60th Ann Arbor Film Festival: Two lost souls meet on a small Bosnian island in "Looking for Horses"


A still from the film Looking for Horses featuring a close-up of an older man with deep creases on his face, his chin resting on his right hand

Photo courtesy of Lightdox

Stefan Pavlovic’s Looking for Horses begins in a deep mist and heavy clouds. The image, shot with a hand-held camera, shifts wildly, moving from choppy lake waters to a menacing sky of black clouds. 

This sets the tone for a film about a rich, emotional friendship between the young filmmaker Pavlovic and a reclusive Bosnian fisherman.

Pavlovic is a filmmaker based in Amsterdam. He returned to his family’s native home of Bosnia where he met the fisherman, Zdravko, who has been living alone on a small island for 18 years. He rarely goes into the nearby town of Orah. He has set up living space in an abandoned chapel over the last five years, having lived in small shacks around the island. 

Zdravko was a soldier in the Bosnian war. He lost his hearing. Later he lost sight in one eye in an accident. His face is deeply wrinkled. He smokes cigarette after cigarette. He’s gruff but welcomes the attention of the young filmmaker, touched by the idea that he would be a worthy topic for a documentary.

It must have become clear to Pavlovic while shooting Zdravko that there was a connection between the two men. The film breaks away from Zdravko’s story to broken bits of film showing street scenes, family scenes, and raging electrical storms. These are visual equivalents to Pavlovic’s stutter and the poetic imagery the director invokes in speaking of his family, his youth and his struggles with his speech impairment. As Zdravko suffers from his past, Pavlovic struggles with the stutter that has robbed him of his native tongue. He speaks mostly in slow, measured English.

We watch as Zdravko proudly demonstrates his fishing skills as well as his love of nature and the open skies. He has been on the lookout for a herd of horses that he hasn’t seen since they were moved off the island.

“The war affected me psychologically and the island saved me,” he tells Pavlovic. “It’s all good.”

The two men banter. The older man teaches the young filmmaker how to fish, how to navigate a boat through shallow water, and how to accept what life has given him.

Zdravko’s memories of war are especially poignant. 

The current situation in Ukraine comes immediately to mind when Zdravko says, “Damned is the man who has to go to war. You start out a normal person and you become a murderer.”

This is not a movie about despair. It’s about small triumphs. Zdravko makes some changes that might make it easier to live with others. Pavlovic learns from his friend that despite all of life's burdens, “It’s all good.”

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

"Looking for Horses" will screen in competition at the Ann Arbor Film Festival on March 24 at 5 pm at the Michigan Theater, or online starting March 22 at 6 p.m. Tickets are available here. Visit aafilmfest.org for the full schedule (March 22-27).

➥ "Two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl—another look at 'Looking for Horses'" [Pulp]