“We’ll have to put an [archival] shot of the park there, the way it looked before, so that the difference can be felt,” says filmmaker Srdjan Vuletić while standing in front of the camera and pointing at the empty space behind him. This unique scene is from I Burnt Legs (Palio sam noge), a short film Vuletić made in 1993, during the siege of Sarajevo and the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (major sequences in the bloody 1990s disintegration of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia). The viewer is here presented with an unexpected situation that may, nonetheless, be seen as marking, as symbolizing, the end of the Yugoslav cinematic paradigm and the beginning of the post-Yugoslav cinemas (whatever that term, “post-Yugoslav,” may mean). Vuletić’s camera was supposed to be filming the park, but this proved impossible – the park is no longer there! All trees in it were cut down, and it immediately becomes apparent why: to be used as firewood, or to make coffins in the besieged city. With its drastic retailoring of reality, the war gave rise to a cinematographic crisis of extraordinary proportions. That which is to be filmed might still be around, but it is very likely that it actually no longer is… Landscape shots of a park filled with trees have been transformed into the footage of “some pretty dumb field” (as Vuletić himself refers to it). They have become images of desolation.

From today’s perspective, I Burnt Legs seems like the first instance, the “primal scene,” of a specific tendency that in recent years emerged in the documentary cinema from the Yugoslav region: one characterized by investigations of war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and genocide in the register of landscape imagery. This tendency includes such films as Depth Two (Dubina dva, Ognjen Glavonić, 2016), Those Shocking Shaking Days (Selma Doborac, 2016), Landscapes of War, Landscapes of Peace (Pejzaži rata, pejzaži mira, Aron Sekelj, 2017), and On the Water (Na vodi, Goran Dević, 2018). All made during the latter half of the 2010s, these films directly address different facets of socialist Yugoslavia’s violent break-up in the 1990s, some focusing on war crimes and mass atrocities in Croatia, others in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and still others in Kosovo. In addition to Vuletić’s I Burnt Legs, another important precursor to these political landscape films is Jasmila Žbanić’s Red Rubber Boots (Crvene gumene čizme), made in 2000. This is one of the earliest documentaries about the genocide and the post-genocide trauma in Bosnia and Herzegovina; in approaching its subject, Žbanić’s short work also lays much emphasis on landscape locations, which it thoughtfully uses as a fundamental component of its mise-en-scène.2

Red Rubber Boots & Depth Two

The above films about war and war crimes are part of a robust, still larger trend that has been booming in the Yugoslav region for some time, bringing landscape poetics to a range of interconnected – contemporary as well as historical; socio-economic, political, and cultural – themes.3 The nineties are usually present in these films, directly or indirectly, but other focal points include: the People’s War of Liberation and the Communist Revolution (during World War Two); various aspects of life in the socialist Yugoslavia; historical memory and revisionism; patriarchy; economic hardships and the current global neoliberal order; borders and refugee crises; environmental issues. In this larger group of political landscape films, one counts: Abdul & Hamza (Marko Grba Singh, 2015), Monument (Spomenik, Igor Grubić, 2015), Gora (Stefan Malešević, 2017), Home of the Resistance (Dom boraca, Ivan Ramljak, 2018), Sarabande (Kaltrina Krasniqi, 2018), Greetings from Free Forests (Lep pozdrav iz svobodnih gozdov, Ian Soroka, 2018), We Are the Sons of Your Rocks (Sinovi smo tvog stijenja, Ivan Salatić, 2018), Honeyland (Medena zemja, Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, 2019), Homelands (Domovine, Jelena Maksimović, 2020), Landscapes of Resistance (Pejzaži otpora, Marta Popivoda, 2021), and Newsreel 670: Red Forests (Obzornik 670: Rdeči gozdovi, Nika Autor, 2022). Notably, the last three films on this list are all distinguished by the highly original use of eco-communist and eco-feminist audio-visual rhetoric.


Regardless of the natural locations in question – forests, meadows, rivers, fields, parks, lakes, mountains, etc. – cinematic landscapes are always semiotised; they are experienced, understood, and analysed as inseparable from history. On the one hand, landscapes “caught” on film are inevitably “socialized,” marked, directly or indirectly, by some degree of human activity. On the other hand, however, every film image of a landscape is also a document of a particular way in which nature itself responds to human activity.

Now, what is notable about the landscape films about war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and genocide that are in the focus of this essay is that they all exhibit a significant – pronounced, intense, even essential – visual absence. It is precisely this central absence that, in a unique way, makes Red Rubber Boots, Depth Two, Landscapes of War, Landscapes of Peace, On the Water, and Those Shocking Shaking Days not only political landscape films, but rather films of political landscapes. What is at stake here is not an absence of visual representation as such, but rather an absence directly inscribed into the field of representation. A peculiar lack manifests itself in the image, and it is foregrounded by Žbanić, Glavonić, Sekelj, Doborac, and Dević as the primary (or, at least, as an extremely important) formal and aesthetic principle. Moreover, particular forms of emptiness or absence function in these films not merely as traces of distinct authorial styles; they also bespeak a demand to the viewer to participate: to fill in these films’ gaps, to imagine what is lacking in their strategically emptied and, therefore, incomplete visual register.

Landscapes of War, Landscapes of Peace, Those Shocking Shaking Days & On the Water

What is it, then, that is so glaringly missing from these films about war, mass atrocities, and genocide? What is that palpable lack that is almost total in Depth Two and Landscapes of War, Landscapes of Peace, and that so forcefully looms over Red Rubber Boots, Those Shocking Shaking Days, and the most memorable sequences of On the Water?

What is missing are, of course, the people (as Gilles Deleuze famously put it).4 People – yes, but… not only the living. The dead, too, are missing! There is a manifest absence of human bodies, all human bodies, in these films. Bodies engaged in various activities, behaviours, and gestures, whether mundane or extraordinary. But also, bodies murdered and thrown down the river (On the Water); stuffed into freezer trucks (Depth Two); or, buried in mass graves (Red Rubber Boots and Those Shocking Shaking Days) – mass graves that are already marked, as well as those that have yet to be discovered… In other words, what is at stake here is a drastically deficient cinematic portrayal of human existence, in life and in death: endless sequences of intentional non-depiction of people reveal locations that are not merely empty, but rather ominously empt-ied before the camera. These are the landscapes of vanishing – and already vanished – folk. Filmmaker Ivan Salatić, himself an accomplished practitioner of the “genre,” describes it as “speaking the language of wounded landscapes in cinema.”5 One can even go a step further and designate the works discussed here as the cinema of cleansed (as in: ethnically cleansed) landscapes.6

In the documentaries in question, then, a certain asceticism lies at the core of the image. The origin of this asceticism is ethical. A systemic and “unnatural absence” (as Selma Doborac calls it), a marked lack of people in the visual register, is here both a symptom and a negative expression of a poignant humanist attitude toward the war and its horrors. This is how landscapes remember war! For the filmmakers discussed here, asceticism on the plane of representation signifies a kind of shared “ethical imperative” about the relationship between the cinema and the crimes against humanity. One might say: the image will be infused and rife with absence, because these are the films grounded in the traumatic experiences of mass extermination, films about ethnic cleansing and genocide, but also (importantly!) about their ongoing, now decades-long, suppression and ideologically motivated denial in certain parts of the Yugoslav region. In Serge Daney’s memorable formulation: “The shot is a tomb.” “The content of the shot, stricto sensu, is what it hides: the bodies under the ground.”7

On the Water & Depth Two

However, this “ethical imperative” is only a starting point for the filmmakers in question. It is an extreme manifestation of what Daney designates “the cinematic axiom.” According to Daney, the primary, foundational cinematic relation is contained in the “rapport between the camera and reality.” The task of the camera is to “search in the world.” However, Daney immediately adds, the real is never exclusively “that which is directly and immediately given to be seen – and that is final.”8

What Žbanić, Glavonić, Doborac, Sekelj, and Dević accomplish in their films is an effective amplification of Daney’s “axiom,” through insistence on the camera’s non-rapport with the human body, its marked absence from the screen. This absence of people at the heart of the image motivates a range of further directorial choices, which typically involve complex audio-visual relations. Sekelj (Landscapes of War, Landscapes of Peace), for instance, creates elaborate atmospheric montages deprived of spoken word, which convey heavy presence of weaponry, combat, violence, and death – but no humans – in the depicted landscapes. Glavonić (Depth Two), on the other hand, relies on extensive voice-over narration, laid over the carefully composed imagery of mostly desolate and ruinous locations, to present a disturbingly detailed account of the operations of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and their organized suppression by the Serbian authorities. Doborac (Those Shocking Shaking Days), in turn, works in a meta-cinematic key: her film frequently employs entirely silent shots of deserted Bosnian places, combined with textual captions at the bottom of the screen; the text oscillates between didactic and contemplative commentary about war and human suffering, but also about the extent of their representability by the cinematic apparatus.

In each film, the result is a steady production of disquiet and non-acquiescence: a pointed audio-visual resistance to any form of simplistic and careless, ideologically suspect acceptance of stable representation of the post-war, post-genocidal reality, still beset with trauma. In other words, taking the traumatic absence of people as something akin to a new ontology of the cinematic image, these authors persist in making the viewer’s experience (both sensory and intellectual) of the depicted reality fundamentally disjunctive and unresolved. It is thus that the ethical charge at the root of these films is activated on the plane of image-politics. For what this disjunctive relation between the cinematic form and the contemporary landscape ultimately bespeaks is a specific kind of condemnation of violence, mass atrocities, and genocide in the Yugoslav region: one grounded in an unyielding refusal to naturalize their ideological causes and effects alike.9 No normalization, no legitimisation, of ethno-essentialist and exclusivist post-Yugoslav identities, values, and norms seems possible in these films. Instead, they uphold the landscape of audio-visual representation and signification as an enduringly unstable and unresolved, socio-politically divided and divisive, ground. Landscapes are in these films “shot through with antagonism” (as Masao Matsuda would have it).10

Red Rubber Boots, Those Shocking Shaking Days & Depth Two

A segment of Sekelj’s Landscapes of War, Landscapes of Peace is aptly titled “Of the Dead and Borders.” One cannot properly think contemporary landscapes in the Yugoslav region without grappling with the extent to which they have been overrun by fences, mortified by barriers and partitions (real and imaginary), scarred by the barbed wire. This is, literally, what media artist and political activist Nika Autor’s most recent film, Newsreel 670: Red Forests, is all about! Partially indebted to Olivier Razac’s keen study of the barbed wire11 – that most elementary, yet brutally efficient, technology of entrapment, segregation, and dehumanization – Red Forests is a meditation on unceasing violence against people and nature, with local (in this case, Slovenian) landscapes now serving as the sites of the presently unfolding international refugee crisis…

Newsreel 670: Red Forests


Beyond the cinema of cleansed landscapes, further political questions await:

How to film people, again?

And, is there an emancipated future for the crowd shot?


  1. This essay is a shortened and revised version of a text I originally wrote and published in the Serbo-Croatian language as “Pejzaži u kadru, ljudi u odsustvu,” Peščanik, 13 March 2021. Subsequently, this text became the foundation for a short book about image politics in the contemporary cinema from the Yugoslav region: Pavle Levi, Minijature: O politici filmske slike (Zagreb: Multimedijalni institut, 2021). I wish to thank Ognjen Glavonić, Petar Milat, and Nace Zavrl for their generous help during the various phases of preparing the essay.
  2. For a detailed analysis of Red Rubber Boots, see: Pavle Levi, “Cinema and Ethnic Cleansing,” Jolted Images: Unbound Analytic (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018), pp. 118-127.
  3. The international history of landscape cinema is not only long and rich, but also politically and ideologically diverse. Productive points of comparison and contrast may be sought between the films that are in the focus of this essay and certain works by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Alain Resnais, Masao Adachi, Marguerite Duras, Sky Hopinka, and The Otolith Group.
  4. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), p. 216.
  5. Ivan Salatić, “Govoriti jezikom ranjenih pejzaža,” MAZ, November 2019. Salatić’s short documentary We Are the Sons of Your Rocks (2018) is set in Montenegro and revolves around unmarked graves from the Second World War.
  6. Absence of human bodies in these films is not absolute. When present, graphic images of wartime violence (Those Shocking Shaking Days), exhumations of mass graves (Red Rubber Boots), and post-war survivorship (On the Water, Red Rubber Boots) effectively reinforce the chilling effect of the preponderant empty landscapes.
  7. Serge Daney, “A Morals of Perception (About Dalla Nube alla Resistenza by Straub-Huillet),” originally published as “Une Morale de la Perception (De la nuée à la résistance de Straub-Huillet)” in La Rampe: Cahier critique 1970-1982 (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, Gallimard, 1996). Daney is here discussing the political landscape films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. Gilles Deleuze draws on Daney when, in his own analysis of Straub and Huillet’s “stratigraphic landscapes,” he declares that “the earth stands for what is buried in it.” Cinema 2, p. 244. See also: Serge Daney, “A Tomb for the Eye (Straubian Pedagogy).”
  8. Dudley Andrew, “The Camera Searching in the World” in What Cinema Is!: Bazin’s Quest and its Charge (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), p. 5.
  9. On this topic, see: “How to Think Genocide?” (“Kako misliti genocid?”), editorial in the newsletter Mathemes of Reassociation (Matemi reasocijacija), produced by The Monument Group (Belgrade, 2010).
  10. In the early 1970s, Masao Matsuda was a foremost proponent of the fūkeiron theory of political landscape cinema. For an in-depth discussion of Matsuda and the fūkeiron discourse in Japanese film, see: Yuriko Furuhata, Cinema of Actuality: Japanese Avant-Garde Filmmaking in the Season of Image Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), pp. 115-148. See also Branislav Dimitrijević’s excellent analysis of Glavonić’s film Depth Two, which draws on fūkeiron discourse: “Landscape of Crime,” catalogue of the exhibition Landschaft, die sich erinner / Remembering Landscape (Siegen: Museum für Gegenwartskunst, 2018).
  11. Olivier Razac, Barbed Wire: A Political History (New York: The New Press, 2002).

About The Author

Pavle Levi is professor of film studies at Stanford. He is the author of numerous books, including Jolted Images: Unbound Analytic (2018) and Hypnos in Cineland (2022).

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