Rarely will you see a film that spends as much time looking at the back of its lead's head as Children Of Sarajevo, which won a special award from the jury at Cannes earlier this year.
Written and directed by the Sarajevo-born Aida Bejic, it tells the story of Rahima (Marija Pikic), who's assumed guardianship of her teenage brother, Nedim, after the deaths of their parents. She works as a cook in a restaurant and spends most of the rest of her time trying to keep Nedim from getting into trouble. She's also a Muslim who's recently started wearing a headscarf, which puzzles some of her friends and has, Nedim insists, increased the number of people at school who pick on him.
But back to looking at the back of Rahima's head. Bejic is particularly fond of very long takes and tracking shots, whether she's following Rahima through the kitchen at work or following her on a walk through her neighborhood. And when Bejic as a director follows, she really follows — the handheld camera is on the back of Rahima's head, giving the distinct impression that she's constantly being pursued — which is about right, given the dire nature of some of what she's facing.
At its heart, this is a relatively simple story of a sister trying to keep her family together. But it's also a fine opportunity to be reminded that directors have a lot of options when they compose shots, and the fact that they don't usually shoot a certain way doesn't mean they can't. It's very unusual to watch an actress so intently from behind as she takes a purposeful stroll, but the technique works well here to create the tension and worry that comes from seeing a lead character constantly moving away from the camera.
Part of the story here is that Rahima doesn't have as much help as she needs, really; raised during a war, she's up against everything trying to corrupt her brother, a system that would be just as happy to cart him off to an orphanage and a boss who's too much of a jerk to even give her the slip that shows how much money she makes so she can prove she's fit to keep Nedim with her.
There's such remarkable tension within this character that when, fairly late in the film, she takes her headscarf off and you see her shake out her hair for the first time, it feels revelatory — not because wearing her hair down is better than the scarf by any means, but because it's a figurative exhalation of breath that she hasn't taken until that very moment.