War(s) and Remembrance

  • When this year’s Pula Film Festival (an impressive number 58!) was approaching its end, it coincided with the apprehension of the last man wanted by ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia). On July 20th Goran Hadzic was finally arrested by the Serbian authorities, charged with war crimes and serious violations of international humanitarian law 1991-93, in the then self-proclaimed Serbian Republic of Krajina, now a part of Croatia. It became yet another reminder of wounds unhealed and of the continous brooding over the roots and reasons for over a decade of nationalistic bloodshed, so called ethnic cleansing and suffering, which in retrospect first and foremost appear as unnecessary. Almost only the Muslims of Bosnia and the Albanians of Kosovo have strong arguments in claiming their need to defend themselves against unprovoked violence.According to all political analysts it was the Yugoslavs themselves – at least their political elites – who didn’t want the federation any more and started to shoot one another. It’s not surprising that film makers, no matter their nationality today, continue searching for apt ways of expressing and understanding the different Balkan wars – and thus their own history.

    The overwhelming question to be answered is; how to deal with a war (or rather a number of different wars) which, in all respects, was unconventional? It had no clear battle lines, and – in spite of the exaggerated number of refugees and civilian casualties – made by all parties, set neighbour against neighbour along linguistic, religious, ethnic and historical lines?

    The solution seems to be not to mention the war itself, with its specific facts, figures and responsible persons – rather like Claire Denis did in White Material set in an unnamed African postcolonial countrty. Or like Denis Villeneuve did in Incendies set in the incomprehensible Libanese civil war context, recognizable but yet unidentifiable, made universal with other names.

    It’s something of a paradox, after almost 90 convictions at the ICTY tribunal in the Hague and in cases remitted to the different national courts that films from former Yugoslavia are very careful not to point its finger at some clearly identifiable crimes and their perpetrators. Not even an argument along the lines of Voltaire about “getting used to finding the truth in small things in order to avoid being thoroughly lost in the big issues“.

    In Pula we saw five war films – or rather films about war itself or its aftermath – set in different times. Each of them – of course – mirroring the present in trying to provide its answer. What they had in common was their attempt to move beyond the sterotypes of heroes and villains, aiming for either the absolute horrors of war or the possibilities of atonement. Inevitably there will be more films in years to come.

    Step By Step (Korak po korak) is set in the outskirts of Osijek, 1991 – on frontline, at the beginning of the Croatian war of independence. Vjera Kralj is struggling to preserve her civilian life and her family as the war draws closer. Her husband leaves as a refugee and comes back as an abusive and jealous husband in uniform. Her son quits his studies in spite of his mother’s efforts to stop him. He goes go to the front, to become a man, and comes back a social misfit. The director Biljana Cakic Veselic stated that she dedicated her film to “the female line of my family – to women who survived wars and provided for their families and to a future generation of women who will dare to be independent“. Her will is strong but her film is weak. Apart from some memorable scenes, it suffers from more than a streak of romanticism when it comes to Vjera Kralj’s everyday heroism – and the reasons for it.

    It’s as if the step from documentaries – many of which the director has made, as well as working as a news reporter during the war – to a feature seems too long. It’s a tough job to convert this thoroughly covered war with all its well documented atrocities into a somewhat cheerfully poetic and symbolic tale of a woman’s will to stand strong and do the right thing when the bombardment starts. To lift this dramatic story from everyday realism has become too hard a nut to crack. In all its ambitions it halts half way. Men becoming brutalized by war (if they aren’t already) and women, finally, only wanting to dance (?); in the end Vjera Kralj – no matter that Ksenija Marinkovic does the best she can in the part – appears not as the eternal mother, but a dreamy ultimate Mother Croatia.

    Ahmed Imamovic also struggles to give one of the most horrifying and terrible events of the war a new, postwar relief. The genocide of maybe up to 8000 Muslim Bosnians in Srebrenica 1995 is still a painful memory for all the survivors (and more than an embarassing one for UN troops who were there to preserve peace but did nothing to prevent the massacre) In Belvedere, Imamovic sets his story today, in a refugee camp outside Sarajevo. The story evolves around some Muslim women still waiting for the truth; the identification of their lost husbands and sons to finally be able to bury them. And around a new generation with a completely different and trivial perception of reality. A young man, a child during Srebrenica, filled with naivety and good will, goes to Belgrade to appear in Big Brother, all set in garish television colours, while the real reality in the camp is shot in beautiful (almost coquettishly, ingratiatingly beautiful) black and white. But the cross-cutting between, on the one hand, the postwar amnesia and banalities, and on the other the pain of the Srebrenica survivors rapidly becomes the film’s single gimmick. In spite of Belvedere being a decent film about the aftermath of an unimaginable indecency, in spite of its try for magic realism in touching today’s generation gap, it’s overrun by its own lack of necessity.

    Goran Vojnovic’s Piran – Pirano goes all the way back to the Second World War, when Istria was part of fascist Italy and how the fascists were thrown out by the Tito partisans. The story is told through the memories of an ageing man, who to the amazement of his old friends has ever since refused to take a swim in the beautiful sea by now Slovenian Piran (Italian name of the town is  Pirano). Little by little the reasons, dating back to the turbulent years, are revealed. In the center a love story between two young men on different sides of the harsh conflict and a partisan girl.

    The old man was fighting for the partisans. His love rival was the son of a fascist and barely escaped the reprisals when the partisans took over. Piran – Pirano is a moving, sweet – but never oversweetened story – about how the young suffer from their parents sins, but also about the particular predicament of Istria. It even avoids the risk of becoming trite when using the well-worn cliché of proving goodness and by making the fascist’s son into a divinely gifted pianist. Some people might criticize it for embellishing the war which had its fair share of atrocities, like the practise of infoibamento i.e. throwing people into the caves that perforate the Istrian landscape, or just drowning them in the sea. I don’t. Maybe because of its floating rythm between now and then and because of its loveable characters, its simplicity and concentration.

    Simplicity is the last word that comes to mind while watching Stanislav Tomic’s Josef or Dejan Zecevic’s The Enemy (Neprijatelj). They have some common traits. Expressionism in a blue and sepia-toned autumn landscape. Violence. Blood. Mud. Lots of impressive production values. There the comparisons end.

    Josef is a more than peculiar story about the First World War and its Eastern front. At the center an i.d. badge which is removed from one dead soldier by a still living one until he’s killed and then removed again so that it becomes a continous chain as the battles move into trenches and woods, by turns worn by officers or privates, by aristocrats or foot soldiers, involved in the fighting from all possible parties in the war; from Habsburg Austrians and Croats to Russians and their mercenaries Cherkess – or just simple profiteers of the raging war. In spite of endless gory clashes between the equally primitive men. there’s room for ridicolously stereotyped women: as whores in a moving railway brothel, as a nun in a military hospital, as a sorceress in a cottage in the woods. I remain puzzled (to put it kindly) and exhausted not only by the film itself but also in trying to imagine why on earth it was made. All the more, as the name on the i.d. tag turns up in the very end of Josef. It reads as a cheap punch line ”Josef Broz”.

    I.e. Josip Broz as Tito, in 1945, after the Second World War, was to become communist Yugoslavia’s first prime minister and president. It’s an incomprehensible, cynical pun, about a time that wasn’t the end of Balkan history, not even the beginning of the end, but possibly the end of the beginning. It deserved better. The problem with Josef is, however, NOT fictionalising history, but the way it’s done.

    The Enemy proves it. Equally fiction, but set in the very first days of peace in Bosnia. A team of soldiers crawl across a field to disarm the landmines they once placed there themselves. Any second they can go off. A walled in man is found in a deserted factory and liberated. Who is he? Lucifer himself? A metaphor for each man’s enemy within? Tihomir Stanic is the right actor for the part: enigmatic and with plenty of talent to make his invariably serene silences turn ominous and the precise words to set off fear and claustrophobia in the platoon.

    In the futile waiting for a relief team to arrive, tension grows as the tired and hungry soldiers who just want to go home in peace, start cracking, one by one and turn on one another.

    The Enemy is a successful combination of psychological thriller and existential war film in all its condensed horrors – with some supernatural spices added. And I do like the final, sudden appearance of a flock of sheep to be sacrificed in disarming the landmines. It reminds me of the final shot in Buñuels masterpiece The Exterminating Angel. That’s not a bad reference, and maybe that’s what Tihomir Stanic’s enigmatic figure was all about.

    Eva af Geijerstam, FEDEORA.eu, 20 August 2011

    Korak po korak (Step by Step) by Biljan Cakic Veselic (Croatia, 2011)
    Josef by Stanislav Tomic (Croatia 2011)
    Piran – Pirano by Goran Vojnovic (Slovenia, Croatia, 2010 )
    Neprijatelj (The Enemy) by Dejan Zecevic (Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary 2011)
    Belvedere by Ahmed Imamovic (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia)