Introduction: The Bosnian War and the Media
Many of us have vivid memories of horrific scenes from the Bosnian war: the carnage caused by bombs and sniper fire, the burning of villages, rapes and massacres. What caused the conflict is much less clear in most people's minds - after all, the Bosnian war is a massively over-determined event. By the late 1980s, Yugoslavia was in dire economic distress, caused in part by its obligations to a savage IMF ‘restructuring’. Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian Muslim nationalism had been growing for decades, exacerbating tensions in what had been, for most of the post-war period, a relatively peaceful multi-ethnic country. But the break-up of Yugoslavia was also precipitated by the world’s great powers. Germany, and especially Austria, encouraged the secession of Croatia and Slovenia in 1991 and there are strong suggestions that in the spring of 1992 the US encouraged Bosnia’s president, Alija Izetbegović, to reject the Lisbon Agreement, a plan for the partition of Bosnia that might have prevented war. And once the war had started, Western and other global powers defied a UN arms embargo by supplying arms to their regional client states. Indeed, the widespread claim that the great powers passively ‘looked on’ as the Bosnian war raged is, quite simply, a myth.
Responsibility for such myths lies partly with the news media. As Yugoslavia disintegrated into nationalist madness, a ‘paranoid public sphere’ (Adorno and Horkheimer) arose in each of the country's former republics. News bulletins collapsed into absurd and crude propaganda. Western journalists, meanwhile, were mostly confined to their Sarajevo hotels, unable to report from the field and disastrously over-reliant on government propaganda. The conflict was a three-sided civil war, albeit an uneven one, the Serbs possessing more firepower than the Croats and Muslims and perpetrating hideous atrocities, from the brutal siege of Sarajevo to the Srebrenica massacre. But as the US tilted towards its client, the Bosnian government, the conflict was increasingly presented as a one-sided war of aggression, or even a genocide, waged by Serbs against Bosnian Muslims. The Western press transformed Serbian president Slobodan Milošević into a modern-Hitler, when in fact he was less nationalistic than his opposite numbers in Croatia and Bosnia. Holocaust analogies became common, notably in the summer of 1992, when ITN’s images of the 'thin man', Fikret Alić, in the Serb-run detention camp at Trnopolje were exaggeratedly interpreted in the Western media as evidence of Nazi-style ‘death camps’ (although such camps were indeed places of real horror and violence). The same media virtually ignored Croat- and Muslim-run camps.
My recent work explores the extent to which screen fictions support the one-sided view of the war propagated by many Western journalists. The following talk examines some of the best-known cinema and TV reconstructions of the war in both the West and the Balkans from the last 20 years. I argue that the cinema of the Bosnia war, East and West, is heavily compromised by misrepresentation, nationalism and racism; however, I end on a more optimistic note, discussing some less partisan treatments of the conflict.
Humanitarianism and Its Others: Three Film Dramas about the Bosnian War
Michael Winterbottom’s Welcome to Sarajevo was released two years after the end of the Bosnian war and would become the definitive cinematic treatment of the conflict. Based on the memoir of British foreign correspondent Michael Nicholson (1994), it focuses on the experiences of journalists in Sarajevo and in particular the quest of one of them, Michael Henderson, to evacuate a young girl from a Bosnian orphanage.
The film has a documentaristic quality. Dramatic reconstructions of civilian suffering, including bloodied bodies strewn across the pavements of Sarajevo, are intercut with real television news footage, suturing Henderson’s reports into the ‘real world’ of the Yugoslav wars. The children in the orphanage are presented to the viewer as part of Nicholson’s news reports, speaking directly to camera with Nicholson’s voiceover translation. It’s an engaging technique that interpellates the audience as witnesses to the horrors of war through a cinematic rendering of the ‘journalism of attachment’.
Nevertheless, Welcome to Sarajevo’s inclusion of actual news footage also reinforces hegemonic framings of the conflict. There is a clip, for example, of one of Bill Clinton’s public statements about the war: ‘history has shown us that you can’t allow the mass extermination of people and just sit by and watch it happen’. Later, television images of the Serb commander Radovan Karadžić are intercut with a speech delivered by George Bush, in which the former president asserts: ‘you can’t negotiate with a terrorist’. As the inclusion of soundbites from both Clinton and Bush suggests, the film reproduces the US media-political script of the war. Serbs are depicted throughout the film as the war’s sole aggressors – as raving psychopaths, in fact. There are also some striking factual reversals: the Serb victims of the 1992 Sarajevo wedding massacre become, in the film, Croatians, while the rescued girl, in reality a Croat, becomes, in the film, a Muslim (Gocić 2001: 42-3). Throughout Welcome to Sarajevo, in fact, Muslims are the innocent victims of the war, Serbs are its villains, and journalists such as Henderson stand for the civilized values of multicultural Europe.
This lionization of the Western journalist who goes beyond the call of duty is combined with an explicit endorsement of Western ‘humanitarian intervention’ when Henderson’s flamboyant American colleague Flynn apologizes to his translator Risto on behalf of the US for ‘failing to deliver on those airstrikes’. In Welcome to Sarajevo, Westerners are thus depicted as the actual or at least potential saviours of Yugoslavia.
Let’s take another example. In 1999, the BBC broadcast a two-part drama, Warriors, which follows the fortunes of British soldiers sent to Bosnia as UN ‘peacekeepers’. It was written by Leigh Jackson and directed by Peter Kosminsky. As in many other Kosminsky dramas – No Child of Mine (1997), The Project (2002), The Government Inspector (2005) and Britz (2007) – a key theme is the betrayal of trust in authority. The drama’s central thesis is that the UN’s non-combat remit prevented the blue helmets from protecting the victims of the war and in many scenes, the soldiers can only look on in frustration as civilians are shelled or displaced.
The screenplay of Warriors is based on the transcripts of interviews conducted with more than 90 British soldiers and their families. In fact, the drama’s depiction of war is considered so authentic that the film has been used in army training programmes to illustrate the dilemmas and challenges of peacekeeping. And the TV critics went wild. The Times’ Paul Hoggart, for instance, wrote that Warriors ‘was, quite simply, stunning – gut-wrenching, soul-searing, heart-rending, thought-provoking, sensitive, powerful, deeply disturbing and dripping authenticity’.
Yet the drama’s political messages are problematic. Drawing comparisons between the Bosnian conflict and the Second World War, a Muslim woman, Almira Zec, advises Lieutenant Feeley that some form of Western intervention is required to prevent a repeat of the 1940s; ‘history is screaming at us’, she tells him. But the use of WWII analogies to justify military intervention in Bosnia rests on two dubious assumptions: first, that Western military intervention is benevolent; and second, that WWII was a just war against fascism – a proposition unlikely to find favour in Dresden or Hiroshima.
Nor is the drama's historical authenticity beyond question. Muslims here appear only as victims; this is especially problematic since Warriors is set in Vitez – an area of central Bosnia in which most of the fighting between 1992 and 1994 involved Muslim and Croat forces. The omni-presence of a slimy Serb commander is also an historical distortion, since Serb forces were not active in the area. Kosminsky’s productions have often drawn censure from the political establishment; Warriors did not, perhaps indicating how little it departs from the dominant narrative of the war.
This narrative is not exclusive to Western productions. The most extensive treatment of the UN mission in Bosnia is Alpha Bravo Charlie, an epic fourteen-part TV drama about the Bosnian war directed by the acclaimed Shoaib Mansoor and broadcast by Pakistan Television to record-breaking audiences in 1998. The military-themed production was facilitated by Pakistan’s ISPR (Inter-Services Public Relations), a body responsible for producing dramas and documentaries about the country’s armed forces (Ansari 2011: 8).
Alpha Bravo Charlie’s principal character is mild-mannered Gulsher Khan, a captain who is sent to Bosnia a few days after his marriage. Khan’s unit is respectfully received by the Bosnian community, as rebuilding projects are begun and medicines, food and money are distributed. As in Warriors, the Pakistani soldiers form close bonds with the locals, especially their Bosnian translators, and Khan’s burgeoning friendship with his translator Sandra is one of the drama’s key storylines.
A dramatic high-point in Alpha Bravo Charlie involves Sandra revealing to Khan her family secret. As the camera slowly zooms in on her face, Sandra explains that her original name had been Selma, but that this was changed at the insistence of her stepfather, a Serb, who abandoned the family to join the army. Later, Sandra tells Khan a second story about her former boyfriend – also a Serb – who deserted her at the outbreak of the war but later returned to slaughter her entire village with a rifle. Having revealed the truth about her suffering at the hands of Serb men, Sandra becomes psychically emancipated and soon falls in love with Khan. She further tells Khan that the war is a ‘blessing in disguise’ because, she says, ‘it has given us our identity; we had forgotten who we were. But now things will change, inshallah’. The war – and specifically the Pakistani UN presence in it – enhances Sandra’s sense of ethno-religious belonging. Sandra’s only complaint is that the UN mandate does not allow arms. ‘Please don’t give us food’, she implores Khan, ‘it keeps us alive so that we can be killed by Serbs tomorrow’. Instead, Sandra asks for weapons (Pakistan did in fact covertly provide arms to the Bosnian government during the war).
Captured by Serb forces later in the series, Khan is shot dead in the second of two escape attempts, but becomes a fondly remembered martyr in the drama’s patriotic ending. Alpha Bravo Charlie thus celebrates the legacy of the Pakistani UN presence in Bosnia, casting the soldiers as heroic protectors of the global ummah.
All three of these productions, then, reflect the mainstream ‘Western’ narrative of the Bosnian war. And it is important to note that their directors are political liberals. Shaoib Mansoor's 2007 film Khuda Kay Liye depicts the wrongful detention and torture of a Pakistani terror suspect and strongly condemns the US war on terror. Winterbottom and Kosminsky are also liberal filmmakers who have been very critical of Western foreign policy since 2001. Winterbottom’s docudrama Road to Guantánamo (2005) and Kosminsky’s dramas The Government Inspector (2005) and Britz (2007) questioned the grounds for Britain’s invasion of Iraq and the effects of the ‘war on terror’ on British citizens. In fact, all three directors have elsewhere demonstrated an anti-imperialist sensibility that is lacking from their films about Bosnia. Whether consciously or not, it seems that liberal filmmakers in the 1990s, like liberal journalists, helped to reproduce the normative ‘Western’ understanding of the war.
A more recent dramatic intervention has been made by Angelina Jolie – another prominent liberal cultural figure with a background in humanitarian work and a strong interest in the suffering of Bosnian women. Jolie’s first foray into directing, In the Land of Blood and Honey, is an award-winning film about a Muslim woman, Ajla, and a Serb policeman, Danijel, who date each other before the outbreak of the war, their friendship illustrating the multicultural harmony of pre-war Sarajevo. During the war, however, Ajla is transported with other Muslim women to a barracks where Danijel is a captain and where the women are repeatedly raped, reduced to ‘bare life’. Danijel seems more kindly than his fellow soldiers, at least initially – but nevertheless confines Ajla to his quarters, where he rapes her. At the end of the film, seemingly tortured by his conscience, Danijel gives himself up at a UN checkpoint, confessing that he is a ‘criminal of war’. That Danijel will be punished for his crimes is one of the film’s progressive points; after all, in US cinema rape is often punished by vigilante reprisals rather than legal means, or not punished at all (Bufkin and Eschholtz 2000) and rapists are seldom shamed in films about rape in the Bosnian war (Bertolucci 2015).
That said, In the Land of Blood and Honey is deeply embedded within what James Der Derian (2001) pithily calls the ‘military-industrial-media-entertainment network’ (MIME-NET) and Jolie consulted with Wesley Clarke and Richard Holbrooke when researching the film. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Jolie’s film is overly invested in establishing war guilt. Here again, Muslims are heroic resistance fighters and Serbs are cardboard cut-out villains; the regional Serb commander, Danijel’s father Nebojša, is a blood and soil nationalist who smashes wine glasses as he pontificates about Serb greatness. Jolie even reconstructs ITN’s Trnopolje camp images in a scene where Danijel is driving through Sarajevo. Here is Danijel's point of view shot...
Hollywood Action Cinema: Masculinism and Militarism
Action films have played a similar role, although often this has not gone much beyond using Serbs as episodic villains. Curiously, in Hollywood, this vilification has often taken a quite specific form, with Serbs depicted as pornography obsessed sexual perverts. In Michael Bay’s The Rock (1996), a box supposedly holding aid for Bosnian refugees turns out to be a Serb booby trap containing pornographic magazines and an explosive toy doll that spews sarin gas – a detail that inverts a real-life story from the same year, in which NATO officers found booby-trapped toys in a Bosnian Muslim training camp (Pomfret 1996: 25). Gustavo Graef-Marino’s Diplomatic Siege (1999), meanwhile, depicts the invasion of the US Embassy in Bucharest by dead-eyed Serb terrorists, one of whom displays a penchant for pornographic gay magazines. And in John Irvin’s The Fourth Angel (2001), Serb terrorists watch pornographic videos. These details revive a longstanding occidental association of the Balkans with sexual excess (think of Bram Stoker’s Dracula); but they also serve a propaganda function, linking Serbs – and Serbs alone – with sexual depravity.
Other Hollywood actioners go deeper. John Moore’s Behind Enemy Lines (2001) merits particular scrutiny as one of the few Hollywood action films to be set during the war itself. The film stars Owen Wilson as Lieutenant Chris Burnett, an American naval flight officer frustrated by the lack of opportunity for combat action. Eventually airborne on a reconnaissance mission over Bosnia, he deviates from his flightpath and is shot down in a demilitarized zone along with his pilot Stackhouse after photographing mass graves. The film’s fetishization of the Americans’ sophisticated surveillance technologies (Burnett refers to his aircraft’s ‘shiny new digital camera’) reinforces the pre-eminence of US high-tech, immersing the viewer in what Graham Dawson (1994) calls the ‘pleasure culture of war’. Burnett’s photographs reveal that the local Bosnian Serb Army commander, General Miroslav Lokar, is conducting a secret genocidal campaign against the local population. Pursued by the Serbs in enemy territory, Burnett is eventually rescued through the belated efforts of Reigart – no thanks to Reigart’s NATO superior, Admiral Piquet, an uptight Frenchman who represents pettifogging ‘European’ bureaucracy. Piquet, who criticizes US unilateralism, is increasingly identified as the film’s villain (Weber 2006: 62).
The Serb soldiers, meanwhile, are heavily racialized ‘mono-dimensional demons’ (Watson 2008: 55) who must be vanquished by angelic American forces. Cowardly and merciless and seemingly unable to speak Serbo-Croat, the Serbs execute Stackhouse by shooting him in the back. And unlike the ‘cool’ white Americans and the Americanized, clean-looking Muslim youths who help Burnett during his ordeal, the Serbs are ‘minstrels of mud and dirt’ (Miskovic 2006: 450).
Burnett is successful in his mission and his photographic evidence results in Lokar appearing at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia to face justice for his crimes. As in Welcome to Sarajevo, constructed news bulletins reinforce a pro-American perspective. At an affective level, meanwhile, a high-octane rock music soundtrack shores up the assertion of US cultural hegemony. By these means, Behind Enemy Lines promotes a Manichean worldview in which US military masculinity, freed from ‘the constraints of multilateralism and diplomacy’ (Ó Tuathail 2005: 361), guarantees moral clarity. It’s therefore unsurprising that the film, although made before 9/11, was rush-released after the Twin Towers attack.
Serb screen villains often exhibit a backwardness and a desire to ‘return’ to the war, or carry it on by other means, in order to avenge past humiliations. A well-known example is Victor Drazen, the chief villain of the first season of the Fox television series 24 (2001-10), a Serb ethnic cleanser whose wife and child were killed during an undercover CIA operation. Yet a desire for revenge is not entirely the preserve of atavistic Serb villains. The heroes of male action melodramas are themselves typically wounded (and thus, etymologically, traumatized) figures (Rehling 2009: 55-82) and the Western soldiers and journalists who return to Bosnia have their own grievances to avenge, even if they do so under the civilized pretext of bringing Serb war criminals to justice.
From the late 1990s, as Western bounty hunters charged into the Balkans in search of war criminals, Western film and television dramas began to reflect their experiences in a series of ‘back to Bosnia’ storylines. The most high-profile of these, Richard Shepard’s 2007 film The Hunting Party, is set five years after the Bosnian war. It is based on an Esquire article by Scott K. Anderson (2000) about an unconventional plan hatched by a group of three journalists, who decide to spend their holidays finding and arresting Radovan Karadžić (‘It’s payback time for that fuck’, as one of the reporters robustly puts it). The posse of journalists ventures into what one of them calls ‘the heart of this Balkan madness’ in order to track down ‘the most wanted war criminal in Bosnia’, Dr Radoslav Boghdanović, also known as The Fox, and his bloodthirsty bodyguard Srđan.
The Hunting Party’s central protagonist, Simon Hunt, is an American TV journalist whose Bosnian girlfriend was raped and murdered by Boghdanović in 1994. Like Flynn in Welcome to Sarajevo, Hunt is a fearless journalist, stopping in the heat of battle to smoke cigarettes to a rock music soundtrack. But Hunt loses his composure – and consequently his job – during a live TV interview from Bosnia with his channel’s veteran news anchor, Franklin. When Franklin, during a discussion of a massacre of Bosnian Muslims, tries to raise the question of Muslim responsibility for violence, Hunt explodes: ‘These people were butchered. Women were raped. Children were murdered. Come on, Franklin!’. Hunt’s outburst reveals his commitment to the ‘journalism of attachment’. By contrast, the older anchorman Franklin embodies the conservatism of a compromised establishment and his vacillations compel Hunt to seek justice on his own terms. Like Behind Enemy Lines, then, The Hunting Party has a distinctly oedipal subtext: the failure of paternal authority pushes Hunt, like Chris Burnett, to defy that authority and restore moral order by force.
The Fox and his bodyguard, meanwhile, are presented as Balkan Wild Men, animalistic avatars of a ‘volatile masculinity gone mad’ (Longinović 2005: 38). The journalists eventually capture The Fox – no thanks to a laughably ineffectual UN police bureaucrat. Indeed, as in Behind Enemy Lines, US unilateralism trumps slow-moving, corrupt European diplomacy. That this unilateralism is covert and possibly illegal aligns the film with other Bosnian war thrillers, such as Mimi Leder’s The Peacemaker (1999) and John Irvin’s The Fourth Angel (2001), as well as what Ross Douthat (2008) calls the ‘paranoid style’ of post-9/11 Hollywood.
Although it is set in the US, Mark Steven Johnson’s 2013 film The Killing Season also focuses on the settling of old scores. Here Robert de Niro plays Benjamin Ford, a US Bosnian war veteran who has retreated to the Appalachian mountains in order to forget the war. Ford is tracked down, however, by Emil Kovač, a sadistic Serb soldier who had been shot by Ford during the war and now seeks revenge on the American. Most of the screentime in The Killing Season is devoted to the brutal to-and-fro combat between the two men as they chase, torture and occasionally speechify to one other in a battle for physical and moral supremacy.
Critically maligned and a commercial flop, The Killing Season has incurred widespread ridicule for its raft of cultural solecisms (Kovač’s un-Serbian name and incongruously Islamic beard being the favourite targets of the film’s online detractors). More troublingly, Balkanist stereotyping abounds. As Dina Iordanova (2001: 162) notes, the Balkans have often been viewed by Westerners as a place of ‘face-to-face sadistic fervour involving blood, spilled guts, severed limbs, tortured and mutilated bodies’. Kovač brings this savagery to America, his preference for a bow and arrow marking him as a pre-modern savage.
Even worse is the film’s opening depiction of the Bosnian war, which is provided by way of backstory. Purporting to depict to the final stages of the conflict, the film shows the liberation of a Serb-run concentration camp - complete with Trnopolje-style barbed wire fence - as part of an American ground operation in which US infantry fight a close range battle with the Serbs.
Post-Yugoslav Cinema: Nationalism to Normalization
Most Western films about the war are superegoic, calling for action to restore political and moral order in the Balkans. By contrast, Balkan films – especially Serbian films – often display a dark sense of humour and fatalism, exploring the nature of war in more ironic and allusive modes. The elevation of poetics over politics in these distinctly Dionysian films (Gocić 2009) complicates and often confounds critical analysis. Interpretation is further complicated by the generic diversity of these films, which move beyond the drama and action genres favoured by Western directors to encompass satire, comedy and horror. In this final section of my talk, I shall briefly evaluate some negative and positive trends within post-Yugoslav cinema.
As several critics have argued, the cinema of the former Yugoslavia’s most celebrated director, Emir Kusturica, bends Hollywood’s anti-Serb stick in the other direction, betraying his strong pro-Serb political sympathies. In the 1940s storyline in Kusturica’s Underground – a film ‘supported and endorsed by government-controlled cultural institutions of Milošević’s Yugoslavia’ (Iordanova 2001: 122) – the heroes Marko and Crni ‘fight on relentlessly in occupied Belgrade, while the Slovenes and the Croats welcome Nazi troops, [and] Muslims and Croats steal weapons and money from the resistance fighters’ (Magala 2005: 195). Nor does Kusturica, either here or in his subsequent Bosnian war film Life Is a Miracle, acknowledge Serb atrocities in the 1990s. A great deal has already been written about Kusturica’s nationalist affiliations, so here I shall say only that agree with the majority of critics that Kusturica’s films are as compromised by political bias as any Hollywood production.
A rather more complicated case is presented by Srđan Dragojević’s 1996 tour-de-force Pretty Village, Pretty Flame – the Ur-text of Bosnian war cinema. Rich in symbolism and dripping in irony, it is arguably the most sophisticated film about the war. It is set in the Višegrad tunnel (also known as the Brotherhood and Unity Tunnel) in 1992, where a Serbian fighter, Milan, is trapped with his comrades, surrounded by Muslim soldiers. The film regularly flashes back to Milan’s happy adventures with his childhood friend Halil, one of the Muslims now outside the tunnel; many of these adventures take place near the tunnel, which the boys will not enter, convinced that an ogre dwells there. The film also jumps forward to Milan’s post-war experiences in hospital, where, consumed with thoughts of vengeance for the murder of his mother, he determines to kill a young Muslim patient. Milan’s journey from amity to animosity illustrates the poisonous power of nationalism. Yet an American journalist who finds herself in the tunnel with the Serbs undergoes a reverse process: blinded by Western stereotypes, she is initially horrified by the men; but her antipathy towards them lessens with familiarity. Indeed, Pretty Village, Pretty Flame delivers a riposte to Western ways of seeing, expressing ‘frustration with the Western representation of the war, of Serbs and the Balkans in general’ (Radović 2014: 51). Yet Dragojević also shows the depravity of the Serbs, as they drunkenly loot and burn Muslim villages, proudly sporting the kokarda. Milja Radović (2009: 195) therefore rightly argues that the film contains much indirect opposition to the idiocies of Serb nationalism; this is no doubt why the film was treated with suspicion by the Serbian elite and the production ran into significant problems with the authorities.
On the other hand, the film’s only visible Muslim victim appears in a scene in which the Serbs loot a home, the dead body of its owner, Ćamil, appearing in the background of the shot. As Pavle Levi (2007: 148-9) points out, Dragojević’s camera only briefly shows Ćamil, eventually refocusing on the Serb soldier in the foreground and blurring out the victim behind him. It might be added that Ćamil appears not only in the background of this shot, but through a window, a distantiating framing that positions Ćamil as a mere ‘representation’ existing outside the Serbs’ – and perhaps the viewers’ – sphere of interest. Also problematic in Pretty Village is the dismissive representation of the effete anti-war demonstrators who protest in front of the military hospital, risibly chanting John Lennon’s ‘Give Peace A Chance’. Ultimately, then, Pretty Village is an ambiguous text that criticizes some aspects of Serb nationalism while marginalizing Muslim suffering and the aspirations of the peace movement.
Where then to turn for an unpatriotic imagining of the Bosnian war? Many scholars of post-Yugoslav cinema regard Danis Tanović’s No Man’s Land (2001) as an exemplary anti-war film; but even here there are problems. The film focuses on two combatants from opposing sides of the conflict – Čiki, a Muslim, and Nino, a Serb – who find themselves trapped between the Serb and Muslim front lines, as piranha-like international reporters seek to exploit the men’s predicament and UN officials uselessly look on. Despite its welcome satire on the pretensions of Western journalism, however, No Man’s Land frames the war and the trench-bound duo quite conventionally. The action in the trench is interspersed with a British TV news programme showing Radovan Karadžić threatening the Bosnian Muslims and an argument between the film’s two protagonists about the origins of the war identifies the Serbs as the only aggressors. The film’s presentation of the unlikely trenchmates, meanwhile, is far from even-handed. The Bosnian Muslim, Čiki, is coded as the compassionate hero and his Rolling Stones tee-shirt reminds the audience that Muslims represent liberal, Western values. His Serb counterpart, on the other hand, is neurotic and duplicitous, attempting at one point to stab Čiki with his own knife. Notwithstanding the widespread critical assessment of No Man’s Land as an anti-war film, then, Tanović, I argue, tends to present the Bosnian war as a morality tale of good Muslim and bad Serb.
I’d like to end by discussing two post-Yugoslav films about the Bosnian war that are very different in tone yet which indicate potential lines of flight away from ethno-nationalism. The film that has attracted most international attention for its depiction of the after-effects of war trauma on Bosnian women is Grbavica/Esma’s Secret (2006). Written and directed by Bosnian Jasmila Žbanić, Esma’s Secret is, along with No Man’s Land, the most watched film in post-war Bosnia (Zajec 2013: 200) and its success led to the Bosnian government belatedly agreeing to provide financial support for the war’s rape victims. A ‘film with very few men’ (Pavićić 2010: 49), it tells the story of a working class single mother, Esma, and her wayward daughter Sara, who was conceived when Esma was raped during the war, but who has been brought up believe that her father was a šehid, or war hero. The film alludes subtly to the nature of Esma’s experiences during the war and critiques the sexist social norms of post-war Bosnia: Esma works as a waitress in a nightclub and her abhorrence of the crass philandering of its patrons, together with her unease when in close proximity to men, hint at the nature of her prison camp ordeal and suggest that gender relations have barely changed in Bosnia since the war.
Unlike Angelina Jolie’s film about war rape, Esma’s Secret shows little interest in political demonization. The film’s quiet social realism constitutes an implicit critique of the wild, self-Balkanizing cinema of Kusturica and Dragojević (Pavićić 2010: 48). Žbanić’s use of space reinforces the point. In Kusturica’s Underground, the above ground/below ground dichotomy symbolizes the discrepancy between Yugoslavia’s Communist superstratum and the deceived masses who live under its auspices. In Esma’s Secret, this topography is reversed: Esma and Sara often occupy hilltop spaces overlooking the Bosnian capital city from which Sara derives her name. In contrast with Kusturica’s and Dragojević’s enclosed spaces (basements, tunnels and graveyards), these locales convey a sense of possibility; and unlike the doomed, irredeemable characters of Kusturica and Dragojević, Esma and Sara are capable of change (Pavićić 2010: 49). Once Sara is apprised of her mother’s secret, mother and daughter may begin a new life together.
Some other impressive Balkan films about the war and its effects focus on the perpetrators, rather than the sufferers of trauma. The Enemy, directed by Serb Dejan Zečević and co-produced between Serbia, Republika Srpska and Croatia in 2011, is a supernatural, allegorical drama with a distinctly Tarkovskian tone. Set in the immediate aftermath of the war, the film begins with Serb soldiers, under the supervision of American IFOR troops, removing mines that they themselves had laid several years before. All of the men are damaged – whether by fear, aggression, or excessive religiosity – becoming increasingly abusive and eventually murderous towards one another. Searching a factory, the soldiers unearth a strange figure with the diabolical name of Daba, who has been walled into the building and who, disconcertingly, feels no cold, hunger or thirst. Initially, the chthonic Daba seems to be implicated in the violence, especially when the soldiers discover a mass grave underneath the factory, and at several points various frightened soldiers try – and fail – to kill him. Yet Daba tells the men that he deplores the killing of the war and as the film progresses it becomes clear that Daba is not the source of the growing tension among the men, but rather what Slavoj Žižek (1999: 121) calls an ‘Id-machine’, an uncanny externalization of the soldiers’ hostile proclivities. Craving an enemy, even after the end of the war, the soldiers have collectively conjured one up.