an episode in the life of an iron pickerThere is no greater advert for the fundamental value of the NHS than Bosnian director Danis Tanovic’s latest film, An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker. Feeling almost like a fly-on-the-wall documentary, the film follows a Roma family in a remote, snowy part of Bosnia as they struggle to raise the funds needed to pay for a routine but life saving operation. Shot on a micro-budget of a few thousand Euros, Tanovic’s film is brutally minimalistic and takes an unflinching look at the realities of life for people living in the director’s homeland.

As the title suggests, we see what is most likely just another episode in a life of hardship. The titular iron picker is Nazif (Nazif Mujic), who spends his days chopping wood to heat his house, and stripping down cars to sell for scrap. Nazif’s family live hand-to-mouth, and their precariously balanced existence is thrown into turmoil as the health of his wife (Senada Alimanovic) worsens and they are faced with a medical bill that, lacking any health insurance, they simply cannot pay. Based on actual experiences of the people involved, it’s an intimate and believable story that never strays into melodrama.

It is a film content to meander along at its own pace, entrusting a significant amount of screen time to the mundane: Nazif searches for a tree to chop down, his wife bakes bread for the family, his children try to get the TV working. At a svelte 75 minutes, the film feels surprisingly slow-paced, almost enough to grate at times, however it redeems itself with a plot that feels honest and engaging.

Iron Picker’s success lies in its strongly naturalistic setting. The actors all have a close relationship to the plot having actually lived out some of the film’s harrowing experiences and so all give convincing and genuine performances. When the film focuses its attention on Nazif’s children (played by the lead actor’s own kids) it strays into very real territory as the young actors don’t appear to be aware that they are even on film. Tanovic follows his characters in a documentary style that pushes the film very close to the bone. At one point someone even appears to bump into the cameraman before continuing on his way.

By the end of the film very little has changed in the iron picker’s situation, Tanovic presents this vignette as just another episode in a neglected life. Just another moment for another person ignored by his country and the world at large. An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker is a film simple in execution but complex and demanding in its message. A tough story that manages to have a lot of heart without ever feeling clich├ęd.