Speak So I Can See You review – live transmission of the soul of a Balkan institution

The title is borrowed from Socrates, and signals the high-minded way of this oddly hypnotic documentary stroll through the corridors of Radio Belgrade. There is no voiceover, no talking heads, nothing to tell you that it is one of Europe’s oldest radio stations and a much-valued repository of culture and debate, or any other salient facts. But watching the public broadcaster’s technicians at work, listening to the stream of philosophical and political voiceovers is akin to hacking into a live transmission of the soul of a Balkan cultural institution.

Director Marija Stojnic opts for a completely freeform approach, collaging archival monologues over shots of presenters at work, techies setting up mics and adjusting oscillators, an orchestra making a tentative recording, a group photo session. Often, no one is there at all, and history seems to haunt these corridors and archives, impassively shot by cinematographer Dusan Grubin.

One running thread is the efficacy of words. As one disembodied speaker puts it: “I’m always surrounded by them, like a beekeeper by his bees.” But do they retain a radical charge, capable of shaping politics and history? A later sequence, set to footage of a modern Belgrade street protest, casts its doubts: “If someone were to ask me now, if 1968 ever existed, I would say: no, it didn’t.”

Even if words don’t always find the right listener, there is still a nostalgia or a belief here in the latent potency of transmitting them. Often, the film simply gets lulled by unsettling infrastructural ambience (à la Apichatpong Weerasethakul or David Lynch): static chirping out over tableaux of abandoned rehearsal rooms and stained glass windows hymning communist prophecies. This is broadcasting as a gateway into another dimension.

• Speak So I Can See You is available on True Story on 27 January.