Sarajevo 2023 review: Excursion (Una Gunjak)

Excursion announces Gunjak as a remarkable new talent in global cinema.”

One of the more disconcerting experiences during adolescence is the tendency for rumours to be spread – whether small but nonetheless cruel jokes or something more sinister, they can fester and derail a young person’s entire life to the point where they lose whatever sense of confidence they had to begin with. In her feature-length debut Excursion (Ekskurzija) Una Gunjak explores what happens when one of these rumours is started by a teenager about herself, putting her in the odd position of both victim and perpetrator of this immature but widespread practice, in an attempt to portray herself as more experienced than she really is. It leads to a series of events involving a wide range of other characters, all of whom have strong opinions about a small lie that eventually flourishes into something much more uncomfortable. A simple but effective story about the perils of the teenage years, seen from the perspective of an insecure young woman and a few other people within her orbit, Excursion is a fascinating film with a strong message. It is dedicated to a particular set of ideas, which it explores with vigour and the right amount of intensity to deliver a profound statement without coming across as heavy-handed despite the difficult subject matter.

Films about growing up seem to be a dime a dozen, and they are often quite successful because navigating the teenage years is a near-universal experience that we all can relate to in some way. The characters in Excursion occupy that awkward space between adolescence and adulthood – they are old enough to know the consequences of their actions and possess a faux sense of world-weariness that makes them believe that they have experience in life, but are still far too naïve to have their opinion on anything bear much weight. Gunjak seems to be fascinated by this concept, since the most compelling parts of the film (as well as the most emotional) are the conversations between these younger characters. Iman is a young woman trying desperately to find her identity – her peers all seem to have a more solid understanding of who they are, but she is at a loss, which results in the impulse to fabricate a story in the hopes of winning their respect. What it actually does is set off a chain of events that causes a minor scandal amongst her peers and their parents. Excursion explores some very difficult subject matter, but it does so with a lot of attention to detail, utilizing the principles of social realism to prevent it from falling too deep into the realm of overwrought melodrama. This results in an invigorating and captivating experience that gives us truly extraordinary insights into these broad concepts.

The aspect of Excursion that keeps us most engaged comes in how the main character is developed – writing teenagers can be difficult, since there is a tendency to either make them overly naïve, or far too precocious to be realistic. Gunjak had quite the task ahead of her when constructing the fundamental details of Iman, especially since she is the character through whom the entire story is threaded, meaning that the audience needs to be entirely convinced that her emotions are genuine. Credit must go to both Gunjak for conceiving of a story with such an intriguing character at its core, as well as Asja Zara Lagumdzija, who turns in an incredible performance. She takes on the role with an earnest, authentic approach, which is uncommon for younger actors who rarely show such an astonishing control of character development. The film is anchored on her performance, as well as featuring a strong supporting cast, all of whom work together in tandem to create this fascinating character-driven drama in which we see how different people react to what is essentially nothing more than an innocuous rumour intended to give a young woman a sense of belonging. In reality it somehow makes her even more of an outsider, especially amongst those whose opinion truly matters. It’s a deeply moving story of an adolescent searching for her identity, but finding herself profoundly lost in the process.

Excursion is a film that presents us with a very simple concept, but in the process reveals itself to be much more complex than it first appeared. This is one of the more interesting components of the film, which may initially seem like a conventional coming-of-age drama, yet finds new ways to present these ideas that feel both personal and universal, which is the sign of a truly remarkable story, especially one focused on a subject like the process of growing up. The success of the film lies in the dual focus, with the director examining both the broad aspects of such a story and the smaller, more intricate details that populate the lives of young people as they navigate the various challenges that emerge as they approach adulthood. This allows for an insightful, engaging series of conversations around identity, the journey towards maturity and the perpetual internal battle with feelings of isolation that are often found in young people growing up. Excursion announces Gunjak as a remarkable new talent in global cinema. The film proves to be a deeply moving exploration of the experiences that come when someone finally has to take the leap away from childhood, bringing unexpected challenges to which many of us can relate in one way or another.