60th Ann Arbor Film Festival: Two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl—another look at "Looking for Horses"


A still from the film Looking for Horses of a man with a weathered face and a cigarette in his mouth with a large lake in the background

Photo courtesy of Lightdox

Stefan Pavlović's Looking for Horses is a glimpse into the real-life story of an unlikely friendship.

A fisherman named Zdravko was in the Bosnian War in the first half of the '90s and sacrificed his youth as a soldier. A grenade left him severely hearing impaired and another accident took his right eye. Director Pavlović grew up in Bosnia and was exposed to four languages, but he suffers from stuttering in his mother tongue Serbocroatian, which he understands imperfectly. The two friends are of different generations and temperaments and communicate in sometimes halting speech. Pavlović’s patient listening often allows Zdravko the opportunity to talk at length, reflecting on life and fishing strategies.

Zdravko spends his days on a lake in a small motorboat while Pavlović films him. We see the island church, now abandoned, where Zdravko lived for several years, surviving through the cold in a small sheltered room. Pavlović has joined him for his fishing adventures motivated by something else that remains hidden from us.

So many unanswered questions arise. How did Stefan and Zdravko meet? How does Zdravko live? (For all the time spent on the boat fishing, we never see him catch anything.) What do they each get out of their friendship?

But that’s not really the point.

If we knew the answers, would it change anything?

Like a window into their lives that is only open for a short time before its shutters close, we peer in, knowing only that the two share something humble and kind.

There’s something so incredibly immersive about this film. The raw footage from Pavlović’s camera captures the jerky swings of his body while walking, the arc of his arm as he changes his attention, the slightly out-of-focus images that make it into the final cut. Dogs approach him, conversations hesitate and falter, nothing is staged or reenacted. You always feel like you are right there, bound by something you can’t put your finger on. Is it companionship? Sorrow? Wisdom?

The language barrier between the two also makes this strangely compelling and real. Anyone who has strained to understand another language, hesitant to either admit their ignorance or risk ire by asking someone to repeat their statement again, will understand the constant underlying stress of living in a language that they do not wholly possess.

This movie is not about war, but partway through watching it, I realized it could not be ignored. Zdravko states several times that he lost his youth in the war and that everyone is changed by it. Soldiers could shoot an enemy as easily as taking a drink. He prays to God to never send anyone to war again.

But war has returned to Europe nonetheless.

By the movie’s end, Zdravko has returned to his island church to live alone with dubious health and an uncertain future. The beautiful life “kao bubreg u loju” may never come again for him.

Christopher Becker is a library technician at AADL.

"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 meet on a small Bosnian island in 'Looking for Horses'" [Pulp]