SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina – A famous Bosnian director has always known that her latest film, the heart-wrenching drama of a mother trying in vain to save her husband and two sons from the Srebrenica massacre in 1995, would be worn out by Serbian nationalists.
But the filmmaker, Jasmila Zbanic, was still taken aback when the Serbian media invited a condemned war criminal to speak out on the film “Quo Vadis, Aida? », For which she recently won the award for 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 in the Vukovar massacre.
While asking such a famous character to comment on the film came as a surprise, his reaction was not: he denounced it as lies that “incite ethnic hatred” and undermine 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 production company at the top. from a hill overlooking Sarajevo, the Bosnian city. Capital city. “He puts his guilt on all Serbs. “
Ms. Zbanic’s steadfast belief that the guilt of the atrocities committed during the split of the former Yugoslavia belongs to individuals and not to ethnic groups, has also made her a difficult cultural icon for some in her community to embrace. own community of Bosnian Muslims, known as Bosnians. .
When the European Film Academy awarded him last month the award for best director and selected “Quo Vadis, Aida? as the best European film of the year, a few Bosnian politicians have praised it on their personal Facebook pages, but there has been no such formal celebration held every time Bosnian athletes triumph abroad.
“I didn’t even have any flowers,” she said.
A fiercely independent and self-proclaimed feminist, Ms. Zbanic has for years distanced herself from the dominant, male-dominated political force, the Democratic Action Party, or SDA, a Bosnian nationalist group. Like the Serbian parties on the other side of the ethnic divide, the SDA is now winning votes by stoking animosity and fear towards other groups.
“I’m totally against the SDA, the main political party, so they know I’m not theirs,” she said, noting that she had repeatedly selected ethnic Serbian actors for roles. main in his films. “I don’t choose the 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’s Best Actress award, has been pilloried in the Serbian media as a traitor in love with Muslims.
Haris Pasovic, a prominent Bosnian theater director and Zbanic’s teacher during the war years at the Academy of Performing Arts in Sarajevo, said his former pupil’s collaboration with the Serbian actress demonstrates his belief that the culture transcends nationalism.
“The events were supposed to keep these two people apart forever, but they came together to create this incredible 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 politicians in the Balkans”, almost all of them men. “She is very careful not to be used in political trade in the Balkans and has never wanted to be part of anyone’s bloc,” Pasovic said.
Bosnia has a long and rich history of cinema since when it was still part of Yugoslavia, the multi-ethnic socialist state that collapsed in the early 1990s and spawned the bloodiest armed conflict in Europe. since World War II. Over 140,000 died in the conflicts that followed.
“What I learned during the war is that food and culture are equal,” Ms. Zbanic said. “You can’t live without it either.”
Like so many others in Bosnia, a patchwork of different ethnicities 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 vilified 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 policies of Mr Kusturica – he is close to Milorad Dodik, the bellicose nationalist leader of the Serb-controlled region of Bosnia – but always respected his talents. “We should like professionals regardless of their ideology,” she said.
Aged seventeen when the Bosnian Serbs began a nearly four-year siege of Sarajevo in 1992, Ms. Zbanic said her films, which include “Grbavica,” a 2006 feature film about a single mother whose daughter was conceived during wartime rape, are her “trying to understand what happened and how what happened during the war continues to influence our day to day lives.
“Grbavica” helped pressure Bosnian politicians to change the law to give previously neglected wartime rape victims the same official recognition and allowances as former soldiers. She counts this as one of her proudest accomplishments, noting that “the truth is always good, no matter how painful it hurts and no matter how badly it gets things done.”
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The war in Bosnia ended in 1995 but, said Ms. Zbanic, “we did not resolve or overcome what happened. We are still experiencing a trauma that has not yet been healed. There are many stories from the past that influence our life 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 atrocity since the end of World War II, with over 8,000 Muslims massacred there.
Many Serbs still deny the massacre or insist that the murder was provoked by Bosnian attacks on innocent Serbs, despite the 2017 genocide conviction by the Hague tribunal of General Ratko Mladic, the commander of the Serbs of Bosnia who orchestrated the assault on Srebrenica.
While the film leaves no doubt about the guilt of General Mladic and his Serbian soldiers, it eschews graphic images of their crimes, and Ms. Zbanic’s work has received little applause from Bosnian politicians, who view her as insufficiently loyal. to their own account of the war as a conflict between good Bosnians and bad Serbs.
“Srebrenica is used a lot by Bosnian politicians to build national unity or whatever – and I was disobedient. I wasn’t giving the story they expected, ”she said.
Instead of focusing on the horrific violence of the Serbs, the film struggles with the individual choices of a Bosnian mother who uses her position as a UN translator to try to protect her own family while begging the Dutch commander for it. ‘UN in Srebrenica to do something to prevent the slaughter.
The film’s main character, Aida, is “not a saint” and prioritizes the survival of her family, 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 gives a measure of humanity: she has kept the old family photos of her. ‘Aida and returns them.
Unlike the often offensive attacks on Ms. Zbanic in many Serbian media outlets, direct criticism in Bosnia has been relatively low-key, mostly limited to comments on social media by fringe nationalists, who see her as insufficiently supportive of a construction project. ‘a nation rooted in religion. and rural tradition.
When filling out official documents asking her to declare to which of the three main ethnic groups in Bosnia – Bosnian, Serbian or Croatian – she belongs, she writes “other”. “I cannot identify with nationalism or with 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, teaming 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, enormous progress to our society, especially for women,” she said. “It was not a democratic society at all. But if there is a lot to criticize, the point is that my parents went to school for free, and when they got married they got an apartment for free.
Politicians today, she said, whether Bosnian, Serbian or Croatian, have little interest in improving people’s lives. Instead, they “use conflict as a way to deal with each other,” she said, adding, “They just recycle old narratives because it keeps them in power.”