Female Documentary Filmmakers: Fragmented Realities of Conflict and Post-Conflict Bosnia”

By Maša Hilčišin

© Maša Hilčišin, 2012

When we speak about documentary film-making in relation to a country that has survived war and conflict and is still today faced with nationalistic discourse and political and social disruptions, it is important to understand the nature of this conflict, its manifestations, and consequences. Documentary films are important platforms for addressing and raising these concerns in present-day Bosnia. Many human rights have been affected and violated by the war in Bosnia. Examining women’s rights under such circumstances must be paired with an examination of the various societal transformations that took place during the conflict and in the aftermath. The prevailing social conditions and political chaos in most Balkan countries during the 1990s had a vast impact on women, including high unemployment rates and rising domestic violence. Women living in the region of the former Yugoslavia were faced with outcomes caused by war: mass rape, systematic violence, and the politicizing of patriarchy and machismo.

Many feminist and female human-rights organizations were founded during the 1990s, including Women in Black, Women for Women, and Center for Women War Victims. These groups dealt with wide-ranging issues, from nationalism, rape, and refugees, to political activism. Film, or more specifically, documentary film, often served as a platform where these social issues could be discussed, articulated, and analyzed. In the last two decades, female directors have made enormous strides in Bosnian cinematography and have enriched the burgeoning documentary film industry in Bosnia. Bosnian filmmakers today have a double role: to visually represent issues stemming from their own communities and to serve as activists in current political and social issues.

Bosnian documentaries, as well as main features, have dealt with a myriad of post-conflict issues regarding the fragmented realities of post-war Bosnia. Jasmila Žbanić’s documentary After, After (Poslije, poslije, 1997) points out the complexities of recovering from war by making children the focus of the testimonies. Alma Bećirović’s short film Survived ’nLived Through One More Day (Opst’o i ost’o jedan dan, 2002)showcases a woman who is trying to support her family by doing one of the most dangerous jobs in the city—clearing its minefields. Tales of front-line combat, mortar shelling, ethnic cleansing, mass rape, and massacres in Vukovar, Sarajevo, Srebrenica, and many other Bosnian cities and villages have been effectively communicated on film. Jasmila Žbanić’s documentary Red Rubber Boots (Crvene, gumene čizme, 2000) follows a woman who is searching for her family buried in a mass grave. Žbanić’s feature film Grbavica, Land of My Dreams (2006), which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, brought women who were systematically raped to the forefront of national discussion.[1] The film included powerful statements and implied evidence against mass rape. This was the first time such heinous crimes were depicted in a Bosnian film.[2] Until then, Bosnian society had refused to see victims of rape as war victims. Calling the Ghosts (1996) by Mandy Jacobson and Karmen Jelinčić depicted two women who survived life in the Omarska concentration camp. Finally, Sabina Vajrača’s documentary Back to Bosnia (Na putu kući, u tuđinu, 2008) and Lidija Zelović’s My Friends (Moji prijatelji, 2007) present its viewers with the completely destructive and violent reality of a segregated society, while Danijela Majstorović’s documentary Counterpoint for Her (Kontrapunkt za nju, 2004) explores the consequences of human trafficking, and her The Dream Job (Posao snova, 2006) examines the role of woman in the turbo-folk industry.

The Poetic Recording of War  
“The point is of course, that any cultural activity in Sarajevo is a sideshow for the correspondents and journalists who have come to cover a war. To speak at all of what one is doing seems—perhaps, whatever one’s intentions, becomes—a form of self-promotion. But this is just what the contemporary media culture expects. My political opinions—I would go on about what I regard as the infamous role now being played by UNPROFOR, rallying against ‘the Serb-UN siege of Sarajevo’—were invariably cut out. You want it to be about them, and it turns out—in media land—to be about you” (Susan Sontag, “Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo.”)

Many Bosnian documentary films use the dramatic siege of Sarajevo as their main focus. Ecce Homo: Behold the Man (Evo čovjeka: Ecce Homo, 1994) offers a personal interpretation of the Sarajevo blockade. The film won a series of awards, and opened the World Peace Conference in Washington, DC, in 1994. Ecce Homo was the first war documentary that was shot on 35mm film. It was filmed over two years of the almost four-year period when Sarajevo was under siege. Vesna Ljubić recorded the blockade with her camera and in this way provided a testimony of the war documented through citizens of Sarajevo who were randomly picked for this project.

Gail Pearce and Cahal McLaughlin stress in their book Truth or Dare: Art & Documentary that “most often in the documentary tradition, the world rather than the filtering sensibility has taken precedence” (Pearce and McLaughlin, 2007: 14). Ecce Homo undertakes this objectifying role of recording the daily lives of people from a distance. The film shows the inner feelings of fear, showcasing people who are trapped between life and death. Ecce Homo has no voice-over or commentary on the horrors represented in the film. The only auditory elements in the film are fragments of religious music and the cawing of crows. In her film Ljubić combines the everyday reality of Sarajevo’s citizens as they fetch water, escape snipers and shells, and wait in lines for food with images of death, fear, and uncertainty—bullet shells falling into a river where people are washing their clothes or boys and girls being hit by shells while crossing the street.

Video documentation of the war has played an important role in Bosnia’s contemporary film history, not only because it archives historical facts, but because it acts as an external political and cultural channel for sharing information. As Dina Iordanova notes,

Certainly the cinematic image of Sarajevo from before the war differs significantly from the elevated one which emerged during the times of siege and conflict. The change came about mostly due to the work of various visual media. The suffering of Sarajevo granted this city an exposure which it would not have received had it been spared by the war. This exposure resulted in appreciation and respect for Sarajevo’s martyred citizens, with a degree of attentiveness not normally granted to inhabitants of the region (Iordanova, 2001: 236).  

Even though war documentaries deal with conflict, they do not necessarily have to show violence, but rather can use symbolic language, which, according to Peter Wollen, “offers the hope of liberation from the closed world of identification and the lure of the image”(Wollen: 2003). In Ecce Homo the “playing” with reality symbolically speaks to the viewer about citizens on the verge of existence, where the grotesque, tragedy, and comedy collide, blending together life, death, hopes, food, water, faces, fears, snipers and mortar shells. Rada Šešić defines Ljubić as an auteur who “tries to remain faithful to her own poetic style of expression, regardless of the dominant trends in documentary and cinema” (Aitken, 2005: 807). Ljubić brings us a very special film style in Ecce Homo. By combining tragedy with comedy and documentary with feature-film style, Ljubić is able to show the absurdity of one political moment. The film showcases the complexities of a particular moment in history—Sarajevo during the siege— and how its citizens are coping with the war and continue to live despite all the physical and emotional tolls.

What Happened After?
“We are not searching for somebody we don’t know. We are searching for someone who is a part of our lives. Although we never met these people, we know who they were—how they lived their lives, what they were doing, how many children they had. Even if we have never seen them, never heard their voices, in these years of searching they have become close to us” (Red Rubber Boots). 

In her documentary After, After Jasmila Žbanić captures the atmosphere in Sarajevo immediately following the war. Žbanić filmed first-grade students in the primary school Isak Samokovlija. This was one of the rare post-war documentaries to focus on children’s testimonies about the war and how they live with this experience after. The film primarily focuses on Belma Katica, age 7, who survived two and half years in the Eastern Bosnian territory occupied by the Serb army. Traumatized, Katica moved to Sarajevo with part of her family in an attempt to live a normal life. Žbanić filmed the conversations with the children and their reactions to war, exile, and the loss of loved ones. The documentary broaches a tough question: how to explain the war and its consequences to children who have experienced it all so early in their lives.

A classroom teacher asks her pupils about their fears. One of the children responds:

Well, of a mortar shell. When it hits you, it hits you. When a shell kills you... then you are dead… I went to the graves of my father, my mother, my uncle... My mother was killed by a shell through the window and my dad was slaughtered... on the front line in Borije. 

Žbanić uses children to give voice not only to the complexity of a society dealing with war trauma, but also to war experiences in an unfiltered way—from the point of view of a child. Children are the most vulnerable victims and usually the last to be asked about conflict and its consequences. Children recount these consequences in the most powerful and poignant way. They are uncovering the complex layers created by dominant nationalistic politics, without mentioning the words “nationalism” or “hatred.”

With children, viewers can detect basic fears and emotions not “stained” by any political context. Theirs is essentially a shared experience about recent brutal events in their young lives, which remakes these stories  into powerful testimony in this film. It is the pure experience of childhood that makes an even more powerful statement about the war experience—there are no elements of anger, hatred, or revenge in these young voices. The children are not interested in discussing the country’s political state. Nor are they interested in talking about ethnic segregation or nationalism. Instead they offer viewers visceral shared emotions of fear and war trauma, clearly showing how such experiences affect their day-to-day lives. The camera in this film is observational and attentive, focusing on details as it films eyes, hands, glances, their bashfulness, and a child having difficulty sharing a painful experience. After, After questions whether society has the capacity to deal with war trauma and to help its children.

red rubber bootsIn her next film, Red Rubber Boots (Crvene gumene čizme, 2000),Žbanić portrays Jasna P. who is searching for her children (4-year-old Amar and 9-month-old Ajla) who were killed and buried in a mass grave. Žbanić follows Jasna while she inspects mass graves, hoping to find the red rubber boots that her son was wearing when he was abducted and taken from her. The film starts by showing pictures of some of the 8,373 missing people who had been found by the time of film production. The graves are well hidden, and it is often difficult to get information about their locations. Jasna is first shown driving through a tunnel on her way to a mass grave that has been discovered. Žbanić uses an observational approach, keeping her distance as a director, letting her subjects speak for themselves and allowing the story to develop at its own pace. Details, like the dog that is looking for a grave, or members of the Commission on Missing Persons sharing their feelings about this kind of work, give an “outside” perspective on the film’s main theme. The director takes on the role of observer and gives the impression that she is not “directing” the film—a very common approach in observational documentaries. In this type of approach, reality can be defined as “caught unawares” (Hicks, 2007: 23). Such reality is simply “caught” by the camera where the director and the camera are merely observers. Social subjects already have their own “life roles,” they do not need to “perform.” Reality that is presented “unperformed” and spontaneous stresses the importance of the film’s message over the “directing” of the film.

In essay “The Human Rights Film: Reflections on its History, Principles and Practices,” Daan Bronkhorst (2004), discusses various levels of messages in visual presentations and documentary films. In her book Regarding the Pain of Others (2002), Susan Sontag notes that:

The effect of ‘shocking’ pictures is very hard to predict and varies greatly with individual, societal and cultural characteristics. Films are mostly viewed by an anonymous audience, far out of the reach of the filmmakers. They may inspire a viewer to go home and write a letter to Amnesty International right away, but they may set another viewer on the road to have a drink and continue a nice evening. The world of the film is not that of the classroom. (It can be used in an educational setting, but that’s another matter)

It is clear that the effects of documentary films are difficult to determine, and it is hard to estimate the real influence of documentary film on society. However, these are important instruments for bringing certain issues in public space.  

In Search of Identity
“In December of 2003, after 11 years of living as a foreigner, a refugee, an outcast, I faced my city again. I found myself walking through it, looking at the people, at the buildings, in utter shock. The city I remembered, the city I called my own, was no longer there. It was dead and rotting away. And all the anger, bitterness, disappointment and pain that I had kept inside of me all these years, came out” (Sabina Vajrača, Back to Bosnia).

back to bosniaSince its release in 2005, the documentary film Back to Bosnia (Na put kući, u tuđinu, 2005) by Sabina Vajrača, has enjoyed great international success at a number of festivals. The film looks at the complexities surrounding self-identification amidst war memories. Vajrača’s film specifically deals with her family’s efforts to reclaim the family home, which was appropriated by another family during the war. Seeing the country after many years and with memories still fresh from the war, the whole family is facing an emotional struggle as each person surveys the ruined landscape.

Back to Bosnia deals with issues of occupied space—space which does not belong to us anymore; space which is occupied because its former owners were either killed or exiled; space which was destroyed and then lost in emigration; space which is far away from the current state of reality but carries deeply personal memories of a past life. First of all Back to Bosnia looks at public spaces within the city ruins. The film then goes on to examine the private space and the family’s painful struggle to regain their former home where all the memories of a past life are stored. Both of these spaces—public and private—are occupied.

back to bosnia One of the most dramatic moments in the film occurs when Vajrača’s family visits their old apartment, where they meet the family who claimed ownership of it and still live there. The Vajrača family’s former home evokes a flood of memories. Vajrača shares her thoughts with the viewers: “I left in such circumstances that I never said good-bye. I never said good-bye to the city. I never left thinking I wasn’t going to come back. … And all this time living in Croatia and America…and, you know, I didn’t want to go live there, but I still thought there were my roots…my home with a capital ‘H’ was there.” Vajrača is not only the director but also a social-subject in the film. She is directly involved in filming but also takes on an “acting” role to help reconstruct her own life and deal with the current situation in front of the camera. Back to Bosnia reconstructs war crimes that date back to the beginning of the war and that were committed against Muslims. The current bureaucracy complicates the family’s efforts to take possession of their apartment. However, the film ends with news that a court in Banja Luka officially returned ownership of the flat to the Vajrača family. 

back to bosnia Searching for meaning, redefining identity and ethnicity, looking for the truth—these are just some of the issues that define the post-conflict time in Bosnia. Some filmmakers have been searching through the past to look for answers. They find themselves trying to deal with questions of not belonging and not being able to identify with a particular space. Bosnian documentary filmmakers often examine the problem of self-identification within a particular environment and look at how self-identification has changed through war experience.

In her documentary film My Friends (Moji prijatelji, 2007), Lidija Zelović shares her personal story of looking for her lost friends. She left Bosnia at the beginning of the war, hoping that the war would be over soon and she would be able to return home. At the beginning of her documentary, which takes the form of a fragmented diary, she shares with the viewer her intimate memories. My Friends examines the identities of four friends who grew up together, and who meet again after a 15-year separation. Zelović decided to reunite her friends on her wedding day in Bosnia. The film also examines how people change and are shaped by war experience. One of Zelović’s friends, Jasna, who lives in Sarajevo today chose to return to her home city after spending several years living in Australia as an immigrant. Part of the conversation between the two friends is filmed in a tram. Jasna was the only friend who stayed in Sarajevo during the war. She explains: “you get used to it. It’s weird, but you do. Once you are in a new situation you learn to deal with it.” For Zelović, it was important to learn whether her friend who stayed behind during the war felt angry or betrayed. Jasna responds: “I was angry with people that I tried to contact. Because I was in the worst possible situation when I needed food…essential things. Then it’s hard to understand how someone can’t even write you a letter.” The scene in the tram is contrasted with archival video footage from the war that uses the space of a moving tram as a subject. In these scenes, trams are full of passengers, who are targets for mortar shells and snipers.

my friendsWhat is common for documentaries that deal with the reconstruction of past lives is that directors usually take on the role of social-subjects. They actively participate in the film and are in front of the camera most of the time. In My Friends, the director uses voice-overs.  Zelović reads letters she received during the war from her friends. Some of these letters had a traumatic effect on her and she is still trying to deal with those emotions today. One of her friends, Emina (based in Sweden today), lost her mother while standing in line for water. A mortar shell hit her mother and Emina continues to struggle with those memories and her feelings toward people who could commit such a crime:

The hardest thing for me is when you see yourself in one way, and you realize that other people…see you and themselves totally differently.…When I think maybe one of my friends…was shooting; maybe one of them fired that mortar shell. Because I’ve known people from our circle who did such things.

One of the most dramatic moments in the film is a conversation with another one of Zelović’s friends, Olja. Olja is talking about Emina, who lost her mother in the war, commenting:

I would never like to meet her…I feel guilty because of all the propaganda. You can’t change the way people think.…I feel guilty for the ideas they’ve got in their heads. It’s difficult to explain. People see Serbs as aggressors. For them, all Serbs are Chetniks.…It’s just the feeling of some…pressure, some tension.…Everything in Bosnia feels so familiar, yet so foreign.

This film ultimately asks if it is possible to connect these lives together again. And if so, how? The director and the subject of the film, Zelović, tries to connect these lives again at her wedding, in the final part of the film, but only one of her friends, Jasna, attends the ceremony.

Duška Zagorac explores the search for identity through the stories of Chinese families in Bosnia in her documentary Patria Mia—Nomad Direction (Patria Mia, Pravac Nomada, 2008),which she made upon her return to Bosnia after 15 years in exile. The film won Best Documentary at Sguardi Altrove in Milan and was voted one of the best films of 2008 by international critics in Sight and Sound magazine. This was among the first documentaries to portray the Chinese population in Bosnia. Zagorac examines the cultural alienation of people living in exile. On the one hand, the film exposes the Chinese population living in her own country. On the other hand, the film examines how the director’s own identity was affected by exile.  In a note accompanying Patria Mia—Nomad Direction, Zagorac says:

I started off by making a film about the Chinese in Bosnia, but in the process, realized I was also making a film about the Bosnians in exile. At the same time, I found myself a mere observer of the new Bosnia, a society I no longer belonged to. So Patria Mia became almost like a letter to my lost country.

patria miaThe film centers on the Chinese community in the city of Banja Luka, with a focus on families who immigrated to Bosnia at the beginning of the 2000s. The footage details everyday life, financial struggles, and attempts at integration within the new culture and society. “When I first came here, it was hard. I couldn’t understand the language or read newspapers. Language is the biggest problem for every Chinese person here,” says one Chinese man who came to Bosnia with his wife and daughter. Zagorac notes that Bosnia looks like a postcard for nomads.

The director combines her own voice-overs with the social subjects she films. She pays attention to the small details of people’s faces, pensioners playing chess on the street, shops, open markets and the city’s noise. These details are not only additional illustrations of daily life, but they also deeply reflect the director’s personal view: grey surroundings, a depressing atmosphere, faces without smiles. Zagorac notes, “I wish I could enjoy Bosnian air, but my memories of the war suffocated me.” The film was part of a series called Bosnia and Herzegovina—In Search of Lost Identity. Zagorac wanted to show the parallel between the Chinese community and her own very personal story.

patria miaBesides exiles and refugees who are often presented in personal and intimate stories within documentaries, films also encompass a wider political discourse, stressing the issues of re-identification in new post-war circumstances and the burdens of returning to a place from the past that no longer exists. These films help to reconstruct memory, experience, and history, whether they are looking at mass graves, former concentration camps, or devastated and traumatic post-war environments. With respect to this current in film, Dina Iordanova stresses the importance of the social and political engagement of women activists and filmmakers in the Balkans. These women create powerful discourse about their countries’ recent histories, nationalism, hatred, and reconciliation. Most of the documentaries that focus on women’s experiences of hardship and conflict in Bosnia are made by women.  Iordanova notes:

Thinking not only of these filmmakers but also of the writers, the journalists and the scholars, I am more and more often inclined to think that it is women who represent the viable and vocal critical alternative in the former Yugoslavia today. This is due, in my opinion, to the questionable credibility of the men who occupy the public sphere in the Yugoslav successor states and is certainly associated with the widespread perception that machismo and nationalism go hand-in-hand in the former Yugoslavia (Iordanova, 2001: 210).

The politicizing of machismo was interconnected with nationalism and the building of new ethnic-national identities, where ethnic cleansing and mass rape were just some of the strategies used to conquer and occupy territories. It also fostered the polarization of political ideology, where religion and political orientation were based on ‘protection’ and ‘defense.’ At the same time, machismo was used to empower patriarchy in post-Yugoslav countries, which in turn supports and reinforces the discriminatory ideas of nationalism, fascism, sexism, and homophobia.  This can lead to a discussion about “gendered” nationalism. In her note on reconstructing the connection between nationalism and gender-based culturally and socially constructed stereotypes, Bojana Pejić defines nations as:

contested systems of cultural representation that limit and legitimize people's access to the resources of the nation-state....No nation in the world grants women and men the same rights and resources in the nation-state....Not only are the needs of the nation here identified with the frustrations and aspirations of men, but the representation of male national power depends on the prior construction of gender difference. All too often in male nationalisms, the gender difference between women and men serves to define symbolically the limits of national difference and power between men (Pejić, 2002: 73).

This critical discourse reconfirms the importance of documentaries and women activists and filmmakers who produce socially engaged art. It can be a tool for social changes in impoverished and devastated societies. Beyond Bosnia, these films can provide a platform for change in communities that have limited access to human rights. This type of film can play a key role in active public discourse today.


1] It has been estimated by the European Community that around 20,000 women were raped during the war in Bosnia (victims were from seven to sixty years of age), although different reports bring different estimations, which can range up to 50,000. ("End Violence")

2] The Bosnian journalists Belma Bečirbašić and Dženana Šečić did report on mass rape in Bosnia. The story  “Invisible Casualties of War” was honored by Amnesty International for global human rights journalism. This award, established in 1999, recognises the contribution of human rights journalism anywhere around the world. (“Media Awards 2003”).

Works Cited

“End Violence against Women.” UNiTE.

“Media Awards 2003.” Amnesty International, UK. 22 May 2003.

Aitken, Ian. (2005), Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film. London: Routledge.

Bronkhorst, Daan (2003), “The Human Rights Film: Reflections on its History, Principles and Practices.” Presented at Amnesty International Film Festival, Amsterdam.

Hicks, Jeremy. (2007). Dziga Vertov: Defining Documentary Film. London: I.B. Tauris.

Iordanova, Dina. (2001), Cinema of Flames: Balkan Film, Culture and the Media. London: British Film Institute.

Pearce, Gail and Cahal McLaughlin. (2007), Truth or Dare: Art & Documentary. Bristol: Intellect Books.

Pejić, Bojana. (2002), “The Matrix of Memory.” Women at Work. Ed. Maja Bajević. Sarajevo: Art Gallery of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Wollen, Peter. (1981), “The Field of Language in Film.” Luxonline.