The Land We Call Home: Tea Lukač’s Roots by Mina Radović

Tea Lukač’s documentary Roots (Koreni, Serbia, 2021) is a lyrical and rich portrait dedicated to the people of her hometown, Dvor in Banija, central Croatia. Sitting in the back of a moving car, different passengers present themselves to the camera, a variety of local people, young and old, talking about their lives as they are driven along the edge of a vast forest. We witness a range of stories that invite us into a dialogue with the people who open up their hearts and endow our quiet journey with a sweet-smelling fragrance. It is one of the rare examples of cinema where aesthetic abstraction is combined with emotional depth but, perhaps even more strikingly, a film which through material representation points towards spiritual heritage.

The film opens with a conversation of children dressed up in costumes on their way to a carnival retreat. They speak about playing games, comment on each other’s costumes, and share the excitement about the new year, reflecting their experiences with grandparents and everyday life in their town. As the car drives on, the camera moves to the forest where the river Una gushes down the coloured landscape permeated by ravines and age-old trees. Through suggestive use of image and sound, situating the town within the forest, the film begins to reveal the organic connection between the people and the land which they call home. One particularly powerful image of an old tree amidst the river is depicted in this scene and will become a symbol for the journey on which the director invites us.

The car continues on its course and this time round we are introduced to a man who awaits his destination and does not speak. We simply sit with him in silence. Then the camera entrenches us once again within the landscape but within another part of it, the high grass and the wheat, and we behold an old power plant in the far mist. Back in the car a conversation follows between two older ladies who speak – with great calm but equal urgency – about the nuclear waste that threatens to destroy Dvor and their local activism to protect their environment. We are already sympathetic to their cause as we have witnessed the beauty and diversity of a landscape brimming with life and now share in the horror of its potential destruction. In an unexpected turn, the film opens up the question of environmental protection in the heart of the continent and the beautiful landscape in danger of becoming a nuclear landfill of Europe.

The dramaturgy of the film is dynamic and spontaneous. It continuously changes yet preserves a strong sense of direction. It points out little details yet remains observant of the bigger picture. It asks questions and is keen to find the answers. And what is most refreshing about the film is that its dynamism comes from its poetic logic, moving from the most ordinary and minute to the most critical, and likewise from the vocal and linguistic to the acoustic and aesthetic. A beautiful sequence where these different aspects meet is the song of Banija sung by the folklore troupe of ladies clothed in traditional dress. The rhythm of life – conveyed up to this point quietly through dramaturgy and aesthetics – is shown in all its musicality and joy, revealing the specific sensibility and culture of the people of Banija.

Banija forms the central region of modern-day Croatia populated primarily by Serbs who settled there over four centuries ago on the invitation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Despite occupation and the systematic genocide and ethnic cleansing inflicted upon the people during the twentieth century, the Serbs of Banija constantly returned to live on their land and preserve their way of life, always hoping to live in peaceful cohabitation with their neighbours. Their specific heritage makes the director’s hometown of Dvor a unique blend of cultures, habits, and stories.

The story of the grandfather and the hornet nest is a highlight of the film and perhaps best testifies to the spirit of the people the director aims to share with us. A grandfather sitting in the back of the moving car tells us his childhood experience of being stung by 23 hornets (a doctor later told him that it takes 9 to kill a horse) and the unbelievable process of recovery which resulted in him developing a super immunity and never falling ill again in his life. He is a wonderful example of a real-life hero and reminds us of the real heroes of life, our grandparents, fathers, and mothers, whom we often take for granted but who with their love sustain us and show us every day how the ordinary becomes extraordinary. In her own way Tea Lukač makes the ordinary extraordinary through her film and invites us into an intimate encounter with the people whose roots – like the old tree from the beginning of the film – run deep. In her director’s statement she adds: ‘Our roots may be buried deep down but they are always with us, and even if cut they will outlive us.’

Working in diverse fields from film to video art, Tea Lukač has directed short fiction films, documentaries, music videos and showcased her work at art exhibitions. Her mid-length documentary film Belonging (Pripadnost, Serbia, 2020), which premiered at the Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival, explores the voices, memory and culture of ethnic Germans who have lived in the Serbian province of Vojvodina since the late seventeenth century. Tea’s feature debut film Roots, produced by Andrijana Sofranić Šućur at Nana 143 in co-production with Set Sail Films and which opened at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in 2021, is a masterful achievement and an excellent example of how documentary cinema can convey authentic human experience. In Roots she shows us a people whose sobriety is a wake-up call to the indifferent, whose love is a restorative bridge to the embittered, and whose patient resilience and strength breeds hope and reminds us that anything is possible, even, and perhaps especially, in the most hopeless of circumstances. Thus, Tea Lukač is a bold new voice whose cinema deserves your undivided attention.

Mina Radović

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