Even for people who follow the news assiduously, the Bosnian War that followed the break-up of the former Yugoslavia was a baffling affair with many sides and hard-to-comprehend conflicts. The new documentary about Bosnian war veterans, Among the Wolves, directed by Shawn Convey and photographed by Martin Langner, will do nothing either to clear up the lingering confusion nor to re-examine a war that led to the worst mass killings in Europe since the end of the Stalinist era in Russia.
What Among Wolves does, instead, is to provide a tender and low-key observation of the aftereffects of the war on one group of veterans who belong to a motorcycle club called the Wolves (hence the slightly misleading title) who fought in the small mountainous town of Livno, near the Western border of present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina.
But really, these war veterans (it’s never quite clear from the documentary itself whether they were regular troops or paramilitary) could be anywhere. The point of this beautifully photographed film is to universalize, not to particularize – to show how soldiers and other survivors of trauma anywhere in the world can heal themselves, in part by healing others. This is conveyed implicitly, and quietly; there is no narrator. We simply observe the Wolves as they live their lives – donating blood, exploring derelict tanks and howitzers, revisiting the front lines where they fought, meeting to discuss club rules — and we draw our own conclusions.
But the heart of this documentary is neither about motorcycles nor armed conflict. It is, instead, and rather unexpectedly, about caring for wild and dispossessed creatures.
The members of the Wolves not only meet, talk about, and ride their motorcycles, many of them also protect a neglected and abused herd of wild horses nearby. The herd of horses is under threat from leftover ordnance from the war, from villagers taking potshots at them, and from a dwindling water supply, but the Wolves watch over them and help them to survive. The closely observed scenes of the interaction between the men and the horses – and often, of the horses by themselves – are memorable and touching, especially when one considers the time and patience it must have taken for the Wolves to gain the trust of these traumatized animals. It’s probably analogous, to some degree, to the patient way that Convey gained the trust of the Wolves themselves.
The symbolism is clear. The horses, like the men, are an isolated, largely forgotten group of individuals that have survived great brutality and are still struggling to manage the after-effects. But there is both a difference and a similarity. The difference is that, unlike humans, horses are not capable of committing acts of brutality themselves. The similarity, of course, is that both humans and horses can help others to heal. As we watch these survivors of war caring for these beautiful, wild animals, it isn’t hard to wonder who is helping whom more.