In Children of Sarajevo (Djeca, 2012) Rahima walks fast, with a concerned and stern look in her eyes. She seems to be running out of time. Her face is, simultaneously, gentle and exhausted, melancholic and determined, as the hand-held camera follows her small, but decisive, steps to the school of her teenage brother Nedim. Nedim is in trouble because he broke the iPhone of a fellow pupil, who happens to be the son of a Minister, in a school fight. Soon we discover that Nedim has many problems in school and is involved in some serious and dangerous criminal activities.
Seemingly focused on the tense relationship between sister and brother, Aida Begic’s second feature Children of Sarajevo (Djeca), screened this year in Cannes’ Un certain regard, is much more than a story of two war orphan siblings. Condensing the narrative to a couple of pre-Christmas days in the lives of Sarajevans, the film, through naturalistic Dardennes brothers’ style direction, displays a subtly minute analysis of post-war Bosnian transitional society. Harsh contrasts between the bleak realities of war orphans and the glamorous life-styles of corrupted politicians and other social authority figures are conveyed through Begic’s measured, unobtrusive and minimalist direction, aided by the masterfully balanced photography of Erol Zubcevic, the winner of this year’s FEDEORA prize for best photography in Piran 2012.
After her daringly poignant debut Snow (Snijeg), which won the Semaine de la Critique in Cannes in 2008, with Children of Sarajevo (Djeca), Aida Begic shows that she has yet much to tell and that her talent will continue to impress us. Similar to the first film, very little in Children of Sarajevo seems fictional and hardly any shot is superfluous. But whereas the first film dealt with the direct consequences of the war and the hopeful reconstruction of the society, the second one documents as authentically as possible the challenges Bosnian post-war society faces: financial, political, social and moral.
The new killer is a money-obsessed, corrupt, consumerist and socially unaware post-war transitional society. The same challenges are present elsewhere in the Balkans, with varying nuances, depending on the degree of war destruction, most devastatingly suffered by Bosnia. The personages of the merciless, ruffian corrupted politician, the despotic and prejudiced schoolteacher, or the incompetent, unsympathetic and equally corrupted social worker could be found in any other Balkan country, but Begic confines her filmic portrayal to Bosnia and – to Rahima’s point of view.
Rahima (brilliantly played by Marija Pikic) works double shifts as a chef in an expensive restaurant in order to support the household consisting of herself and her 14 year-old brother. Her resilience and stamina are suggested by the scenes in which she resolutely carries whole dead animals over her shoulder. In one moment she puts two sheep heads side by side and, looking at them, comments sarcastically: “to be or not to be”, as if alluding to her own life situation. From the very beginning, seen through Rahima’s eyes, the spectator shares her daily life struggles, her inner tensions, her social isolation, her (self)ironic stance and her disappointment with the society in disarray.
In many long takes, the hand-held camera follows Rahima’s brusque movements and walks to and back from work in the desolate streets of Sarajevo, still in ruins. Frames of bridges, parks, river banks, buildings and corridors are no less bleak, macabre, or menacing, as if the apocalypse were lurking in every single corner of the entropic city. This devastated public space reflects the protagonists’ home sphere, which needs repairing and reconstruction, too. At home, the camera constantly in motion peeps across Rahima’s shoulder as she cooks, washes, cleans, packs and unpacks, or watches TV.
Begic never explains, as the authorial commentary may seem superfluous or even patronizing for the audience. Thanks to the, quite extraordinarily, deliberate absence of close-ups, the director, however, successfully distances the viewer from a closer identification with the protagonists and lets her long takes narrate the characters’ bleak reality in which the spectator subtly becomes immersed. The narrative rhythm is paced so as to reflect the contrast between the outside menacing reality and the inner world of Rahima’s memories and her daily struggles. Memories are shown by briefly inserting real video footage of the war scenes, as if to remind us that pictures of war are similar to moving pictures: what we remember, what stays in our head are these shots, in both of the word’s meanings (in English). Only the shooting remains real and lingers on long after the screening is over.
Playing with the notion of the visual representation, Begic asks many questions but does not provide the answers. Rahima was about nine years old during the war and her brother was just born. What does this mean for them and for all the children who know no other reality but the war, which caused them (parental and other) losses? What choices do they have in life scarred by the traumatic past, confronted with the painful present and unpromising future? The entire film structure is centered around these questions, suggestive of the play between veiling and unveiling. Depending on the people with whom she comes into contact, Rahima’s war memories unfold, unveiled on the screen. Just as Rahima’s psyche is marked by her tormented memories, so is she socially marked by wearing a veil. She chooses to be visually and socially marked by the scarf, as if to simultaneously expose and mask her war scars, but refuses to give a clear explanation for her (religious or spiritual?) choice. This decision may contain an autobiographic element, as Aida Begic, who also wears the scarf herself, refuses to provide explanations of her own most intimate life choices. Similarly, she refuses to provide answers of her filmic heroine’s motivations. Everyone seems to object to Rahima’s veil: her neighbours, workmates, friends, social workers, school teachers, politicians and, most importantly, her brother. Everyone seems to know “who she is”, yet nobody seems to understand her. She becomes the target of everyone’s blame and criticism.
The veil could, thus, become the metaphor for the heroine’s vulnerabilities, simultaneously cautiously hidden from others and audaciously revealed to the outside world. Rahima’s veil is, therefore, a visual sign of her well kept intimate secrets, but also of her strength, as she clearly separates herself from the others by boldly asserting her difference.
“All my troubles started with your veil”, Nedim says to his sister, without whom he might not be able to survive. His alienation from her is underlined by frequent scenes of their tense dialogues, misunderstandings, loud arguments and long silences, aggressive remarks and rebuffs. He lies to her, steals and, as we will find out later, even carries a gun. His distancing from his sister, who also plays the role of his mother, is not only symptomatic of a typical teenage rebel behaviour, but is also indicative, as Begic strives to show, of the final, and perhaps the most painful, blow to the little integrity Rahima has left: he is ashamed of her. In the world of distorted moral values and social depravity, teenage delinquency, physical aggression, hypocrisy, corruption and political autocracy seem to be more acceptable than the self-sacrificial and stoical behaviour of a young independent woman, who works double shifts only to be able to support the small family community. “Your brother will be a much better person than you.” – say repeatedly many shady characters to Rahima. Her greatest crime, then, becomes her veiled defiance of the transitional societal values.
The siblings, eventually, do manage to rebond, but the film’s ending suggests that there is not much hope for war orphans in Bosnia, as Rahima and Nedim disappear from the screen and we can only hear their voices in the distance. Their newly discovered sisterly-brotherly tenderness is expressed by finding joy in simple things of life, such as making and eating pancakes. Just as Rahima marks, in a demonstrative gesture of the reclamation of privacy, her territory from the people who might represent a sexual, moral, political or social menace to her, the war orphans are stigmatized in a society void of empathy and care for those who most need it.
Both Snow’s Alma and Chidren’s Rahima are determined stoic young women. But whereas Snow was hopeful and revealing, Chidren is hopeless, dark, and full of despair. Officially over, the war is still present in Bosnia: in its people’s memories, daily lives, in its macabre ruins waiting to be repaired. The future is not only unpredictable, but impossible to plan or imagine. The dreams gave place to (war) memories, to paraphrase the director’s words. What might happen in the next few days remains not only unknown, but unplannable…
Maja Bogojević, Montenegro