“Looking for Horses” is a feature in competition at the 60th Ann Arbor Film Festival. Contrary to its title, the documentary isn’t actually about horses. (If you’re looking for an artistic animal film, check this out.) “Looking for Horses” documents the friendship between filmmaker Stefan Pavlovíc (“When the Dragon Came”) and an older Bosnian War veteran named Zdravko, who lives a secluded life on a lake bordering Bosnia and Montenegro. The film won the Burning Lights Competition at Visions du Réel and was also nominated at the Beldocs and Sarajevo Film Festivals.
From its first opening shot — an undisturbed lake swathed in a gentle purple sky and light fog, with a dog who sniffs curiously at the rocks before quietly padding out of the frame — “Looking for Horses” exhibits gorgeous cinematography. The tranquil scene soon becomes a background for minimalist text that appears to be typed out in real time, with a blinking insertion point, audible keystroke sounds and all.
Thus begins the unique blend of written text, spoken words and visual images that is a trademark feature of this film. The words that are typed out in the opening shots of the film convey background information about the filmmaker and his relationship to the lake and its surrounding lands. Throughout the film, Pavlovíc includes subtitles in order to communicate the dialogue (originally spoken in Serbo-Croatian) to an English-speaking audience. But these subtitles are distinctive in that they’re written by Pavlovíc himself, who possesses a somewhat limited understanding of the Serbo-Croatian language. It’s not uncommon for the subtitles to display something like: “(I’m not sure what he’s saying here).” Through this personal translation, Pavlovíc’s film is very much told from his own perspective. He also interweaves footage of himself and Zdravko with personal anecdotes from his own childhood, which consist of seemingly random shots overlaid with Pavlovíc’s voice, subtitled though he is speaking English. These audio recordings appear unedited, as they include his stutters, to which the video editing is often synced. When Pavlovíc stutters, the screen goes black.
This intersection of visual, audio and written media — in conjunction with Pavlovíc and Zdravko’s occasional difficulty in conversing (Zdravko is hard of hearing from his experience in the Bosnian War, and Pavlovíc has a stutter and isn’t fluent in Serbo-Croatian) — conveys the principal theme of communication in “Looking for Horses.” At one point in the film, Zdravko and Pavlovíc assert that they have their own unique language to communicate with one another. Later on, there’s a lighthearted scene of them trying to teach each other difficult phrases in their respective languages and laughing boisterously at the hilarity of the other’s attempts. Zdravko and Pavlovíc’s unlikely friendship transcends language barriers and generational gaps, and their warm relationship is the core of “Looking for Horses.”
That being said, I honestly thought the film was incredibly boring. Ironically, one of the aspects I most appreciated ultimately contributes to its downfall — the pacing. I genuinely enjoyed the way Pavlovíc chose to include the pauses in conversation that occasionally turn into long stretches of silence. The lack of frequent cuts and edits makes the film feel honest and organic, which gives “Looking for Horses” a grounded, sincere beauty. But of course, the plethora of long pauses in which nothing remarkable happens is also slightly tortuous. The friendship at its center, though heartwarming and insightful, just isn’t captivating enough to condone the slow pace of the film — especially for the whole 88-minute runtime.
In spite of this unfortunate predicament, one can still admire “Looking for Horses” as a remarkable showcase of Pavlovíc’s abilities as a filmmaker. The creative decisions employed throughout this film demonstrate that Stefan Pavlovíc is someone with exceptional potential that we ought to look out for in the future.
Daily Arts Writer Pauline Kim can be reached at email@example.com.