PIESEŇ O SIVOM HOLUBOVI – THE SONG OF THE GREY PIGEON (1961)
Director: Stanislava Barabáša
Script: Alberta Marenčina, Ivan Bukovčan
Music: Zdeněk Liška
Cinematography: Vladimir Ješina
Cast:  Karol Maladimir Ješinachata, Ladislav Chudík, Jiří Sovák,
Oľga Zöllnerová, Vladimír Durdík st., Jana Hlaváčová,
Karla Chadimová, Pavol Mattoš, Elena Pappová-Zvaríková

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Stanislava Barabáša’s debut feature film PIESEŇ O SIVOM HOLUBOVI marks an interesting start to a defining decade for Slovakian cinema. Released in 1961, some argue that the film is the start of the New Wave in Slovakia, predating SLNKO V SIETI (SUN IN A NET, 1962 Dir. Štefan Uher). While PIESEŇ O SIVOM HOLUBOVI may not be as visually arresting as later films produced during the New Wave, it still tricks the viewer into believing that they are watching a simple narrative of children’s experiences during World War II. Barabáša avoids the prominent idea of a black and white, good and evil perspective on World War II that was being pushed by censors at the time. Instead, Barabáša chooses to use the experience of the children in PIESEŇ O SIVOM HOLUBOVI to highlight this moral grey area, attacking the immature ideas that the children have about heroics.

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PIESEŇ O SIVOM HOLUBOVI follows three children from the start of the SNP (Slovak National Uprising) to the end of the war. The school children are taking a field trip outside of town to some of the surrounding hills and forests. Three friends, Rudko Vinco and Martin, chase after a grey pigeon that Vinco eventually shoots down with his slingshot. They run into Partisan fighters that leave an impression on their lives, most importantly one of the children named Rudko. Rudko decides to take care of the injured pigeon, hoping to fix its hurt wing. Soldiers show up in town the next day, and Rudko becomes worried they are there to hunt the partisans so he takes off to warn them. He’s picked up by the same soldiers he saw in town, but learns they are also Partisan fighters. They take Rudko to the camp and he sees his father, who has been missing and in a labor camp, unable to come home until the war is over. War sets in and one day the three friends meet a boy who is traveling to the front lines with his father. They bond over shooting the slingshot, talking about the war and rollerskating. Vinco talks the boy and his dad into taking him close to the warfront as a ruse, but when they get close a plane attacks them. The father becomes afraid and is unable to fight back, leaving both children disappointed. Later on, a traveling performer comes to town but must leave to help bring ammunition to the front, and Vinco once again tries to get to the front by sneaking onto the bus. When the two of them pick up the ammunition they also pick up soldiers, one of which was Vinco’s old teacher who had left to become a Guardsman for Hitler. Vinco is impressed by his teacher’s desire to fight for Slovakia, but when the bus comes under fire by Germans, his teacher takes off in a German uniform. Torn by his emotion, Vinco tries to shoot his teacher, crushed by the idea he may have killed a human.

Back in the village, Rudko and Martin meet a Russian soldier named Natasha who is helping a neighbor give birth in their burnt down house. A German patrol hears the noise and the children do their best to sing and dance to distract the guards, but ultimately they find Natasha and take her away as a prisoner. At the end of the war, Rudko watches the soldiers as the they return home and spots Vinco on a horse. They trade stories and mementos from their individual experiences. After this time has passed Rudko’s pigeon has finally healed and he wants to train it to be a carrier pigeon, taking his letters to all the friends he met during the war. PIESEŇ O SIVOM HOLUBOVI ends with Rudko and several children returning to the hill where he found the pigeon only to find a warning about a mine field on the hill. They ignore the warning and Rudko dies as a landmine explodes while he chases the released pigeon.


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Being his first feature, Barabáša seems to struggle in avoiding the heavy hand of the censors during PIESEŇ O SIVOM HOLUBOVI. An early scene where Rudko meets the partisan fighters, he takes a kopeck as a souvenir and is later punished by his teacher by having his hands whipped with a cane. He clenches his fist trying to hide the coin, causing his teacher to only whip them harder. Rudko eventually runs off and cools his hands in a stream, releasing the coin.  As the coin sinks to the bottom, the camera focuses clearly on the letter CCCP. Besides scenes like this, the film also avoids labeling the Slovakian underground as the SNP, instead choosing to call them Partisan fighters. Barabáša eventually honed his skill in avoiding such issues in later films such as ZVONY PRE BOSÝCH (THE BELLS TOLL FOR THE BAREFOOTED, 1965). This content is surprising, mostly because the script is written by important artist and writer Alberta Marenčina, but is consistent for the time period.

Alberta Marenčina’s script for PIESEŇ O SIVOM HOLUBOVI shines in how it takes a new approach to films based around World War II. Most Eastern European films covering World War II at the time chose to focus on an individual who does something heroic against the evil fascists. The narratives are usually simple, showing good versus evil. Marenčina instead opts for using three children’s experiences to avoid that schism of good and evil. By exploring the war from a child’s viewpoint, he is able to discuss a shift in generation and pass on a warning from the pre-war generation to the post-war generation. This idea is most clearly explained in the final scene, with the children finding the minefield. They chose to wander through the mines and in the end they lose the very thing they wanted to protect, the pigeon. In a certain way, the viewer can even interpret the pigeon as metaphor for a certain civilism. Do you mean civilization? Needs explanation.

This use of the children’s perspective is also the vehicle Barabáša uses to attack the simplistic idea of good versus evil. Throughout the film, the children identify people they view as heroic role models; Rudko even keeps a journal to write their names down in. However, None of these people are able to live up to the children’s lofty ideals of a hero. At the first opportunity, their teacher returns to being a German soldier and the father of the traveling child can’t even gather the courage to fire a shot. Even the enemy isn’t viewed as an absolute evil, as one of the officers helps Natasha with water for the birth, and the patrol turns their back to give the mother privacy during the birth. The conclusion of the film can lead the viewer to believe that these childrens’ immature ideas lead to Rudko’s death in the minefield.

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Ultimately though, it is this contrast between the idealistic freedom of the pigeon and the ruthless reality of the war that makes PIESEŇ O SIVOM HOLUBOVI a compelling film. Marenčina brings a strong narrative to a young director who, still to this day, seems under appreciated. Barabáša takes his documentary experience and uses it to help unite this unique film. PIESEŇ O SIVOM HOLUBOVI still stands up as an important discussion on morality in war and how it is all a matter of one’s own perspective.

References:
Osobitné miesto Stanislava Barabáša
Pre nás to boli boli ideálne roky – Interview with Marenčina
Albert Marenčin – filmár na križovatkách času by Juraj Mojžiš