Sara (Luna Mijovic) is part of the gaps and gapes of postwar Sarajevo.

An existential crisis: who am I, or prove to me I am here.

Pelda (Leon Lucev) still searches for his father’s body.

Transcendent music and sumptuous textiles envelop the survivors.

Esma’s eye contact with the spectator separates her from the others.

Esma gets a job as a waitress at Club Amerika.

A soldier and Esma's co-worker dance.

Esma and Sara pillow fight.

Sara defends her father’s honor.

Stockinged limbs and lingerie: metaphor, analysis, symbolism?

The daughter re-posit(ion)s her mother as whore.

A gun usurps a clown doll and other remnants of childhood.


Torture, maternity, and truth in Jasmila Zbanic’s Grbavica: Land of My Dreams

by Caroline Koebel

"Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —"
— Emily Dickinson[1]
[open endnotes in new window]

"People don’t want to hear the bad news. Perhaps they never do. But in the case of Bosnia the indifference, the lack of effort to try to imagine, was more acute than I ever anticipated." 
— Susan Sontag[2]

Set some ten years into the aftermath of Slobodan Milosevic’s onslaught in former Yugoslavia, Jasmila Zbanic’s Grbavica: Land of My Dreams (2005)[3] does not examine how Esma (Mirjana Karanovic), the narrative’s protagonist, coped with life in a prisoner of war camp for Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks).

“My belly grew. With her inside. Even then they came….In twos, threes, every day.”[4]

Esma (Mirjana Karanovic) places words onto her previously unspoken trauma of rape while in a prisoner of war camp. A co-worker, Jabolka (Malke Höhne), gleans information about her background from Esma’s name.

It does not account for how she was able to sustain herself day after day of multiple gang rapes, to continue indefinitely, and lasting well into her pregnancy with the “bastard Chetnik”[5] daughter to whom she eventually gave birth. It does not detail Esma’s liberation from the camp. Rather, Grbavica follows Esma as mother of a now pubescent daughter as she confronts her struggle to exist in the present. The film proposes that for Esma to have the possibility of a future, she must speak the truth of her past in all its inexorable trauma. And in the process, the film hoes the battleground between ethics and truth.

Should a mother protect her child from knowledge of its identity as product of rape by the enemy? How does deceit once conceived take on a life of its own? Can internal conflict be represented so as to evoke sympathy while resisting sentimentality and sensationalism?

War-torn façade and a child sprung from war, Sara, in Mickey Mouse shirt. The young hang out among architectural remains.

Sarajevo, the city housing the once-internment camp neighborhood of Grbavica and the land “to which all roads return,” contextualizes Esma’s agony. It is riddled by tension between the living and the deceased, between peacetime and war, presence and absence, as evinced in details such as the small number of classmates attending the school reunion or derelict buildings become war monuments or ongoing exhumations of mass graves.

Sound of song: voice and melody so supreme that they transfix even beyond the language gap (Zbanic opts not to subtitle here). This solitary music unifies the scene of a group of women in repose atop a brilliantly colored and patterned handwoven carpet, themselves creating a fabric at once formless and structured, random and coherent, asymmetric and balanced. With the ease and sprightliness of Peter Pan’s Tinkerbell, the camera[6] weaves amongst the trauma survivors at the Women’s Center, the noninvasive optical inquisitiveness part of the scene’s composite harmony. All eyes closed, the listeners — from a sole hand against the sumptuous textile, through hands resting on knees and other parts of the body, to hands holding faces tilted earthward, sunward, bent to the side, to a close-up on one figure — are within themselves. In synchrony with the camera’s slow and steady movement towards her, one woman opens her eyes and concentrates her gaze outward. It's as if inner knowledge has reawakened her to the external world, or conversely, as if she has strengthened her resolve to hide parts of herself from others, in particular from her daughter (as the spectator soon learns).

The clustering of bodies echoes images of mass graves. The moving camera flows between the individual and the collective.

The introduction’s actionlessness belies the complex challenge to the spectator it constructs: to elicit empathy with the opening-eye woman, Esma, from a distance that does not flatten the character into a single-dimensional victim. In a paradox of vision, a certain blindness enables truth seeking. Of Bosnia, Sontag has written,

“Of course, it is easy to turn your eyes from what is happening if it is not happening to you. Or if you have not put yourself where it is happening.”[7]

Grbavica’s fictive experience (and characters) facilitates those viewers far removed from rape camps and genocide in imagining firstly such atrocities and secondly the existence today of individuals who have sustained them. The film makes palpable how living in the present and possessing the future after enduring extreme cruelty is a matter of process and fluidity.

Granted Esma’s lack of joie de vivre as demonstrated by her (depressive) body language, Grbavica otherwise keeps physical marks of Esma’s secret to a minimum (at her nightclub job she pops pills when others’ sexual play is overly explicit and a shot of her undressing reveals scars crisscrossing her back). The most profound sign of Esma’s captive past is Sara (Luna Mijovic) — at once material proof of torture and source of what vitality she possesses. Wracking Esma’s nerves as her daughter ages is not so much that the offspring functions as evidence of trauma, but that one day increasingly close she will force a confession.

Sara seeks truth and her first general and then acute sense that her mother monitors this ideal is one of the film’s key examples of a return (to self, to place, to origins) precipitated by advancement. Sara’s truth-seeking leads her outward, amidst alien territory, away from the maternal, towards the horrific. In pursuit of the grisly yet inescapable truth of her conception, Sara concurrently experiences an inverse movement, one bringing her back to self. As evinced by a popular song, Sarajevo itself forms an identity map for Sara:

“Whenever I wander, I dream of you
All roads lead me back to you
I wait with much longing to see your lights
Sarajevo my love.”

Sara recedes into her city. Sara and Samir (Kenan Catic) experience first love.

Finding Esma asleep, Sara gently covers her mother’s hand with her own. Tight framing emphasizes their merger. The calm segues into an alert Esma, who — clutching the pillow upon which she had just been resting her head — chases her daughter through the apartment. The loose mix of shots accompanied by the sound of laughter — the scene’s light tone — implies that the pillow fight is an oft-rehearsed ritual and an assurance that all will go according to script. When Sara, with her growing physical prowess, pins her mother down, Esma halts the play. This abrupt reaction is an early and poignant indicator in Grbavica of the protagonist’s post-traumatic condition. Once again we study Esma’s eyes for what they simultaneously reveal and conceal. Whereas the joyous beginnings of the scene feature both mother and daughter in full view, now the camera fixates on Esma. Sara is represented only by the hands she uses to immobilize Esma and by her mother’s eyes looking up at her.

Laughter. Esma caught beneath her daughter.

This exchange exemplifies how Zbanic scrutinizes the present for vestiges of the past, and how she conveys Esma’s experience through an examination of signs of trauma and torture rather than through a representation of the acts themselves. Resisting the sensationalism and neat causality of flashbacks as plot device, Zbanic instead challenges the spectator to form a picture out of fragments, to visualize of her own accord, truth. Read as marker of the past this scene provokes and disturbs. The daughter, in overpowering mother, temporarily (and liminally) moves into position as father. Learning from the film as a whole, the spectator is able to see with hindsight that in Sara’s eyes, “he” is a Shaheed,[8] a martyr, her mythical parent, while for Esma, “he” is the many who multiply raped her.

“Hair.” Sara asks how she resembles her father. Sara relishes some kind of genetic identification with her father.

At Sara’s demand to learn what she has from her father (a man not referred to by name), Esma finally concedes that she has inherited "her father’s hair." Actually, Sara’s hair resembles her mother’s, while it is their eyes (blue v. brown) which differ greatly. In manufacturing this genetic feature, Esma buys herself time. Fitting that the scene is at a shopping mall; Sara is placated by the small yet symbolic act of consumption, but the fulfillment of her desire is short-lived. The return of her restlessness — her pursuit of something at once intangible and absolute — is near immediate. Sara’s object of desire, what she anticipates as the concrete destination of her quest, is a state-issued certificate proving the status of her father as a martyr killed in defense of Sarajevo. She needs the death certificate for discounted passage on a school trip (the key circumstance that propels the narrative).

The document is intended by Esma to on one hand provide evidence for a worthy heritage to Sara and on the other conceal the tragic reality of her conception. The document does not exist and has never existed and it is the idea, or the mental picture, of the document that is so meaningful in shaping truth and self-identity. It is a father substitute and more. The death certificate phenomenon in its mutually negating states of absence and presence is analogous to Esma’s greater dissociative relationship to the past. Sara’s search for self is encircled by Esma’s own re-emergence from fossilization in time.

Informed by the pillow-fight-made-weighty scene early on in the diegesis, mother and daughter in a late scene once again disturb the balance of power between parent and child through a physical and emotional battle of strengths. Here in the film’s climax the scales of ethics and truth crash as Esma finally and decisively aborts the deceit she has carried forth. Incensed by Sara threatening her at gunpoint for “the truth,” Esma knocks the weapon away and throws the girl down on the bed — overpowering Sara in an aftershock of how she herself was forced into submission. “You want the truth!” An over the shoulder shot inverts the position of the two in the earlier scene. Rather than studying Esma, the camera, close-up on her face, observes Sara, whose eyes look up at her mother’s, brow wrinkled, mouth agape. Esma explodes,

“They raped me. In the prisoner of war camp. And you were born there!”

Esma uncoils and in anger blurts out the truth. Shot foregrounds Sara’s reaction to the damning news of her conception.

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