8th 10 - 2008 | 9 comments »

2008 CIFF: Snow (Snijeg, 2008)

Director: Aida Begić

2008 Chicago International Film Festival


By Marilyn Ferdinand

Among the thriving film industries of Eastern Europe, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s has consistently provided courageous and inventive stories that tell the rest of the world what has happened and is happening in this scarred region. The female filmmakers of Bosnia-Herzegovina have been especially articulate in depicting the aftermath of the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims by their Serbian neighbors during 1992-1995. The superb Grbavica: Land of My Dreams, a film created by women, dealt with the postwar trauma of a Muslim woman and her daughter that helped people like me who had only heard about the Bosnian War on the news understand the deep, human consequences of this tragic conflict.

Now we have another beautifully wrought film—the winner of the critics’ week grand prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival—from another female director about the survivors of the tiny Muslim town of Slavno who saw all its males, including young boys, rousted from their beds and taken off to be slaughtered. Snow takes place in a time out of time. Real-life events occur, but the handful of residents (surely there must be more than 10 people in this village) who have lost fathers, husbands, and children live in a kind of limbo, wishfully thinking and dreaming that their men somehow escaped unharmed or clinging to bitterness over their ruined lives.

At the center of the film are Alma (in a mesmerizing, soul-searing performance by Zana Marjanović), a young widow and the only woman in the film to wear the veil and modest clothing prescribed by Muslim traditions, and Ali (Benjamin Djip), a young boy who witnessed the murder of the men and boys of the village and ever since has seen his voice muted and his hair refusing to grow. Ali lives with the only other man in the village, the elderly Dedo (Emir Hadžihafizbegović), who leads prayer sessions for the women.

Alma has started a cottage industry canning fruits and vegetables and making chutneys to “feed half of Bosnia”—a dream her dead husband had. Working with her are Sabrina (Jelena Kordic), a young woman who listens to rock music, dresses like a mod, and dreams of going to Sweden to hook up with a man she had a fling with after her husband was killed; Jasmina (Sadzida Setic), a bitter woman whose young sons and husband were murdered and who now looks after two orphan girls; and Najida (Jasna Beri), a Bosnian Mother Earth whose daughter Lejla (Alma Terzić) holds out hope that her father somehow survived. Safija (Vesna Masic), the mother-in-law Alma barely tolerates, lays on her sofa, prostrate from a weak heart and seemingly retired from life. The matriarch of the village, Nana (Irena Mulamuhic), sits in her home where she has undertaken the project of weaving a very long carpet out of cloth remnants she cuts from tote bags and bolts of fabric.


Najida helps Alma drag a cart filled with jars of preserves up a hill to set up a roadside stand. The road seems abandoned; how do they scratch out a living with this highly unprofitable enterprise? Najida tells Alma she needs to relieve herself and wants Alma to come with her. In the short time the cart is left untended, a truck barrels around the turn and smashes the cart and the fruits of the women’s labor to bits. The driver, Hamsa (Muhamed Hadzovic), offers to pay for the ruined goods and gives the women a lift back to town. When he tries to strike up a conversation, Alma is cold and distant. Then he says he is from Alma’s home village and says that he escaped death by hiding under dead bodies for two days. He now makes a good living delivering furniture from Germany to Bosnia. Alma warms to him after she learns he, too, is a victim. He strikes a bargain with her to buy all their stock for sale in Germany. He also seems to have his eye on Alma.

Back in the village, the other women are skeptical that Hamsa will keep his promise, but Alma’s faith is unshakable. Even when a Serb named Miro (Jasmin Jelco) comes with an offer from a large company to buy their land, Alma encourages the women to put their faith in Hamsa. On the appointed day of his arrival to buy their stock, Hamsa is a no-show. When Miro returns with Marc (Dejan Spasic), an officer of the buying company, to get the villagers to sign contracts selling their land, many of them comply. Alma is tempted to give up as well, but Safija counsels her to stay put: “We’ve lived through worse.”

A storm and engine trouble force Marc and Miro to stay in town. When Ali comes in, his hair now growing, he and Miro have a strange confrontation that changes the fate of all the villagers and enables them to move past their grief and anger and get on with their lives.


Snow deftly mixes reality with dreamscapes, superstition, and magic in a town that seems as mythic as Brigadoon. We don’t see much of Slavno beyond a few ramshackle buildings and some house interiors. With only a handful of inhabitants, Slavno just can’t exist and provide for all of the needs these people have. Like Brigadoon, the residents of Slavno are under the influence of an enchantment—in this case, a mourning that can’t end because of the uncertainty surrounding the fate of their men and boys. Alma has a recurring dream—twisting her beautiful veil as she walks, washing herself at a fountain, carrying a cup of water and a towel to the site of prayer—but we don’t know it’s a dream at first. Alma herself wakens from these dreams unsure of where she is and what she is to do. When the netherworld in which Slavno exists finally comes to an end, the villagers walk across an expanse on the rug Nana has woven and floated on air to accept their passage.

The color saturation in the film is vivid, intoxicating, the stuff that dreams are made on. Think of What Dreams May Come or The Fall, and you’ll have some idea of just how gorgeous and communicative they are. The sound design also helps us float on this film. For example, while listening to a theological lesson from Dedo, Ali is distracted by a rustle of wind that slowly grows louder and stronger. “God sees everything,” Dedo says to Alma late in the film. When the storm that traps Miro and Marc in Slavno announces itself with a strong, roof-snatching force, it seems like the climax of God’s intervention on this blighted village.

One of the orphan girls plays with some powdered cement, pretending it is snow. When the real snow comes, Slavno’s luck begins to change. The village may survive after all. Its residents already have.

Movie trailer (French subtitles):

Michael Guillen of The Evening Class offers an illuminating interview of the director.

15th 03 - 2007 | no comment »

Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams (2006)

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 grbavica%20club.jpgbodies. 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 20060220201703_5-grbavica.jpgsounds 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.

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