Saidin Salkic’s new film The Shells Exploding Gently (2020) begins, characteristically, as a work in extremis. A face, a voice, the camera held close, the corner of a door, the sound of lapping waves. At first, this seems to be almost the categorical definition of the Cinema of the Self, a film made by oneself by hand and with minimal means, a mode of production that works in conscious defiance both of the industrial model that is the dominant organising principle of professional filmmaking, and also against the wider discourses of the contemporary art world of which Salkic has had paradoxically more exposure as a painter and visual artist.
Salkic is one of the most singular and uncompromising filmmakers currently working in Australia, a fact which would make the work seem daunting at the outset, with the figure of the artist himself appearing mythic or irreproachable. This elusiveness may seem strange for someone with such an abundant personality, a self-styled art-dandy equally involved in the activities of painting, poetry and music as in cinema, and someone who (until Covid at least) could be seen around town, at least if you were Melbourne based.
Salkic’s work has certainly been written on before, albeit never in these pages nor in some of our larger film publications, in print or online, outside of important contributions by champions Bill Mousoulis and Maximilian Le Cain. His last major profile, in The Age newspaper on the occasion of a Victoria University screening of his debut film Karasevdah: Srebrenica Blues (2007), was published that year.
Since then, much of the writing has focused on Salkic’s background as a survivor of the Bosnian genocide, situating his art practice as a function or outgrowth of this profound trauma, or else presenting the self-created narrative of Salkic as a colourful and engaging local cultural figure, but more a “character” than a real person. All of this writing, bar Mousoulis’ and Le Cain’s important contributions, has failed to really look at the films.
This slipperiness is at least partly by Salkic’s own design – undistributed and largely unscreened outside of Mousoulis’ valiant efforts (including a screening at the Adelaide Film Festival in 2018), Salkic sends his many films to friends personally, by Vimeo or YouTube link shared in email, often with a view to discussing some eventual mode of public presentation or inspire critical admiration or reflection.
More often than not though, the sharing of the work comes as a pure existential response, beyond language – the need to connect, to reach out, to share, to love and honour one another. Salkic shared The Shells with me for this reason, with the sense that I may see and experience something vital in the film, and thus might be able to do some justice to it. The idea of justice is important here, which I will return to shortly.
This article is also written with the larger perspective of Salkic’s work in mind. Given my contact with the filmmaker’s body of work hasn’t kept pace with his most recent, prolific output (marked by the flawed yet decisive turning point of Salkic’s co-directed third feature Manifesto of a Defeated Poet in 2016, after which he has since directed a further 12 mostly mid-length films), a full overview of Salkic’s body of work is not something I am adequately equipped to do in this instance. Besides, Mousoulis has done a much more proficient job of this elsewhere.
My exposure to each of Salkic’s, sporadic and intermittent as it has been, has proceeded along the same path each time – Salkic will send me a link to his film, with the idea that I might find some words to send back to him, as one would a letter. The intimacy of these exchanges have been sustaining, particularly so for personal reasons over the past 12 months and so much so that I haven’t really the heart to write something dense and objective about his work.
Nor was such an approach something, as I later discovered, that Salkic himself thought was warranted. When I sent him back some initial thoughts on The Shells over a year ago, he responded favourably by saying that he thought my simple email letter should be published and, later, that The Shells was a special film for him, a “a turn, a show of another dimension, intimisation of performance in cinema, a show of how it can be done”…
The exchange of letters, of intimacy, of the idea of justice. Each of these actions become an outgrowth of the experience of the figure on screen, a figure who both is and isn’t Salkic. A figure who becomes us or, more precisely, who inhabits us, over the course of the 44 minute journey that bends and warps the perceptual faculties until this inhabiting feels simultaneously short and long, brief and endless. This is the paradox, the agony, of the Beloved – the sense of being caught in between temporal states, beside oneself, peering in.
Like a haunting, this figure presents himself as being caught on a precipice, his lips pressed to the threshold of a barely glimpsed doorway – a closed room that this figure can’t traverse without invitation. Whatever or whomever may be on the other side of the door is never seen, the door never opened. Initially, the film gives us only the figure’s face in an uncomfortably tight close up, and the sound of waves.
Soon, though the figure speaks, and the film reorients itself as, among other things, one of the most remarkable monologues in contemporary cinema, a seemingly boundless soliloquy on time, history, agony, beauty and the quest for justice. To those who’ve seen Salkic’s previous films, the use of spoken, diegetic dialogue – much less full bodied, on-screen performance – may come as a shock, akin to the radiant first appearance of the artist’s daughter Sevdah in Waiting for Sevdah (2017).
Interestingly, the name Sevdah is derived from an old Turkish-Arabic expression ‘karasevdah’ (also the title of Salkic’s first film, noted above) as well as the collective term collective term describing the old folk songs called Sevdalinke, “The Sevdalinka is characterised by sensuality and specific oriental love longing and desire which are expressed with the word ‘Sevdah’ (love ecstasy) after which the song was named, and even more – with the Turkish-Arabic expression ‘karasevdah’ (black sevdah, dark sevdah, great love melancholy), which generally describes a deep, sensual-melancholic and sad sense of life.”1 In Salkic’s cinema, everything is linked along deep subterranean rivulets of emotional meaning.
The wonderful surprise of Sevdah’s sudden appearance on screen is its possibility as a radical opening, a new invitation, a fresh way in for me both as Salkic’s audience and as his friend. For in that moment, it’s an exchange from Salkic to an unseen audience of one, as if I myself are inhabiting the closed door, unbidden and unreckoned but for the gaze of the camera and my own attentive efforts.
As someone who has seen much of Salkic’s body of work, it’s possible for me to reflect metonymically on the relationship between the part to the whole, in this case, to reflect on how The Shells refines and expands Salkic’s cinema in important ways through reference to past work, and therefore why The Shells represents an important breakthrough. Thankfully, this is something the filmmaker himself has clocked, so it thus feels properly central to my understanding and appreciation of the film.
Watching The Shells, my thoughts drifted back to the narrational strategies of Salkic’s previous films, strategies that tended to focus either on voice divorced from any on-screen figures on the one hand (harkening all the way back to Karasevdah, a close relation to The Shells in its excavation and reclamation of the trauma of the Srebrenica genocide of 1995), or else radically stripped back, largely silent and gestural performativity, as in his first major artistic breakthrough Konvent (2010), The latter prompted Le Cain to call the film “perhaps cinema’s most intense anatomy of sheer presence.”2
From Manifesto onwards, Salkic began weaving these two modes together, initially with a degree of unease (the weight between the attention given to Salkic’s voice and body on screen feels off somehow, perhaps because he ceded control of the photographic aspects of his film-making for the first and only time, to his co-director John Cumming). A simple, delicate self-portrait of a father’s love for his daughter, weighted with a feeling of expectancy and use of duration that grows increasingly cosmic, Waiting for Sevdah proved the decisive breakthrough.
Not coincidentally, Sevdah marked the first time another screen presence equal to the filmmaker’s own was given shared weight in the film – the fact of it being Salkic’s own daughter adding great poignancy. This relationship serves as the first of three key evolutionary leaps in Salkic’s cinema, the first being the decision to shoot Konvent solo in his family home in St Albans, Victoria. From the ecstatic pure presence of the daughter in Sevdah to the marriage of body to voice in The Shells, these leaps serve to open up and humble Salkic the artist at the same time as they work to enrich his cinema with further contemplative and reflective dimensions.
By contrast, recent B&W works as in Silence’s Crescendo and The Shocking have been much angrier, feverish and fractured works that look to explore damaged psychological states through the use of repetition, montage and ear-rupturing sound design, to more or less monotonous effect (these films for me have a habit of blending into one another like a prolonged nightmare, never settling into something with discernible shape or form). These films hurt in a different way.
In a very basic sense then, what Salkic attempts extraordinarily well in The Shells is the record of a confession. It isn’t an easy confession, nor a simple one. To whom and about what he is confessing in the diegesis of the film remains opaque, though there is a sense that the unseen figure on the other side of the door is a close loved one, in any case. What Salkic’s confession really is is a soul-confession, what Salkic in other guises (as poet, as friend) has called soulessencia – a confession of the artist as child, as a bearer of witness to the world as it is, and as it could be.
I asked Salkic in a recent phone conversation how much of this on-screen work could be deemed performance in a way different to his previous films, and he took this question seriously even if he was careful to draw out differences between more commonly understood and practiced notions of performance as opposed to soulessencia. In this, I believe Salkic was attempting to draw out the paradoxes between inhabiting another vs the profound and difficult process of intensifying personal and collective truth through magnified screen presence, to which The Shells adds the further element of the spoken word uttered directly. When put in context with Salkic’s childhood in Bosnia and especially in dialogue with the experiences recounted in Karasevdah, this new directness proves revelatory.
Remarkably, none of the dense and involving monologues in The Shells were scripted in a traditional sense, Salkic claiming to write the entire film in his mind and thus committing it to memory, working in parallel on the imagined images and sounds concurrently. Salkic’s answer to my probing this was that his work of course was a kind of performance, but an attempt at performance as if for the first time or in a totalised way, pure cinema. This, I drew to the tradition of early silent cinema, Garbo and Lillian Gish, but which just as easily could be seen as the playacting of the child, something Salkic ruminates on at length in the film.
Ruminating on my own attachment to The Shells which exceeds that of even other of Salkic’s films dear to me (Konvent and Waiting for Sevdah most prominently), I thought about how the film proposes an unaffected gentleness, linked to Salkic’s complete innocence and transparency, which as mentioned I think has to do with the voice. Through the hypnotic exposure the film gives to it, one can’t help but see on Salkic’s face the landscape of his childhood. We thus see, at various points, child and man, snow and trees, brook and wind, the landscape of horror, bombs and screams but also the gentleness of touch. A gentleness that is all the more touching in a world wracked by the absence of it, where bombs and screams are the norm.
I thought about tying this piece together with further reference to its images and sounds, to try and explain why I found a film made so simply, that seems constituted by nothing but itself, bound together by nothing but itself, so affecting. Like Salkic, I want to show you a door, a window, a face, a stretch of beach unknown yet familiar, in the knowledge that my words cannot be the equal of Salkic’s own, nor that the film needs anything other than itself in order to exist, even if less than a handful of people have yet seen it.
Instead, I want to live inside its hypnagogia, lull myself to sleep with it, wrap myself in it, encourage you to imagine my doing so, to imagine Saidin has a warm blanket and is waiting for you to ask him for it.
Saidin’s voice is in my eye, my eyes droop as I begin to type out what I hear from the film at 7:53 pm on a Sunday night. Saidin’s words are like the waves emanating from my earbuds —
Night comes slowly.
It is not in a rush.
It is like a gentle brush.
It knows that it must come.
It is assured of its coming.
That is what makes it so free from the anxious.
The whole of nature is like that.
Assured of its coming.
Of its patterns.
Maybe I should trust that too.
Maybe I should not be so worried for it, as sometimes I do.
Maybe I should walk back inside from the verandah
Have a cup of chamomile tea
Swim in the sea.
I could be in love.
I can be, again.
To those who wish to listen, the film sings a deep, plaintive song.
- Cehic, Ennis (2019), The Melancholia of Sevdah in Meanjin Quarterly, Spring 2019 ↩
- Le Cain, Maximilian, A Few Reflections on Manifesto of a Defeated Poet in Close Watch, November 2015 ↩