Sarajevo 2022 review: Another Spring (Mladen Kovačević)

“The choice to use archive material coupled with retrospective narration for depicting the evolution of an epidemic – an ambivalent process by its nature – is truly inspired.”

Mladen Kovačević’s Another Spring is in two ways a pandemic project. As it consisted mainly of editing found footage, it was a promising plan B when the director’s initial plans for a sprawling film shoot were complicated by the COVID outbreak. The more salient connection, however, is that it handles another viral outbreak, one from fifty years ago: the smallpox epidemic of 1972 in Yugoslavia. In good time, too – the looming threat of super spreaders is close to home in 2022 and Soderbergh’s Contagion became, over the past two years, our landmark for the most thrilling thriller of the contemporary era. Similarly to Contagion, Another Spring’s subject matter brings with it a lot of suspense; moreover, the exact type of suspense you would expect in a biopic: you know how it ended if you know what it’s about, but while it unfolds the plot twists (the misdiagnosed ‘allergy to treatment’, the speedy vaccination campaign) keep you at the edge of the seat. Further, unlike Sars-COV2 and whatever was silently killing people in Contagion, the smallpox symptoms are audiovisually pretty jarring.

The events recalled by the repurposed news footage start around pilgrim Ibrahim Hoti’s visit to a Baghdad bazaar, unwittingly contracting the variola vera (smallpox) that Iraq authorities hadn’t publicly acknowledged to be present on their grounds. The plotline proceeds further alertly, with the infection chain and subsequent epidemiological investigations, the public announcement that Kosovo and later Belgrade harbor the infection – one that for many decades seemed to have completely disappeared – plus a quasi movie-montage sequence of a variety of individuals getting the vaccine. It all culminates with the success story we need right now, the eradication of a painful and deadly viral disease by coordinated human effort. The narration is provided through the colloquial and savvy voice of Dr. Zoran Radovanović, a young epidemiologist at the time of the outbreak. A few years ago Radovanović published a volume, Variola Vera (Heliks, 2017), which the director acknowledges is the basis of his film project, and in our current context collaborating with Radovanović for a film even has a political dimension, as the expert has often been vocal against Serbian authorities’ measures against the pandemic.

The main source (and co-producer) for the film’s archive footage was RTS, Serbia’s public broadcaster, along with the Kosovo TV archive and the military-affiliated Zastava film. This may to a certain extent shape the narrative, for instance in leaving the Iraq epidemic as a distant, separate event, barely brought up later before declaring the global eradication of a once-deadly disease. While the (mostly) black & white footage is largely used to illustrate the voice-over, due to the fact that it is slowed down and accompanied by vintage-sounding electronic music (by Jakov Munižaba), Kovačević’s collage develops a poetry of its own. (Other filmmakers working with found footage, among them Yervant Gianikian & Angela Ricci Lucchi and Bill Morrison, choose to slow down the original material for pragmatic and aesthetic reasons – slow motion equalizes various sources that the filmmakers may have compiled and it looks like it is out to haunt you).

The story is not linear, at least not predictably so: after a leap in curbing the epidemic through amassing vaccines in Yugoslavia and optimizing the vaccination procedure for speed, the virus emerges elsewhere in the world and finally, in an odd lab leak, makes a fresh victim in the UK. And yet, despite the atrociousness of the patients’ experiences, at least with many decades’ distance, seeing these speech fragments of experts and officials who work together to the benefit of the population is reassuring, giving off an unquestionable appeal. Vaccination of pregnant women and infants? Normally risky, but demonstrably better than the other scenario. Insufficient vaccines? WHO and other countries help.

The choice to use archive material coupled with retrospective narration to depict the evolution of an epidemic – an ambivalent process by its nature – is truly inspired. It seems to afford viewers the best of both worlds: an unfolding and palpable present in which the disease progressed case by case, contact by contact, and through a different angle a temporally removed moment of recollection in which the danger is safely behind us and humanity turned out victorious.