Contrasting Histories of Genocide in Former Yugoslavia

In 2020, two films, both laying claims to being “first,” were scheduled to premiere in cinema halls across the countries of former Yugoslavia. One was Quo Vadis, Aida?, Bosnia’s first feature film about the 1995 genocide of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica — told as the story of Aida, a United Nations translator struggling to save her family from execution by Serbian nationalist forces overwhelming a UN “safe zone.” The other film is Dara of Jasenovac, a Serbian feature about genocidal atrocities against Serbs in a World War Two Croatian-controlled concentration camp. This film’s plot is centered on the titular protagonist, Dara, a young girl in the concentration camp taking care of her infant brother after the murder of her mother and brother. The Bosnian film was due to premiere on the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide in July of this year. The Serbian production was to open in April, commemorating 75 years since the escape of a group of prisoners from the Jasenovac camp. The two films were also each country’s submission for an Academy Award — in the end, only Aida received a nomination.

Of course, due to the pandemic, neither of the two premieres went as planned. Quo Vadis, Aida? ended up premiering late in the year for a group of youths from Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia and a group of survivors of the Srebrenica genocide at the Memorial Center in Srebrenica. Meanwhile, Dara was screened in Gračanica, a contested Serbian enclave in Kosovo. The changes in premiering schedules did not lessen attempts at historical revisionism and denial of war crimes — perpetual aspects of the socio-political context in former Yugoslavia.  This troubling context had an impact on both films: one film by chance, the other by invitation.

After American critics such as Robert Abele of the LA Times harshly panned Dara as “slickly made extermination camp drama.” Jay Weissberg of Variety writes that the film is “cynically using the Holocaust to push a troubling nativist agenda.” Serbian social media users organized a campaign to boost Dara’s rating on IMDB — a website easily skewed by the power of numbers (e.g., the cyberwar over Indian film Gunday). The campaign, inspired by social networks and tabloid pages, called those who gave negative ratings “enemies” and “Ustashas” — members of a Croatian fascist and ultranationalist organization whose sadism is depicted throughout Dara.

In response to the unusually high scores received by Dara, surpassing some of the world’s greatest cinematographic works, IMDB disabled rating and commenting for the movie for a period. Its current rating is 8.3 out of 10, a grade IMDB derived by applying “an alternative weighting calculation,” as per a note on the film’s page.

This game of numbers, of rating authenticity, is familiar to the region and its inhabitants. It is the way denial is rationalized. One learns that every year on the anniversary of massacres in Yugoslavia when the perpetrators dispute any number as “exaggerated,” propelling the victims to consider the numbers “undercounted.” The victims of Srebrenica and Jasenovac thus become only figures as if part of IMDB’s “alternative weighting calculation.”

The IMDB ratings war did not stop at Dara. Aida‘s current rating is 7.5, with over 3000 reviewers giving the film the lowest possible mark. A user signed in as “white man” wrote that Aida is a historically inaccurate “political story about good and bad guys.” This point was expanded by another user, who described the film as “one of many who emphasize lies against Christians by Muslim extremists.” While commenting on Aida on Serbian Happy TV, Predrag Antonijević, the director of Dara, sounded a similar note. After the show’s host stated that Serb-controlled camps during the 1992–1995 war were an “open type” that one could choose to leave, Antonijević provided a supporting claim. Alluding to the notorious photograph of an emaciated prisoner that shocked the world, he said, “It was the one with tuberculosis, which seemed to be thin.” Ironically, Fikret Alić, the man from this photograph, is from Kozarac, the place where Antonijević’s fictional protagonist Dara is also from.

At the premiere of his film, Antonijević spoke about the “cries of Serbian victims that many are trying to stifle today,” claiming that “enemies ask us to take pity on every other victim, and not to shed a tear on ours.” Antonijević doesn’t say explicitly who are the “enemies,” for which he uses the word Dushman, an Ottoman Turkish and Persian term, used by the peoples of former Yugoslavia to denote foreign and domestic others who seek the destruction of their nation and faith.

In sharp contrast to Antonijević, the director of Quo Vadis, Aida?, Jasmila Žbanić, has come out forcefully against this tendency to speak of “our” genocide against “yours.” Speaking for the necessity to remember all genocides equally, she denounced pitting a Serbian and Bosnian film against each other. In a recent interview, Žbanić said, “As for Jasenovac, genocide was committed there, and that is the greatest tragedy of our peoples. In terms of horror, Jasenovac cannot be compared to anything, and not one, but 50 films should be made about it.” She then connected the two tragedies thus: “The fact that Srebrenica happened after Jasenovac shows how much violence and crime are something that has not been overcome in this area.” 

These two different understandings of history had a direct impact on the ways the two film directors constructed their narratives.

Antonijević resorted to brutal, sequential depictions of violence. He seems to have worried that unless an avalanche of brutality is shown, nobody will believe it happened. The choice to give primacy to voyeuristic brutality came at the cost of character development. Instead of foregrounding the notorious historical figures, Antonijević presents them as flattened executors of evil. As such they are interchangeable and, dangerously, only recognizable as the “other,” the Dushman.

Alternatively, only one murder is shown on-screen in the entirety of Aida. Žbanić credits this to her feminist perspective.

Many films that I see which deal with war, even anti-war films, take pleasure from the spectacle of war … As a feminist, I despise these structures. I find war full of banality and evil. So, the selection of my characters, my approach to visuals, camera, editing, every aspect of filmmaking is done from the feminist perspective.

Still image from the film Quo Vadis, Aida? (2020) directed by Jasmila Žbanić 

While Žbanić’s characters in Aida emphasize their inner struggles, their historical context is authenticated with reenactments of archival footage. This interplay of fiction with history is aided by the Serbian acting talent that Žbanić worked with. Aida is played by the award-winning Serbian actress Jasna Đuričić. The notorious military commander, General Ratko Mladić, is played by the Serbian actor Boris Isaković. The latter masterfully delivers a historically documented statement given by Mladić upon capturing Srebrenica: “We give this town to the Serbian people. The moment has finally come after the uprising against the Dahi [the Turks] to take revenge against the Turks in this place.” 

In an interview, Aida director Žbanić stated that both Serbian actors were brave for playing these roles. “For Jasna, it was hard, hard work: She met some of the mothers [of the dead], and her responsibility was to them. For Boris, there was the issue that, in Serbia, Mladić is still considered a hero, even after his conviction as a war criminal.”

Aside from creative and ideological differences, the two films were also produced in different circumstances. Žbanić received only a small fraction of the funding for Aida from Bosnian authorities, compelling the film into co-production with 12 different international production companies. Anotinijević’s Dara, in the words of Jelena Trivan of Serbia’s Film Center was “a state project from beginning to end.” The film was entirely sponsored by the Serbian government, which awarded Dara over two million euros, a sum that is, according to Stevan Filipović, Serbian film director and editor, 10 times higher than the average sum received by other film projects.

 “I am proud that the state has invested serious money in it,” said the Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić, adding, “I thank Gaga Antonijević  for doing this bravely and openly and for not being ashamed to show in Hollywood: This is us, the suffering Serbs.” On the occasion of the Statehood Day of Serbia, Vučić awarded Antonijević and screenwriter Nataša Drakulić with Serbia’s highest civilian and military decorations.

The state investment in Dara was also manifested in its selection as Serbia’s candidate for the Oscars in a selection procedure that, according to Serbian film professionals, violated procedural rules requiring that the film be distributed in Serbia. At the moment of its candidacy, Dara had only been shown in the aforementioned Serbian enclave inside Kosovo, an independent state. A reputable Serbian writer and editor speculated that favoring Dara over more promising Serbian films was an effort to contradict Aida’s narrative within the Academy Awards framework.

One can extrapolate from these views that in the current Serbian political context, there is state pressure to represent the nation as the historic and perpetual victim of the other, while obscuring one’s own hegemonic tendencies. Unfortunately, such strategies, in politics and in art, are yet to bring peace and justice to the victims of previous atrocities or prevent new tragedies. The latter is proven by the events captured in the two films.

In a poignant scene, Aida remembers united Yugoslavia before the war through a moment of exuberant dance. There is a parallel here with the Russian Orthodox dance sequence of Deer Hunter (1978) (which critics have not yet remarked on). We see Aida and others from her community dancing the South Slavic traditional, kolo, in which people hold hands, forming a circle. As Žbanić’s camera pans over the individuals, their facial expressions change — the ominous harbinger of a bleak future. Such a future has its precedents in the past: the WWII concentration camps, including Jasenovac.

In Antonijević’s film, just before the credits roll, we see Dara, her brother, and father standing together in the snow, which throughout the film signals the afterlife. Each time a person dies, they walk through snow to a train car. Before Dara and the remainder of the family can enter, the train door closes. Without them on board, the train of death moves away through a snowy landscape.

In Žbanić’s film, one snowy winter, presumably many summers after July 1995, Aida finds her family: a collection of bones laid on a sheet. Like most of the victims of that genocide, these bodies were buried in a mass grave, then dug up again by the killers and transferred to secondary and even tertiary mass graves. Eventually, the remains are found, assembled, and laid on a sheet together with found personal objects, for the surviving family, like Aida, to identify. 

Still image from the film Quo Vadis, Aida? (2020) directed by Jasmila Žbanić 

Srebrenica is located in Republika Srpska, the Serb-dominated part of Bosnia. There, Aida will not be shown in film theatres. Žbanić says, “The cinema owners are too frightened. They fear the government will punish them in ways that can be made to seem unbiased: “financial inspections, for instance.” She adds, “We suggested underground screenings that we would not even announce. But they said no, someone will find out. A group of boys will be paid to throw stones at the cinema.” 

In the meantime, Quo Vadis, Aida? is one of the five films competing for the title of the Best International Feature Film at the 93rd Academy Awards. A few days before the Oscar award ceremony, on April 22, Dara of Jasenovac will be  released in cinemas in Serbia. The film will be made into a television series, whose plot will be expanded to encompass events from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, which are according to the film’s director “a continuation of the story of Serbian suffering and exodus from Croatia.”

According to The Acts of Peter (one of the earliest of the apocryphal Acts of the Apostles), after fleeing crucifixion in Rome, Peter meets the risen Jesus. Peter asks Jesus, “Quō vādis?” or “Where are you going?” to which Jesus answers that he is returning to Rome to be crucified again. Upon hearing this, Peter decides to return to the city, where he is also crucified. Aida, whose name in Arabic means “she who returns,” also returns to the site of genocide. In the closing scenes, she is seen teaching a class of Bosnian and Serbian students. From the back of a school theatre, she watches her pupils perform a dance recital. One no longer wonders where Aida is going, what her plan is. Instead, one thinks of the children. Where will they go, who will they become? Time will tell.


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Author: Sumeja Tulic