Review of ‘Through the Graves the Wind is Blowing’: Travis Wilkerson’s Playful, Political Exploration in Split, Croatia

“The unsolved murders of several tourists in Croatia’s second city become the pretext for a spirited, mercurial exploration of the former Yugoslav state’s relationship to fascism.”

Through the Graves the Wind is Blowing

While the city of Split has long been a tourist hotspot, renowned for its picturesque Old Town with churches and flagstones, as well as the stunning Croatian coastline, not all visitors come for cultural exploration. Some are drawn to the city’s rowdy bars and cheap drinks, with little knowledge of its historical significance beyond recognizing the medieval fortress as a “Game of Thrones” filming location.

Split also served as a temporary home for US filmmaker Travis Wilkerson, known for “Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?” During his stay, Wilkerson initially intended to create a film about the dissolution of Yugoslavia but ultimately abandoned the project. He candidly shares this with the audience at the start of “Through the Graves the Wind is Blowing,” the film he created in lieu of his original plan. Despite this admission of compromise, the resulting film is a witty, poignant, eccentric, and captivating outsider’s perspective on the deeply divided city of Split.

Wilkerson introduces local homicide detective Ivan Peric, a character reminiscent of a deconstructed neo-noir archetype: a world-weary Sam Spade with shades of Paul Auster and Franz Kafka. Peric, who reluctantly joined the police force to avoid the tourism industry, finds himself in a peculiar position, assigned to investigate cases that no one else wants, particularly the murders of several holidaymakers in the area. Despite his intentions to avoid the tourism sector, Peric ironically finds himself “working in tourism anyway,” as he delves into these cases.

Wilkerson swiftly dispels any sensationalist notions surrounding these murders, emphasizing that the film is not a true-crime exposé. Instead, he presents the deaths, narrated in Peric’s lugubrious police-report style at the locations where they occurred, as rather absurd and unconnected. However, each death serves as evidence of the locals’ disdain for the disrespectful behavior of tourists who treat their town with disregard, manifesting in intense animosity towards them.

Peric encounters insurmountable apathy and potential obstruction as he investigates his cases, which are rapidly losing momentum. The spear, likely a replica from “Game of Thrones,” used in one murder, mysteriously disappears. Additionally, authorities refuse to grant him access to another crime scene, as it’s a popular local attraction where the victim was allegedly killed for taking too many selfies. They justify their decision by citing the inability to shut down the attraction during peak tourist season.

Despite Peric’s efforts to focus on the investigations, Split itself emerges as another primary character in the film. Through Wilkerson’s gorgeously high-contrast black-and-white frames, the city begins to assert itself, vying for the viewer’s attention and becoming an integral part of the narrative.

This portrayal of Split is far removed from any depiction found in tourist brochures. Wilkerson’s camera shifts its focus to the city’s suburbs, capturing scenes of derelict malls, abandoned motels, and once-futuristic plazas now overrun with weeds and covered in graffiti. Against these striking dystopian backdrops, often mirrored in the reflective surfaces of standing water, Wilkerson narrates his unique interpretation of Split’s 20th-century history.

He delves into the city’s shameful relationship with fascism, tracing Croatia’s history as an independent state back to its inception under the Ustaše, the local fascist party installed as a puppet regime by the Nazis in 1941. This narrative highlights the inextricable link between Croatian nationalism and its dark far-right past.

Wilkerson discovers this association imprinted across the city today, evident in the disturbing prevalence of swastika and Ustaše-symbol graffiti, deeply ingrained within the local football scene, and manifesting in its most sinister form at the Jasenovac concentration camp. Jasenovac holds the grim distinction of being the largest European extermination facility not constructed by the Germans, reflecting a dark chapter in Croatia’s history.

However, alongside this dark narrative, Split also has a history of resistance, resilience, and heroic acts of self-sacrifice, which Wilkerson highlights in his narration. Particularly satisfying is his recounting of the story of Rade Koncar, the WWII partisan whose statue, in 2018, fell onto a drunken neo-fascist attempting to deface it. With a hint of satisfaction, Wilkerson remarks, “Rade Koncar, still disrupting fascists 70 years after they killed him,” drawing attention to the enduring legacy of resistance against fascism.

The irreverent and intimate voiceover serves as one method through which Wilkerson injects his dynamically entertaining film with a sense of levity, effectively mitigating any potential pretension or self-seriousness. Additionally, he establishes a unique bond with the viewer by showcasing the filmmaking process itself, including its rough edges, errata, and false starts.

It’s ironic and somewhat subversive that the film’s punchy imagery, characterized by hyperreal photography, on-screen text, blood-spatter overlays, and CCTV footage, adopts an agitprop aesthetic. Despite this aesthetic, Wilkerson’s agenda is the polar opposite of propaganda. Instead of promoting a particular ideology, he questions dogmas and challenges certainties, resulting in “Through the Graves the Wind is Blowing” becoming a beautifully monochromatic meditation on the nuanced complexities of life, where nothing is truly black and white.

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