Do You Remember Dolly Bell? Review
Made in 1981, Do You Remember Dolly Bell? was Emir Kusturica’s first feature film, but, having graduated from film school in Prague and already applied his ideas to a couple of films made for Yuoslavian television, it already it shows the assuredness of a director with his own unique voice and character. Scripted by Abdulah Sidran, who would also collaborate with Kusturica on his second film, both Do You Remember Dolly Bell? and When Father Was Away on Business, as the titles might suggest, are funny and affectionate reminiscences on growing up in Sarajevo in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Both early films are markedly different in approach from the distinctive freewheeling qualities of Kusturica’s later films, but together they form a strong foundation in the sense of character and location of his home country that the director would elaborate on in an ever more extreme and surreal fashion in films like Underground, Black Cat White Cat and Life Is A Miracle.
Do You Remember Dolly Bell? is a coming of age drama, a quite unique and unusual reminiscence on a particular period of growing up in Sarajevo seen through the eyes of Dino (Slavko Stimac, who would again star as the protagonist of Kusturica’s Life Is A Miracle almost twenty years later), through his relationship with his father (Slobodan Aligrudic) and, evidently, through a girl named Dolly Bell (Ljiljana Blagojevic), both of whom usher his way into adult life. Dino and his friends have also been selected by their district Cultural Club to form a dance band for the local youths in their area of Sarajevo, to assist in addressing the delinquency problem in the area. One of the products of this youth problem is Sonny, a local pimp who asks Dino, as a favour, to take in one of his girls while he is out of town. Dino tries to keep Dolly Bell hidden away from the rest of the family, keeping her in their pigeon house, but her presence does not go unnoticed by Dino’s father, and the young man himself finds the girl’s presence rather unsettling.
If it is not quite as frenetic as Kusturica’s later films, Do You Remember Dolly Bell? is nonetheless uniquely paced and scripted and full of the director’s anarchic style and his chaotic outlook on life - both human and animal – and the constant conflict that opens up life in all its richness and possibilities. There are many such sources of conflict in Kusturica’s films – and considering the history of the Balkan region, this would be more evident in the war settings of his later films - but even filming the 1960’s from a 1980’s perspective, the unique character of the region gives rise to many other forms of struggle. Dino’s father is a committed Marxist, waiting for the country to embrace Communism, which he believes will happen in the year 2000. He even runs the household like a commune, holding family meetings to control affairs, the youngest boy writing down minutes of the proceedings. Dino however has certain ideological differences, believing in the power of the individual, a power that can be harnessed and expressed through auto-suggestion and hypnotism.
The struggle to be one’s own person is shown in many other ways, from Dino’s surreptitious smoking, to his desire to be in a rock and roll band. Most of all however, and struck by a movie he has seen at the recreation club showing an exotic dancer in a foreign night club, Dino is struck by the allure of women. All of these are typical features of adolescent coming of age films, but Kusturica’s viewpoint is quite unique and poetic. Just as Dino induction into the joys of life, sex and rock and roll is expressed, in a motif that would become familiar in Kusturica films, as a literal baptism of water, the film itself frequently walks this delicate line between such delicate poetic observation and the crudeness and animalistic side of life, creating a marvellous dialectic that creates something exceptional, dynamic, eccentric and uniquely Kusturica.
Do You Remember Dolly Bell? is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The DVD is in PAL format and is Region 2 encoded.
I’m not sure what quality the original elements of this early Kusturica film are like – it looks like it could possibly have been shot in 16mm - but the print presented here is in quite poor condition. It is rather faded and grainy, the colours largely dulled down to a brownish tint. Shadow detail is consequently almost non-existent, and when there are darker scenes, the amount of fading can be clearly seen in a wide band down the left hand side of the frame, particularly in the first half-hour of the film. The soft fuzziness suggests an old low-definition source, perhaps a master for a video release. It is however presented anamorphically here in the, I assume, original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. It’s not unwatchable, and there is little in the way of marks or damage, but the flaws are quite evident and can be rather distracting.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track is similarly rather lo-fi. It’s rough, echoing and lacking any real tone, but has no problems with noise or hiss and hold up pretty well with the basic requirements of dialogue and the musical numbers that are so essential in conveying the tone of Kusturica’s film.
English subtitles are in a white font and are optional.
The principal extra feature here is an Interview with Emir Kusturica (32:18), the director reflecting back on the time the film was made, as well as the influences and the attitude that went into it. Everything seemed to have come together at the right time for the director, in terms of his ability and finding the means to depict something of personal meaning and value. Like Kieslowski’s Polish films, his interest was not in the politics of the period, but in finding a more human means of expressing the everyday things that matter to people in certain conditions. The interview goes on to take in the director’s view of cinema as something bigger than life, and how Hollywood used to be able to peddle this dream. The remainder of the features on the disc are a text-based Emir Kusturica Biography and three powerfully compelling trailers for the larger-than-life antics of Black Cat White Cat (1:36), Underground (1:05) and Life Is A Miracle (1:42).
Rude and crude, yet sensitive and touching, Emir Kusturica’s first feature film bears many of the hallmarks of a depiction of the richness of life that would become more familiar and greatly exaggerated in the director’s later films to ever more humorous effect and with ever increasing virtuosity. In Do You Remember Dolly Bell? however you can see the autobiographical roots of the those films in a rather more delicately paced manner with considered deliberation and surprisingly assured ease. The film looks beautiful, is poetically scripted and filmed, managing to strike a perfect balance between its delicate, nostalgic coming of age reminiscence and the whole loud and chaotic experience of life in 1960’s Sarajevo. Artificial Eye don’t seem to have access to the best print elements, or perhaps this is the best that can be expected, but it’s certainly well below their usual A/V standards, looking like VHS quality at best. It doesn’t overly affect the joys of the film, and they have included a strong and relevant extra feature in the form of an interview with the director on his views of the film and its background.