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‘Through the Graves the Wind is Blowing’ Review: Playful Essay Doc

The city of Split has long been a tourist magnet, famous for the churches and flagstones of its picturesque Old Town, and for the beauty of the rocky, sparkling Croatian coastline. But not all visitors come for the culture. Some seek the trashier pleasures of rowdy bars and cheap drinks, and all they know of the area’s history is that the spectacular medieval fortress clinging to a nearby cliffside was a “Game of Thrones” location. 

Split is also where US filmmaker Travis Wilkerson (“Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?”) recently lived for a stretch, having resolved — and then failing — to make a movie about the dissolution of Yugoslavia. This he tells us on camera, at the beginning of “Through the Graves the Wind is Blowing,” the film he made instead of that one, and it’s an admission of compromise that somehow never compromises the integrity of what follows: a witty, dismayed, eccentric and fascinating outsider’s-eye tribute to a deeply split Split. 

Wilkerson starts by introducing local homicide detective Ivan Peric, a character who could have walked straight out of a deconstructed neo-noir: a hangdog Sam Spade as written by Paul Auster channeling Franz Kafka. Peric, who only joined the force to avoid working in tourism, is on the political outs with his bosses and finds himself somewhat “working in tourism anyway,” when he’s assigned to several cases no one else wants, namely the murders of several holidaymakers in the area. It’s a sensationalist slant that Wilkerson is quick to puncture: this movie is not some true-crime serial-killer exposé. In fact, the rather absurd deaths, five of which are recounted in Peric’s lugubrious police-jotter manner on the spots where they occurred, are unconnected. Except that each is further evidence of the intense dislike the locals have for the shrieking, vomiting, urinating hordes that treat their town with such disrespect.

Peric faces insurmountable apathy and possibly actual obstruction in investigating his rapidly cooling cases. The spear (probably a “Game of Thrones” replica) used in one murder disappears. The authorities will not allow him access to another crime scene because it’s a local attraction at which the victim was allegedly killed for taking too many selfies, and they can’t afford to shut it down during high season. But even while he’s discussing the killings, the film’s other main character starts vying for our attention: Split itself is crowding in from the edge of Wilkerson’s gorgeously high-contrast black-and-white frames.

This is not the Split of any tourist brochure. Wilkerson’s camera is trained on the suburbs, the derelict malls, the abandoned motels, the once-futuristic plazas grown scrubby with weeds and angry with graffiti. Over striking dystopian cityscapes, often mirrored in the perfectly silver standing water of a permanent puddle or two, Wilkerson narrates his idiosyncratic 20th century history of Split. He makes particular reference to the shameful relationship to fascism. Croatia as an independent state first existed under the Ustaše, the local fascist party installed as a puppet regime in 1941 by the Nazis, and so the story of Croatian nationalism is inextricably entwined with its far-right past.

It’s an association Wilkerson finds written across the city today in horribly prevalent swastika and Ustaše-symbol graffiti, deeply knitted into the local football scene and given its most awful expression further inland at the Jasenovac concentration camp, which had the grim distinction of being the largest such European extermination factory not to have been built by the Germans. And yet the town has another history too, of resistance and resilience and heroic acts of self-sacrifice which Wilkerson also relates in his low, frank, warm narration. Most satisfyingly, for a film titled after a line in the Leonard Cohen song “Partisan,” he tells the story of Rade Koncar, the WWII partisan whose statue, in 2018, fell onto the drunken neo-fascist who was trying to deface it. “Rade Koncar,” says Wilkerson with something like joy, “Still fucking up fascists 70 years after they killed him.”

The irreverent, intimate voiceover is one way he saps the potential pretension or self-seriousness out of this dynamically entertaining film, but he also achieves a lovely conspiracy with the viewer by showing his work, its rough edges, its errata and false starts. It is ironic and a little subversive that the punchy imagery — hyperreal photography, text on screen, blood-spatter overlays, CCTV footage — should be so agitprop in its aesthetic. Wilkerson has the very opposite of propaganda’s agenda, questioning dogmas and doubting certainties and making “Through the Graves the Wind is Blowing” a beautifully monochromatic meditation on how nothing is actually black and white.

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