The Kids Are Just Playing

Barbara Majsa

For most of us, the idea that innocent souls such as children are capable of doing harm to one another on purpose is rather incomprehensible and unimaginable. Still, Croatian director Filip Mojzeš explores this exact topic in his 21-minute, bone-chilling fictional short titled WHITE BONE DEATH / SMRT BIJELA KOST (2018). The film, which slowly evolves from a pleasant family drama into a mind game, keeps the audience members intrigued long enough to ponder for hours after the end credits on the importance of the responsibility both society and individuals have.

WHITE BONE DEATH, a traditional narrative piece that is smoothly built up to its climax, tells the story of a family of four and the holidays in their summerhouse. The main characters are the young daughters who love to play with their neighbor Marko, staying at his grandma’s. Based on the dialogue among adults, the three have surely known each other for a long time. The neighboring families even treat each other with kind gestures and pastries. Everything does seem normal, familiar, natural, and in order, so the glue that holds together their relationship is trust. In such a pleasant situation, why would anyone expect something bad to come about when the kids disappear to play without supervision?

Mojzeš’s short stresses the responsibility and the authority that parents and grandparents, or adults in general, should consider. This could bring into the picture Michael Haneke’s THE WHITE RIBBON / DAS WEISSE BAND (2009) as a reference point. Mojzeš moves a smaller number of characters around, resulting in a less complex plot, but generates the same amount of tension and frustration. The former is produced mainly by the suspense in the film, the latter – by the parents’ actions, because when something extremely dangerous takes place, they opt for sweeping that under the rug and pretend nothing has happened. Under the pretext “it was just a game,” they are convinced that some material things, such as a tablet and Swiss chocolate, can solve the psychological harm the two girls cause to Marko. Evidently, no real talk about the consequences of one’s actions is needed. Beyond that, the girls’ mum, for example, always steps away and keeps a distance from stressful actions, she is only a voyeur – either paralyzed by the events or has no clue how to react.

Nevertheless, looking at standpoints in the Croatian drama, not so much difference can be detected: the (grandma’s) lack of and (parents’) too much knowledge lead to the same results. Without question, the subtle nuances of facial expressions and body language remain hidden and unknown, except for the film viewers. Yet, the visuals and the sound create an environment in which silence, short sentences, and non-verbal communication play a crucial role. That atmospheric setting of the film cleverly tricks the audience who cannot escape from a flow of emotions bursting in their heart and mind. Similarly to the adults in the film, the spectators become a passive part of the kids’ play. The main difference, though, is that the viewers cannot turn their eyes away and forget what they have experienced. In other words, the audience members are cast to perform the role the adults forget to enact.

Despite being part of an omnibus, Filip Mojzeš’s intense short has been screened separately in the Sarajevo Film Festival’s Short Film Competition. It might be too daring to say, but this Croatian film is able to do what many features can not: make you worried, frustrated, angry, as well as sigh, shiver, and, most importantly, think. While WHITE BONE DEATH introduces a particular story, it depicts society.