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Otac na Sluzbenom Putu


(When Father Was Away on Business)

Yugoslavia, 1985

Director: Emir Kusturica

Production: Forum/Sarajevo Film; colour, 35mm; running time: 136 minutes. Filmed in Sarajevo.

Producer: Mirza Pasic; screenplay: Abdulah Sidran; photography: Vilko Filac; editor: Andrija Zafranovic; assistant director: Zlatko Lavanic, Miroslav Mandic, Mirsad Hajdar, Zikrija Pasic, and Pero Buric; art director: Pedrag Lukovac; music: Zoran Simjanovic; sound recording: Ljubomir Petek and Hasan Vejzagic; costumes: Divna Jovanovic.

Cast: Manolo de Bartoli (Malik); Miki Manojlovic (Mesac); Mirjana Karanovic (Senija); Mustafa Nadarevic (Zijo); Mira Furlan (Anikca); Predrag Lakovic (Franjo); Pavle Vusijic (Muzafer); Slobodan Aligrudic (Cekic); Eva Ras (Zivka); Aleksandar Dorcev (Dr. Ljahov); Davor Dujmovic (Mirza); Amer Kapetanovic (Joza).

Awards: Palme d'Or, Cannes Film Festival, 1985.



Bouineau, Jean-Marc, Mala knjiga o Emiru Kusturici, Beograd, 1995.

Bertellini, Giorgio, Emir Kusturica, Milan, 1996.


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Derobert, E., "L'enfance et l'histoire," in Positif (Paris), October 1985.

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* * *

When Father Was Away on Business achieved international success for the Yugoslav director Emir Kusturica. The story is set in the director's native Sarajevo in 1950, when Yugoslavia under Marshal Tito was beginning to distance itself from Stalin's clutches. The political and social changes of the period are seen through the eyes of six-year-old Malik (Manolo de Bartoli) who only wants to play football. Like films made in the Soviet Union or East Germany, the film may also be viewed as a historical document of a society that ceased to exist only a few years ago.

By using a child's eye view, Kusturica attempts to satirize the actions of corrupt bureaucrats in the name of the state. This is the central theme of the story, which tells of Malik's father, Mesac (Miki Manojlovic), sentenced to three years exile, apparently for the political crime of speaking out against a cartoon that attacked the Soviet leader, once an ally of Yugoslavia. (In the sardonic title of the film, "away on business" is the euphemism used in the former Yugoslavia for such political prisoners.) However, through Malik we see that members of his family and respected members of the community are not what they seem. Malik's father is a civil servant who uses his power to harass women until he is finally betrayed to the secret police by his former mistress Anikca (Mira Furlan), the local gym teacher; and the secret police are led by Malik's uncle Zijo, who wants Anikca for himself. The audience is invited to have much less sympathy for these characters than for Malik's mother Senija (Mirjana Karanovic), who, like many peasant women, has tolerated the infidelities of her husband but who eventually finds independence and alters her relationship with her husband. Her development mirrors the changes in the role of women in modern Yugoslavia, and the director does not fail to show us, through Malik's voice-over narrative, the antagonism between traditional peasant culture and that imposed by the modern state, in poignant scenes of circumcision and the rebuff of the state's persecution of those who follow the Orthodox Church.

Despite the suffering and betrayals within the family, a traditional wedding celebration is held for Senija's younger brother. The costumes and folk music of this event provide a memorable counterpoint to the accumulating misery and distrust among the members of the family. The young Malik accidentally sees his father violently raping Anikca in revenge for her betrayal and her attempted suicide, but once again finds his escape from brutal reality in playing with his football. Kusturica uses live football commentaries as background sounds throughout the film, presumably to reinforce the point that football is one way to escape from the lunacy of everyday life. The wedding scene can perhaps be seen as a metaphor for the political situation in Yugoslavia under Tito, which had already become past history by the time the film was made: it was a society which appeared to outsiders to be efficiently held together but which was in fact bursting at the seams with nationalistic hatred.

While this film fits within the familiar genre of the rite of passage, in which a young person acquires wisdom by observing the antics of his elders, Kusturica goes beyond the narrow concern for personal development that the genre is usually characterised by, to use the innocent child's perception in the service of a more ambitious and farreaching exploration of the darker side of human beings, whether in their personal relationships or in their political systems. The fact that even in 1985 Kusturica could not openly criticise the regime, but had to use the story of Malik's family to make his points more covertly, in itself reinforces his criticisms. Even so the film ultimately stands or falls on the credibility of the central narrative: if the personal details were implausible the social criticism would be much less effective. It was Kusturica's good fortune, or good taste, that he managed to assemble an outstanding cast, from the extraordinary Manolo de Bartoli to the numerous extras, and to make use of locations which, only a decade after the film was completed, have been altered beyond recognition by the horrific civil war which the film can now be seen to have foreshadowed. As the society which the film convincingly portrays recedes further into the past, so its performances and locations, its evocation of childhood and its cool, detached view of human folly stand out all the more clearly as elements in a film that should not be seen merely as a record of a specific time and place. When Father was Away on Business is the story of Malik and his family; it is a slice of the life of Sarajevo in a period now gone forever; but it is also a thought provoking study of innocence and corruption, appearances and reality, themes which have resonance in every society.

—Monique Lamontagne

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