original title: Sestre
year of production: 2020
country of production: Slovenia
director: Katarina Rešek Kukla
director of photography: Peter Perunović
editing: Lukas Miheljak
sound: Boštjan Kačičnik
music: Katarina Rešek Kukla
cast: Mina Milovanović, Mia Skrbinac, Sarah Al Saleh, Tin Troha, Mihajlo Džambazovski
festivals: Clermont-Ferrand Short Film Festival 2021, Grimstad Norwegian Short Film Festival 2021
The Balkans are a peculiar region. Situated somewhere between the progressive Europe and the traditional/conservative — to the point of fundamentalism — Middle East, people from the area always exhibited an identity crisis due to being perpetually "in the middle" of these two worlds. Katarina Kukla explores an aspect of this problem by focusing on the issues women who want to break free from the chains of patriarchy experience in present-day Slovenia — a setting that the director herself describes as post-patriarchal.
The story revolves around three modern-day "virđinas” (sworn virgins, tomboyish young women) Sina, Mihrije and Jasna, all children of immigrants from Ex-Yugoslavia. They are living in a small traditional city in Slovenia, though their lifestyle is nothing like it: they wear baggy clothes, tape their breasts to hide their femininity, train in kickboxing and get regurarily into fistfights with men, particularly those who seem eager to offend them for being so different. Above all, they live by their own "ten commandments": rules that set them completely apart from what is considered “normal” in the region for women their age. The sum of both their mentality and overall behaviour results from following these rather intense guidelines, all of which are, essentially, a reaction to the norms of the society they inhabit.
Their lives are not easy. They have no other friends and are not involved in romantic relationships, ultimately spending all their time together. The only one with a real job is Jasna, who works the bar at a club she hates. The trio seems to get no support from their parents, who do not play any part in their lives. However, the three girls do not allow other people to feel sorry for them, nor do they feel sorry for themselves — they are not victims of their circumstances, everything they do is by deliberate choice.
The ten self-imposed commandments function as the embodiment of their resolve to escape all rules both the patriarchy and the small town’s mindset dictates — their attitude being a direct counter-action to both. When they witness a man beating a woman (who appears to be his girlfriend) in the middle of the street, the trio looks at it as a blueprint for all romantic relationships: never a choice — which woman would be with a man who beats her in the middle of the street? — but a sheer construct enforced by a society that expects all women to find and marry a man, even if he acts violently. A bit later in the film, the three of them are watching a baby rocking in a cradle. The scene highlights their thoughts on motherhood. Sina departs almost immediately, Jasna lingers for a bit before she goes as well, and Mihrije stays for quite a while then ultimately leaves too. None of them exhibit the usual adoration for babies that everyone expects from women. For them, motherhood is the continuation of the aforementioned type of romantic relationships, and, thus, not an option.
Considering that their attitude marginalizes them, the protagonists are forced to become warriors in order to survive. They train in kickboxing every day and take good care of their body, avoiding alcohol and doing hard drugs, a stance that alienates them from their peers even more, since in the Balkans it is common for both young and old people to drink a lot, and drugs (though illegal for the most part) are quite easy to find.
‘Sisters' is a polemical film. Katarina Kukla clearly holds a grudge against the patriarchy (and the ways it limits women) as well as the mentality of the small town (which does not allow any effort for change) and men (who are presented in the film as the main source of all the issues faced by the titular sisters). The three girls embody this line of thinking, though the group’s leader Sina is more intently set on their “war against the world”, frequently pulling the other two with her in actual fights against men. Kukla’s implemented polemic approach is mirrored directly in Sina’s behaviour.
In a rather realistic and disillusioned twist, the fact that all of them are willing to fight does not mean they always win. On the contrary, they get frequently beaten and experience all sorts of demeaning behavior. What makes them winners, however, is that they keep fighting, no matter how many times they lose. Kukla also makes evident that a helping hand is always welcome, as the scene with the basketball game illustrates. If not for a “deus ex machina”, that confrontation could have ended in a true tragedy. The scene introduces an ally, finally: Fantasy, a trans woman living in the neighborhood. Though particularly brief, her presence in the film is quite significant, as it strengthens the representation of women. It proves that the protagonists are not alone in their quest, even though they might feel that way. The grateful smiles on their faces upon their meeting with Fantasy speaks volumes.
Due to the limited runtime, some rules of said commandments are less analysed (or at all) and seem to be there simply to round up the number (rules five (There is no God) and six (Fuck, them) for instance are barely touched upon) — one of the only flaws of the film.
Peter Paunovic's camera realistically captures the small Balkan city in mostly grey tones, which are intensified by the almost always cloudy sky. That the sun is only shining when the three girls are alone emphasizes the general idea of the film: their relationship being the sole source of light in an otherwise rather dark environment. Katarina Kukla’s background in directing music videos is visible in a number of scenes with intense colors (mostly red hues, neon lighting) and rather frantic editing, both approaches humming on the aesthetics of the medium. The loud Balkan soundtrack (composed by Kukla herself) highlights the “in the middle”-position mentioned in the beginning of this text, through combining both electronic and oriental influences.
Compared to the rest of the visual form, these segments might seem out of context, but do provide a much needed relief from the permeating bleakness. Editor Lukas Miheljak does a great job in including these sequences within the narrative, while the change of pace (faster when violence increases, slower when calm settles back) adds to the short’s entertainment level. The sole glitch in the editing appears during the aforementioned basketball game, where the points the girls score are too obviously edited.
‘Sisters’, which won Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival's Grand Prix, quite eloquently highlights Kukla’s grudge against the patriarchal, male-dominated societies — rightfully so. The need to change the rules that support this overall mentality that trivializes women (recognizing them solely through their roles on the side of men as girlfriends, wives, mothers to their sons) is emitted from every action and word of her heroines, and in every frame of her mostly bleak and pessimistic film. Change, so the director states, will only come through sacrifice (of romantic love, of motherhood, of peace and quiet) and through constant fighting. Simultaneously she also offers a bright ray of hope, stating that finding people who are willing to follow the same path can ease the burden of self-sacrifice significantly, with the relationship of the three girls ultimately celebrating sisterhood and female friendship.Panos Kotzathanasis