A film from Bosnia-Herzegovina
Written and Directed by Jasmila Zbanic
It all seems so distant now, the breakup of Yugoslavia, the Bosnian war, and the four-year siege of Sarajevo. The war has been over for a decade, and our attention has now turned to other wars, other countries. But even though the ethnic conflict that divided a country and ruined so many lives has died down, the aftermath of that war is still evident in the lives of its people, and the postwar trauma continues to run through their veins. The war struck Sarajevo the hardest, and lest we become too complacent about the recovery of that wounded city, Bosnian director Jasmila Zbanic offers us a look at the scars that are still there, especially among the women.
As its title so matter-of-factly states, this film centers its focus on Grbavica, a district of Sarajevo that was seized by Bosnian Serbs during the war. Though it is never directly stated in the movie, the name Grbavica is indelibly linked to the internment camp that existed there during the siege, where Bosnian Muslim women were repeatedly raped by Serbian forces. For Bosnians, “Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams” is a title tinged with irony, and as a young Bosnian who grew up in Grbavica during the war, Jasmila Zbanic begins her story here, with that irony and the way it shapes life as it is now.
In the opening scene of “Grbavica,” the camera slowly pans through a group of women attending a war survivors group meeting, and as it passes over the careworn, sad faces of these women, we gradually become aware that one of them has suddenly contracted a serious case of the giggles. The woman’s laughter is so out of place that it turns an otherwise deadly serious scene into something quite different. With this first scene, Zbanic is letting us in on the irony suggested in the film’s title. The experiences we have in life cannot be neatly separated in terms of black or white, sad or funny, Bosnian or Serbian. Life is a complex mixture of contradictory thoughts and feelings. This is what “Grbavica” is ultimately about—acknowledging and learning to live with the contradictions.
One of the women in the group, Esma, only attends these meetings in order to get the small government pension handed out to the women at the end. It is immediately evident that whatever atrocities Esma may have endured during the war, she hid them away long ago. There is a guarded quality about her, and we can see that this is her way of surviving.
All Esma cares about is her 12-year-old daughter Sara. Mother and daughter have a close relationship, but it’s not without its share of problems. As a single mother, Esma struggles to make ends meet, and will do anything for her daughter’s happiness, including pulling night shifts as a barmaid at a seedy nightclub to pay for a school field trip. While Esma sacrifices, Sara acts ungrateful and rebellious. In many ways, Sara is just a typical teenage girl, but soon we realize that underneath the normal adolescent rebelliousness, Sara is deeply troubled. Her behavior becomes so offensive that it tries our patience as well as her mother’s. When the otherwise doting Esma periodically lets loose her own anger and frustration at her daughter in abrupt, occasionally physical outbursts, we can understand the contradiction even as we wince at the aggression.
Tensions between mother and daughter rise even further as Sara becomes more and more aware of her mother’s refusal to talk about Sara’s father. All Sara has been told is that her father died fighting for Bosnia, and that his body has never been found. When Sara grows suspicious that her mother is hiding something, the tension between the two becomes almost lethal. The inevitable confrontation is an emotional release for both mother and daughter. It is here where the contradictions finally come to the surface, and with any luck, reconciliation will begin.
As Sara, newcomer Luna Mijovic does a good job exhibiting the dual impulses of childish innocence and need and adolescent revolt and anger. But what makes this film a truly extraordinary experience is watching Mirjana Karanovic’s remarkable performance as Esma. This is a complex character, and Karanovic conveys every one of Esma’s contradictory impulses with an amazing authenticity. When Esma finds herself being courted by a man who works at the nightclub, it’s almost magical the way Karanovic’s face gradually loses its dull, sagging stoicism and becomes bright and engaged with a tiny wakening of desire that is still colored by hints of disbelief and skepticism. And Esma’s sobbing confession at the end is a tour de force of acting.
A Serbian native of Belgrade and a star in Yugoslavia, Mirjana Karanovic gained international recognition in 1985 as the mother in Emir Kusturica’s “When Father was Away on Business.” Now, 27 years later, she plays a Bosnian Muslim who was raped by Serbs. This isn’t the first time Karanovic has played against her ethnic type. In 2003, she became the first Serb to act in a Croatian film since the war, playing a Croatian war widow in the film “Svjedoci.” It can’t be easy, the effort to dissolve ethnic difference in a land where one’s ethnic identity is so engrained that is has led to hatred and violence. Karanovic’s decision to cross ethnic lines in her career is an act of courage that deserves our admiration.
Jasmila Zbanic also deserves our admiration for casting Karanovic, and for making a film of great power about the fate of that ultimate contradiction—a child born out of hatred. The film has already been honored in Europe, where it was the grand-prize winner at last year’s Berlin Film Festival. The success of “Grbavica” is a hopeful sign, for it not only brings a voice to the new nation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, but a voice to the women of that nation, and to women around the world.