With the Scottish referendum fast approaching, it is easy to forget that despite the Yes Scotland campaign’s claim that “the UK is the fourth most unequal country in the developed world”, there are those who remain far less fortunate than we. More than a decade after the success of his Oscar winning No Man’s Land, Danis Tanović returns with An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker, a sobering insight into the daily trials of a small family in his native Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Filmed with a hand-held camera in an entirely unglamorous documentary style, Life of an Iron Picker is a no-frills recreation of a small but significant episode from the past of Nazif Mujic and his wife Senada Alimanovic. Playing himself, Nazif makes a living by salvaging and selling scrap iron. Despite this unreliable source of income, the Mujic family live happily in their small but ramshackle home on the outskirts of an industrial city which belches pollution into the surrounding landscape. Simple though their lives may be, the family are unconcerned by their scant means; until, that is, there are complications with Senada’s pregnancy which require health insurance that Nazif cannot afford.
While there sometimes is a tendency to lavish films ‘based on true events’ with glossy cinematography and sentimentality, Tanović’s decision to allow the cast to portray themselves eschews the buffering effect touted by such Hollywood successes as Stephen Frear’s Philomena (2013), the dramatisation of Philomena Lee’s fifty year search for her lost son, starring Judy Dench. Where the casting of recognisable actors allows us to distance ourselves from the reality of the source material under the pretence of fiction, Tanović opts for realism; his hand-held style feels much more akin to a Dispatches documentary than a carefully crafted recreation of past circumstances. There is no undue sentiment here, only the recording of the nuances of remembered pain on the faces of those who experienced it firsthand.
Though the performances onscreen are just that — performances — Tanović’s realist style lends them an authenticity which would be difficult, if not impossible, to equal with the production values of a Hollywood film. The artifice of reconstruction is veiled by the simplicity of the rough-and-ready documentary approach, and so the audience is lured into feeling sympathy for Nazif and his family as real people rather than actors, allowing for a more affecting viewing experience than might be afforded by a more obviously fictional film.
The real weight of Life of Iron Picker, however, lies in its portrayal of the Bosnian healthcare system. The concept of a medical service which is available only to those who can afford to pay is a horror which may seem alien to a UK audience, but the accuracy of Tanović’s portrayal of Senada’s struggle to be treated is given firm credence by the ostracism Mujic experienced upon his return to Bosnia after filming. Reduced to collecting rubbish before a back injury forced him to quit, Mujic is currently seeking asylum in Berlin.
Though a rather harrowing watch, Life of an Iron Picker is an extraordinary film. Its depiction of the difficulties of the Roma family to obtain necessary healthcare in a country they call home is both heartfelt and hard-hitting. Its impact is only emphasised by the sincerity of the film’s non-professional performances which make it well deserving of the accolades it has received.