Review: Looking for Horses (2021)

courtesy of IDFA

The least the film hiding behind the title Looking for Horses is, are horses themselves who appear first as a spiritual presence before showing up physically in the end. On the other hand, the feature-length documentary debut by the Bosnian-Dutch filmmaker Stefan Pavlović is about looking for and searching. The expedition is rarely physical, it stays in the realm of mental and metaphorical and involves an unlikely friendship.

Looking for Horses premiered at Visions du Réel, where it triumphed in Burning Lights competition. After that, it went on the festival tour with the stops at FID Marseille, Sarajevo Film Festival, Beldocs, DOK Leipzig, IDFA and Human Rights Film Festival in Zagreb.

Pavlović opens his film with a written essay about his trip to his parents’ homeland and his intention to visit his grandmother who lives in a small village in Herzegovina. He gets distracted on the way by the landscape consisting of a small lake, an island in it and the church on it, and the folklore-sounding tale of a man who lives there (or at least has lived there previously). The man, a fisherman named Zdravko who looks much older than he actually is, does not live there any more, but he remained in the vicinity.

Zdravko becomes the protagonist of the story. He suffered a severe hearing loss during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina that started when he was a young man. His other handicap is that he also lost his eye in the accident with battery acid. On top of that, he suffers from the PTSD of all the things he witnessed and did during the war, so he chooses to live away from people and from “the civilization”. On the other hand, Stefan himself as the other character in this two-hander also has a couple of handicaps of his own. One of them is the loss of his native language, the other is stuttering, and both of them can be traced to his childhood in Canada.

Starting slowly, with the hint of trust issues and with considerable barriers in communication, the two men form a unique kind of friendship, based on mutual understanding for each other and each other’s motives that goes to the direction of the mutual healing. What starts as a series of genre scenes (fishing, explaining the phrases, repeating the “tongue twisters” in Bosnian language), occasionally getting interrupted with the experimental passages with Pavlović’s own narration and the editing techniques that mimic his stuttering, finally completes the circle and becomes an impressive documentary.

Key thing for Looking for Horses are its subtle imperfections that found their way into the film: some hasty camera movements, some shots from way too close-up, the loss of focus. The reason for that is that Pavlović does most of the work by himself, relying only on Sabine Groenewegen to help him with the editing, Ranko Pauković in the sound design department and Daniel Donato for colour correction and grading, which was probably the only way the film like this can be done. Looking for Horses bursts with honesty and sincerity.

Runtime: 87’
Countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina, The Netherlands, France
Languages: Bosnian, English
Directed by: Stefan Pavlović
Written by: Stefan Pavlović
Cinematography by: Stefan Pavlović
Editing by: Stefan Pavlović, Sabine Groenewegen
Sound design by: Ranko Pauković
Sound recording by: Stefan Pavlović
Colourist: Daniel Donato
Produced by: Koštana Banović
Production companies: artTrace, Kamen Artist Residency, Momento Films
Sales by: Lightdox