What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
This movie is not on my list of essential films.
NOTE: This installment of Story Time With J-Dub is the only the second installment of this relatively new series being done as part of a movie event. This time, the distinction belongs to the Celluloid Road Trip Blog-A-Thon being hosted by Hometowns to Hollywood. Essentially, it’s about creating an imaginary road trip by sharing articles about films set anywhere within the United States.
When I discovered this blog-a-thon, I noticed the header had a list of states which linked to various movie-related topic for each. I also noticed that the state in which I spent a chunk of my childhood and in which I attended college was not among them. That’s why I picked this little known movie so I could tell a story about a little-known place…the “Peace Garden State,” North Dakota.
You can see all the contributors to this blog-a-thon here.
To understand this entire piece, you need a crash-course in “North Dakota 101.” Most importantly, it’s a huge chunk of real estate (~ 70,000 square miles or about twice the size of Indiana). If you ever driven through Indiana, you know that with precious few exceptions, it defines the term “sparsely populated.” That is until you see North Dakota, which shoe-horns one-seventh of the population of Indiana into twice the space.
To describe that population of less than 800,000…well, one word you wouldn’t use is “diverse.” The overwhelming majority of North Dakotans are of either Scandinavian or German descent, and almost all of them can trace their roots back to 19th-century homesteaders drawn from the “old country.” In other words, these are people of hardy stock who like living in a remote place with harsh climate extremes (temperatures near 100oF in the summer and -30oF in the winter are not uncommon), and where the predominant industries are for hard-working people (agriculture, oil, and coal).
Exacerbating the sparseness of the population of North Dakota is the fact that roughly one-quarter of “NoDaks” live in the greater Fargo area. While it is not the capital, Fargo is the economic and cultural hub of the state. And despite what you might think given what I’ve just described about North Dakota, Fargo is surprisingly diverse and cosmopolitan. One reason for that is North Dakota is one of the largest resettlement destinations for refugees.
That brings us to the tale of “Buick Riviera,” a 2008 film whose screenplay was co-written and starred in by North Dakota native Aimee Klein. Based on a novel by Miljenko Jergovi, this film set and shot in Fargo follows Hasan Hujdur (played by Slavko Stimac), a refugee from war-torn Bosnia. As one would expect, Hujdur struggles to adapt to his new life in North Dakota; a transition which is not helped by his being a Muslim in post-9/11 America.
The only place Hujdur finds solace is in his 60’s-era Buick Riviera. The car is the only place where he feels safe, and the fact that much of the movie is shot from his perspective behind the wheel is used to an almost over-bearing effect. This is where this movie goes out of its way to go full “film as literature,” using the frigid white emptiness of the wintertime North Dakota landscape superimposed with ashen, post-traumatic war flashbacks often shown through a blood-streaked windshield. What happened to Hujdur during the war in Bosnia is never spoken, but the view is certainly left with the impression he managed to escape his entire family being executed and the destruction of his home.
Despite the importance of Hujdur’s Buick Riviera to him, his wife Angela (played by Aimee Klein) sees it as little more than a junky old car and she is always imploring him to sell it. This is only part of how differently Hujdur and his wife view the world. Angela’s vision of the future entails focusing resources on raising a family, not sinking them in to an old “fixer-upper” of a car.
Hujdur’s view is very different. He never even tries to find a job; instead he spends his time driving around, unsuccessfully attempting to reconcile the pre-war Bosnia of his youth against the one of today he was forced to flee. This is where the “film as lit” crowd strikes again; this time beating you over the head with the analogy of Hujdur’s Buick Riviera as the realization of the incompatibility of him and Angela. To him, the car and his efforts to keep it represent preserving the past from which he feels deprived. For her, the car symbolizes her feelings of her dream being denied. While she wants to build a family and a future, Hujdur is stuck in the past with his old car, and his wallet full of now-worthless old Yugoslavian money as well as all of his old Yugoslav government documents.
The plot twist comes one day when on the way to pick up Angela from work, Hujdur falls asleep at the wheel and runs his prized Buick into a ditch full of snow. Hujdur is not hurt, but the car is stuck fast. He is discovered by Vuko Šalipur (played by Leon Lucev) who stops to help him. In no time, the realization occurs they are both from Bosnia.
The two speak the same language, but it quickly becomes clear they are very different. As we already know, Hujdur is a Muslim while Šalipur’s name makes it obvious he is a Bosnian Serb and therefore an orthodox Christian. This would have put them on opposites sides of the Bosnian civil war, but at first this does not pose a problem. Šalipur is more than willing to help Hujdur; he first goes out of his way to see whether they can somehow tow the car. But when that proves to be a larger problem, he drives Hujdur to his wife’s work…where she is none too happy from her wait.
From here, the differences between the two men manifest themselves. Hujdur is a quiet man whose engrained beliefs lie in contrast with his introspective nature. On the other hand, Šalipur is violent, manipulative, and always scheming how he can take advantage of any situation…and not beyond exploiting the anti-Muslim sentiments of post-9/11 America.
Obviously, Hujdur is still holding old ways and old things, and Šalipur has clearly adopted everything new, including a including a U.S. passport and a new Land Rover. Things worsen between the two when Hujdur refuses to share some personal information and Šalipur takes this a a rejection of an offer of friendship. Over the next 24 hours, the relationship devolves back to the civil war days; a downward-spiral of mental destabilization occurs. They fling about accusations on various war crimes. and ultimately prove nothing… just like the war itself.
And also like the war, the relationship between Hujdur and Šalipur has a tragic ending.
The first time I saw this movie, I was barely three handfuls of popcorn into it before this story came crashing into my brain. I don’t know if this is a phenomena unique to Buicks, North Dakota, or if it is a blend of the two, but the minute I picked up on Hujdur’s affinity for his car, another “NoDak” and his Buick came to mind.
Picture a time about 20 years before “Buick Riviera” was made. I’m a college-age guy doing the college thing in North Dakota. It just so happened that one of my prime drinking buddies had a father whose prize possession was his 1969 Buick Electra. Much like Hujdur, his reasons were more about what the car represented rather the Buick itself.
To understand why, you need another crash course, this time in “Ed 101.” “Ed” (not his real time) was a child of the Great Depression of the 1930’s in rural North Dakota. “Ed” was born to German immigrants; a demographic which dominated the sparse landscape. These homesteaders came to North Dakota only with what they could carry from the old country, and they only had what they could wrest from the land. Being as remote as they were, many of them never bothered with learning to speak English; there really wasn’t a reason. The vast majority still spoke German.
But “Ed” knew learning the new language was one of the keys to escaping a life of back-breaking labor farming the prairie. “Ed” proved to be an intelligent child; a trait that continued into his young adulthood…so much so that the child of immigrant farmers cashed a “golden ticket” to another life…a college scholarship.
To make a long story short, “Ed” starts a whole new life; he graduates from college, begins a career as a school teacher, marries his high-school sweetheart and starts a family. He succeeded at his career as well, so much so he was promoted to being the principal of an elementary school.
Not only was “Ed” the first person from his hometown of less than 400 people to go to college, let alone attain such a position of respect as a school principal. To celebrate his accomplishment, “Ed” bought himself a brand new Buick Electra.
In 1969, a lot of people in rural North Dakota didn’t have televisions, so they didn’t see the moon landing that summer. But on a summer day in 1969, 400 people from a small town in North Dakota had their own version of Neil Armstrong when “Ed,” the son of immigrant farmers turned respected school principal drove that brand new Buick drove down Main Street and right up in front of his mother’s house…with every eyeball in town locked on that shiny convertible symbol of success.
The next trip down Main Street was “Ed” taking his mother down to the local café for breakfast and coffee. It might as well have been a one-car parade celebrating the coronation of “Ed’s” mother as the queen of that town; her son walked on the moon of success.
Maybe this was his original intention…maybe it wasn’t, but the fact was that became his “special occasion” car. It came out from under the cover in his garage every Sunday to take family to church, once a year to be the convertible carrying the Queen of the county fair back home, and every Mother’s Day to recreate the day he made “Ma” a queen in her own right.
This was a routine until “Ed’s” mother passed away in the 1980’s. In the meantime, his Electra appeared in more than one parade, served as the “limo” for both his daughter’s weddings, and made one business trip the day “Ed” was appointed Chairman of the school board.
“Ed” himself passed away about ten years ago, but the other weekly ritual besides the Sunday trip to Faith Lutheran Church was the Saturday washing and waxing of the Buick Electra. That car had a shine that could be seen from space; but it’s real luster shone from what it meant not only to “Ed,” his mother, and 400 people in Venturia, North Dakota.
Not only did Hujdur and “Ed” both love their Buicks because they both represented something near and dear to both of them…they both had wives that wanted nothing more than for both of them to sell those cars.
It’s a good thing living in North Dakota makes people stubborn.
You can see all the episodes of “Story Time” here.
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