There’s something very unsettling about The Shutka Book of Records. On its surface, Aleksandar Manic’s film is a light-hearted look at Shutka, a town in the Balkans that boasts the largest Roma (gypsy) population in the world. The town is full of unique personalities, all of them claim to the be “champion” of something, be it goose fighting, vampire hunting or music collecting. Lurking beneath the film’s surface, though, is a darkness that, by its end, threatens to overwhelming the movie; the darkness stands in great contrast to the film’s general jaunty tone, and makes it very difficult to discern Manic’s intentions.
As portrayed in the film, Shutka is a place in which no one will accept second place. There is a daily verbal battle about religion in the town square, an annual contest to determine who has the best collection of Turkish music, and regular arguments about who has the loveliest (fake) designer suits. Manic spends time with a wide variety of residents (it appears that he, too, lives in Shutka), all of whom are thrilled with his attention and leap at the chance to display their talents, collections, or personalities. Their various exploits -- all of which are accompanied by cheerful music that, to untrained American ears, sounds appropriately Roma -- are shot in both traditional color and in a black and white that calls to mind archival footage, a technique also used in the more-accomplished 37 Uses for a Dead Sheep. In this film, the black and white sequences carry a surprising poignancy, because one gets the feeling that little has changed: Roma communities 100 years ago had a similar lust for personal triumph, and crowned unofficial champions of their own.