Horror Films and the Politics of Torture Porn: "Do Not See" A Serbian Film

What happens when someone tells you that they have seen a film so transgressive, so unspeakable, and so awful, that you must never ever see it? The answer is probably quite obvious that your morbid curiosity gets the best of you and you check it out anyway. Isn’t that our human nature after all? And isn’t that what many filmmakers trade on, especially those engaged in the growing genre of “pseudo-snuff” and “gore-nography” horror movies (think the Saw and Hostel film franchises)  where the imperative seems to be to push the bar of explicit and shocking material to continually arouse and stimulate viewers. This was the dilemma and ensuing debate raised a few weeks ago in my Film Studies class when a student first asked me if I had seen A Serbian Film.

I had in fact heard about it— not so much about the content of the film itself, but more so about its context, as a Serbian film project which had worked in opposition and reaction to the contemporary state of Central and Eastern European filmmaking. All I really knew was that the film was touring the indie circuit and had been printed in Hungary after Germans had refused to touch it. Interestingly enough, the film had also hit my radar when I was researching material related to Marina Abramovic (a Serbian and controversial artist in her own right) and ran across forums where people were trying to make meaningful connections and raise debate about what potential remained to create a subversive form of art to raise consciousness about the troubled state of Europe, especially in the regions so scarred by the aftermath of Soviet occupation.  

Pasolini's Salo is among
the most  controversial films ever made
Going home and Googling the film, I read over the Wikipedia entry for the detailed and highly explicit and disturbing plot summary (something I had also been warned about, and so I am warning you as well) and quickly realized that this was one of those films that would generate the controversy of Pasolini’s Salo (1975) or more recently Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009). At its simplest level, the film’s plot is highly conceptual and concerns an aging porn star who agrees to participate in an "art film" in order to make a clean break from the pornography business, only to discover that he has been drafted into making the most unspeakable and horrific film of his entire career. 

Lars von Trier's Antichrist has been the focus of
recent debate concerning the growing trend of torture-porn in film

Reading up on the film director Srdjan Spasojevic, it is clear that the political subtext of the film is aimed squarely at the current state of affairs in Serbia (it is quite literally "A Serbian Film") and speaks to the problematic nature of fully re-presenting the terror and trauma of inter-generational memory in the country. In this sense, the film’s exploration of the most dehumanizing and unspeakable acts of transgression and perversion is meant to give some shape and embodied expression to those feelings.  As Spasojevic explains in a recent interview for Bloody Disgusting:  "We’ve been living in Serbia our whole lives and we’ve experienced the last 20 years, which have been tumultuous. They were really depressing and frightening. It’s the political stuff and everything else that comes to the forefront, but it’s also our own experiences with everything that’s happened and the emotions that start to develop from living in an environment where anything can happen at any time. It’s like something that has been concentrating for a long time and it’s been storing up for a long time.” As a horror movie that deliberately engages with only the illusion of violence and torture, A Serbian Film seems to provoke questions about the process and limits of the desensitized viewer while simultaneously inflicting a form of trauma and terror on its audience.

Children are often encouraged to draw unspeakable acts of war
(such as this Serbian child's drawing of the Kosovo War)
as part of  an art therapy to deal with traumatic memories.
The response, especially from Serbian audiences (the student who brought this film to my attention among them) has been especially divided. Many fear that a film like this will only continue to perpetuate stereotypes of violence and war-mongering that has marred the global perception of Serbia, while others welcome the chance to directly confront the national shame and fear that has gripped the country since the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the Kosovo War of the late 1990’s. It is with this latter opinion that the question of irony and reading the film’s gesture as “art” falls under some scrutiny. Unlike Abramovic, who had also explored the horrors of a Serbian past in film, this movie is not billed as an “art film” and is unlikely to be shown in any gallery setting. For this reason alone, I question how and to what end a film like this will be viewed and discussed in the future, especially beyond the indie film circuit.

The shock value of A Serbian Film appears to be its main selling feature,
not the underlying political subtext
I debated all week whether or not to blog about this film, to give it any more attention or “legs” as it were—I wasn’t even sure up until my last film studies lecture if I would reveal the title of the film to students, a movie that could so disturb and essentially terrorize the original student who had brought it to my attention.  In the end, I decided that the debate raised around this kind of filmmaking and what it signals for our contemporary moment and the state of the filmmaking industry, the question of its status as “art”, and the visual worlds  filmmakers build and situate their audiences within,  were all compelling enough reasons to speak its name. Researching reviews of the film over the past week, I have been impressed with the high level of thoughtful reflection and reaction to A Serbian Movie—especially the review and comments posted on Pajiba.com and those I ran across on one San Francisco bloggers reaction to the film. No doubt there is a micro-thin line to be drawn here between art and pornography.  As for me, I know I will not see this film—for many personal and philosophical reasons—and I hope that you consider carefully before you make your decision. I am very much of the mind that it is impossible to “un-see” visual images of horror and sexual violence, however simulated, after being exposed to them. There are some worlds perhaps better left to literature and non-visual representation.

Interview with the producer and director of A Serbian Film, April 2010 at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas: