SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina – A famous Bosnian director always knew that her latest film, the heartbreaking drama of a mother trying in vain to save her husband and two sons from the Srebrenica massacre in 1995, would be criticized by Serbian nationalists.
But filmmaker Jasmila Zbanic was surprised again when Serbian media invited a convicted war criminal to comment on the film ‘Quo Vadis, Aida?’, for which she recently won Best European Director.
The chosen critic? Veselin Sljivancanin, a former Yugoslav army officer sentenced to prison by a court in The Hague for aiding and abetting the murder of prisoners in Croatia during the Vukovar massacre.
While asking such a notorious character to comment on the film was a surprise, his reaction was not: he denounced it as lies that “incite ethnic hatred” and smear all Serbs.
“He, a war criminal, wants all Serbs, most of whom have nothing to do with his crimes, to feel attacked for his crimes,” Ms Zbanic said in a recent interview with her apex production company. from a hill overlooking Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Capital city. “He blames all Serbs for his guilt.”
Ms Zbanic’s unwavering belief that the culpability for the atrocities committed during the split from the former Yugoslavia rests with individuals, not entire ethnic groups, has also made her a cultural icon that is difficult for some members to understand. of his own community of Bosnian Muslims, known as Bosnians. to kiss.
When the European Film Academy awarded him the Best Director award last month and selected “Quo Vadis, Aida?” As the best European film of the year, a few Bosnian politicians have congratulated it on their personal Facebook pages, but there have been no such official celebrations held whenever Bosnian athletes triumph abroad.
“I didn’t even get flowers,” she said.
Fiercely independent and a self-proclaimed feminist, Ms Zbanic has for years kept her distance from Bosnia’s dominant, male-dominated political force, the Party of Democratic Action, or SDA, a Bosnian nationalist group. Like Serbian parties on the other side of the ethnic divide, the SDA now wins votes by stirring up animosity and fear from other groups.
“I’m all against the SDA, the main political party, so they know I don’t belong to them,” she said, noting that she had cast ethnic Serbian actors for lead roles on several occasions. his movies. “I don’t choose actors because of their nationality but because they are the best,” she said.
In her most recent film, the lead role, a Bosnian translator working for the United Nations in Srebrenica, is played by Jasna Djuricic from Serbia. Ms Djuricic, who won the European Film Academy Best Actress award, has been pilloried in the Serbian media as a Muslim-loving traitor.
Haris Pasovic, a prominent Bosnian theater director and Ms Zbanic’s teacher during the war years at the Sarajevo Academy of Performing Arts, said his former student’s collaboration with the Serbian actress demonstrated his belief that culture transcends nationalism.
“Events were meant to separate these two people forever, but they came together to create this amazing work of art,” Pasovic said.
International fame, he added, made Ms Zbanic “the most successful woman in Bosnian history” and as a result “she terrifies Balkan politicians”, almost all of them men. “She is very careful not to be used in the Balkan political trade and has never wanted to be part of anyone’s bloc,” Pasovic said.
Bosnia has a long and storied cinematic history dating back to when it was still part of Yugoslavia, the multi-ethnic socialist state that collapsed in the early 1990s and spawned Europe’s bloodiest armed conflict since. the Second World War. Over 140,000 people died in the ensuing conflicts.
“What I learned during the war is that food and culture are equal,” Ms Zbanic said. “You can’t live without one or the other.”
Like so much else in Bosnia, a patchwork of different ethnic groups and religions, the film industry has been bitterly divided by the traumas of war. Emir Kusturica, a well-known Sarajevo-born director who embraced Serbian nationalism, is now reviled by many Bosnians as a champion of “Greater Serbia”, the cause that tore Bosnia apart in the 1990s.
Ms Zbanic, 47, said she despised the politics of Mr Kusturica – he is close to Milorad Dodik, the belligerent nationalist leader of the Bosnian Serb-controlled region – but still respected his talents. “We should value professionals, regardless of their ideology,” she said.
Aged 17 when the Bosnian Serbs began a nearly four-year siege on Sarajevo in 1992, Ms Zbanic said her films, including “Grbavica”, a 2006 feature about a single mother whose daughter was conceived during wartime rape, are his “trying to understand what happened and how what happened during the war still influences our daily lives.
“Grbavica” helped lobby Bosnian politicians to change the law to grant previously neglected wartime rape victims the same official recognition and compensation as former soldiers. She counts this as one of her proudest accomplishments, noting that “the truth is always good, even if it’s painful and even if it hurts, it gets things done”.
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The war in Bosnia ended in 1995 but, Ms. Zbanic said, “we have not resolved or overcome what happened. We are still living through a trauma that is not yet healed. Many stories from the past influence our lives today.
The most brutal trauma of all is the massacre in Srebrenica, a small town in eastern Bosnia that has become the scene of Europe’s worst atrocities since the end of World War II, with more than 8,000 Muslims massacred there. -low.
Many Serbs still deny the massacre or insist the killing was prompted by Bosnian attacks on innocent Serbs, despite the 2017 genocide conviction by the Hague court of General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb commander. who orchestrated the assault on Srebrenica.
Although the film leaves no doubt about the guilt of General Mladic and his Serbian soldiers, it avoids harsh images of their crimes, and Ms Zbanic’s work has drawn little acclaim from Bosnian politicians. , who view it as insufficiently faithful to their own narrative of the war. a conflict between good Bosnians and bad Serbs.
“Srebrenica is very much used by Bosnian politicians to build national unity or whatever – and I disobeyed. I wasn’t telling the narrative they expected,” she said.
Instead of focusing on horrific Serb violence, the film grapples with the individual choices of a Bosnian mother who uses her position as a UN translator to try to protect her own family while imploring the Dutch commander of the UN in Srebrenica to do something to avoid the slaughter.
The film’s main character, Aida, is “not a saint” and puts her family’s survival first, but that does not disqualify her as a victim, Ms Zbanic said. At the end of the film, Aida returns to her old family home in Srebrenica to find it occupied by a Serbian woman, who is not presented as a monster but endowed with a dose of humanity: she has kept the old photos of Aida’s family and returns them.
Unlike the often scurrilous attacks on Ms. Zbanic in many Serbian media outlets, direct criticism in Bosnia has been relatively muted, mostly limited to social media comments from fringe nationalists, who view her as insufficiently supportive of a the nation steeped in religion. and rural tradition.
When she fills out official documents that ask her to declare which of Bosnia’s three main ethnic groups – Bosnian, Serb or Croat – she belongs to, she writes “other”. “I can’t identify with nationalism or nations,” she said.
She left Bosnia near the end of the fighting for the United States, training at the Bread and Puppet Theater, a politically active troupe in Vermont. She then returned to Sarajevo, teamed up with Damir Ibrahimovic, now her husband and longtime producer, to make her first films. They have a daughter.
Raised in Sarajevo by economist parents, Ms. Zbanic has fond memories of Yugoslavia before it imploded. “Socialism has brought enormous progress to our society, especially for women,” she said. “It was not a democratic society at all. But if there are many things to criticize, the fact is that my parents were educated for free, and when they got married, they got an apartment for free.
Today’s politicians, she said, whether Bosnian, Serb or Croat, have little interest in improving people’s lives. Instead, they “use the conflict as a way to deal with each other,” she said, adding, “They just recycle old narratives because it keeps them in power.”