The question, “How do you behave in a time of war?”resonates through the theatre, as a young Serb, Bojan, struggles to sit through his night shift at Radio Television Serbia amid the distant sound of NATO’s bombs plaguing the city of Belgrade. Marinus Groothof’s feature debut The Sky Above Us unfolds around this query. This film is successful in its attestation to the experience of overlooked witnesses in times of conflict: those who keep their heads down and find a way to endure.
A budding actress, Ana (Nada Sargin) is determined to continue her career in theatre, though the alarm resounds during every nightly journey home. In search of thrills, young Bojan (Nikola Rakocevic) occupies himself with clubbing and ecstasy. Ivana (Nevena Ristic) shares her boyfriend Bojan’s free spirit, but remains engrossed in journalistic work. After sending his family to the safety of the countryside, Sloba (Boris Isakovic) supports his family as a broadcast technician in Belgrade’s RTS building. At nightfall, Belgrade loses its vibrancy as it becomes a military target. Each at a different stage in life, the characters must create a pattern of habit in order to cope with a force that threatens their reality.
Narrative does not appear to be Groothof’s priority as dialogue is minimal, and the few moments of action are intercut with long shots of quiet, habitual tasks, or frivolously seductive morning-after scenes. By the end of this film, the audience knows little of the complexities of the emotions encountered by the characters. This obscurity can be seen as a tool to channel the actuality of the suspense of national threat, which is often portrayed as profoundly action-filled, yet in reality may be dominated by the mundane act of biding time. Amongst the jokes, light conversation, flirting and lovers’tiffs, there are only brief moments in which the characters reveal their vulnerability.
Much of the static tension in the film is heightened in the score’s stirring violin crescendos. These sonic apexes, undercut by shrieking alarms, tear the characters from their protective worlds. One of the most remarkable scenes is set in a bunker that Ana finds shelter in. As she finds a seat next to a frightened young girl, the child takes comfort by nestling into Ana’s shoulder. A light changes over Ana’s face as it reveals, for the first time, visceral sorrow. Characters come to a point where an apolitical disposition is no longer admissible, and decisions have to be made. “Why does everything have to be so fucking serious all the time?” Bojan asks in response to his girlfriend’s transition to “responsibility”. Ivana now rises early to return to her computer, at which she spends the day writing and researching; her response to urgency is to become a war correspondent. People find their purpose in unexpected places during political instability. Ana realises this as she spots her friend speaking out at an anti-NATO rally, poised as a political icon. This is the same friend who, hours before, claimed to have no interest in taking part in these protests.
The behaviour of a human under threat is difficult to approach in film with a sense of authenticity. On a modest budget compared to that of the blockbuster, and with the aid of a fantastic cast, Groothof has provided a compelling insight into this behaviour. The fear of political unrest, or an impending explosion, may remain in the background of a person’s psychological makeup in their attempt to function in what remains of society. It is during times of quiet–the walk home from work, the moments before sleep, a long nightshift–that this anticipation of crisis leaks into the facade of order. These people find themselves struggling in the most banal moments, and in these moments The Sky Above Us finds its substance.