Review: I Pledge… (2020)

screenshot from the film

Military service was compulsory in the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and every young man between 19-27 years of age had to spend 12 months in the army, mostly doing nonsensical tasks, obeying the commanding officers and being indoctrinated. It was bothersome, but generally safe thing to do until the early 90s when the civil war split the country into several new sovereign states. One unwilling recruit’s personal journey from peace to war and back again is documented in the remarkable documentary I Pledge… directed by Milutin Petrović and Nikola Dragović that premiered in the national competition of Beldocs.

We meet our hero Igor Dikić as a regular young Belgrade urbanite ready to depart to serve his country in the signal corps in barracks located in Varaždin, now Croatia. The atmosphere in Igor’s parents’ apartment is festive and slightly drunken, as cought on the home video recorded by Igor’s uncle Predrag “Bata” Milošević. It is December of 1990 and nobody suspects that the war is just six months away, although Petrović and Dragović cross-cut the home footage with the excerpts from the television news from that period.

The next day, Igor boards the train and gets settled in the barracks. A month or so later, after the period of training focused on parade marching, he takes the titular pledge on a big ceremony, also recorded by Milošević. Six months from that point in time, Igor has to witness the unsavory things happening in Slovenia from his position in the communication centre, and three months after that he is forced to see some action himself guarding the important, secretive object on the nearby mountain Ivanščica when the war breaks out in Croatia.

The other part of home footage is filmed at the beginning of 1992 when Igor is being interviewed by Bata. He is re-telling his experiences from the position of a man wanting no harm, but being put in a position that could lead him to kill somebody or to get killed. His experiences left him with the trauma that is hard to describe.

Other film material consists of newly filmed footage of Igor, now a middle-aged man, reflecting on the half-forgotten videos while re-visiting the places of action from over 25 years ago. The crew follows him to Varaždin, Ivanščica and Brčko, Bosnia and Hezegovina, where the only officer from that period he respected now resides. A famous Croatian politician from Varaždin, then in charge for the negotiations between the Yugoslav army and the Croatian troops, is interviewed to provide context from the other side of the conflict, and complete with Igor’s mother’s and Bata’s testimonies, we get the whole picture.

Petrović and Dragović also manage to incorporate the archival material, the “educational”, actually propaganda footage from Zastava Film (the production company owned by Yugoslav army) that is used to show the painful, absurdist irony of the whole situation, while the tragic feeling is amplified with slow tracking shots over the memorabilia from the Yugoslav times left to rot among the fallen leaves, accompanied by slightly on-the-nose musical score by the film’s sound designer Dobrica Višnjić.

Milutin Petrović, best known for his micro-budget feature fiction debut Land of Truth, Love and Freedom (2000), has since developed his interest in found footage and home movies he uses to make his effective collages, as he demonstrated in The Loop (2015). Aided with his co-director and editor Nikola Dragović, he puts his skills in motion for I Pledge… and the end result is simply magnificent. While the strictly Yugoslav context and the system of obscure references that the directing duo uses abundantly might prove a tough nut to crack for the international audience (the regional would do just fine), the personal side of the story of the unwilling soldier betrayed by his officers and his country and left to be killed for a “higher cause” is quite universal. I Pledge… is a potent anti-war statement and an exceptional documentary.

courtesy of Beldocs

Original title: Zaklinjem se…
Year: 2020
Runtime: 86’
Country: Serbia
Languages: Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian
Directed by: Milutin Petrović, Nikola Dragović
Written by: Milutin Petrović, Predrag Milošević
With: Igor Dikić, Predrag Milošević, Faruk Brodić, Milanka Dikić, Radimir Čačić
Cinematography by: Predrag Bambić, Predrag Milošević (personal archive)
Editing by: Nikola Dragović
Music by: Dobrica Višnjić
Sound design by: Dobrica Višnjić
Graphic design by: Maja Dušić
Production company: Montage Film & Video
Supported by: Film Centre of Serbia (FCS)