Open City Documentary Festival 2020 – Focus: Once Upon A Youth, The Sparks That Might Burn Down The House


Olaf Möller looks into the stories that lie beneath the surface of Ivan Ramljak’s Once Upon a Youth. Once Upon a Youth is available in Block 2 (Sat 12th Sept midday – Tue 15th Sept midnight BST).

On its first level, Once Upon a Youth is a tale often heard. Every country and every youth knows its Marko Čaklović: the self-destructive introvert genius artist who might have been the brightest light of its generation but died too soon. Our dreams and hopes are always with the dead ones, for they remain(ed) pure; they never had to deal with the compromises that so-called normal life demands of us, nor suffer the indignity of seeing their body disintegrate slowly. They remain beautiful and radiant forever.

And, hark!, everybody in Once Upon a Youth shines with a light unworldly due to the curious love with which Čaklović photographed them. His pictures—almost exclusively black-and-white and shot using 35mm film—make up the bulk of material in Ramljak’s film, alongside video footage shot on various materials. Interviewees (that one only hears, seeing them today would destroy the magic) introduce the wrong element of time, relegating the photographic and video material to the status of documents (or evidence) of what is said, and not the story’s carrier-cum-essence. While in the world of analogue photography we seem to remain in an unchanging present (instant), the moving images talk about development and time passing by. Do the photos represent Čaklović’s vision of a future he wasn’t sure he’d be around to see?

Note that the the VHS material at the beginning gives us a date: April 13th 1999. In the winter of that year, president Franjo Tuđman died marking the end of an era: the Republic of Croatia’s nascence after a five year war known under too many names. Among the many things unmentioned in the film is the war of 1991-95. Čaklović, Ramljak et al. had been born into the Yugoslav SFR in the 1970s, and were therefore still teenagers when Croatia unilaterally seceded from the Federation, spending their formative years in an atmosphere of homicidal chauvinism, fear and often scarcity, followed by years drenched with more jingoism and right-wing hubris.

There’s a peculiar dynamic at play in the film: there’s a desire for an impossible far and away that is embodied by Ramljak’s worship of the then-recently-deceased Nigerian Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, but also an obsession with the particularities of the new homeland as exemplified by their summer trip exploring all of the inhabited islands of Croatia. If there is a meaningful past for the protagonists of Once Upon A Youth, it is to be found in the SFR Yugoslavia: when the C64 was new and Vučko (the Olympic mascot of the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo) could be heard howling “Sarajevooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!” As objects whose meaning depends on the user, these are dead connections, whilst the living connections (the parents) are often conspicuously absent, busy with a present that is headed for a very different future.

One might also say that the film is a parallel creation to the reality of things; so much remains unmentioned that would give things a different edge. To take up a metaphor from Finnish rock maestro Kauko Röyhkä’s melancholily sardonic 1995 song “Kanerva”, this reality is of no relevance to the reverie here: for the celebration of the sparks that in some morrow might burn down the house.

Olaf Möller was born and still lives in Cologne. He writes about and shows films.

Tickets for Once Upon a Youth are on sale now.