Igor Drljača navigates a unique world of time and memory in The White Fortress (Tabija). The Bosnian-Canadian director crafts an enigmatic fable with his fourth feature. The film, which was Bosnia’s Oscar submission for Best International Feature and a Canada’s Top Ten selection, is especially striking as a follow-up to Drljača’s feature documentary, The Stone Speakers. His 2019 essay film mined the countryside to explore the stories behind monuments, factories, and relics. It’s easy to see a hint of inspiration in the titular white fortress that appears in the film’s climax. As star-crossed lovers Faruk (Pavle Cemerikic) and Mona (Sumeja Dardagan) tour the heritage site of Sarajevo’s Bijela Tabija, their understated date evokes the sites of memory that Drljača explored in his film. This city preaches the future, but remains impossibly fixed in the past.
The White Fortress offers a Romeo and Juliet tale in a land marked by divides. Faruk is a working class orphan who lives with his ailing grandmother (Irena Mulamuhic). He scrapes by while pillaging and selling scrap metal with his uncle (Jasmin Gello of Drljača’s The Waiting Room). On the side, Faruk starts working with his friend, Almir (Kerim Čutuna), luring and managing young girls into sex work. It’s while waiting for an escort that Faruk meets Mona, a younger girl from an affluent family. They strike up an unlikely romance, especially since Mona doesn’t know the score. Tasked with finding more girls for the meat market, Faruk eyes Mona as a candidate. However, he can’t deny what his heart tells him as he takes her on innocent dates between gigs.
The three fortresses
The film draws much of its quiet and enigmatic power from Drljača’s strong sense of place. The White Fortress observes the strange timelessness of Sarajevo and the new social and cultural divides that replace old ones. Drljača employs not one but three white fortresses throughout the film. While Bijela Tabija looms in the background, the foreboding white concrete apartment where Faruk lives is a fortress of its own. The thick and ugly tower punctuates the cityscape and looms heavily over the young man. The impoverished design and sheer scale of the building evokes the limited chances for social mobility for its residents.
The third fortress, Mona’s home, is a posh single-family unit. The chic establishment sits with a clear view of the city while looking down on others. The contemporary design of the home contrasts sharply with Faruk’s dense dwelling. Mona has the privilege of space and comfort. Moreover, Faruk learns that Mona, unlike him, can realistically plan for a future. Mona expects to move to Canada and even takes English classes to prepare. She knows there’s a chance for a better life elsewhere and can do more than dream.
For Faruk, though, the past saturates the stale air of his apartment. His grandmother endlessly watches videotapes of his mother, who enjoyed a career in music before she died. Faruk, meanwhile, stares at the same old movie on a loop. This is a place where time passes, but doesn’t move forward.
The sense of time becomes a piece of the puzzle as The White Fortress gradually shifts away from the stark realism of Drljača’s aesthetic. As Faruk searches for his missing dog, which disappears amid a drug-fuelled reverie, The White Fortress unfolds unexpectedly. There’s an air of suspension, or limbo, as Faruk wanders throughout the city and eventually disappears like his own mutt.
Shot handsomely by Erol Zubcevic, the film makes especially stirring use of natural light. As Faruk and Mona visit Bijela Tabija, the magic hour hues offer not romanticism, but elegiac longing. There’s a painfully understated nod to lost youth and innocence as the young couple basks in a courtship with no realistic future. The most striking landscape, so to speak, is Cemerikic’s face. The young actor, who earned a Canadian Screen Award nomination for his performance, carries nearly every frame of The White Fortress and he’s a revelation. This is a poignant introspective performance with subtle hints of heartache and adolescent yearning. In his hands, Faruk is a prisoner of the fortress. He’s unable to escape no matter how freely he roams.