Among Wolves Review: Overcoming Communal Trauma With Harleys and Hope

Among Wolves Among Wolves (credit: John Convey)

Shawn Convey’s doc about a Bosnian biker gang on a humanitarian mission is a meditative mood piece on war, trauma, and purpose.

From 1992 to 1995, the Bosnian War raged across what used to be Yugoslavia, the breakup leading to armed conflict between Bosnian Muslims, Serbs, and Croats, devastating the countryside and killing more than 100,000 people. Twenty years after the smoke has cleared, Bosnia is still struggling to recover, its people dealing with continuing human rights abuses and widespread poverty – not to mention continuing trauma and PTSD from the fighting itself. It’s a corner of the world that has largely been forgotten, particularly in the West, their troubles relegated to the occasional human interest story and little else.

From one of those stories, however, documentarian Shawn Convey has built up a fascinating, intimate look at modern-day Bosnia and the unconventional acts of community that work to sustain it, in the gripping Among Wolves.

Among Wolves follows the titular Wolves, a biker gang that eschews many of the typical associations one has with the breed. Sure, they’re rough-and-tumble middle-aged men riding around on motorcycles with leather jackets, but their mission statement is decidedly less aggressive – to perform humanitarian work in the small village of Livno in the mountains of Bosnia. Whether doing electrical or contracting work for schools, or donating blood, or performing food and supply drives, the Wolves act as protectors and caretakers for the town.

Many of the Wolves, including their charismatic leader Lija, are veterans of the Bosnian War, Among Wolves arguing that the gang’s good works come from a desire to do good in their community and find ways to overcome their collective trauma. As the gang’s leader, Lija is a powerfully magnetic figure, his resolute expression and gentle masculinity exuding a strangely comforting kind of power. He’s a thoughtful guy who is clearly haunted by his experiences during the war, running the Wolves with the kind of military discipline you’d expect of a veteran with his kind of conviction.

Lija clearly cares deeply, both for his fellow Wolves (he “lives with the members just like family,” someone says of Lija) and the people of Livno. Much of the doc follows him around in his Range Rover, dispensing curiously sage wisdom about his part in the conflict: “I’m not guilty, none of us is guilty because we fought in the war.” Part of the struggle of moving forward from the horrors of war is accepting responsibility for what you’ve done; Lija’s solution, it seems, is to turn his energies to rebuilding the environment he was forced to help destroy. Observational docs like these need strong figures to rally around, and Lija provides a strong centering presence for Among Wolves.

What else should we be doing if not charity work, if not helping someone?

Lija

Apart from him, though, the Wolves exist as a homogenous unit, a multi-ethnic gang of unlikely do-gooders who get tiny moments to shine in Convey’s doc. Whether they’re fellow war vets, or young men looking for a sense of community, the Wolves feel tight-knit and familial, exuding a positive example of masculinity for both the people of Livno and the film’s audience. They’re a deliberate rebuke to the associations of drugs and crime we tend to give to biker gangs; while the moniker may fit in some cases, the Wolves are a band of misfits who find fellowship not just in riding, but community service as well.

Convey’s hand is slight and intimate, rightly choosing to let the cameras roll and allow the inherent charisma of Lija, the Wolves, and the strikingly beautiful Bosnian countryside take center stage. Among Wolves mines some lovely visuals out of the war-torn region, cameras capturing the contrast between the open plains and hills of the region with the run-down schools and bars of Livno. The landscape may seem idyllic now, but not so long ago they were riddled with bombs, bullets and mines – stories the Wolves tell with equal parts relish and deep, abiding terror.

It’s a film populated by small, powerful moments – men singing Slavic folk songs as they work, driving down dirt roads in the quiet night, men standing on abandoned fighter jets used as instruments of death just two decades prior. Among Wolves shows a Bosnia struggling past unforgettable communal trauma, and how it affects individuals in ways both big and small.

Amid its fly-on-the-wall observations of the Wolves and their mission, however, is the gang’s central and most thematically rich concern: the protection of a herd of wild horses that roam the countryside, all but abandoned by the rest of Bosnian society. There’s a deep irony in these animals being protected by a group named after their greatest predators, but with every shot of the horses roaming free along the countryside, Among Wolves connects these majestic creatures to the Wolves themselves.

Sure, it’s the right thing to do, but what else are the Wolves really protecting? Is it their innocence? Is it the idea that living beings can come back from unimaginable events to forge their own destiny? Convey leaves it up to you to decide. But as Lija says of one horse as it limps towards the wilderness with a broken leg, “Maybe he’ll survive – he can only rescue himself.”

Among Wolves is currently finishing a week-long run at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre; the film is currently available on VOD and DVD.

Among Wolves Trailer

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