Don’t you hate preachy movies? Hey, film makers–it’s ok to give us some background, but don’t insult our intelligence by carefully spelling out the moral of the story. The best movies spin a good yarn and trust the audience to draw its own conclusions.
Happily, The Cordon, an under-appreciated gem at this year’s Philadelphia Film Festival, does just that. Set in Belgrade, the film is about a Serbian police squad and their attempts to quell the 1997 anti-Milosevic protests.
The Cordon builds a story around violence and underscores the injustice of the events by juxtaposing them with scenes from everyday life. Shots of young protestors running from the clubs of policeman are followed by scenes of couples out for an evening stroll or a man walking his dog. Nighttime riots give way to morning school busses. And birds sing obliviously throughout the whole thing.
The most effective device of the film is its focus on a single police unit. Viewers get enough background on each squad member to see him as a person rather than a faceless, evil entity. The captain of the squad is a single father who discovers that his daughter and her boyfriend are “jerks” (i.e., protesters); another man is harassed by his wife about a fertility clinic appointment; yet another is a farmer who resents life in the big city.
The squad isn’t unlike a typical group of working drones. They work long hours, riding around day and night in a run-down bus with bars on the window and taking orders from a faceless boss who barks orders over the radio. It’s apparent that most of the men are there for the money. Yet just when you’re lulled into sympathizing with their plight, they commit another atrocity.
Don’t misunderstand–The Cordon shows a violent, corrupt, and brainwashed police force. But by portraying the bad guys as human beings and contrasting their brutality with scenes from “normal” life (the best scene is at the end, when the tired and divided squad rides back to their precinct early in the morning; through the bars in the bus windows, viewers can see the sun rising and people going to work), the film allows the audience to process the events on a personal level, which emphasizes the atrocities in a way that a straight-up documentary would be hard-pressed to do.
The Cordon wasn’t well-attended in Philadelphia, but it won the Grand prix des Amériques at the 2003 Montreal World Film Festival. If it comes to your neck of the woods, check it out.