugoslavia.
Of course, from this perspective, the contrast with 2020 seems stark, and the slowed-down archive footage seems to underline this temporal distance. But the film points out similarities, too, such as the initial lack of awareness among medical experts and elements of ignorance in part of society, due to religious or traditional reasons – a patient's family refused the post-mortem that could have confirmed it was smallpox early enough to prevent many deaths.
The way Kovačević ends the film clearly shows his standpoint and makes it clear why people trusted the authorities and medicine much more 50 years ago than they do today. What was nominally a non-democratic, communist state functioned a lot better, and in a far more humane way, than today's so-called democratic governments and their dependence on the "free market".
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