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Through the Graves the Wind Is Blowing (Travis Wilkerson, 2024)

In the opening images of Travis Wilkerson’s new feature, Through the Graves the Wind Is Blowing, a gentle breeze wafts through the sparse trees in Split, a booming tourist town on the coast of Croatia. The mostly black-and-white film is a travelogue of sorts: Wilkerson, who had moved to Split in 2022 with the aim of making a film about the breakup of Yugoslavia, found inspiration instead in his struggle to read himself—as a visitor from the United States—into a new place brimming with history and shaped by a fraught relationship to the West. The co-writer/director makes that uncertainty part of the film’s staged conceit, in which a local detective named Ivan (played by Wilkerson’s friend Ivan Peric) tells viewers absurd tales about his futile attempts to solve murders—mostly of tourists—in Split. Through Ivan’s eyes, the mixed emotions that Split’s inhabitants have regarding tourism—relying on it economically, yet resenting the unruliness and disrespect of visitors—comes to the fore, offering insights into bureaucracy, xenophobia, and political polarization in modern-day Croatia.

Across his filmography, Wilkerson has examined the enduring presence of historical violence. His previous films have focused on labor struggles in the United States (An Injury to One, 2002), the lack of prospects for youths in many of America’s economically ailing towns (Who Killed Cock Robin?, 2005), and the legacy of white supremacy and racism in his own Southern family (Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, 2017). In Through the Graves the Wind Is Blowing, too, he meditates on the past through the lens of the current moment. Interwoven with the scenes featuring Ivan are austere images of Split’s landscape and architecture, captured by Wilkerson as he wanders through the city. His eye lingers on the remnants of former Yugoslavia’s socialist-realist buildings and communist-rebel monuments. Their decay is visceral, as are the more recent signs of political unrest: graffitied all around in plain sight are the symbols of the local fascist movement, the Ustaše, which emerged in the 1930s, when Croatia gained independent status by aligning itself with the Nazis. Wilkerson employs a mordant, tongue-in-cheek tone to explore this somber historical context and its present-day ramifications, echoing the tradition of the Yugoslav Black Wave—a 1960s film movement that blended fiction and often bleak satire with documentary elements, challenging both filmic form and sociopolitical realities.

I spoke with Wilkerson at this year’s Berlinale, where Through the Graves the Wind Is Blowing premiered in the Encounters section. More recently, the film earned a special jury mention at the Las Palmas de Gran Canaria International Film Festival, and is screening June 15 at FICUNAM, a weeklong festival taking place in Mexico City.

Through the Graves the Wind Is Blowing is an homage to the Yugoslav New Wave from the 1960s. What aspects of the movement resonate with you today?

I first saw those films in college. They were more like artifacts then, but I have a very strong connection to the histories of Third Cinemas. As I’ve gotten older, I began seeing the Black Wave as a kindred movement that emerged at a very similar time. It’s not a coincidence that it emerged in a country that was the center of the Non-Aligned Movement. The Black Wave films were hybridized, combining documentary and fiction. They used the essay form, dark humor, and other discursive strategies, and were fragmented in ways that I found fascinating. What they were doing more than anything else is naming things that hadn’t yet been named. For Dušan Makavejev, for instance, his films were very much about gender relations in Yugoslavia. The reason Želimir Žilnik’s Black Film (1971) has been central to me is because it asks: if homelessness exists, but the state denies it, how do we make it real? When I spent a year in Croatia and watched those films again, it struck me that their ideas make a lot of sense now, to name things that are otherwise ignored. I began to think about what would happen if I tried using my extremely modest means to combine fiction with documentary and essay, and seriousness and melancholy with humor, in ways that I admired in those films.

I often get a sense that the struggles of the working class are underrepresented in Western cinema. Your films are intensely personal, while also connecting to larger issues of labor and politics. How did you come to your own brand of engaged filmmaking?

My parents went to medical school after I was a teenager, so we basically changed classes. My mom was a teenager when I was born. My father had just returned from the Vietnam War. They were white working-class people trying to figure out some version of social conscience. They both felt like they’d come from problematic backgrounds. My mother is from the racist South, which was unsettling to her. My father felt like he had been on the wrong side of the Vietnam War and was traumatized. We moved over and over again. By the time we ended up in Butte, Montana, the entire city was collapsing. Eventually, I went to the University of Michigan and witnessed [the decline] on a grander scale in Detroit. Did American workers just give up? No. They were repressed; they were sabotaged.

My first film [Accelerated Under-Development: In the Idiom of Santiago Álvarez, 1999] was about trying to pay homage to [Cuban filmmaker] Santiago Álvarez. I sort of accidentally met him in my twenties. He was quite old, and was feeling that he was being forgotten. I thought that he’d been unfairly written out; I took a course on Latin America cinema in college and he wasn’t even in it. When I finished [making the film], I was like, “Oh, I guess I make movies now,” but the biggest thing was raising his profile. I felt like I [still] needed to figure out a way to work more with stuff that was really connected to my life. I was studying at CalArts with Thom Andersen, James Benning, and Billy Woodberry then. I spent two years seeing a lot of stuff, but then felt a bit suffocated. I just didn’t know how to find what was mine. I took a year and a half off and got a job as a projectionist. I needed to follow my impulses and find stuff I cared about, on my own terms.

Unlike in your previous films, you chose not to use archival images in this one. Instead, you play with color and even digital effects, for instance in scenes featuring an animated Croatian fascist flag. 

I’m always wrestling with the question of what can and cannot be represented. Fascism is deeply overdetermined, in the sense of being associated with a specific set of iconographic imagery. I wanted to figure out a way to disrupt the monochromatic image that’s predominant. So, for the ’90s footage, I pumped up the color saturation. That footage was already colorful, but I amplified it slightly. I was drawn to the idea that normally, older images would be in black-and-white and newer ones would be in color, and I wanted to invert that. I asked myself what I could do to describe the Croatian fascists. Every time I looked at the Croatian flag, I wondered what would happen if I tried to [animate] it somehow. It became a way to make something present now.

Do you feel that those fascist images are more overdetermined than the images of the Ku Klux Klan in your last film? It seems like there’s also a specific iconography at play in Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?

I would say that there’s an overdetermination in the sense that there’s an absence of honesty about the Ustaše, who are interconnected with a regime that’s identified with the emergence of the nation. For a long period, fascism was largely suppressed, but then it exploded back into life in the ’90s. Honestly, now it seems stronger than ever. It’s not in the film, but I was in Croatia during the last World Cup. Members of Croatia’s team had the Ustaše symbols on their uniforms. And everybody would say, “It’s not because they’re Nazis. It’s because they’re patriots.”

I can see why people might think that I had contempt for the place, because the film is so dark, but I felt the constant presence of that discourse and of the swastikas on the walls. It’s everywhere, accepted as a completely normal thing. If you say anything, it’s pointed out that it’s not really what you think, and that most people don’t understand how important [the Ustaše] were. Recently, in Split, someone painted a big, elaborate fascist mural, and there was all kinds of political pressure to take it down, but [other] people defended it.

There’s definitely a sense of suffocation in the sequence where you walk through your neighborhood in Split and count the fascist symbols on the walls of houses and in public spaces. You find 200 in just 26 minutes. 

I was going to do it for a full hour. When I set out to do it, I asked people to guess how many I would find. They said 10. I knew it was going to be more than that, but when I hit 50, I was like, “Oh my god.”

Ivan Peric, who appears as the hapless detective unable to solve murders, is a filmmaker in real life. How did you come to co-write the script with him?

Ivan’s a friend. We were talking about the tourism issue in Split; it’s something that he thinks about a lot. The more we discussed it, the more the story that we were imagining began to couple with his life as a producer. He didn’t produce this film, but it’s what he does professionally. The level of interference and bureaucracy he deals with in real life is the same as what Ivan’s character deals with in the film. He spends three months trying to get a permit to shoot in a certain location, and when he shows up, he is told that the woman who grants it is on vacation and will be back in two months. [In the film], Ivan is in a way being himself, but reenacting his experiences through a different lens.

Ivan narrates at least one real case, about a local who nearly died when a statue of a communist partisan leader he was trying to deface fell on him. Are the other cases fictitious?

They are things that, let’s say, didn’t seem like a giant leap—they seemed feasible. I had this notion to use some of the same methods that Hong Sangsoo uses, where he gets up in the morning and writes a scene, and then [the actors] create it in a somewhat improvised way—but in a political essay film. I had a general scenario to begin with, but then day by day I’d get up and write a series of proposals. Then we would meet up and talk about it, and figure out a way to enact it.

This reminds me that Third Cinema filmmakers produced films with impossibly little means, often in highly fraught political and economic climates, like dictatorships. They were films about the impossibility of making films.

The films of the Yugoslav Black Wave and Third Cinemas are wonderful. I also think that in both cases, they were truncated. They didn’t complete their natural trajectory. I guess in Latin America, it’s basically because of the police dictatorships that overthrew governments in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, over and over again. In Yugoslavia, people left and gave up in frustration. I’m always drawn to the idea of movements that make proposals that they didn’t take to their absolute end points, because then it’s something that we can learn from, reinvigorate, and place in the world now.

Ela Bittencourt is a writer who contributes essays on film and art to such international publications as Artforum and Frieze magazine. She’s currently living in Berlin.