Razsa, Maple & Pacho Velez
2009 Bastards of Utopia. Watertown, MA: Documentary Educational Resources.
Notes: DVD, 54 minutes
Reviewed 4 Jun 2012 by:
Daniel Margolies <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Virginia Wesleyan College
Medium: Film/Video Subject
Anarchists - Political activity - Croatia
Radicals - Croatia - Attitudes
Radicalism - Croatia - Zagreb
Zagreb (Croatia) - Intellectual life
Zagreb (Croatia) - Social life and customs
ABSTRACT: This film concisely examines moments of youthful anarchist action in the uncertain era preceding the global downturn and the Arab Spring, focused on three anarchists in Croatia who challenged state authority and pursued grassroots community while sidestepping dreams of future utopia.
With street protest reshaping numerous political regimes and challenging attitudes toward the structures and inequalities of national and global economic systems daily, new documentary explorations of the inner and personal dynamics of protest and action are essential and illuminating. This film concisely examines moments of youthful anarchist action in the uncertain era preceding the global downturn, the Arab Spring, and the Greek revolt, when anti-globalization activists rallied but failed to stop the war in Iraq. This film focuses on a group of three anarchists in Croatia as they challenged state authority and pursued grassroots power. These young activists, rising out of a tumultuous youth spent in a harsh system, are driven by a passion for change and experimentation, a willingness to embrace confrontation, and a set of ideals widely shared across the anti-war, anti-globalization, and anti-European Community left. They are meant to represent a much wider type of activist who acts while handily sidestepping dreams of future utopia. The filmmaker Maple Razsa, who is an active participant/observer in the events portrayed in the film, thought initially that he was looking for a rising successor generation to socialism or a new group formulating old leftist certainties. But instead he found these ‘bastards of utopia’ who he believes present a nuanced and balanced move forward and away from the failed or tired actions of the past.
After rapidly, though not entirely clearly, introducing the basic divisions of Croatia in the form of widespread xenophobia and nationalism, and hinting at anarchist interests, the film introduces the three activists in their individual elements. These settings are a squat and quiet fortitude for Jelena, an energetic embrace of direct action and public presentation for Fistra, and a restless energy for Dado. The film follows the three and the filmmaker to a large protest in Greece which turns quite violent. At this point in the film it is difficult to understand the point of the film, which does not fully or coherently articulate the goals of the activists in a way that engages the viewer. But the film does present valuable moments—a discussion before the protest about the optimal stance to take, and Fistra’s post-riot feelings of dismay that protestors did not avoid arrest or violence. The protest was designed to avenge a fallen protestor but instead resulted merely in ‘burned kabob stands.’
It is at this juncture that the movie develops clarity and a compelling storyline. Fistra seeks to create tours for bands like Anger is Beautiful or his own, AK-47, but laments that “a few of us do all the work.” So he and the other the activists become involved in a project for a Zagreb free goods store (a “take it or leave it shop”) called the Network of Social Solidarity, which they establish in a squat and abandoned building. With nice juxtaposition, the free store is adjacent to major grocery big box store Billa. The film traces the occupation and improvement of the building and the process of squatting, therein providing a keen perspective on direct action. Inevitably, this squat store produces conflict. The activists find the entire building surrounded by police. The owner would rather “destroy” the building than see it used by the activists in this way. A city official shuts down an activist expressing their rights with a pungent “I’m an official, don’t talk to me like that.”
The activists eventually decide collectively to leave the store, and Razsa ends up being the only individual arrested after the incident of the store since he has a lapsed visa. The experience of the shop’s failure weighs heavily on the group. Dado feels “our collective messed up” and that “foreigners are more committed and more radical …because they don’t know the situation, and they think things are the same here as at home.” Here the film signals an interesting insight into the unique situation in Croatia, but it is not pursued.
The “take it or leave it shop” section truncates the film as Razsa is forced to leave the country. The brief latter section of presents a slightly wistful visit to the principals in 2008. While this provides a welcome long perspective, the situation of all three is presented as decidedly less successful or transformative as they had hoped.
In part, the filmmakers Maple Razsa and Pacho Velez made the film to trace leftist action in the often harsh, post-Communist realities of independent Croatia. The subjects, Jelena, Fistra, and Dado, are friends of Razsa. This baseline familiarity of these individuals to Razsa may be the source of the confusing start, as the characters remain indistinct and underdeveloped during the first section of the film to the viewers. Their motives are unclear or, in the case of Fistra, more platitudinal than instructive. It is clear that all three are committed and involved, but not exactly why. Pacho Velez’s camera work remains tightly focused on the principal individuals, but he also captures enough of the Croatian exteriors to relay a sense for place and context.
This film provides an interesting case study for the experience, intent, and technique of anarchist activism, joining a recent film like “Roses on My Table,” about the Wingnut Anarchist Collective in Richmond, Virginia and complementing the comprehensive work of David Graeber’s Direct Action: An Ethnography. This film would be suitable for classes on social movements, radicalism, protest, and democracy.