Bosnian filmmaker Igor Drljača opens his new gritty yet poetic crime drama, Tabija/The White Fortress, in the rundown, graffiti-covered Sarajevo suburb of Alipasino Polje. The war-torn ghetto is the perfect landscape for this unsettling film.

Tabija has earned a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, making it a ‘must see’ in my book. For several reasons, it’s also Bosnia and Herzegovina’s official Oscar selection for 2021. Drljača’s meticulous screenwriting perfectly syncs with Erol Zubčević’s gifted cinematography. I was most impressed by his spectacular time-lapse of the sun setting and then rising again over the ancient white fortress, the film’s namesake.

And Ajla Odobašić‘s precise editing makes it a very polished film. He expertly juxtaposes the old with the present by passively showing a wartime partisan film and the evening news Mise en scène and having text messages pop up on the screen along with Snap Chat filters. It’s a Bosnia bridging two opposing realities of the Old World and the new.

I love foreign films because, as an American, you’re a little off-kilter. Some meanings will be lost to you. There is something that you think is foreshadowing, but it will be a rabbit hole. Another thing might prove to have been foreshadowing. But, you have to pay closer attention, and you have to read subtitles and still absorb as much as you can. At least you know that it won’t be formulaic like many American films are.

The main character, Faruk (played by the gifted Pavle Čemerikić), was orphaned early on after the death of his mother and lives with his elderly, impoverished grandmother (Irena Mulamuhić) who is ailing. He has no memory of his father. Instead of being in school, he spends his days foraging scrap metal with his uncle (Jasmin Geljo) and performing petty crimes for gang lord Čedo (Ermin Bravo) with his friend Almir (Kerim Čutuna).

Early on, when we first meet Faruk’s uncle, he is regularly haunted by a terrible dream of being at a party where he barbecues pieces of his own body for the guests while his sister plays piano with her orchestra. A common interpretation of that dream is that someone will take your most valuable things, which is a common theme of Tabija’s.

We see a terrible sense of loss in nearly everyone throughout the film. Faruk has lost his father and mother. The grandmother seems depressed and melancholy as she constantly watches that same video of her deceased daughter’s last concert performance as she clings to a time when things were still good. The uncle almost loses his business because of Faruk’s lack of judgment, as Almir consistently tries his hardest to destroy Faruk’s innocence.

Later in the film, a young girl is emotionally crushed by a client who brutalizes her. Another young lady loses her right to choose her destiny as she is sent away to Canada. Faruk’s dog is missing. Even Faruk’s front tire is stolen as he tries to do his after-hours transport work.

Faruk is numb to all the loss and brutality we see when his grandmother touches him lovingly and reassuringly, or maybe beseechingly, but he doesn’t react. She gives up and withdraws. He knows that he is losing his grandmother, probably the last adult who will care for him and keep a roof over his head. But, feeling love for someone is dangerous because it sets you up to hurt when you lose them.

But, I interpret the dream a little more literally. I see it as saying that he gives everything of himself, and the demand for more is horrifying because he has nothing more to offer. It’s killing him as he keeps giving more and more until he is devoured. He has taken his orphaned nephew under his wing as a helper to try to keep food on the table at his mother’s house. He keeps tabs on his mother’s health condition and makes sure she has the medical care she needs. He’s also struggling to take care of himself on his meager earnings from foraging for metal. This is the nightmare from which he can never wake up. He is a metaphor for the state of post-war Bosnia as it grapples with survival.

The film contrasts Bosnia’s reality of vast social chasms and its chaotic power structures. There is little police presence, so the country seems to be run by opportunistic crime syndicates. The real power is in the hands of the crime bosses and their underlings and, oddly, a new ruling class that has come through it all relatively unscathed.

Faruk, our flawed hero of sorts, tries to be as tough as his peers and yet struggles with his morals. He can steal scaffolding for scrap money, but he is revolted at the thought of sex trafficking young girls. Perhaps the love of his grandmother or seeing the video of his mother’s last concert pianist performance over and over softens him enough to struggle with being this brutal even when his very life may depend on it.

Another thing I love to see in films is imagery as if you’re reading an excellent poem or listening to a perfect song. In ordinary conversation, we know that the river that runs through the city is entirely polluted, and you will be poisoned if you drink from it without treating it first. We understand that this has been going on for some time because Faruk and Mona cannot remember when the river was not polluted and find it hard to imagine it was ever pure. Symbolically, this tells us that the country is rotting from the inside out. The river, generally the heart of any land, went from nourishing to poisoning its people. They don’t have to tell you this because you absorb it effortlessly in the scenery and the conversation.

One day Faruk is called upon to transport teenager Minela (Farah Hadžić) to a customer in his guarded mansion. She starts confident and demanding, but she is broken emotionally when Faruk picks her up afterward. She tells her mother on the phone that she was singing and she lost her voice which she has literally and figuratively. We can surmise that she was probably tricked into going by being told that she would be singing for this client. And this is where we see the difference between the two boys. Almir shrugs and says she’ll be fine in a few days and then wants to find more girls to traffic. Faruk is affected by the state of Minela and doubts that this is something she could recover from so quickly, questioning his role in her suffering.

The most riveting scene is when Faruk and Almir get caught stealing scaffolding by Čedo, and their big boss demands their presence. Čedo asks them menacingly if they know what happened to the last kid who crossed him. Dogs ate him. He has them both so scared that they spend several minutes barking like dogs in a very bizarre scene. They don’t know what Čedo wants of them, so they desperately try to please him because they think he will kill them both. It’s a dog-eat-dog world that they’re trying to survive.

Enter Mona (Sumeja Dardagan), a teen from a politically powerful and privileged family. She is being sent to Canada to live with her aunt and uncle to facilitate an arranged marriage for her. Mona feels that love gives you a sense of belonging and is appalled at the thought of being in an arrangement away from her family and in a foreign country. You could not imagine much of a scenario where she will feel the exact opposite of what she is so desperately seeking.

I am most critical of endings. I don’t want it to be too neatly tied up with a bow. I don’t want it to be too predictable. I am not looking for a happily ever after. This is where the film delivers. The ending of this film, in my opinion, was perfect. I will touch on it while trying not to give it away.

In desperation, Mona runs off with Faruk to the white fortress that, with a bit of imagination, resembles a castle. The kids seem more carefree than we have observed thus far. She opens herself up to Faruk, and the two seem to be falling in love as they have some tender moments imagining what their lives could be together.

Cut to her last days at school before the big move. As her final school project, she sums up their relationship and the end of the film in the form of a sublime fairy tale she has written, tinged in her reality and powerlessness. This poetic ending is metaphoric of the country, too. It is the human condition to cling to hope, even in the bleakest circumstances. It’s an ending that is both an ending and not an ending in that there is no finality. And there are no sequels. Fade to black.

The White Fortress is a co-production between Bosnia’s SCCA/Pro.baand Canada’s Timelapse Pictures.

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