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There is nothing left, only ruins

Maša Drndić’s film The Waiting Point traverses destruction and stagnation in Croatia. At the Open City Documentary Festival on 20 June 2015.

Tristan Sechrest
17 June 2015
Maša Drndić, The Waiting Point, 2013. All rights reserved.

The Rijeka train station is a small, single-storey building. It’s a lonely place, one’s only company being the cab drivers smoking on the benches outside and possibly a pair of backpackers exchanging money at the kiosk inside. Several hundred metres along the same tree-lined street outside the dilapidated train station is the large square that plays host to the Rijeka bus station.

The quiet train station could not be more different from the bus station. Situated on the edge of the city centre, the bus station is a loud, bustling place, the roads crowded with traffic and the sidewalks obscured beneath people’s feet (and suitcases). This contrast highlights the relative importance of bus travel versus train travel, a reversal of the norms of countries farther west – but how long will this bus stop, still run out of a ticket office smaller than a Pret a Manger, retain its importance?

Director Maša Drndić (who also serves as the cinematographer) uses her film The Waiting Point to comment upon the anxiety and uncertainty regarding Croatia’s future within Europe. Set at the Rijeka bus station, the film examines the ecology of this location, focusing on an average day at the bus stop. The Waiting Point’s temporal frame is the European Championship 2012 group stage football match between the Croatian and Spanish teams; Croatia must either win or draw against Spain to advance to the finals, while Spain need only draw. While this sporting drama plays out in the background, the lives of those at and around the bus station come into greater focus.

Drndić breaks the film into segments of night and day, turning her camera on different sets of characters for each – by day, the ticket sellers must deal with misprinted tickets and confused schedules; by night, the ladies at the convenience store next door serve litres of Coca-Cola and local gossip. Constant throughout is the rotating mélange of passengers and passers-by, all preoccupied with where they have come from and where they are going. Drndić intersperses conversational vignettes with footage of the many individuals who come and go from the bus stop, bidding families farewell or even just coming to watch the football game.

The cinematography and film editing are both excellent. The film is in black-and-white, which adds an interestingly timeless quality to the work. There are no sweeping setting shots of Kvarner beauty or historic Rijeka; the camera remains grounded and personal, the frame filled by people above all – even the buses of the station feature largely as background pieces. This is a great strength of the film overall, with the personal focus giving the film a universality its very particular setting would not otherwise permit. The longer continuous shots of the vignettes give them a measure of authenticity and spontaneity that brings the strangers we meet at the station immediate vitality. The sound is quieter than one might expect a film about a bus station to be, but it matches the pacing of the film. Sound mixing could be better though; perhaps it is simply my own ignorance of Croatian, but it was occasionally hard to hear the dialogue. The subtitles were, however, more than adequate.

Though the film retains an endearing personal focus, the concerns voiced by those people are far larger: what comes through in all the conversations is the murkiness of the future. A short conversation between several old men outside by the bus stop focuses on their reflections on the past. They cannot believe that Croatia is, according to the radio, one of the best off countries in the Balkans. One states matter-of-factly that “there is nothing left in Croatia, only ruins.”

Destruction and stagnation in alternation dominate Croatia’s past; the twentieth century wore down the country to the point where it is difficult for these old men to believe that Croatia itself can build anything. In another vignette, this time featuring an older man and a younger man, the elder encourages the younger to pursue his career in Germany, where he can earn several times his already good Croatian salary. “Don’t be a fool, get away from here!” the older man tells the younger; there is no need for the young to wait around in the ruins when it seems that a new life is just a bus ride away.

The new opportunities offered by Croatia’s European future also generate new challenges, however. Croatians must now differentiate between Pole and Russian, cannot continue to see outsiders as a potential fifth column, and must win in a football tournament against a western European powerhouse (the Spanish team would go on to win the tournament outright). To rise to these challenges requires some change, and, as the film progresses, the focus shifts from the old to the young. That Croatia must change comes through from the first few minutes of the film; what it will change into, we have yet to see. I am confident, however, that Drndić will be there to document it.

Ultimately, The Waiting Point succeeds as a meaningful and thoughtful work. While some might find the lack of a strong central narrative and the artistic style of the film off-putting, the film’s subtle approach to its subject matter and interesting setting will make it worthwhile viewing for others.

Will the bus continue to dominate Croatian transit, and thus craft a microcosm around its stations? Ultimately, Drndić does not provide a steady answer. While her film works to make the bus stop a timeless, otherworldly waiting point, that point is also, in some ways, a turning point. Croatia, just like those passengers figuring out the arcane and sometimes confusing bus system, has been waiting. Now that its bus has arrived, it is time to embark.

The Waiting Point is screening at the Open City Documentary Festival on 20 June 2015.

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