(Shawn Convey’s documentary debut, Among Wolves is still making the festival rounds…)
In a land not yet recovered from a decades-old civil war, a group of men gathers regularly to reminisce about past experiences and train the next generation for a meaningful future. This is Bosnia and Herzegovina, site of a horrific genocidal conflict in the 1990s, and the men are part of the Wolves, a close-knit club of bikers centered in the town of Livno, home to club leader Lija. Drawn from a variety of local ethnicities, they stand in contrast to the violent history that birthed their federation. The younger ones have little to no recollection of the atrocities, but learn of them from their elders, all the while forging newer, better memories for the years ahead. It’s a peaceful covenant, born of misery, and we are the lucky ones who bear witness to this transformation in director Shawn Convey’s documentary debut, Among Wolves.
Among the interesting variety of charitable acts the men perform – donating blood, helping nuns, etc. – perhaps the most touching is their self-selection as guardians of the region’s wild horses. These magnificent creatures, beautifully photographed against the rugged backdrop of the Dinaric Alps, are very much in need of such aid. Targeted both during and after the war for food and sport, their population dropped to dangerously low levels. Finally, they were officially given protected status. Someone – or many “someones” – has to take up the charge, however. Enter the Wolves, who defy their name and here behave like herding dogs, tracking the animals, helping them across busy roads, and keeping tabs on their numbers. For many of the older men, still haunted by the war, it brings peace. For us, it makes for visually evocative, poignant cinema.
Convey does more than just profile this unique association, though that would be enough to make a good movie. Instead, he uses the men’s stories to meditate on the long-term effects of violent bloodshed on survivors and perpetrators, alike (Lija apparently gave as good as he got). Their own relationship to past deeds is complicated. “None of us are guilty for having served in war,” declares one. This is the truth, but not the entirety of it. As they visit a memorial to discarded tanks and guns, we wonder about the mixture of nostalgia and regret they feel, looking at these brutal military artifacts. Convey also subtly examines the complicated socio-political situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina today, foregrounding his subject’s complaints about the cost of food (always going up) vs. the cost of phones (always going down); as Lija says, “One needs food, not phones, to live.” That is truth, plain and simple.
If there is one element I would have liked the director to explore further, it’s the men’s family lives and the role of women in their world (both personally and societally). Though the Wolves are gentle giants, they are still prone to the usual machismo of any collection of males across the globe. One SUV even has a sticker on its door, in Croatian, with the words “Reserved for Chuck Norris.” Of course it does, given the man’s everlasting status as viral virile meme! We do sometimes see the men with children, and an occasional woman in the background (and then there are those nuns), but never any substantive interactions beyond that. Lija even tells his club members not to bring wives to a gathering. There’s plenty of narrative without such material, and the film is still profoundly affecting; I was just left wanting to understand how participation in the Wolves affects the men’s behavior outside the group. That note aside, Among Wolves, with its tale of serenity born of turbulence, is a lovely paean to the indomitable human spirit and its capacity for recovery and growth.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)