The Not-So-Ordinary Acts of ORDINARY PEOPLE

GFI Board Member Igor Kirman on Vladimir Perisic’s question of mind versus morality

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.” –Hannah Arendt, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil”

“If the person for some reason knew it was illegal … and still obeyed it, he could not use the de-fense of obedience of orders …. Do you really need to bring a bunch of intelligent people into the room and tell them not to shoot babies?” –William Eckhard, Chief Prosecutor, My Lai court martial

A scene from Vladimir Perisic's ORDINARY PEOPLE

At the heart of Serbian writer-director Vladimir Perisic’s chilling film, ORDINARY PEOPLE, is the long-vexing question of whether morally depraved actions—in this case, the shoot-ing of unarmed men by a group of young soldiers—can be excused on the grounds that the perpetrators were following orders. The film succeeds in great measure by making this question harder to answer than may at first appear.

The plot is minimalist, with slow-takes and sparse dialogue. Although the director is careful not to locate the action, in time or place, to lend the film an air of universal significance, the language (Serbian) and other clues suggest the action takes somewhere in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. The protagonist is Dzoni, a young and recent army recruit who is struggling to fit in. We see him briefly in barracks, pursuing ordinary acts such as making his cot and eating breakfast, before his squad is summoned to a bus for an unspecified mission. The destination turns out to be an army outpost in a field, and during the ride the radio spins out “news” of unnamed terrorist activity in the area. The young soldiers are shown waiting in the baking sun, passing the time by sipping water, smoking cigarettes and making small talk. Then, as a truckload of non-uniformed prisoners arrives, they are told to “take care of the enemy,” following which they march into a field to stand behind the kneeling prisoners, whom they shoot dead in the back. The young soldiers then smoke more cigarettes, drink some cheap vodka, and continue to wait until more trucks arrive, at which point the ghastly ritual is repeated several times over.

Initially, Dzoni (alone among the squad) is shown to hesitate, clearly uncomfortable by the quickly unfolding drama in which he is playing the executioner’s role. But as the day progresses, his reluctance seemingly fades and at one point he embraces the killing act in a violent spasm. On the bus ride back, when it seems that the unit may once again be pressed into “helping” with a group of prisoners, Dzoni blurts out “I’m tired” and the group is excused. Back at the barracks, his stern commander sees him in the bathroom and, after admonishing him to aim better next time around, hauntingly observes, “Nobody forced you. Understand?”

The commander is right, of course, in a technical sense. When Dzoni, upon first learning of the grisly task expected of him, says “I can’t,” his commander and squad stare at him and simply walk out, whereupon he chooses to join them anyway. The coercion is not shown to be physical, in the form of beatings or threat of court-martial; but rather, it is psychological, through the fear of being judged, ostracized and excluded from the group. The director seeks to complicate the seemingly easy moral judgment by removing some of our intellectual distance from such matters. He succeeds partially, by conveying that even atrocities are best understood in context—in this case, a young recruit faced with a split-second judgment in the face of few facts outside of state propaganda, and subject to group pressure compounded by factors such as patriotism, a superior’s order and a background of wartime carnage. In fact, there is some suggestion that the prisoners are in fact combatants despite their casual clothes, yet it is also clear that they are being executed in secret. Each of us would like to think that we would have had the moral courage to resist such an order even under such circumstances, but by titling the film the way he does, is the director implying that it might be only the extraordinary person who would do so?

The film, however, uses a ploy to get the viewer even to this point of moral indecision. We see how, in the space of a mere few hours, a young man without any predisposition to kill—an ordinary man?—can turn into a mass murderer of unarmed men, albeit with some qualms along the way. But by seeing the action through the eyes of Dzoni over only a single day, it is easy to forget the constructed nature of his mitigating circumstances. In the real world, perpetrators of atrocities are often repeat actors, with better information and more time than Dzoni had to make a decision. In fact, the other members of his squad seem to be old hands and none of them are shown to exhibit any moral unease with the executions. When Dzoni asks one of his comrades how many shots he took that day—in other words, how many men he killed—the soldier merely says “I don’t know, the same as the others.” Whatever partial excuse the viewer might be tempted to contemplate for Dzoni’s actions that first day, there is less reason to extend the same moral considerations to his comrades or, for that matter, to Dzoni himself the next time around.

In fact, any attempt to universalize Dzoni’s experience into a suggestion of moral absolution for perpetrators of massacres and other crimes against humanity deserves to fail. To question whether a Dzoni can be excused is not the same as to question whether an Eichmann or a Mladic should be. Perhaps the director is merely suggesting that the rank-and-file deserve special consideration, that they, and not their superiors, are the “ordinary people” of the film’s title. Surely, there is some room to draw different moral and legal judgments about superiors giving orders and low-level soldiers executing them, or else what to make of Congo’s child soldiers? On the other hand, this line of thinking can be taken too far (after all, which superiors have no superiors?), as has been shown by the near-universal failure of the “superior orders doctrine” defense in the West, from its first recognized appearance in the 15th century through the present. Perhaps even an ordinary person can become a moral monster through his actions.

Moral judgments, as distinct from legal ones, are the prerogative of all of us, and Ordinary People gives us a couch-front opportunity to think about controversial topics. But the film is also a reminder that moral judgments are hard work, because they need to be made individually and take into account a plethora of details and considerations. It is never enough to say that all those who follow orders are excused, just as it is not enough to say that they are all guilty. Each person’s story needs to be examined, or in the case of Dzoni, seen.

Igor Kirman is a Board Member of the Global Film Initiative and partner in the law firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. His writing has been published in the Christian Science Monitor and various professional publications, and he is a previous recipient of the Scribes Law Review Writing Award. Igor was born in the Ukraine and currently lives in New York, New York. 

ORDINARY PEOPLE will be available for purchase through the Global Film Initiative’s website on September 27th. It was originally presented in theaters as part of Global Lens 2010 along with nine other films from around the world—click here to read more about this and other new releases!

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