The Mallet (1977) by Aleksandar Ilic, not your typical food documentary

The Mallet (Aleksandar Ilic 1977) still image

Ex-Yugoslavia continues to be a source of endless inspiration. Looking at it from this perspective, this funky socialist country has left a cultural heritage glutted with rare jewels: every now and then one stumbles upon a masterpiece or a high-end scientific project the world knows nothing about.

We’ve just discovered a short documentary The Mallet dating back in 1977 and directed by Aleksandar Ilic, whose career spanned 120 short films and 70 international awards, including two Silver Bears at Berlin Film Festival. Ilic is best known for his popular science films, especially the ones observing the world of fauna, in which he succeeded to break the genre limits, redefining these stories into lucid and poetic metaphors on life, survival, destiny, inequality and intrusive human factor in the game of natural balance.

Long before “Food Inc”, “The Mallet” shows a disturbing story behind the industrial food-making process. The film’s minimal aesthetics emphasizes the cold cruelties depicted on a factory line full of chicklets. Workers select the healthy ones, while the rejects are carried along a conveyor belt until they are crushed by a mallet and dropped into a garbage bin. However, one rebellious black chicklet tries to defy his destiny.

Using this very simple yet precise narrative, the film unveils questions of segregation, racism, inequality and individuality. The futuristic industrial process is toned with an unexpected political suspense. As it happens in documentaries, this story could not be made up, it came up spontaneously while the director was doing something else.

“The Mallet was shot by accident”, Ilic explained. “At the time I was working on a film on agriculture in Yugoslavia, requested by ‘Jugoslavija Publik’. In the food factory ‘Koka’ in Varazdin, I saw this conveyor belt where the workers were selecting chicklets. Black chicklets were progressing weakly in the growth process, so the ‘genetic department’ would eliminate them. And if any of the black chicklets would get to the belt it would end up in a container, under the mallet. They were favorising ‘the whites’. The whole act was horrible. It reminded me on Hitler’s times, concentration camps… anyone would give it a different significance or metaphor.”

Saddly, this genius of short film passed away a week ago, but we can still ponder on the questions raised by the superhero from his cult movie – the chicklet who made it to front pages of all Yugoslavian magazines back in 1977.