Director: Jasmila Zbanic
2007 European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
War is a popular subject for films, one that normally is tackled with patriotic fervor, nostalgia, brute realism, or gallows humor, depending on the year of the film’s release, the mood of the audience, and the temperament of the creative team. Films that deviate a bit from the expected, such as the “opposing” side narratives of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) or Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), are always remarked upon, usually with interest. There is a face of war, however, that normally stays hidden—the civilians, and particularly the women either left behind or caught up in the fighting.
The first war film I can remember that seemed to have a genuinely feminine point of view—as opposed to an idealization or demonization of women—was Hal Ashby’s Coming Home. Not coincidentally, that film, which talked about the difficult adjustment of a Vietnam vet and the woman who loves him after his tour of duty, was based on a story by a woman (Nancy Dowd). Now the toll the 1990s’ Bosnian War took on its female civilians is brought vividly to life in Grbavica, a film coproduced, directed, written, and photographed by women.
The film opens with close-ups of apparently sleeping women draped across each other on a crowded floor. One is reminded of dead bodies in a heap, and that inference is, I’m sure, intentional. The slow-panning camera rests on Esme (Mirjana Karanovic), and next we are taken inside her life. We are brought into a nightclub pulsating with rock music and writhing bodies. Esme, who could be a soccer mom in the United States, seems out of place as she weaves through the crowd, whispers in a man’s ear, and is directed to an office. There, Saran (Bogan Diklic), the club’s owner, asks her some questions about her availability for working nights and whether she has kids. No problem, Esme answers. No kid, either. “You have to be crazy to have kids these days,” offers a cynical Saran. He asks her to pick a game for him to place a bet on. She unconventionally picks an away game for his team. He decides to take her advice to see if she will be lucky for him. To a man like Saran, women are mascots, sexual conveniences, and favors offered to friends.
Cut to Esme’s apartment and a shot of her teenaged daughter Sara (Luna Mijovic). Mother and daughter clown around, tickling each other and chasing about the flat. Sara pins Esme to the floor. Esme, suddenly nervous and panicked, abruptly orders Sara to cut it out. This is the first of many clues to a secret Esme has, one that will become harder and harder to keep as the film progresses.
Esme is shown at work at the nightclub, making clothes for friends, and beginning a flirtation with a man named Pelda (Leon Lucev) who does “things” for Saran. Pelda drives Esme home from work one day because they both live in Grbavica. He says she looks familiar; though it sounds it, this is not a standard pick-up line. He asks Esme if she ever went to post-mortem identifications. Yes. “Who are you looking for?”he asks. “I found him. My father,” replies Esme. Pelda, too has been looking for his father among the corpses of recently exhumed mass graves in and around Grbavica. Once he was sure he had found his father and talked and cried to him. Suddenly, a woman came up and claimed the body was her father. She identified him the same way Pelda did—black boots and wrist watch. “You know, I got really close to that man,” said Pelda. “I even went to his funeral.”
Sara is having her own difficulties in school. She gets into a violent fist fight with a boy who thinks she should not be playing soccer, a boy’s sport. When a teacher breaks them up, he tells them to bring their parents to school. Sara claims that her mother is ill. “What about your father?” he asks. One of her classmates offers that Sara has no father. “My father is a shaheesh,” says Sara, a martyr to the Bosnian cause. When a school trip is announced for which Esme will have to come up with 200 euros, Sara says all she needs are the papers that prove her father was a shaheesh to avoid the fee. Esme finds one excuse after another not to produce the papers. Eventually, she comes clean with Sara about who fathered her, in an emotionally intense scene in which she batters Sara repeatedly.
Esme’s secret isn’t hard to guess. The domestic situations aren’t unusual. There are even moments when we are sure the film will devolve into extreme violence or tragedy. But the truth is that the tragedy has already occurred and is still very alive in the women (and Pelda) who inhabit this film. The female creative team on Grbavica, I think, is responsible for avoiding the easy clichés that are so common in mainstream war films by men. For example, Esme goes to a community center to receive her welfare check, but is silent during the confessions of other women about the horrors they faced in the war. In one particularly unsettling scene, a drawn, pale woman revisits her painful eviction in the middle of the night while another woman chuckles and then laughs uncontrollably. Nobody says a word to her about stopping and, in fact, they join her.
Besides the unusual tale of war’s aftermath, what lifts this film well above the ordinary are the extraordinary performances of the entire cast. Mirjana Karanovic inhabits Esme as though the part were written especially for her. Young Luna Mijovic couldn’t be more perfect as the loving but confused daughter who alternates between scarily violent and sweetly childish with complete ease and believability. Sarajevo itself is a source of fascination, as criminal plotting happens in sight of a mosque and the sound of microphoned prayer.
In the end, Sara, who hates folk music, joins her classmates in singing a folk song to Sarajevo. Somehow, this act seems both healing for her and a foreboding reminder that nationalism lives, ready to erupt in the cyclical convulsions that plague the Balkans.