Vinko Brešan: How the War Started on My Island (Kako je počeo rat na mom otoku, 1996); Witnesses (Svjedoci, 2003); Will Not End Here (Nije Kraj, 2008)

reviewed by Katarina Mihailović © 2011

Vinko Brešan is one of the most important as well as most renowned Croatian filmmakers at home and abroad to have emerged from “young Croatian film,” a group of filmmakers within feature and documentary production who began to find articulation in the early 1990s. Along with various other young Croatian directors such as Ivan Salaj, Jelena Ranković, and Lukas Nola, Brešan has dealt with the experiences of the Croatian Homeland War in the 1990s and its aftermath. These filmmakers are united by an eagerness to “rescue Croatian cinema from its pronounced involvement with the narrow propagandist interests of the state,” as Pavle Levi explains in his book, Disintegration in Frames. In his war trilogy made during and after the war, Brešan experiments with different generic modes of storytelling. How the War Started on My Island (Kako je počeo rat na mom otoku, 1996) is a dark comedy, Witnesses (Svjedoci, 2004) is a war drama/thriller, and Will Not End Here (Nije kraj, 2008) is a postwar drama and romantic tale. With these three films, he rejects the notion that war in the Balkans was inevitable. Moreover, in each of them Brešan audaciously examines the role of Croatian soldiers and ordinary citizens in the bloody wars, an especially difficult task during the Franjo Tuđman rule which ended in 1999.
           
how the war startedBrešan co-wrote the script for How the War Started on My Island, and for Marshal Tito’s Spirit (Maršal, 1999) with his father, the acclaimed Croatian dramatist and novelist, Ivo Brešan. In How the War Started, Brešan comically portrays the outbreak of hostilities between Serbs and Croats in Croatia in 1991. The father of one of the Croatian soldiers, Blaž Gajski (Vlatko Dulić), travels to a small Dalmatian town in order to pull his son out of service in the Yugoslav People's Army and the army's physical space (a barracks), because war between the Yugoslav Army and the Croatian military forces seems imminent. He quickly realizes that his task will be extremely difficult given that the town’s inhabitants have surrounded the Yugoslav Army barracks. They are demanding that the Army leave, that the Croatian soldiers be released, and the armaments be surrendered. Similar scenes were happening at army barracks throughout Croatia at that time. Yugoslav Army Major Aleksa Milosavljević (Ljubomir Kerekeš), an ethnic Serb living in the town, passionately defends the barracks, threatening to blow the town to pieces if he is attacked. His rationale, however, seemingly stems from a petty power struggle rather than from any strong political sentiments. When the primary negotiator for the townspeople begs him to surrender the barracks in the name of camaraderie with his fellow citizens, Aleksa replies: “What? That should be why I surrender to you? So you can be my commander? You, a plumber and me a professional?!”
           
how the war startedRather than resorting to violent methods, the townspeople plan to convince Aleksa to release the soldiers by staging a series of comically bad performances meant to tug at his heartstrings. The variety show, which forms the backdrop for the negotiations between Aleksa and the plumber spokesman, along with other hilarities, show Brešan’s strength as a comedic filmmaker. Aleksa briefly softens during his wife’s sentimental speech about their blissful marriage and wonderful community, until she suddenly remembers his infidelities and begins to curse him. Otherwise, the show consists of kitschy musical numbers, an idiotic skit performed by Aleksa’s weight-lifting buddies, and speeches meant to appeal to Croatian nationalist sentiments, a position strangely at odds with Aleksa’s mistress’ rhetoric of peace and love. With this series of comic events, Brešan pushes the sense of the absurd to its limits.

The stalemate between the two sides is finally resolved towards the end of the film when Gajski, posing as a Serbian Yugoslav Army Colonel, orders Aleksa to release both the soldiers and the explosives. In the last scene, one of the weaker in the film, an enraged, megalomaniacal Aleksa begins shooting at the civilians and Croatian soldiers, accidentally killing the beloved local poet, Dante (Ivica Vidović), who refuses to stop his recitation of the well-known patriotic poem “1909” by the modernist Croatian poet Antun Gustav Matoš as the bullets are flying. The film’s last shot shows Dante bleeding to death as he utters the famous last lines of the poem, beginning with “they have hanged my Croatia, like a thief.” In an all too sudden switch from the comic to the pathetic mode, the filmmaker reminds his audience of the gravity of the subject matter, but not without succumbing to sentimentality.

witnessesThe film’s success as a satire lies chiefly in the strength and wit of Brešan’s caricatures of the small-town milieu and the Yugoslav Army mentality. Aleksa typifies the Army buffoon with a blind military loyalty. On the one hand, he seems potentially able to blow up his own wife, his mistress, and his friends out of an exaggerated sense of self-importance. On the other, his naiveté is such that he is fooled by Gajski into believing that a Yugoslav Army Colonel would have him release most of his soldiers and all of his explosives in spite of the fact that his barracks are surrounded. The brilliant sequence in which the townspeople give Gajski a tutorial on how to be a convincing Yugoslav Army colonel is a mockery of the Yugoslav military and its mentality. It is very easy, they tell him, as long as he remembers to salute correctly, yell at the infantrymen, and spout official communist slogans, such as “the situation in the country is very complex,” or, “the enemy never sleeps.”  In How the War Started, Brešan refuses to show the outbreak of war as inevitable. Instead, war is depicted, in all of its absurdity, as the consequence of a series of banalities, misunderstandings, and wrong turns.

With Witnesses, Brešan began to move away from comedy. This drama, co-written with Jurica Pavičić, is loosely based on the journalist’s first novel, Plaster Sheep (Ovce od gipsa, 1997). The story, set in the northern Croatian city of Karlovac (located in an ethnically mixed region) in 1992, and deals with the subject of Croatian war crimes. The film was quite controversial in Croatia, both because of its critical attitude towards some episodes of Croatian involvement in the war and because Brešan hired Mirjana Karanović, a well-known Serbian actress, to play a leading role.

witnessesWitnesses opens with a simple long shot depicting a deserted town square at night. A column of army vehicles passes through the square. A roaming camera skims over some windows of a residential building, showing the ordinary activities of the inhabitants, until it stops at an extraordinary scene: a man lying in a coffin in the middle of a living room. Krešo and Joško’s father has been killed in the war. All three men were soldiers in the Croatian army. The next scene shows the younger of the two brothers, Joško, killing a local Serbian civilian Jovan Vasić. This is witnessed by the victim’s young daughter. Joško and his two friends must now decide whether to kill the little girl, whom they have locked in the basement. Krešo and Joško’s mother is adamant that the boys not involve Krešo, who has just retuned home upon recovering from a serious war injury that has left him with only one leg. Meanwhile, a police detective, and Krešo’s girlfriend, Lidija, a local journalist, are investigating the murder. They get virtually no help from the local population, and are under political pressure not to proceed since the victim was a highly unpopular Serbian man killed by Croatian soldiers. Eventually, Krešo figures out that his brother is the murderer, and saves the young girl from being killed. In an overly sentimental tone, the last scene shows Lidija, Krešo, and the little girl holding hands as they watch the sun set.

witnessesThe film’s structure does not conform to a linear narrative logic. Instead, the most important dramatic events are shown multiple times, each time with slight alterations. Moreover, they are focalized through multiple points of view. Because each character has a different perspective on the events, each individual treatment of an important dramatic scene brings new information. In one scene, for example, the mother and Joško see a neighbor talking to a police officer outside their house. Judging by the man’s body language, one assumes that the neighbor is incriminating Joško. When the scene is presented from the point of view of the policeman we realize that the neighbor was merely chastising the police for questioning Joško’s family on the day of the father’s funeral.

witnessesThe immediate effect of this technique on the audience is a vague sense of fractured storyline. In Witnesses, the main dramatic conflict is clearly posited: the murder of the Serbian man is shown at the beginning, and it is also clear that there is a witness. The exposition is fragmented in a way that precludes a full understanding of the background to these events until late into the narrative. The use of this device is, of course, especially well suited to the detective and thriller genres, where the narrative impetus comes from the desire to resolve the mystery. With Witnesses, however, Brešan eliminates one of the most important conventions of the genre. In the film, the question that drives the narrative is not who committed the murder. Instead, the central mystery of the film is how a crime like this happens and, as Lidija puts it, “what kind of people do something like this?”

witnessesThe answer to this question is never really given; instead Brešan develops complex relationships and connections among the townspeople that suggest their multiple levels of complicity. We learn that Joško was always a troublemaker, and that Krešo always helped get him out of trouble; in addition, we learn that Joško’s recklessness and carelessness resulted in the accident that cost his brother his leg, and that he, unlike his brother, has had a history of violent behavior since the beginning of the war. Furthermore, it is clear that their mother is prepared to do anything—even orchestrating the murder of the little girl—to save her younger son. The townspeople’s callousness and the criminal complicity of the police and politicians paint a dark picture of this social milieu, which, as the title suggests, is entirely comprised of witnesses. In this way, Brešan extends the micro-level analysis to the society as a whole.

will not end hereBrešan’s next film, Will Not End Here, a tragicomedy, is a love story set in postwar Croatia, in both Zagreb, the Croatian capital, and in the small inland Dalmatian town of Obrovac, which had been largely populated by Serbs before the Croatian offensive known as Operation Storm was launched in August of 1995. A Gypsy porn star named Đuro (Predrag ‘Pređo’ Vušović) tells the story of Martin (Ivan Herceg), a Croatian war veteran, who fell in love with the Serbian woman, Desa (Nada Šargin). As the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that Martin was a sniper positioned in Obrovac and stationed for a time across from Desa’s house. She was married to a Serbian army leader, whom Martin has to kill. Ruined by the tragedy and forced out of her home, Desa becomes a prostitute in Belgrade. Through Đura, Desa’s co-star in a porn film, Martin locates her, and buys her from her pimp for a large sum of money. They return to Zagreb, Martin’s home town, where they gradually fall in love. Despite the terrible circumstances that have brought them together, Desa forgives Martin when she realizes that he is her husband’s murderer. When she finds out, however, that Martin has hidden a terminal illness from her she leaves him in a rage. In the tradition of the romantic entanglement tale, the conflict is resolved at the end, and the couple comes together once again. Although dark, Will Not Stop Here is imbued with a guarded sense of optimism.

Before he begins the story, Đuro declares: “Lucky for me I’m not a Croat or a Serb, but a Roma, a man of the world, since the Croats and the Serbs are too complicated.” Đuro’s pronouncement is a humorous displacement of the typically held sentiment that the Roma have a tragic fate. Đuro, as an outsider in ex-Yugoslav society, is not embroiled in these regional and ethnic hostilities. Nonetheless, he is drawn into this particular Serbian-Croatian drama.

will not end hereBrešan paints a dark picture of postwar Croatian and Serbian societies, permeated by crime and war profiteering. Within this sector of society only money has any real value and everyone is selling something: Đuro and Desa sell their bodies, Martin sells personal information (he is a private detective), his aunt sells her kidneys, and former Croatian soldiers sell information about the war. This story about the criminal underworld forms the backdrop to the main plotline. For instance, Martin’s friends, his fellow soldiers from the war, sell maps of the graves of Croats who went missing during the war to their families for large sums of money.

If How the War Started on My Island is a meditation on the absurdities of war, and Witnesses is an examination of the complicity of ordinary people and soldiers in war crimes, then Will Not End Here is an unflinching look at the consequences of war on contemporary society. Brešan’s films should be seen as social critiques that never shy away from unpleasant discoveries. In How the War Started and Will Not End Here, which is, in my opinion, the most artistically successful film in the war trilogy, Brešan skillfully blends tragedy and comedy. Although this film is the least polished of the three in terms of visual style, it is by far the most original in its treatment of the subject matter. Witnesses and Will Not Stop Here are influenced by the narrative modes of Hollywood genres of the romance, the thriller, and the detective story, all of which Brešan adapts to the specificities of the Balkan tragedy. His occasional weakness for a Hollywood-like brand of sentimentality dampens the overall effect of the films but nonetheless, his war trilogy is a heterogeneous body of work that has carried the genre forward. Brešan is clearly a skilled craftsman with a gift for the creation of sophisticated narratives. This, along with his frank and courageous treatment of the realities of war and its effects on a society, make this trilogy an important contribution to Croatian cinema of the war and postwar era.

Katarina Mihailović


How the War Started on My Island (Kako je počeo rat na mom otoku), Croatia, 1996
Color, 97 min.
Director: Vinko Brešan
Script: Vinko Brešan, Ivo Brešan
Director of Photography: Živko Zalar
Music: Mate Matišić
Editing: Sandra Botica Brešan
Production Designer: Ivica Trpčić
Cast: Vlatko Dulić, Ljubomir Kerekeš, Ivan Brkić, Predrag Vušović, Ivica Vidović
Producers: Ivan Mudrinić
Production: Croatian Radiotelevision

Witnesses (Svjedoci), Croatia, 2003
Color, 88 min.
Director: Vinko Brešan
Script: Jurica Pavičić, Vinko Brešan, Živko Zalar
Director of Photography: Živko Zalar
Music: Mate Matišić
Editing: Sandra Botica Brešan
Production Designer: Mario Ivezić
Cast: Mirjana Kranović, Leon Lučev, Krešimir Mikić, Alma Prica, Dražen Kühn, Marinko Prga, and Bojan Navojec
Producers: Ivan Maloča
Production: Interfilm

Will Not End Here (Nije Kraj), Croatia, Serbia, 2008
Color, 108 min.
Director: Vinko Brešan
Script: Vinko Brešan, Mate Matišić, Franjo Moguš
Director of Photography: Živko Zalar
Music: Mate Matišić
Art Director: Mario Ivezić
Editing: Sandra Botica Brešan
Cast: Ivan Herceg, Nada Šargin, Predrag Vušović, Dražen Kühn, Voja Bajović, Damir Orlić
Producer: Ivan Maloča, Executive Producers: Vesna Mort, Predrag Jakovljević
Production: Interfilm, Croatian Radiotelevision, Vans Films, Eurimages Conseil de l'Europe

 

Vinko Brešan: How the War Started on My Island (Kako je počeo rat na mom otoku, 1996); Witnesses (Svjedoci, 2003); Will Not End Here (Nije Kraj, 2008)

reviewed by Katarina Mihailović © 2011

Updated: 19 Apr 11