Saturday, November 29, 2008

Witnesses (Svjedoci) -- to be or not to be silent

Director: Vinko Bresan, 2003.

If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one around to hear it, does it actually make a sound? This is a common philosophical brain-teaser that may cause some to ponder. Witnesses raises a similar question. But more on that later.

Initially slow but ultimately satisfying, this Croatian film centers around a murder committed in a village on the front-line during the civil war of 1992. Even while the man is being shot, the father of one of the killers lies dead in a casket in the family home, watched over by his widow. When the police arrive the next day, the inspector treats it as a true crime, while most of the neighborhood see it as a war-time annoyance. After all, the victim was a smuggler and a loan shark . . . and a Serb to boot. They think he had it coming. is one complication for the three murderers, all Croatian soldiers: there was a witness in the house of the murdered man -- his young daughter. So they kidnapped her and threw her in a garage, not knowing what to do with her. The key question, then, is what to do with the witness?

Upon this simple premise, Bresnan has crafted a complex film. The key to its success is repetition. He takes us back over the scenes multiple times, each time showing us something new, something unexpected. He introduces new characters, who are related to the plot in ways we don't foresee. In this regard, Witnesses is similar to Vantage Point, a later film. However, where Vantage Point used this plot device effectively to build a taut thriller with plenty of action but little character growth, Witnesses uses it to develop characters. And these are complex characters communicated by an excellent cast of actors not seen in America. chooses his camera angles and cinematography carefully to further add to the narrative. The early parts of the movie are shot in desaturated color giving grainy greens and grays, perhaps emphasizing the presence of the war and its effects on the whole community. The camera both shows and hides things so that the viewer sees but does not see all that there is. the mother calls in the mayor, essentially the small town patriarch, to seek counsel, he offers chilling advice: "That which was not seen was not done . . . No witnesses. None." We are back to the falling tree in the unpopulated forest. If the killers silence the witness, then there was no witness. And if there was no witness, there was no crime. Is it really that simple? Is silence golden?

Committing a crime, especially murder, is a sin. Moses told the Israelites, "You shall not murder" (Exod. 20:13). This law has stood the test of time. It remains in the law books of all democracies. Committing another crime, another murder, does not cause the first to disappear, to vanish. It simply doubles the sin. It is illogical to think otherwise. The criminal mind may think we can sweep such sins and crimes under the carpet and no one will know, especially in a time of war, but God sees all and knows all (Job 34:21-22, Psa. 94:11). Nothing escapes his attention. He will call us to account for such sin. Only through the finished work of Jesus can we find forgiveness, even for the acts no one but God sees (Eph. 1:7).

Another issue raised by Witnesses is that of genocide, but it is the subtext for the main points. Killing of people groups based on ethnicity or religion is wrong. Peaceful coexistence between different ethnic groups is a high and worthy goal that should be pursued as much as possible. But the film does not explore this and so I will leave it for another review. (Although, this film was the recipient of the Peace Film Award at the Berlin International Film Festival.)

A broader question framed by Bresan is, who are witnesses? One of the killers, realizing his predicament, makes the statement, "We are all witnesses" before committing suicide in a violent manner. How are we all witnesses? To what are we all witnesses? In the context of the movie, the soldier seems to be pointing to the war and the atrocities occurring on a daily basis. The town, even the country, knew what was going on. They were all witnesses. They were the other trees in the forest. Yet none was speaking out, none was coming forth. Their voices were silent. Are we witnesses of crimes, of social injustices? Are we willing to speak out to see justice served? Or are we silent, and in our silence pretending that no injustice, no sin, no crime was done?

Finally, for those of who follow Jesus he has charged us to be his witnesses, to the ends of the world (Acts 1:8). In this sense, too, we are all witnesses. So, are we speaking out for Christ? Are we giving a witness to those around us, in our words and in our deeds? Or are we acting like these soldiers, doing what the mayor suggested, and staying silent? If we are doing so, we silence the voice of Jesus. Witnesses reminds us that we can choose to remain silent, fearful, and act as though nothing has happened between us and Jesus. Or we can be a witness for Jesus, giving voice for him who paid for our sins and those of the world on the tree. What kind of witness will you be?

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

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