How far would you go to gain acceptance from your peers? Nina Ljeti’s Divine Children draws us into a post-apocalyptic America, where the only valuable thing beneath a horizon of unspoken danger is hope itself. The film invites us to consider the limits of human courage in a world populated by teenage characters living on the outskirts of a demolished society. Will aspiring dancer, Buzz, be able to endure the ultimate game of chicken and cross an active minefield to become part of his gang?
Despite the film’s elliptical storytelling, or maybe because of it, Nina Ljeti manages to create a beautiful but uncomfortable universe for her characters and viewers to explore. By only vaguely brushing upon motivations, and largely ignoring exposition, the immediacy of the film’s emotions and images take center stage. The undisclosed circumstances of this post-apocalyptical world can be as frustrating as they are liberating, but one doesn’t have to know how these teenagers got here or what danger lurks in the distance in order to be swept away by the fabulous atmosphere that Ljeti crafts.
The feeling of constant threat could be seen as a metaphor for the anxiety in our own contemporary world, constantly looming in the near distance to set off an emotional or physical over-reaction without any explainable reason. On the other hand, it may be more simple than that, and Ljeti deliberately chose to withhold much of the background information in the film, trusting the audience to fill in the gaps and linger in her strong and confident world building. Reflecting on the motivation behind the story, Nina Ljeti’s inspiration for Divine Children in fact came from a very real and personal place:
The film was inspired, in part, by what life was like for kids in the aftermath of the Bosnian War. I was born there in 1991, and in 1992, the civil war broke out. [I was] fortunate enough that my father anticipated the war, and we managed to make it to Canada before it was too late. I wanted to write a story about the kids who weren’t so fortunate. Kids that grew up in a volatile political environment and were denied basic freedoms and opportunities, but still had the imagination and optimism to dream of a better future. [… ] I decided to move the setting of our story to America– where the sociopolitical atmosphere suddenly didn’t seem so different to how Bosnia was on the eve of the war. However, the characters stayed the same. The themes of hope and innocence never shifted.
The film’s open-ending and truncated narrative makes it in many ways equivalent to proof-of-concept sci-fi short films, and Divine Children has the potential to serve as a cornerstone for a larger story set among this dystopian society where adults seemingly have been eliminated and a modern version of Lord of the Flies has been implemented. Divine Children indeed was conceptualized as a blueprint for a feature and the film team hopes to attract additional producers and investors for the longer version with the online release of the short.
It’s to the director’s credit that the short also works in its own right however. Ljeti’s departures from conventional storytelling never feel like a trick or an experiment, but a deliberate choice to forego a classic plotting in order to dwell in a filmmaking style that leans more on mood than plot.
Aside from Divine Children, Nina Ljeti already has a lot to show for her talents as a filmmaker: a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, in 2013 she wrote and directed her first feature film, Memoria, starring James Franco and Thomas Mann (Me, Earl and the Dying Girl), and was listed in MovieMaker Magazine as one of 25 Screenwriters To Watch in 2016. She also acted in films such as About Cherry, The Color of Time and Child of God, before quitting acting entirely to become a film director in order to gain “more control over [her] art.“ Ljeti is currently in post-production on her first documentary film entitled, Bosnia, My Love, about her family’s escape from the war.
Coming back to Divine Children, on a lighter note, I couldn’t help but think of a post-credits sequence from an episode of Rick and Morty, where an alien describes his experiences on earth: “There was violence, threats of poison gas — but also dancing.”
We never get to know what causes the distress and lingering threat in the short, but as long as the characters find rare instances of camaraderie or make some room to dance — as long as they have hope — they will live to see another day. It is hope that makes humankind endure even the worst circumstances and persevere.