Is the space between parent and child collapsing or expanding?

Hasiba Agic.

Only some Islamic women cover their hair.

“This heaven above us.”

Remote control in hand, Esma pauses on news of Sontag’s death.

Esma at the Women’s Center, her tears and rainfall emblematic of a new season.

Is Sara trapped by her own reflection?

A woman on the bus observes Esma with one eye.

“I had already forgotten there was anything beautiful in this world.”

Esma is now able to locate her horrors within language.

Esma fears the permanent loss of her daughter.

Sara’s gesture is akin to waving the white flag of peace.

“The same blue sky gave us rhymes.”

Sara is reunified with her surroundings.


In the next shot, a medium profile of the two, Esma pins Sara while Sara grasps Esma’s shoulders and the interlocked couple form a circle, creating ambivalence as they seem to move at once apart and closer. Occupying the aggressor’s role, Esma, against a mute Christina Aguilera background image, screams,

“You’re a Chetnik bastard!”

The mise en scène emphasizes the transitional nature of Sara’s adolescence. While she wields guns and encounters boys and in effect intermixes the two (Sara’s weapon belonged to her boyfriend’s dad, a real Shaheed), Sara is ensconced by a world of pop stars.[9][open endnotes in new window] Moons and suns illuminate a beatific bedspread. “The truth” in this blasted cosmos is anything but pacific. Sara curls into fetal position, her reality turned inside out.

Gun (= power to destroy) is Samir’s inheritance from his Shaheed father. Sara retreats.

The patter of rain links Sara’s bedroom as harrowing site of truth with the now familiar Womens’ Center as place of vocal unfurling of Esma’s self-revelation (accepting that the time has arrived for truth to be told, she tells the story of her agony). In contrast with Grbavica’s opening, the first shot in this subsequent survivors support group scene is of a woman singing (earlier Hasiba Agic was heard, but not visually identified). In addition now her song, unlike before, is translated:

“When the blossoms are blooming
When the world is in repose
The soul aches with yearning
We parted long ago.”

The camera again meditates on the individual parts comprising the whole (note the tripling of the scene’s length) but instead of eyes closed as they listen, the women of diverse age and appearance are mostly open-eyed. Several figures in headscarves provide rare occurrences of reference to Islam (underscoring the largely secular lifestyle of multiethnic pre-war Sarajevo).

“These roses red
Are flushed with crimson
Blood and tears remain
To dying hearts
This heaven above us
Is but a shadowy veil….”

The majestic sound of the singer, as in the beginning, creates a sense of unity amidst the listeners.

“When our tears melt away
Even the desert can bloom
In a vision of paradise….”

At this point, the translation stops, but to unlearned ears the singer seems to repeat, “Allah.”[10]

Acknowledging the Bosnian Muslim females whose husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers disappeared without trace or (re) materialized in mass graves, or who themselves were subjected to captivity, torture, and rape in the terror of former Yugoslavia, it takes scant effort not only to associate the women pictured here as survivors and mourners within the diegesis of Grbavica, but also to read them metafilmically as extras who in actuality play themselves.[11] In Regarding the Pain of Others Sontag reminds,

“Our failure is one of imagination, of empathy; we have failed to hold this reality in mind.”[12]

With the extent of the ravages of Sarajevo and its people, these women in any case cannot be far removed by experience from who they perform.

Zbanic proffers a fictive cinematic construct to open stranger’s eyes (yours and mine), to focus the truth of Sarajevo within a collective scope of vision. She adds credence to such a reading by locating the narrative in time contiguous with factual reality. At one point in Grbavica’s diegesis there is background sound (untranslated) of a news broadcast of Sontag’s death, which orients the film within the timeframe of December 2004.[13] The sense of Grbavica happening in historical time is heightened by the awareness of the fact that children conceived during the Siege of Sarajevo (beginning in 1992) are just becoming pubescent at this moment.

In an echo of the original scene at the Women’s Center, the camera again finds and settles on Esma who, rather than opening her eyes in relation to the focus on her, now looks down, her gaze averted. The rain that continues from the previous few scenes envelops the tears she sheds, in addition to having foreshadowed her crying.

Cut to Sara looking at herself in the mirror, the camera behind, sharing her inquiry into image of self. Once daughter finally learns in “the truth” scene that the incontestable proof of her heritage, the certificate (only ink on paper after all), is her mother’s invention, she attacks the part of herself Esma has identified as her father’s: her hair. In shaving her head, Sara symbolically discards her paternity. This auto-destructive act (which, it should be noted, utimately enables an affirmation of self) has broad resonance given that hair is cross-culturally recognized as a mark and symbol of feminine shame (and beauty and power).

Sara’s cutting is reminiscent of Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)[14] when the French woman from Never’s hair is shorn by local authorities in punishment for her love affair with the German soldier. She rekindles this past for her Japanese lover,

“They shave my head carefully till they’re finished. They think it’s their duty to do a good job shaving the women’s heads.”[15]

In the appendix to her screenplay, the film’s writer Marguerite Duras adds,

“What remains of Riva, on this quay, is the beating of her heart. (Late in the afternoon it has rained. It has rained on Riva and on the city. Then the rain has stopped. Then Riva’s head has been shaved…).”[16]

It is curious to observe the place of rain (and its attendant associations of cleansing and quenching) in relation to the hair scenes of both films.

Sara moults her identity. Sara’s hair will return with her new knowledge of its significance.

Especially in light of Sara’s subsequent action, it is possible to imagine that the earlier shopping mall exchange was another attempt by Esma to safeguard her daughter. Recall that she averted the obvious: Sara’s eyes as referent of difference between them. Esma’s construction of an alternate truth by using the synecdoche of hair and not eyes to connect child to parent is prescient of Sara’s violence against self. Hair is a more resilient (and regenerative) target than eyes. Simultaneously, because the observant viewer notes already that Esma means “eyes” when she speaks “hair,” the ridding of the hair has slippage with the gouging of the eyes. And the mythological-psychoanalytic-oedipal significance is at least sensed if not subjected to analysis. In effect, sight (or rather the potential of vision) must be preserved at all entanglements with truth.

Cut back to Esma at the Women’s Center, keeping gaze averted from camera, now talking:

“And when they brought her, she was so tiny. And she was so beautiful. I had already forgotten there was anything beautiful in this world.”

She explains to the group that first she had tried to miscarry, then to reject the child, but that upon hearing her daughter’s cries through the wall her milk began to flow and she consented to a single nursing. It was this union that startled Esma into a re-embracing of the world, albeit partial and notwithstanding her disempowered reality within it. Years later in a classic feminist and postcolonial trope, Esma has arrived at “voice” with her new capacity to locate her horrors within language. Recall from earlier in this writing:

“My belly grew. With her inside. Even then they came….In twos, threes, every day.”

Esma is a speaking subject. Her story can be known not exclusively through watching and examining her — through objectification — but through her own version of events. In “The Laugh of the Medusa” Hélène Cixous discloses the crucial role such expression plays in the oppressed subject’s general animation,

"By writing her self, woman will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her, which has been turned into the uncanny stranger on display — the ailing or dead figure, which so often turns out to be the nasty companion, the cause and location of  inhibitions. Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time."[17]

Pelda and Esma reminisce about student days while picnicking on a hill overlooking Sarajevo. It is this very geography that made the city so vulnerable to shelling and sniper attacks. Sabina (Jasna Ornela Berry) collects money for Esma at the shoe factory — a parallel community of women to the women who support each other at the survivor’s center.

Whereas previously Esma seemed all eyes (imagine the initial scene at the Women’s Center when Esma is the only one to look back at the camera), now her mouth becomes an orifice of agency. By telling truth, and not merely reflecting it via, for example, the fear expressed by her gaze, Esma becomes once again self-possessed. By exteriorizing her pain so intentionally, she returns to self, like her own daughter, a child of the city (“Sarajevo, my love”). Perhaps she will not re-embark on the path towards becoming a medical doctor she progressed along before the war, but she has certainly come out of hiding. Like a newborn, like in fact the revelation that Sara catalyzed in Esma upon birth, Esma embodies life force and exudes potential, not least importantly, to love and be loved.

Grbavica explicates a deep and complex bond between parent and child, mother and daughter, and shows how self-identity is co-determinant with that relationship. Esma and Sara wrestle with what they mean to one another, and this mutual arrival at a place of knowledge of the other’s perspective affords the film’s most significant resolution. The correlative outward and inward movement witnessed throughout Grbavica repeats in its closing scene. Head shorn, Sara is pictured in the rear window of the school outing bus as it pulls away from the crop of parents waving good-bye. Tears of joy spring to Esma’s eyes as she recognizes in a hand raised by Sara a confirmation of their union. The gap between them closes as daughter is literally transported away from mother. No longer fearful of Sara’s condemnation and revulsion, Esma can now actively identify as a torture survivor—uncloaked of the martyr’s widow alter ego.

 “We grew up together
City, you and I
The same blue sky gave us rhymes.”

As war correspondent Chris Hedges concludes his book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, “To survive as a human being is possible only through love.” The schoolkids’ physical departure from Sarajevo is, in effect, a pilgrimage back to their city.

As Sara’s voice melds with the others, the sense of identification with place is heightened.

"You have your songs and I sing them
I want to tell you my dreams
My pleasures and your happiness
Sarajevo, my love."

In explicating the subjectivity of exile, Edward Saïd speaks of the resentment exiles feel towards non-exiles:

They belong in their surroundings, you feel, whereas an exile is always out of place. What is it like to be born in a place, to stay and live there, to know that you are of it, more or less forever?”[18]

Place as symbolic paternity ascends in Grbavica and serves a reconstitutive role. The truth mother and daughter reach is that they belong not in exile, but rather in “Bosnia, my wounded homeland, land of my ancestors….” When in an early scene of domestic quiet Esma reminds Sara that the poem’s next line is, “[Bosnia] The land of my dreams,” the child complains, “what a stupid poem.” Esma’s last words are,

“Write a better one, if you can….”

Like the dress pattern that Esma locates in an absurdity of competing lines, truth too can be communicated. Out of formlessness comes matter.

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