Grbavica – Land of My Dreams

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

11 July

The Srebrenica massacre, 1995

On this day in 1995, the killing began of more than 8,000 Bosniaks (ie Bosnian Muslims) in Srebrenica as part of the ongoing Bosnian War. They were killed by the Bosnian Serb Army under the command of General Ratko Mladic. At the time the enclave of Srebrenica was under the safekeeping of a United Nations Protection Force. But the Serbs were well organised, well armed and motivated by what they saw as the loss of territory vital to any continuing hopes of an independent Serbia. And, having blockaded the town for months, on 6 July they started breaking through the UN observation posts. The 400 UN troops were almost as badly supplied as the inhabitants of the town, who had begun dying of starvation, and the Serbs broke through easily, accepting the surrender of the Netherlands troops and killing any male Muslim Bosnians they encountered. It was Europe’s worst mass atrocity since the Second World War.

Esma’s Secret aka Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams (2006, dir: Jasmila Zbanic)

It tends to be men who fight wars but the women who pick up the pieces. In an intensely practical fashion if this fascinating drama by female director Jasmila Zbanic is to be believed. Esma (Mirjana Karanovic) lives in Sarajevo, where she works in a nightclub. She’s struggling to make ends meet, especially with a 15 year old daughter to take care of. But she still finds time for the occasional visit to a group therapy session for Bosnian women traumatised by the war and by the 46 month siege of the city. Though Esma herself never says anything while she’s there. In fact her face seems to be saying something about these sessions that her presence is denying – that they are in some way contemptible. Why would she feel like this? These are her people after all.

But back to the nightclub, where Esma is slowly striking up some kind of a relationship with a bouncer. As it does in a country that’s recently been at war, their conversation turns to post mortems and the digging up and identifying of people slain in barbarous circumstances. Except we’re not in a barbaric land; we’re in a country plugged into mainstream civilisation, as every shred of Esma’s Secret (also going by the title Grabavica: Land of My Dreams in some countries) has, until this point reinforced, right down to the poster of Keira Knightley that Esma’s daughter has on her wall.

Zbanic’s film is about making the familiar strange again, and then the strange shocking – how come there was murder and mayhem in this place, where now there is music and pole-dancers, and coffee in streetside cafes? Cunningly, what might be a heavy-handed tract is hidden inside twin-track rites of passage arcs for both Esma’s daughter, and Esma herself. Because as the mother becomes closer to the mysterious bouncer Pelda (Leon Lucev), her daughter Sara (Luna Mijovic) is starting a relationship with a boy in her class at school, a kid who like her was made an orphan by the war.

In a series of beautifully observed and played scenes that offer little observable drama but plenty down where it matters, the mother and daughter slowly edge towards an understanding of the effects of the war on them, and what they have to do to pack it on its way and get on with their lives. Maybe that explains the look on Esma’s face at the self-help meetings: the inability to move on, her continuing to dwell in a region too painful to be useful. There’s another more practical reason, too, which you might work out before the end of this mournfully beautiful film that has intelligent and disquieting things to say about the way women deal with conflict.

Why Watch?

  • Beautiful performances
  • An in-your-face drama about a war few in the world were interested in
  • The debut of a talented writer/director
  • A reminder of the thin veneer of civilisation

Grabavica: Land of My Dreams – Watch it now at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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