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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

"Once Brothers", friendship, war and basketball

Once Brothers
Hard to think about something more dramatic and depressive than the civil wars on the former Yugoslavia. As a teenage naturally attracted to history and politics, I remember the need and will of being informed about that horrible conflict taking place at the heart of Europe and where mankind showed one of its ugliest faces ever. But I didn't know that many years after that tragedy ended, I was going to be so compelled by another take, intimate and very special, of the (his)story.

As a basketball fan I remember, vividly, several games from Drazen Petrovic and Vlade Divac as part of the incredible national team of Yugoslavia as well as their respective individual careers. As a Barça supporter, Drazen became the enemy being the star of Real Madrid, but it was impossible not to be mesmerized by his unparalleled talent, while Divac was always a personal favorite as part of the latest era of Magic Johnson's Lakers, plus the center of one of the most spectacular squads never played on the NBA: the Sacramento Kings. But I didn't know about their intimate bond, a friendship that together with Kukoc, Radja, made them unbeatable and brought them to the NBA, on a time European players where an exotic thing. And I didn't know about how their relationship ended either, when the war came.

"Once Brothers" is gripping, to the point of making unnecessary the gross outlining from ESPN channel (part of the “30 for 30” documentary series). The drama is the story. I do want to believe Americans are sensitive enough to understand the madness and nonsense of war to need the reinforcement of the drama with tricks like music or overcharged lines of script. Luckily the human tragedy here is too compelling to ruin the documentary because of bad direction choices.

Because "Once Brothers" is striking, utterly sad and deplorable, using the case of elite basketball players to explain the personal tragedies that war brings. Friends torn apart due to circumstances beyond their control. The love for a flag (hope that one day mankind will understand a flag is just a colored cloth) and a silly gesture on a moment of emotional burst transformed Divac and Petrovic into national heroes in Serbia and Croatia, therefore enemies while civil war exploded back home. Ethnic tensions that weren't a problem before surfaced to help ruining one of the most true and precious things we have: friendship.

Directed by Michael Tolajian, is quite remarkable how intimate the film aims to be. As a matter of fact, this is the personal voyage, emotional and physical, of Divac, also narrator of the documentary. From his perspective, we see all the meaningful places: the snowy Serbian town where he was born, the gym where the Yugoslavian national team trained, the hotel in L.A. that was his first home in the States, to Zagreb today, where Divac is still the enemy or at least a real stranger (that walk is so shocking, one of the highlights of the film). It serves well the purpose of explaining that friendship was never restored, because we all know how Drazen was killed in a car accident on 1993, just when he was achieving stardom recognition on the NBA (is also deeply touching to see how they supported each other when they were at NBA, immigrants isolated from home, specially Drazen, who had difficult seasons), and how Divac has ever come to terms with the death of a friend before they had a chance to reconcile.

Surfing the net I have realized how some wounds will never be healed. The hatred speech, from both sides, is still easy to find. The accusations and insults to Divac are recurrent. Same can be said about Drazen. Heroes and villains depending on which side are you on. Well, maybe is true. Maybe Divac made an anti-Croatian political statement with the flag on purpose. Maybe he was extremely naïve about the then exploding conflict and Drazen had reasons to be angry. But what I can see on “Once Brothers” is a grown-up man, 7 foot tall, sincerely trying to repair the bond with his friend, regretting all what happened. I also see/hear a young and then a grown-up Tony Kukoc explaining how Croatian players were intimidated, by their own friends and relatives, of the consequences of not severing all ties with Divac. Same applies to a puzzled but wise Dino Radja, admitting the fear and the damage caused as a result of it. These collection of revealing moments are better than any history lesson or detailed account on the conflict, showing the human face of the tragedy caused by war.

SCORE: 8/10

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