The re-adjustment to life after combat is rarely an easy one. Whatever else the end of the daily peril many face brings with it can be accompanied by a loss of excitement and sense of purpose, a craving for camaraderie.
At the end of World War II, some bored, under-employed or disaffected veterans coming home to the United States formed the first motorcycle gangs. They’d use the abbreviation “MC” or “MCC” to separate themselves from more mainstream clubs, put their imprint on their attire, as “leathers” became leather vests covered in patches and embroidered gang names, places they’d been or served.
“Among Wolves” is about copycat behavior in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Veterans of the long and bloody 1990s war with Serbia and Croatia were young men who fought against the invasion and “ethnic cleansing” of their countries. When the war ended, some of them formed a club.
When we meet “Moto Club Vulkovi” — The Wolves Motorcycle Club — they’re engaging in behavior straight out of “The Wild One,” or at least its real-life versions — the Sturgis Rally or Bike Week at Daytona Beach. Bikers, many of them older, some obese, ride around in black sleeveless T-shirts, leather vests covered in patches, drinking and partying, entertained by strippers at their encampment.
“This town, Livno, lives for the Wolves Moto Club,” one member chortles as his mates cut up on bikes and belly up to the bar.
But as the rally goes on, the core group is lectured by their leader, Lija, about their behavior.
“Kepa,” he says (in Bosnian, with English subtitles). “You ride on one wheel more often than you ride on two.” Enough with the “trouble making,” he barks. “Cut out that crap.”
As Lija was the leader of a group of paramilitaries who successfully defended the town, the bikers, young and old, listen to him.
And as “Among Wolves” unfolds, with scenic rides through rolling hills and towns still bearing the scars of war, we start to see this “moto club” as a biker gang of a different color, mostly made up of veterans who don’t relish telling war stories.
They visit a spot and point to where the minefields used to be, blast out the music of their combat youth and visit a display of aircraft, tanks and armored personnel carriers — “Drove this in Kraljevo in ’91.”
And when they stop manhandling the museum’s wares, they head back to what used to be the front lines, the higher hills where a herd of wild horses still roam.
They all pitch in on blood drives, a few bikers help out at an orphanage, and others help deliver medical supplies to another town across the border in a town in Croatia, the land of their former enemies.
But protecting their horses is their mission and passion.
As Braco drives his battered Range Rover into the hills to check on the 350 or so wild stallions, he points to a far mountainside and notes “I bombarded that place over there — 110s (millimeter shells) — chased them back into the woods.”
And then he and others tell the story of the horses of Borovo Clava, wild and free and there long before the war, barely surviving the combat, the minefields, the hard times that had locals killing them for food in “the anarchy” that came after combat ended and international journalists left and moved on to the next conflict zone.
They prefer to be “away from people who aren’t veterans,” Lija confesses, “away from people in general” at times. They may pull out their guns — pistols and an AK-47 — for a little let-off-steam shooting. But people who have seen real conflict don’t need to play soldier or fetishize guns.
“This ammo’s no good,” one laughs and grouses. You wonder if this scene was just staged for filmmaker Shawn Convey. The guys seem pretty disinterested in firearms. And these family men — doting dads, working class Joes — in scary biker gear don’t really have the time.
Several take up positions by a not-terribly-busy country road, slowing or stopping drivers, taking care to let the herd move from one side of the road to another.
“Don’t scare them. Don’t scare them. Let them come.”
The herd is small enough that they recognize the different generations, predict behavior and see an analogy to their own lives — wounded, scarred, needing help to survive.
“What else should we be doing if not charity work?” Lija asks, question that can sound like a challenge to other such clubs and gangs in other countries — especially this one.
The film played the festival circuit where it picked up awards, here and there, and earns a theatrical and video on demand release Feb. 12.
There are things about the gently-uplifting slice-of-life that “Among Wolves” is that work against the film. We hear names, but nobody is really identified. Lija’s role in the war, his former position of leadership which corresponds to his current one, I had to look up elsewhere.
All this information should be on the screen, leading the viewer through the film and deepening our connection with the characters.
But “Among Wolves” is still a documentary of gentle surprises, reflection and tenderness, depicting a troubled part of the world’s truly original take on the concept of what a “biker gang” could be.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Credits: Directed by Shawn Convey, script by Kevin Ripp. An MVD Entertainment Group release
Running time: 1:29