More interested in its subjects than taking political or ethnic sides, Among Wolves captures life after war with raw, affecting honesty.
About the breakup of Yugoslavia many outsiders have spoken, but very few have listened. Books have been published, news segments have rolled ad nauseum, politicians have referenced and re-referenced. Yet never have we heard from those who didn’t pick up and head home when it was all over, those left behind to pick up the pieces, those most able to provide the truth of experience for one simple fact: they were already home. Among Wolves gives voice to those who were never talking heads or hot-aired political mouthpieces, to the anti-primetime. Unsurprisingly, they are much more compelling.
In western Bosnia, up in the mountains, in the remote town of Livno, there is a biker club. The Wolves, as they are called, make up a hardened lot—all leather, buzzcuts, and piercings—all veterans to a man. Patrolling the roads and regions that were once the battlegrounds of the Bosnian War, they now devote their time to protecting a threatened herd of wild horses they first met as young men on the front line. With the horses as silent companions, the men confront their past traumas, transforming those quiet fields into a space for healing. As documentary subjects go, it’s riveting stuff, made even more so by director Shawn Convey’s brilliant decision to do what few with cameras had done before, to shut up and listen.
The Wolves are a multi-ethnic biker club made up of men who were quite probably on opposite sides of the war. Now, with that shared experience behind them but a whole host of shared trauma to untangle, they work together to tend the horses and organize charity events for their impoverished town. Following them through their daily routines, among the herd, among their neighbors, among themselves, we are treated to something unique in the documentary space: an observational, agenda-less style, as close to complete objectivity as you can get. No doubt Convey has his own views on the region, but he keeps them out of this film, posing nary a question to our leather-clad protagonists, instead letting them speak what they feel is appropriate when they feel it’s appropriate. There is a refreshing lack of politization that frees audiences from the why and how, and instead let’s us focus on the humanity and healing these men have found in the most unexpected of places. And they’re unflinchingly honest. They talk about what they saw, what they did, oftentimes showing the exact spots where they fought, the exact war machines they used, even finding old shells and spent cartridges up in the mountains among their equine counterparts. It’s all unbelievably effecting on the most human of scales. With no music or manipulative effects, we’re left to connect simply with the men themselves and what they tell us, and especially with what they don’t.
That’s not to say that there are no filmmaking techniques employed in Among Wolves. The cinematography is genuinely breathtaking. Sweeping shots of fog-embraced mountains, rays of sun timidly poking through a thin morning film of cloud cover. With the lack of soundtrack, we can instead shower the camerawork with all the musical metaphors available. Let’s call it visual symphony. It all serves to beautify this journey the bikers are on, to thread their connection to the wild horses of these mountains, majestic animals on the verge of disappearing, that fight on through the rigors of life. The connection between these spirited creatures and the Wolves is layered in poignancy. Though the shells and bombs have quieted around them, life is still uncertain. The dangers, external to the horses and internal to the men, are still present. Going on, day after day, is its own challenge. As one of the men states, the hard part began after the war was over, when it was time to figure out what came next. That is why, after a youth spent tearing down, they now throw themselves into building up. They raise money to buy new hospital equipment, refinish battered old houses, rewire faulty outlets at the local children’s daycare. And, when the need arises, when the open air of their now-medicinal old battlefields call, they roam among their horses, trading comfort with the animals, reclaiming their humanity.
This is a unique documentary in its look at the aftermath of war on the human psyche. Through its unfailing observational style, strictly honed in on its subjects and their experience, the film quietly transcends many flashier produced documentaries. All the more kudos for tackling it in the historically complex region of the Balkans with a patient finesse, trusting The Wolves to deliver on the stories of their lives without force or pressure. Firmly planted in objectivity, uninterested in reliving historical contexts and socio-political climate, Among Wolves succeeds in a wonderfully human portrait of trauma and healing. Home is where the heart is, but when it’s where the war is too, then redemption is all you have to avoid emotional obliteration. In today’s cynical world, we may be skeptical of the capacity to achieve this, but a small, multi-ethnic group of bikers in a tiny mountainside town in Bosnia might just surprise you.