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Healing takes time

Jasmila Zbanic talks to Jan Schulz-Ojala about her award-winning debut film "Grbavica"

Der Tagesspiegel: Ms Zbanic, "Grbavica" drew 180,000 viewers in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a tremendous success. In the Republika Srpska, the Serbian Republic in Bosnia-Herzigovina, it was boycotted. What has happened since then?

Jasmila Zbanic. © Jasmin Fazlagic

Jasmila Zbanic
: There is only one regular cinema in that republic, in the capital of Banja Luka. Originally, the owner wanted to screen "Grbavica". But after I said at the Berlinale prize ceremony that the war criminals Mladic and Karadzic must be caught, he feared that radical groups might destroy his cinema if he put my film on the programme. Only if the Prime Minister of the Republika Srpska had voiced his personal support of the film in all the papers would the people not respond negatively. So we contacted the American and British embassies, even UN high commissioner Christian Schwarz-Schilling wrote a letter in support of the film, but Dodik didn't respond. The reason is clear – there are elections coming in October.

In Serbia itself, where there was always opposition to Milosevic, a few distributors expressed interest in the film, weeks after the festival.

That ended fast. In the meantime, illegal copies have been made, they're selling like mad in Banja Luka. We're losing money, but at least people are seeing the film.

Mirjana Karanovic, who plays the raped Bosnian heroine of the film, is a Serb and lives in Belgrade. How is the response there?

She got a lot of threatening letters and horrible hate letters. She's a strong person, even during the war she fought against Milosevic. On the one hand, she's used to it, on the other hand, I see how much this hurts her and is even detrimental to her health. And, before "Grbavica," Emir Kusturica had offered her a role in a film of his. Now, there's no more talk of that.

Did you cast other Sebian actors?

I'd rather not characterise my actors as members of nations. OK, the actor who plays bald headed Cenga is a Serb. My actors come from Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, they're great actors and great people and that's what inspires me.

Luna Mijovic as Sara. © coop99 / Deblokada / noirfilm / Jadran Film / M. Höhne

You were seventeen when the war in Sarajevo began. For three years, you lived 100 meters from the front.

Our apartment was right behind the Holiday Inn. In front of it is a row of houses and the river, on the other side, on the hill is the part of the city known as Grbavica. The Serbian army conquered Grbavica in May 1992, after they tried repeatedly but unsuccessfully to cross the river. But for the snipers we were horribly visible. I could see Grbavica through the window, but it was almost abstract to me. The army was invisible, as was the fact that the people there couldn't leave their homes and were living in a kind of concentration camp. It was only with the film that I was able to overcome this repression.

How did you deal with the fear?

We all – my family and friends – tried to continue on with our normal lives. My mother had work, she took care of the family, found food even though there wasn't really any, so that we could come to the table at 4 o'clock. I worked at a theatre festival even though my colleagues warned me not to leave the house. The options were: stay in safety or be shot. So we did art and theatre, founded an academy. That was resistance.

Did belief play a role in your confidence? Are you Muslim?

I come from a communist family. Religious belief didn't count for me. At one point I read the whole Koran but I realised that it didn't really work for me. I believe more in art. Art is as important as bread. Had we not had a cultural life, I would have felt even more demoralised, de-humanised. When you think of the military superiority of the Yugoslav army and the fact that Bosnian civilians had absolutely no weapons at the beginning of the war, you realise that Sarajevo should actually have been dead in two days. It's a miracle that we made it.

"Grbavica" is framed by scenes in which women try to deal with their war trauma of rape by singing and speaking. This feels like a meditative metaphor.

Such scenes exist in reality, all financed by international organisations – the Bosnian government never had a penny to spare for medical and other forms of support for raped women. But some people just drive the women together, using payment as an incentive – you see that in the film. Healing takes time. First the women had to endure the enemy and his violence, now they are rejected by their own society. That's a new trauma, just as brutal as the first.

Mirjana Karanovic as Esma. © coop99 / Deblokada / noirfilm / Jadran Film / M. Höhne

According to the Dayton Accord, they should all go back home.

That could be a good rule for the people whose houses were taken away. But for the women? It's often the case that they can't even stand to hear the name of their city. Many war criminals still live in their home town. Women now living in Sarajevo and Tuzla have to get out of their collectivised centres or housing. Nobody is really forcing them back but they're going to be homeless.

Sara, Esma's daughter, is the child of a rape. Are there statistics for how many children like her are growing up in Bosnia today?

No. Most women who were trapped for so long that they could no longer abort, were exchanged for Serbian soldiers. They came to Croatia, Germany, Sweden – everywhere refugees were being taken in. Most of them gave their kids up right away. For them, it was a horror to have to keep the children. Many of them are Muslims, for them sex before marriage is a sin. It took a long time before the Islamic community called these women heroines.

Do you know individual cases of women who kept their children?

Some, but few. One mother lives with her child in America under a new name. One is in Australia. One lives in Bosnia: her daughter knows nothing and her mother will never tell her.

Do all mothers keep quiet?

I know of one case where the son knows. His mother was pressured by her family to give him up to an orphanage, where she secretly visited him. She worked as a cleaning lady, saved money for ten years without the family knowing until she was able to afford a little house. Then she took her son back.

Luna Mijovic as Sara. © coop99 / Deblokada / noirfilm / Jadran Film / M. Höhne

At one point, Esma says of the men, "You're all animals
." How do the men find their way back into society?

My next film is also about a woman but I'm researching men as well. Unlike the women, the Bosnian war veterans get a little money from the state. All Bosnians are struggling with the fact that the war ended unfairly. The Serbs were rewarded for their genocide – they were given half of the country, precisely that half that they had ravaged. And many war criminals are still not in The Hague. When the international community tells us to leave history in peace, it encourages the war criminals to undertake more deeds. Imagine that the Nazis had been given their own country after the Second World War: how would it have been possible to work with that country?

That means that many young Bosnians see no future for themselves, given the fragile situation in their homeland.

Studies refer to 70 percent. There are also other currents – in music, in art, in alternative, multi-ethnic movements that are critical of the war, in NGOs. Recently I conducted an actor's workshop with young Serbs in Sarajevo, and until then they'd never been outside of Serbia. We have to open the world, even if politicans are constantly trying to prevent that.

Another form of mixing: in your film, everyone meets – either as an employee or as guest – in the nightclub "America". A very symbolic name.

In Bosnia today we are experiencing the most abhorrent form of captalism. Cash is a metaphor for the power of men and money and the fact that women are only objects. They may not be literal slaves of capital, but men treat them that way. There's an energy operating there that reminds Esma of her rape.

You have a five-year old daughter. Does she know about your film?

She knows of it, of course, she knows the actors, she's crazy about Luna who plays the daughter Sara. At first I thought the film might be too hard for her but she finds it great, writing screenplays for example, she writes her own little stories for herself. Her name is Zoe. That's ancient Greek, it means Life.


This interview, conducted by Jan Schulz-Ojala, appeared in Der Tagesspiegel on July 5, 2006.

Jasmila Zbanic was born in 1974 in Sarajevo, studied theatre and film direction at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Sarajevo. In 1997, she founded the artists' group and later film production company Deblokada.

translation: nb - let's talk european