Though we invaded Iraq for the first time when I was a senior in high school, it was really the conflicts, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes in the early ’90s after the breakdown of Yugoslavia at the end of the Cold War that woke me up to the larger world. It sounds ridiculous to say, but for my generation, it seemed, perhaps a just war. The beautiful European city of Sarajevo was under siege. When uber-intellectual Susan Sontag went there to direct “Waiting For Godot” in 1993, she said that people were really waiting for Clinton to come and intervene. Journalist Christiane Amanpour used CNN to bring the atrocities the Serbs committed in the Balkans into American living rooms.
I couldn’t watch Anri Sala’s film “1395 Days Without Red,” at the Baltimore Museum of Art through Feb. 22, without thinking about all of this. The film is set in the mid-’90s—during which snipers shot pedestrians as they walked through the city, especially on the main drag, Ulica Zmaja od Bosne, which became known as “Sniper Alley”—and follows Spanish actress Maribel Verdú (who resembles both Sontag and Amanpour) as she walks across town, hanging close to buildings when possible and then standing in lines with others at intersections as they wait to dash across the vulnerable streets one by one in dark colors, so they’re not an easy target.
Sala’s film acts as a painterly study of Verdú’s face as she crosses Sarajevo. And she seems the perfect subject, creating tremendous depth of feeling with subtle facial shifts as her largely silent features express the fear, uncertainty, relief, and even a bit of exhilarated joy that come from possibly dying at any moment. The footage of Verdú’s walk, which is simultaneously mundane and horrifying, is woven with that of the Sarajevan orchestra rehearsing Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony (“The Pathétique”). We see the Sarajevan symphony orchestra rehearse and hear their songs as a sort of counterpoint to Verdú’s trajectory across the city, punctuated as it is by the same kind of stops and rhythmic pacing as Tchaikovsky’s symphony.
In his essay “Vermeer in Bosnia,” the writer Lawrence Weschler makes a connection between the conflicts in Sarajevo after the collapse of Yugoslavia with the paintings of Vermeer. The connection at first seems far-fetched. Vermeer is widely known as the master of calm scenes, whereas Sarajevo was shorthand for siege, ethnic cleansing, and warfare. “When Vermeer was painting those images, which for us have become the very emblem of peacefulness and serenity, all Europe was Bosnia . . . awash in incredibly vicious wars of religious persecution and proto-nationalist formation.” Like that of Vermeer’s ‘The Girl With a Pearl Earring,’ Verdú’s face is a manifestation of what peace within war may look like. Through Sala’s eyes we see in Verdú, all the intensity of living under bombardment, so that, as Weschler says of Vermeer, Sala “can be seen, amid the horrors of his age, to have been asserting or inventing the very idea of peace.”
The way this painterly aspect of the film collides with its more obvious musical element is mesmerizing. As Verdú walks, she occasionally hums the Tchaikovsky movement. Eventually—especially after a long and exhausting sprint across a long intersection—her steps and her breaths have become a part of the song. As her movements became rhythm I started to notice something. The film’s title refers to the length of the siege and the wall text outside of the BMA’s Black Box screening room explains the context—and that the music is Tchaikovsky—but nothing in the film itself explains the circumstances. If one watched the film outside of this context, it would feel more like Andrei Tarkovky’s “Stalker,” where the stalker has to follow a strange logic of starting, stopping, waiting, and running in an otherwise ordinary-looking landscape, suffused with an unknown source of danger. Outside of history, the rhythms of Verdú’s walk follow a disjointed, unintelligible logic. Why do the people stand there and wait as long as they do? Why do they run when they run? Why does the one old man walk, a middle-aged woman sprint? Nothing in the city is driven by its own internal logic, but by some malicious virus that has infected it.
And that seems to be part of the point. War is absurd. It changes our rhythms and our patterns and our thoughts. But here is also where the film performs a sort of switch. Just as we see Sarajevo through our own cultural lenses, when we walk out of the BMA and back onto the street, the city that Sala has conjured has occupied our own city, superimposing itself over it in a temporo-spatial palimpsest, so that each of the intersections felt as if under the shadow of their horrendous and terrifying Sarajevan doubles. And the news, the next day, that the shooting of three Muslims in Chapel Hill might have occurred as much because of a parking dispute as because of ethnic or religious differences made me think again of “1395 Days Without Red” and how fragile what we call civilization really is.
Anri Sala will speak with art historian Michael Fried at the Baltimore Museum of Art on Saturday, Feb. 21, at 2 p.m.