By Aaron Hillis
[Photo: Mirjana Karanovic and Luna Mijovic in “Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams,” Strand Releasing, 2007]
With the release of her directorial feature debut, Sarajevo-born filmmaker Jasmila Zbanic has put Bosnia and Herzegovina on the proverbial map as a region to watch in the international film scene. Winner of the Golden Bear (and two other prizes) at last year’s Berlin Film Festival, “Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams” doesn’t just take place in Zbanic’s homeland; it specifically deals with a national issue that goes largely unaddressed in cinema the countless Bosnian women who still suffer in the aftermath of the Yugloslav wars of the 90s. In this rich and justifiably acclaimed drama, single mother Esma (Mirjana Karanovic) harbors a wartime secret that greatly affects both her own well-being as well as that of her 12-year-old daughter Sara (Luna Mijovic). And it only takes an event as uncomplicated as Sara’s upcoming class field trip to act as the catalyst for a heartwrenching confrontation between mother and daughter over the truth of Esma’s horrifying past. The vowel-challenged “Grbavica” (pronounced GRR-BAH-VEE-ZAH, as named for Esma’s neighborhood) is tough to discuss without divulging some of the film’s plot reveals, so a SPOILER WARNING is in full effect during this chat with Zbanic.
For me, the moments that packed the most potent punch were usually the subtlest, like when Esma makes small talk with a friend about going to the post-mortem identifications as if it were a social occasion. Is it a typical Bosnian attitude to be so nonchalant about the distressing moments in day-to-day life?
At the beginning of the war, one bullet was something to be shocked about for days, and then after you have been under siege for three-and-a-half years, one bullet didn’t mean so much. In any film, drama is created out of these kinds of things, but I wanted to use it as it is in Bosnia today, where you have to accept it as part of normal life. That sounds really dramatic, but you just go on trying to deal with it.
How have Bosnian women responded to the film?
Women who survived these [atrocities] were pretty happy that somebody is talking about it because they were, for many years, forgotten about from our society. No one talked about it. Some would say, “We appreciate what you’re doing, but we can’t watch this film, it would be too emotional for us.” I wanted to make this film not just about Bosnian women, but more universally as a women’s topic. Of course it is located here, though rape happens not just in wars, but during times of peace in the U.S., in Western and Eastern Europe, in every country. That’s why one scene shows peace in Bosnia after the war, and there is a soldier in a cafe who almost rapes a woman. It is not just a wartime effect, but something that has happened throughout the history of women and relationships.
When you received your awards at the Berlinale, you took the opportunity to speak out about Serbian war criminals who still haven’t been captured. What do you hope to ultimately achieve with your films and status as a filmmaker?
When the Berlinale received it for competition, I suddenly learned that I had to do eight hours of interviews for five days. I was thinking, as a filmmaker, I don’t want to talk about my films. I said everything I wanted to in the film itself, so what is the purpose of all of this? Of course, the media is very much needed to help present my film to audiences, and my aim is to have this film seen, so what more could I do than just talk about the film? Knowing how hard our life is in Sarajevo because war criminals are still not captured, I thought, okay, I’m going to use every opportunity I can to speak about Bosnia. When I talk to people, they say, “Oh, they are not captured, really?” There have been so many more wars after Bosnia that this was completely forgotten about. I never thought while making the film that I wanted to achieve anything in a political sense, but once it was finished, I thought I would really try to change something.
Do you think this newfound soapbox will affect your filmmaking in the future?
I mean, I could say that, first of all, I’m a filmmaker and I want to make films that are important to me. I wouldn’t make a [strictly] political-issue film because I don’t think my film is political in this way. On the other hand, every film is political, even the most stupid films. I don’t think it will affect my filmmaking, because I try to make films that could maybe have meaning to human beings for the next 100 years. It’s in my everyday life that I want to talk about things that are unjust. After the film, during my interviews and things, I pointed out that Bosnian women who were raped didn’t have any status in our society. With the big media coverage, we actually managed to change Bosnian law. So, you know, this has little to do with filmmaking, but still has something to do with being a filmmaker, because I think aesthetics is a part of ethics.
You were only a teenager when the civil wars started, but you wrote the script just as you became a mother. So whose perspective resonates more with you, Esma’s or Sara’s?
When I was writing it, I was trying to make the story from Sara’s perspective, and I felt that something was wrong. I thought I should keep it with Esma as much as Sara, because the question of Sara’s identity and future is something for the next generation to answer. We still don’t know what the issues of this generation will be because they are new, and mine is a generation of victims, I could say? We remember the war, and now we have to deliver it even if we don’t want it to our kids. I never mention the war in front of my [six-year-old] kid, but she picks it up from TV or somewhere. She comes to me and says, you know, what are mass graves? And I have to answer, so I’m delivering my trauma to her, and I’m trying to explain in a way so that she won’t have to carry it. So, that’s what makes Esma’s perspective more similar to mine, not only because I’m a mother, but because she’s in a position of being hurt. Also, I don’t want to stay a victim [like Esma], I hate when I notice things that could define me as that, so I’m trying to overcome it.
I want to ask you about some of the great music choices you have throughout the film. Could you explain the cultural significance between those spiritual and turbo-folk songs?
Music for me in a film is never… I don’t want to use music as a slave of the image. I want music to be art, or a body in itself to give something to the film. So, I wanted to have these two worlds that Esma goes into. One is her inner world, where she’s at home or the women’s center, and the other is this outside, oppressive world where music is aggressive. [Turbo-folk] came from Serbia, and there are some theories that it was a weapon of war because it’s brainwashing music. You really want to get up and dance, and if a gun is near you, you would shoot. So I wanted to use it as one more layer of portraying Esma’s life.
I was reminded of another great film I watched recently concerning a similar topic. Have you seen Coixet’s “The Secret Life of Words”?
No, but journalists keep asking me that, so I just ordered it from Amazon. [laughs]
“Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams” opens in New York on February 16th (official site).