As war came to Yugoslavia in the 1990s, many of its finest directors fled to foreign lands, taking with them their unique styles and abilities. Sadly, unlike the forced displacement of the Czechoslovak New Wave leading to Miloš Forman and friends finding a new home in Hollywood, or indeed the vast numbers of German Jews who came to the US in the 1930s and became filmmakers, the innumerable talents of Yugoslav filmmakers never really seemed to find a solid home elsewhere; most of them have either returned since or have continually made films in other countries, despite rarely attaining widespread international success.
Goran Paskaljević was one of Yugoslavia’s finest filmmakers, and still is. Part of the “Prague Film School” in Yugoslavia, a group of talented filmmakers who all went to Prague’s illustrious film academy at almost exactly the same time, the films they made in the 1970s and ‘80s are perhaps the most enduring and popular Yugoslav films in the former Yugoslavia today. The radical Black Wave of the ‘60s may have been more influential, but the Prague School group found more success. The war dispersed nearly all of them, with Paskaljević leaving for Paris. Someone Else’s America was his first film made outside of Yugoslavia, released in 1995 as the Bosnia war drew inexorably towards its bitter end and Milošević’s Serbia pushed itself further and further into international pariah status, and although Paskaljević has returned since to Serbia to make films (including the acclaimed Cabaret Balkan in 1998), he has overtime become a more well-travelled director.
Unfortunately, Someone Else’s America is one of his weaker works, mixing together a lot of disparate elements without any real sense of thematic or aesthetic coherency. It tells the story of Bajo (Miki Manojlović) and his landlord/best friend Alonso (Tom Conti). Bajo is an illegal immigrant in New York, waiting tables at Alonso’s bar so he can save up money and send it back home to his family in Montenegro. Meanwhile, his teenage son Luka (Sergej Trifunović) secretly hides Bajo’s correspondences, saving up enough from the letters to transport the entire family to New York via Mexico. Unfortunately, during the journey across the Rio Grande, Luka’s younger brother is swept away. Bajo, always having had a frustrated relationship with Luka, blames him for his son’s disappearance. Luka meanwhile, settles remarkably quickly into American life, marrying a America-Chinese woman (although it’s hinted that his motivations may be related by a green card rather than love).
Paskaljević pours a ton-bucket of moods into the film; in the scenes between Bajo and Alonso, the film is more of a fish-out-of-water comedy, about two outsiders acclimatising to life in their new worlds; the parallel story about Luka dragging the rest of his family to New York plays more like a traditional drama about migration, with added tones of melodrama and tragedy; there’s even a dose of magical realism, with floating objects and luck-bringing roosters. This tonal variety is something that Paskaljević and his Prague School contemporaries did frequently—it’s not uncommon to hear the word ‘bittersweet’ being bandied around in describing their work—but for whatever reason, Paskaljević doesn’t balance the tones successfully in this case.
Perhaps it’s the language barrier, although as most of the international cast don’t have trouble switching between languages I doubt their director had such an issue either. Rather than switching between moods effortlessly (as he does in earlier work like the brilliant Tango Argentino) it feels as if each scene was clunkily labelled beforehand, ‘drama’, ‘comedy’, ‘sad’, ‘upbeat’. Most of the film is set around the New York lower-class apartment building that Bajo and Alonso live in, but Paskaljević’s view of the immigrant experience in the backstreets of America’s largest city feels distinctly tourist-esque, a clichéd melting-pot, at odds with some of the gritty realistic tone of other scenes.
There are some pointed and excellent observations; there’s a sense of one’s national history being flattened out when one leaves their homeland—Bajo describes Montenegrins in one sentence: “we never give up!” whilst Alonso does similarly for Spain—and the differences between Luka’s wholesale acceptance of the American way of life (and his ease at picking up English) and that of his father and grandmother is poignantly depicted. Yet the observations depicted in Someone Else’s America barely match the subtle, emotionally effecting brilliance of Paskaljević’s other work. They’re thinner on the ground here, more spread out. The ones that are present are strong, but there’s fewer of them.
There are still strong elements to Someone Else’s America. Its sense of humour is amusingly ironic at times (one brilliant scene sees Alonso trying to convince his aging blind mother she is home in her Spanish village by rebuilding the village well in the back courtyard and making a Spanish-style dinner), and the performances throughout are expertly-judged. Yet, it certainly remains one of Paskaljević’s weaker efforts, unsure of what kind of film it wants to be and all the weaker for it. At his best, Paskaljević could have made the same film and turned it into one of his greatest works, but for whatever reason, Someone Else’s America just doesn’t work as smoothly as it should.