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Divas/Brotherhood review – powerful studies examine the challenges of growing up

Here is a strong pair of documentaries being shown together at the Bertha Dochouse in London; they are ostensibly mirror images of each other: a female trio and a male trio, urban Hungary and rural Bosnia, chatty and taciturn. But both Divas (★★★★☆) and Brotherhood (★★★★☆) are powerfully characterised works about young people that tunnel inside their milieus to broach questions of growing up and assuming personal responsibility.

Only six years older than the three 20-year-olds he encounters on the windowsill of a Budapest school that gives expelled students a last chance to get a diploma, director Máté Körösi seems self-conscious about following around the young women dubbed “the divas” by their classmates. Preened to the max, the group comprises new-agey, dreadlocked Tina, trucker-mouthed karaoke hostess Szani and the Bowie-coiffed, depressive Emese. Körösi appears fascinated by their sass and frivolity, but admits that, by studying them, he is looking to understand his own case of arrested development.

In fact, behind their immaculate facade, they are black belts in personal development. Either from broken homes or with troubled psyches, the trio’s snarky attitude flows directly from the life force that has kept them alive and evolving, and their friendship is a safety capsule. Enduring their teasing, Körösi keeps things fresh with a lively array of visual tricks: video diaries, superimposed illustrations and a lovely tracking shot that recalls the Donnie Darko high-school entrance. And in gaining their confidences – and being stunned into sudden wisdom by one final tragic event – he ends up being the one who perhaps benefits the most in this touching, liberating film.

The Qur’an is the road to personal development in Italian director Francesco Montagner’s film about a Bosnian shepherd family … or is it? When patriarch Ibrahim is jailed for two years for travelling to Syria, his three sons quickly drift away from their assigned roles. The eldest, Jabir, with a ginger rockabilly kiss-curl, hits the nightclubs. The youngest, Useir – earmarked as a future imam – prefers gaming on his smartphone to religious instruction. Even the middle child Usama, saddled with the sheep and a theological stickler like his father, has an angry, bullying streak that suggests he could err from the path.

Jabir would like to start his own business, Useir has future YouTube streamer all over him – but Usama clings to resignation. “Everyone’s destiny is written down. It’s mine to herd sheep,” he says. Montagner often scrutinises the brothers’ faces in extreme closeup, lending Brotherhood’s spiritual showdown – traditionalist fatalism v 21st-century individualism – an epic quality; he further emphasises these contours with what appear to be overtly dramatised scenes. But he retains the mystery, and it’s never clear which force triumphs. If modernity seems to have the upper hand, then the timeless gloaming of the Balkan hillsides is its own reply.

Divas and Brotherhood are released at Bertha DocHouse, London, on Friday.


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