Bosnia and Herzegovina: Grbavica

(2006; dir: Jasmila Žbanić; language: Bosnian; English titles: Grbavica: Land of My Dreams (US), Esma’s Secret: Grbavica (UK); co-production with Austria, Croatia, and Germany).

Grbavica is set about a decade after the horrific Bosnian War in the 1990s, and focuses on single mother Esma (Mirjana Karanović) and her 12-year-old daughter Sara (Luna Mijović). Against the backdrop of a traumatised city and population, the film slowly unveils Esma’s personal trauma as the seemingly banal issue of a costly school-trip for Sara forces revelations that Esma would rather keep to herself. I should say now that it is difficult for me to say anything about this film without giving away “spoilers”, but as Esma’s secret is signaled to the viewer from the very first scene, and as the film isn’t a salacious “twist ending” thriller but rather a portrait of trauma, I don’t think this matters a whole lot. But, just a heads up anyway. I chose this film as a well-received Bosnian film (it won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival), and one that addresses an issue from Bosnia’s recent past that is still devastatingly significant today. I also thought it was high time to include some women-centred films on this blog (I think this is even the first one I’ve reviewed here that passes the Bechdel test), so I chose Grbavica over the Palme D’Or-winning When Father was Away on Business (1985 – also starring Mirjana Karanović), which I would also like to see.

Grbavica is a film driven by the psychological and emotional situation of its protagonists, rather than plot. The relationship between Esma and her daughter becomes increasingly strained when an expensive school trip is planned, and the poor and overworked Esma is unable to come up with the money. Sara is initially not concerned, because it is announced that children of war martyrs are allowed to travel for free; Sara has been told by her mother that her father was a martyr killed in the war, and she demands from Esma the necessary certificate. Esma, however, offers only increasingly shaky excuses, and secretly tries to find the money to pay for the trip. Eventually Esma is forced to admit to Sara that Sara’s father was not a Bosniak martyr but in fact one of the many Serbian soldiers that gang-raped her daily at an internment camp during the war. (At this point I wanted to reach through the television and shake the school staff and say that if the kids of Bosniak martyr fathers get a free place on the school trip then the kids of Bosniak rape survivors should too! Why are only the men heroes?) This admission brings some sort of reconciliation between the two, but not exactly a happy ending.

I read a couple of reviews that called it predictable and/or slow, and I can’t help but feel that they are missing the point. Yes, the central plot device of the school trip and the required certificate is banal and could even be deemed contrived – but that isn’t the point of the film, and neither is the revelation of Esma’s “secret”. Viewers wanting melodrama or titillation should not watch this film. Instead it’s a study in trauma, which is somewhat drawn out and banal in that it is carried with people throughout their lives. The whole point of the film is the difficulty of picking up the pieces of a “normal” life after going through hell, and when the reminders of that hell are all around you, and physically manifested in your daughter.

One of the things I really admired the film for was its focus on the lingering trauma of the war, rather than attempting to dramatise the war itself. There are no sensationalised flashbacks depicting rape or war, everything is told through Karanović’s gut-wrenching performance. The viewer sees Esma having panic attacks, struggling with depression, and freaking out when a mother-daughter pillow fight culminates with Sara pinning her down. Esma’s actions and reactions, and the state of the city itself tell the viewer more than enough. The fact that mass graves are still being dug up, that identifying the dead has become an arena where people forge new relationships, that children casually repeat the stories of how their parents died, tells the viewer more than enough about both the war and its lingering effects. Indeed, Grbavica shows us that war isn’t over when the fighting stops, its effects live on. What happens to a society where an entire generation is decimated, degraded, and traumatised? What happens to the new generation, how do they relate to their parents and the past?

But most importantly, the film focuses on the aftermath  of a specific aspect of the Bosnian war – the systemic mass rapes carried out by Bosnian Serb soldiers against between 20,000-50,000 women, primarily Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims). This was a strategy of ethnic cleansing, intended to traumatise the population so much that they would be forced to flee and never return. Certainly, as Grbavica shows, many have done so for that or other reasons, and refugees from the Balkan wars of the 1990s are today scattered all over the world. But the film focuses on those who stay, even in Grbavica – one of the most heavily hit areas of Sarajevo. It deals with the new significance of ethnic divisions in Bosnia following the war and the mass rapes, and the difficult position of many of the children born to Bosniak women as a consequence of rape. The film also shows Esma’s conflict over her relationship with her daughter. While she is adamant that she loves Sara, and indeed works literally night and day to earn the money to send her daughter on the school trip Sara has her heart set on, it is difficult for Esma to shut out the memory of where Sara came from. Another key theme of the film is the difficulty of even beginning to heal after such an extensive trauma. The film suggests that being about to talk about one’s experiences is a vital first step, and that arenas to do so are needed. Although the women’s support centre is derided by Esma and some of the other women in the film, somewhat reasonably so, it is also in the end the place where Esma can safely unburden herself to an audience of women who have been through the same or similar things.

On the production-side, the film was also well done. The performances of the two lead actresses were great and the cinematography was haunting – buildings with bullet holes and crumbling post-war cityscapes that served as an eloquent physical expression of the film’s themes of a city and country struggling to construct a present and future while the harrowing past haunts its population. I was hooked from the opening sequence, which actually gave me the shivers: the camera pans over the faces of a group of women lying piled up together with their eyes closed on a richly patterned carpet. Unresponsive and still, they could be dead – a reminder of the scale of the horror in Bosnia, even if the film follow the story of only one woman, who opens her eyes when the camera lingers on her. I got the feeling that behind the closed eyes of each woman, there was a trauma – shared, but individual. The film could have chosen any of them – and even if the themes might have been the same, each woman’s life and experiences are to some extent a private burden to be borne. Fiction is a wonderful way of helping people come closer to an understanding of the unthinkable, but selecting one story can work to single it out – to ignore the others or ask it to stand in for them. This simple introductory sequence, and the scenes from the women’s centre, was a powerful indication that Esma’s trauma is not the only one.

The only part of the film I didn’t really enjoy was the confusing subplot involving some kind of criminal dealings between Esma’s shady night club boss and the guy that nearly became her boyfriend. Maybe I was just a bit tired, but I really couldn’t follow what was going on there, and I don’t really think it added anything to the film. Their scenes also felt like they belonged in a cliché mobster film, in stark contrast to the honesty and emotional complexity of the rest of the film. Another issue I had was to do with the translation rather than the film itself (I watched the Nordic region release with subtitles in Swedish): apparently the film’s script refers to the rape perpetrators as “Chetniks”, a derogatory term for Bosnian Serb soldiers during the war, rather than “Serbs”, in order to avoid ascribing guilt to an entire ethnicity. This distinction was not preserved in the translation.

In sum, watching Grbavica, I learned about the Bosnian war and its effects in a very personal and emotive way; in a way that was more effective than simply reading historical accounts. The film also gave me a lot to think about more generally, in terms of rape as a weapon of war and the lingering effects of war (and rape). I am definitely keen to see some more of the director’s work.

Shoutout: Another well-received Bosnian film (Oscar-winning, in fact) which I have already seen also deals with the Bosnian War. No Man’s Land (2001) is grimly farcical parable of a meeting between a Bosnian Serb and a Bosniak in a trench between the opposing front lines, both wounded and trapped until dark. Things escalate when the UN and the international media get involved, with cynically predictable results. While not as nuanced or sensitive as Grbavica, and not as unique, it is also worth a watch.

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