This charming, moving and funny Serbian/Macedonian children’s adventure has been winning awards at film festivals around the world. It is both fresh and old-fashioned, dealing with disability in a no-nonsense way, while harking back to remembered childhoods of home-made train sets and outdoor play.
The Witch Hunters is a long way from the CGI bombast of Hollywood’s Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. At heart it is a gentle, quirky comedy about friendship and imagination, about how children create their own stories and folklore from the mysterious and baffling behaviour of adults.
10-year-old Jovan (Mihajlo Milavic) has partial cerebral palsy. His condition has shaped his everyday life and made him think of himself as invisible to others – particularly his parents and classmates. In the world of his imagination, however, he is The Shade, a masked superhero in a blue cape who can vaporise the bullies who call him “gimp.”
With a bit of help from mum Jovan has created a fabulous model city (Shade City) in his bedroom, where he can retreat into his fantasies. With its glow-globe and primary-coloured Tintin book spines, Jovan’s room will arouse nostalgic childhood feelings in viewers of a certain age. He plays Monopoly with his parents (“the market forces are fierce,” says dad) and gets hold of a pair of old walkie-talkies, but he also plays screen games such as ‘Salem’.
Jovan’s life is shaken up by the arrival of a new classmate, Milica (Silma Mahmuti), who sits next to him in class. At first he is put out, drawing a line down the middle of the desk they share. But as he becomes friends with the brave and determined girl, she breaks down the barriers that Jovan has built around himself.
The two unaffected young actors are a joy together and a smart script gives them some great lines. In Jovan’s nightmare at the start of the film a gang of ruffians chase him into a run-down factory. One says “I didn’t know you degenerates were allowed out after dark.”
Sitting together in his bedroom Jovan asks Milica, “What’s a degenerate?”
“Someone who drinks urine,” she replies.
When Jovan takes Milica to look in the cellar of his dead grandmother’s house, they find a playing card with an old crone on it. Milica tells him about her stepmother, who she says is a real witch. She might look like a real woman, but Svetlana has bewitched her father: “no one can fall in love twice – it’s not natural.” She makes him drink potions and do yoga exercises. She writes symbols on the walls. But “the worst thing of all is the black salt” that she sprinkles on his eggs.
“Old people are such fools,” says Jovan.
Milica invites Jovan to join her on a real-life adventure – to save her father from this witch. The quest offers Jovan a reality beyond anything he could have imagined, but to become a real superhero Jovan must first learn to accept himself for who he is.
Frustrated that he cannot climb a few steps, Jovan tells his therapist at the hospital that he wants a new body. The therapist tells him that his condition cannot be cured, but it can be improved by exercise. Most importantly, Jovan can’t do it by himself – he needs to accept help from other people.
As Jovan and Milica embark on their night-time mission, he gets on a bus for the first time with a bit of help from a burly biker. The two children sit and watch the night-time world go by, and their smiles are priceless.