Compromising Images: Film History, the films of Jasmila Žbanić, and Visual Representation of Bosnian Women

By Zdenko Mandušić

© Zdenko Mandušić, 2012

In the context of Post-Yugoslav national cinemas, and specifically the cinema of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the films of Jasmila Žbanić demand attention on formal and stylistic grounds. Žbanić’s first and second feature films, Grbavica (2006) and On the Path (2010), represent strategies that defy the objectifying foreign gaze, as well as break down representations of women informed by the gendered ideology of ethnic nationalism. By closely analyzing the scale, framing, and editing of Grbavica and On the Path, I will argue that these films self-consciously gesture toward the film medium’s capacity for communication. The female body is differentiated from the symbolic meanings that define it as submissive victim or passive erotic object. Rather than representing masculine ideals of neo-traditional ethnic patriarchy, these films compromise the symbolic maternal and victimized bodies that were ascribed meanings during the Bosnian War and afterward “through acts of violence, as much as through words, photos, and political cartoons” (Žarkov 2007: 13-14)—the different capacities of the female and male body to convey messages being key to both the printed image medium and the violent act.

Before turning to the formal characteristics of Grbavica and On the Path, we must necessarily address certain problems of writing film histories of post-Yugoslav cinema, especially the varying possibilities of discussing Grbavica and On the Path as films belonging to a particular national, regional, or international cinema, as either Bosnian, Balkan, or European. Although all of these possibilities focus on the cultural and ideological aspects of film, each implies a different, although not completely unrelated, definition of film style and tradition. In his reflections on a London retrospective of Bosnian film, Andrew Horton mentions the difficulty of determining what is “Bosnian” about certain films tagged with this national label. Speaking about the first significant film of post-war Bosnian cinema, Danis Tanović’s No Man’s Land (2001), Horton notes that because the film was shot in Slovenia and Italy, without Bosnian financing, that it was the director’s town of birth that was critical in determining what is “Bosnian” about the film. Horton does admit the weakness of this qualification, citing the reluctance to call the films of Sarajevo-born Emir Kusturica Bosnian productions. Although Grbavica and On the Path could be defined as Bosnian films due to the town of birth of its director, the production location, and narrative, the nationalities of the films’ crews, as well as the international sources of funding make it difficult to classify the film as solely belonging to Bosnian cinema. Along with an Austrian director of photography and an Austrian producer, the features of Jasmila Žbanić include Serbian and Croatian actors, as well as Bosnian ones.

The local Bosnian press and academic journals characterize Grbavica and On the Path as Bosnian and Herzegovinian productions. Consider, for example, Nedžad Ibrahimović’s film review of On the Path in the magazine Dani, published on March 12, 2010. The review begins with a statement about the development of Bosnian and Herzegovinian cinema, claiming that several decades of work on the articulation of ideological identity has enabled this cinema to deal with every cultural debate and hot-topic issue. Ibrahimović locates Grbavica and On the Path in this tradition of cinema focused on social themes. The concern of both films, as well as their address to the Bosnian spectator, suggests the logic of this qualification. Nevertheless, the lamentable state of the film industry in Bosnia, with its dearth of resources and funding, makes it necessary for filmmakers to seek out production assistance from abroad, leading to the European coproduction model. This model is represented in the pressbooks for both films, which include the names of production houses as well as their home countries—Bosnia and Herzegovina, Austria, Croatia, and Germany. Foreign press coverage, like Variety’s reviews of both films, also represents this model by listing the films as an international coproduction. In opposition to this approach, Faruk Lončarević associates Grbavica’s visual style, the film’s editing, acting, and cinematography, to contemporary European film, concluding that the link is proof of the development of Bosnian-Herzegovinian cinema (Lončarević 2008).

In a slightly different context, Rosalind Galt presents a solution for this impasse of classification, arguing for the consideration of contemporary European cinema through the logic of cartography and with the goal of analyzing the connection between graphic space and geopolitical space (Galt 2006: 4). Galt’s focus on European cinema of the 1990s keeps her from discussing the post-war cinemas of the former Yugoslav republics while allowing her to focus on Emir Kusturica’s Underground (1995) and that film’s representation of the impossible time and space of a coherent and uncontested Yugoslav identity. Although they belong to a different time-period, Grbavica and On the Path are open to this approach since both films are interested in representing the post-war reality and physical space of Bosnia, with the urban space of Sarajevo prominently featured in both films. Nevertheless, this geographic approach would fail to consider how these films are stylistically related to the Yugoslav films that during the 1990s gained so much international attention, films like Balkan Cabaret (Paskaljević 1998), Pretty Villages, Pretty Flames (Dragojević 1996), Underground (Kusturica 1995), and Before the Rain (Manchevski 1995), all of which garnered much praise for their visual style. It is necessary to consider this stylistic relationship in order to distinguish the specific qualities of Jasmila Žbanić’s visual style. 

I agree with Jurica Pavičić that Grbavica, and On the Path by extension, belong to a different tendency than do the celebrated films depicting the disintegration of the Yugoslav state. Against the exaggerated, grotesque, and internationally stereotypical representation of the Balkans, Pavičić asserts a new trend in the cinemas of the former Yugoslav republics, a general tendency he calls “cinema of normalization” (Pavičić 2010: 43). As a part of this trend, Pavičić associates certain films made after the year 2000 with a process of political, economic, and social reforms that revived cultural and economic exchange among the former republics of Yugoslavia. In conjunction with this process of normalization, he posits a shift during the 2000s, in which filmmakers and films made in Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia rejected the practice of ‘Self-Balkanization’ repeatedly staged in the films of the nineties. As Frederic Jameson stated, the Balkan film artists of the 1990s consistently registered their objectification under the media gaze of the West, choosing to perform and exaggerate the stereotypical perception of the Balkans as a region full of savage, wild men engaged in mythical cycles of ethnic warfare (Jameson 2004: 235). But while the men were getting drunk, the women were represented as passive and submissive victims. Rejecting this approach, Jasmila Žbanić opted for a directing style that Pavičić describes as “unglamorous, sober, and minimalistic.”

As stated in Grbavica’s pressbook, Žbanić, in collaboration with Christine Meier, decided to keep the camera work in her films, its movement and composition, “non-dramatic,” so as to better represent the post-war reality inhabited by her female protagonists. Critics and reviewers credit this ‘naturalistic’ approach to cinematography for not interfering with the narrative. Consider Kirk Honeycutt’s review of Grbavica’s premier in Berlin, published in the Hollywood Reporter.He writes: “Žbanić and cinematographer Christine Maier shoot naturally so as to capture the sense of a fake and often failed veil of normalcy drawn over too many horrible secrets” (Honeycutt 2006). Discussing the frank representation of daily existence and post-war trauma, Yvette Biro writes that there is courage and sensibility in its simple treatment. “This is the reason that the basically undisturbed flow of the plot is credible and touching” (Biro 2007). But I would argue that solely emphasizing the subservience of the cinematography to the narrative in both films undervalues the formal composition of Grbavica and On the Path. The discussion around these films has to be widened to include the visual codes these films mobilize through their formal structure. But before we widen the discussion, we must first ascertain how the celebrated films of the 1990s also represented oppositional strategies, which will show to what extent the films of Jasmila Žbanić are related to this tradition and to what extent Grbavica and On the Path represent innovations within the discourse.

The much-discussed practice of ‘Self-Balkanization’ is usually defined as an internalization and performance of the external look of foreigners. This look separates civilized Europe and America from the primordial Balkans and its savage people. Its internalization and reflection has been one of the central questions taken up in the scholarship on Balkan cinema. At the same time, the significance of this practice is related to the conceptual grounds of this scholarship, since the inclusive perception of the Balkans, which Dina Iordanova has determinedly argued for, necessitates a focus on the shared heritage of the people in the Balkan countries (Iordanova 2001: 6). As Iordanova admits in Cinema of Flames, the perception of the Balkans as culturally coherent and homogeneous necessitates a distance, essentially one has to look from the West. From within, Iordanova claims: “People in the Balkan countries generally do not relate favorably to each other and prefer to think of themselves as unique rather than similar to the Balkan neighbors” (8). Not being a geographical concept, the Balkans for Iordanova denotes a cultural entity, shaped by shared Byzantine, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian legacies, which is marginally positioned in symbolic relation to the western part of Europe.

While some pundits like Slavoj Žižek criticize the practice of ‘Self-Balkanization,’ claiming that it offered to the ‘Western liberal gaze’ what “this gaze wants to see in the Balkan war” (Žižek 1997), others like Jameson argue that Balkan art should register the alienation of being ‘from the Balkans.’ In the wake of Jameson, Thomas Elsaesser analyzed how filmmakers from the Balkans have approached the Western Gaze. He examined Emir Kusturica’s Underground as an attempt to undermine and collapse the distance by the mirroring and repeating of ethnic stereotypes, that is, by means of ‘Self-Balkanization’ (Elsaesser 2005: 361). Kusturica’s strategy is contrasted to the minimizing of symbolic distance through an emphasis on the every-day immediacy of war-experience in Radovan Tadić’s documentary The Living and the Dead of Sarajevo (1993). Finally, in Heddy Honigman’s A Good Husband, A Dear Son (2001), Elsaesser identified the preservation of the distance through the focus on objects, activities, and moments that represent a loved one who suffered a violent death. As opposed to the immediacy of Tadić’s documentary that refuses room for political complexity and psychological depth and shows the individual experience of war on basic, day-to-day survival, Honigman’s film represents a belief in the power of the visual image to preserve the memories of individuals and protect them from violation. While Elsaesser’s systematic case studies provide conceptual models, they fail to address how notions of gendered ethnicity influence the spectatorial gaze from outside and within.    

If we follow Dubravka Žarkov’s claim that ethnicity is produced through visual representations of masculinity and femininity, it seems the concept of ‘women’s cinema’ provides a theoretical framework to consider how the films of Jasmila Žbanić challenge representations of gender situated against the background of a symbolic geography of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Grbavica and On the Path call for a critical reading that interprets the process of identification in the films as a challenge to the ethnic hierarchy of gender that is maintained by ethno-national ideologies. In her exegesis of ‘women’s cinema,’ Alison Butler maintains that this concept “is not at home in any of the host cinematic or national discourses it inhabits, but that it is always an inflected mode, incorporating, reworking, and contesting the conventions of established traditions” (Butler 2002: 22). Accordingly, essential aspects of ‘women’s cinema’ and the work of feminist film theory involve an engagement with narrative forms that preclude the female point of view and embed patriarchal ideological codes within the visual representation. Beginning with Laura Mulvey and Claire Johnston, feminist film theorists have varyingly advocated either for the creation of new feminine aesthetics based on avant-garde practices or the subversion of mainstream narrative forms that would utilize the established ways narratives produce desire and identification to represent women as social subjects. If Grbavica and On the Path are considered in the context of ‘women’s cinema,’ they demonstrate the fusion of these two tendencies by advocating consciousness-raising, self-expression, and political activism, while at the same time featuring formal work that compromises the ideological codes of ethno-nationalism.

Facing Away from the Camera

Grbavica is punctuated by re-occurring medium close-up shots of Esma, her back turned toward the camera and her face hidden from the spectator. These shots belong to scenes in the film that explicitly deal with rape. At the beginning of the film, Esma is tackled to the ground by her daughter, who, while straddling her, pins her arms to the ground. After she throws her daughter off and sits up, Esma’s face is no longer visible. Later, after coming home from work, Esma undresses with her back again turned toward the camera, revealing slash wounds across her back. These wounds are the first physical evidence of Esma’s rape and suffering. She once again sits turned away from the camera after she climactically reveals to Sara that she was raped and impregnated by Serb soldiers. The initial and final instances are also linked by the reversed positions of the characters, as Esma, pushed to reveal her secret, knocks her daughter onto the bed and sits on top of her. Before the verbal description of the rape, the images of Esma with her back turned toward the camera and reenactments of her rape function as visual cues of the narrative Esma refuses to verbalize. In this sense the visual image is not subordinated to the narrative but rather denies a sadistic scopic pleasure and de-objectifies the feminine body.

EsmaReferring to a photo of an eighteen year-old Bosnian Muslim woman, pictured in a similar fashion, Elisa Helms characterizes this position as an indication of shame, victimhood, and silence (Helms 2003: 1). But although these emotions are present in the film, I believe it is also possible to discern the repeated image of Esma facing away from the camera as an active attempt to turn away from or deny the “scopophilic” pleasure derived from looking at women as eroticized objects. Replete with sensitivity to the gaze of the camera, the non-confrontational image of Esma can be related to the traumatic event Žbanić autobiographically presented in her earlier documentary Images from the Corner (2003). Narrated by Žbanić, the film investigates the fate of a girl named Bilja, who lived in the director’s Sarajevo neighborhood of Marijin Dvor. Shrapnel wounded the girl in 1992 and, as she lay wounded, a French journalist appeared and shot three roles of film of Bilja. The girl’s fate stayed with Žbanić as the most painful and most difficult image of the war. As the narrator, Žbanić also reveals her directorial position, stating her decision not to include the original image in the film. She was unwilling to once again expose Bilja to the gaze of strangers. Later, speaking over a long shot in which a street vendor turns scenic paintings around, away from the camera, Žbanić discusses a sensitivity Sarajevans had developed to the presence of cameras, “who photographed them throughout the war, mercilessly, without asking permission.” Exhibiting this sensitivity, Žbanić describes that she felt rage, humiliation, and insult when she first saw the photograph of Bilja, lying wounded on the street.

bosnian womanIn addition to the recurring images of Esma, sensitivity to cameras and the foreign gaze can also be interpreted in the scale of shots and framing, especially during the sequences that exhibit signs of Esma’s post-traumatic stress and anxiety. An early sequence that begins with what turns out to be a point of view shot from Esma’s vantage point ends with a long shot in which Esma runs out of the bus and across the street into the distance. While a close-up of a man’s hairy chest is used to suggest an uncomfortable proximity, and on the bus Esma is shot on a medium close up scale, when she panics, the proximity shifts. Esma later in the film sees the Ukrainian prostitute Jabloka groped at the nightclub “Amerika” and has another panic attack. Her initial sight of this other instance of simulated raped is framed in a close up shot. Repeating the shot order of the earlier panic sequence, the following medium close shot of the German soldier groping and pouring beer on Jabloka’s breasts can be considered to be from Esma’s point of view. In the very next shot, Esma is seen curled up in the club’s dressing room. The depth of the long shot keeps the spectator away from Esma as she experiences trauma linked with the rape. In an interview published in the film’s official pressbook, Žbanić is quoted saying that “We are as close to Esma as she allows us to be, at distance she wants us to keep.” I argue this comment is visualized in shot scale and edited structure of the film.

The sensitivity voiced in Images from the Corner is specifically translated into the framing and editing of shots within the Women’s Center. While each of the four sequences of women sitting on the floor, clustered together, maintains the same shot scale, they are differentiated according to the movement or static quality of the camerawork, as well as in the angle of the shot. In the opening sequence, a hand-held camera moves across bodies of women, sitting close to each other, some leaning on one another, all with their eyes closed. As the camera comes to Esma, it stops moving as she opens her eyes. Framed in the center of a high-angle close-up shot, Esma looks directly into the camera. She is observed from above, an object of the voyeuristic gaze, who opens her eyes and looks back. Caroline Koebel states that the clustering of these bodies echoes images of mass graves (Koebel 2009). Koebel claims that the very end should be interpreted as some sort of inner awakening, either to the external world or to what she has to hide from her daughter and the public eye. I believe Esma’s direct gaze should be considered in relation to the women around her, or more precisely the relation of this shot with others set in the Women’s Center.

Since the opening sequence functions like an overture to the film, its camera movement signals certain anticipations of subsequent scenes. When the handheld camera again moves across the bodies of women later in the film, it moves much more slowly and lingers on some of the women. The latter scene is twice as long but formally similar, and the lamenting female voice singing traditional Bosnian songs aurally links the two scenes. In the latter sequence, the singer is even diegetically situated among the women. Through their length and camera movement, these two shots allow the spectator to intimately experience the presence of the female body. These women stand in sharp contrast to the heavily edited scene in the Women’s Center that features a social worker listening to the women verbalizing their traumas. This sequence is composed of 34 shots, which are mostly close-ups that isolate the women, suggesting their individuality. These individual images set the women apart, as various interests and personalities are asserted during this three-minute sequence. The social authority represented in the framing and editing of this sequence, specifically the isolation of individual women in close-up, is actualized in Mirha’s challenge to the power of the social worker. 

The juxtaposition of heavily edited sequences and long takes, some with handheld camera movement and others that are static is established from the beginning of the film. We can observe these formal contrasts by comparing the opening sequence in the Women’s Center to the following sequence in the club “Amerika,” in which Esma interviews for a waitressing job. The contrast is mitigated by the high angle of the opening shot, which, unlike the latter eye-level close-ups in the Women’s Center, positions the viewer as if looking down on these women, with the power to gaze at them as objects. The interview in Šaran’s office is edited in shot/countershot fashion, featuring close-ups of Esma meekly answering the gangster’s questions. While Šaran is seated, he is framed in a medium close-up shot until he stands up and circles around Esma, who throughout the scene acts deferential and submissive. In connection to the opening sequence in the Women’s Center, the following scene in club “Amerika” also strikes an aural contrast in the stark difference between the non-diegetic, female voice heard in the first sequence and the blaring turbo-folk music played in the club. On the other hand, the editing and shot scale of the interview scene is similar to that of the second scene, set in the Women’s Center.

During the second scene set in the Women’s Center, scale and the angle of shots differentiate the women on the floor from the social worker, sitting on a chair above them. The social worker is framed in a medium shot, as opposed to the close-ups of the different women sitting on the floor. Along with the early sequence in club “Amerika,” the second sequence in the Women’s Center presents visual demarcations of power. The social worker is framed as a figure of authority as she sits in a chair, which raises her above the female victims of war. Her position of power is further emphasized through her control of financial assistance given to the women. In this sense, the film features formal conflicts that establish Esma within social power relations. The film also establishes Esma’s maternal and friendship bonds. The difference between these relationships and its significance is noticeable in the contrast between the highly edited Women’s Center sequence and the long static medium close up-shot of Esma and her friend Sabina. The latter shot, in which Sabina models the dress Esma has made for her, lasts over a minute, establishing an uninterrupted experience of this intimate moment. The women discuss a high-school reunion, how many people are coming, and former classmates who were killed or fled. Sabina makes Esma swear to Tito that she will come to the reunion, suggesting nostalgia but also, and I would argue more importantly, camaraderie.

When compared to each other, Grbavica and On the Path offer a refashioning of visual symbols, noticeable in both films through their respective emphasis on hands. Although the comparison does not yield a direct opposition, the meaning suggested by close-ups of hands in both films is structured through parallels and contrast. The presence of hands in the opening sequence of Grbavica emphasizes the sense of artificial repose expressed through the intertwined bodies of the women in the center. Although this preface stands outside the narrative time of the film, the presence of Sara’s hands in the next shot links the two images through visual parallels, contrasting the intimate mother-daughter relationship with the objectification of the female trauma victims. A different kind of affection is suggested when Esma’s hands are featured briefly at the end of the ‘dress modeling’ sequence. In a close-up shot, Esma is shown pinching Sabina, who complains about her weight, establishing a different kind of intimacy, that of female camaraderie. The visual symbol is reshaped the second time Grbavica returns to the Women’s Center. The hands of the social worker are seen writing, associating her power role with the act of documentation.

grbavicaIn On the Path, Luna’s hands are strongly associated with individual production. After Luna traces her finger across Amar’s face as they lie in bed, her hand is seen holding her camera phone up to Amar’s face. The next shot features Luna’s hands cracking a walnut with a nutcracker. Through this juxtaposition, the act of recording is associated with domestic production, establishing the potential of hands to produce objects and meaning. But when Luna rides in Nađa’s car on her way to the Muslim lakeside camp, there is a close-up of the covered woman’s gloved hands. Nađa’s hands are removed from direct contact and the kind of productive possibilities associated with Luna’s hands. Although the symbolic meaning of these close-ups varies within and between each of Žbanić’s two films, my point in emphasizing these hands is to argue for a more active role of the woman with the movie camera in the latter film. While Grbavica by all accounts addresses a certain sadistic visual desire that derives pleasure from viewing female victims of war, On the Path insists upon the construction of the authorial presence of the woman. This inscription of female authorship in Žbanić’s second film effectively seeks to overcome the visual regimes of ethno-nationalism and the cultural plotting of women according to the sexual geographies of ethnicity. The film confronts the strictures on vision of conservative, nationalized Islam by giving agency to the female body in the diegesis and by embodying the female author outside it.

The Woman with the Movie Camera

on the path In the visual preface of On the Path, Luna isolates her hand on the screen of the camera phone she holds before her, with the screen aimed toward the camera. The staging of this opening shot establishes the dominance of Luna’s look, her point of view. This attention and scrutiny of one’s body functions as a metaphor for filmmaking that positions the visual image in contrast to the spoken word of religion. The camera-phone is a self-reflexive device, pointing toward the medium that structures the reality of the film. This effect is achieved through a reframing of the spectatorial gaze. For about ten seconds the very opening shot is a close-up of Luna’s face gazing off screen.  But when she raises the phone to her face, the reflexive look is established. When the camera pans down, spectatorial attention is directed at the visual inspection of the body. Gazing at the right hand she has raised up to her chest, Luna is imagined standing before the mirror, out of frame. In this fashion, the spectator also imagines her look.
 
The next shot of the film is again directed toward Luna’s body. As the camera zooms closer to her through the cabin of a plane the spectator gaze of the passenger audience is emphasized by Luna’s physical performance of the preflight safety-instruction speech. The juxtaposition of these shots invites the spectator to identify with Luna’s look. This is echoed in the flashback sequence of Amar and Luna having intercourse, which is introduced by a close-up on Luna’s face, a combination of shots that effectively associate the erotic gaze with Luna. On the other hand, the phone is again associated with Luna’s gaze at the beginning of the kayaking sequence. The associations of this “phantom ride” shot with Luna’s camera, which she holds while sitting at the front of the rubber boat, aligns the spectator’s attention with the framing of the shot and gestures toward the mechanical medium.

on the pathThe dominance of Luna’s look is strengthened through sequences that are framed from her point of view. When she goes with Amar to his alcohol-abuse counseling group session, the sequence of shots is edited in such a way that Amar becomes the object of Luna’s gaze. This short sequence begins with a long shot of Luna and Amar walking through a hallway, toward the camera. When Amar goes out of the frame, Luna is left centered in a medium close-up. In the following long shot that lasts 18 seconds, Amar is seen walking down the hallway away from the camera. After he looks into the room where the group’s counseling session is taking place, and the people are shown looking up at him in a brief 2-second shot, Amar is shown looking back at Luna in a medium close-up shot. The 3-second countershot close up of Luna’s face clearly emphasizes that her look visually structures this sequence.

The following segment of the film set in a sidewalk patio of a restaurant features Luna’s point of view as well, while at the same time utilizing staging to direct the spectator to look at Luna. The first shot, a close-up of a plate of food that shows a knife and fork being used to cut a piece of meat establishes the directional position of their user, who turns out to be Luna. In the next shot, Luna is shown in profile, facing left, in the direction of the silverware. With Amar’s back turned toward the camera, the staging directs the spectator’s attention to Luna’s face. When this shot is repeated after a close-up of Amar, it is used to emphasize Luna’s initial acquiescence to her male partner. While in this scene, she submissively complies with Amar’s wish to leave and allows him to take her wallet and pay for the food, later in the film Luna ignores Amar’s attempts to control her actions in a rapid shot/countershot sequence. When Amar comes to his friend’s nightclub to walk Luna home, she derides the conservative Islamic strictures against pre-marital sex, music, and alcohol. The scene functions according to the structured proximity of the spectator’s gaze with Luna’s—during their confrontation, Luna is framed in a close-up shot, while Amar is shown in a medium close-up, designating thus the proximity of identification.

on the pathIn On the Path, the formal aspects of framing, staging, and editing are fashioned in response to the visual regime of conservative Islam as represented in the film. The barriers separating men from women in the lakeside camp of the conservative Muslims as well as their separation during prayers represent physical obstacles of vision Luna repeatedly attempts to breach. Even though Luna’s attempts define to what extent men are blocked from looking at women, they actually delineate constrictions placed on the female gaze. As opposed to the heavy symbolism of physical barriers, the difference in editing and framing of Luna’s and her lover’s personal experience of Islam emphasizes their diverging relationship to religion and each other. After she tries to peer over a barrier made of blankets and rugs to catch a glimpse of the male part of the camp, Luna walks through the women’s and children’ section with the handheld camera trailing behind her in a long take that lasts 1:04 minutes. Although the shot is again not immediately defined, the camera pans to reveal Luna and subsequently follows her through the camp, keeping her centrally positioned in the shot. As Luna walks through the lakeside camp, she first hears a group of children repeating Arabic spoken on the television they are watching. Next she comes across another group of children, only they are repeating sentences defining their religion in English, following Nađa’s example. These tableaus refer to the cultural and ideological aspects of language, establishing the Bosnian Muslims between East and West, but leave Luna outside of these identifications.

In contrast, Amar’s participation in Muslim prayers is presented in a highly edited sequence of 25 shots, lasting 3:12 minutes. After he disrupts the celebration of Bajram (Eid ul-Fitr), Amar goes to the mosque and participates in prayers. After the prayers are finished, his friend Bahrija, the man who turned Amar toward Islam, sings a song in Arabic. This heavily edited sequence uses the shot/countershot technique to establish a link between Amar and Bahrija, a connection that fully identifies Luna’s partner with the Salafi conservative strand of Islam. While his preceding tirade against the improper faith of Bosnian Muslims established Amar’s conservative view, the long 19-second medium close-up of him at the end of the prayer/song sequence establishes his new devotion to Islam. In connection to his extreme statements, the final shot represents Amar’s immersion and his intimate experience of Islam. On the other hand, the staging of the long take in which Luna walks through the lakeside camp maintains her position as an observer, her distance from the Salafi strand of Islam, and her opposition to the restrictions this movement places on women. 

‘Women’s art in Bosnia’

Jasna Husanović argues that Žbanić is a representative of ‘Women’s art in Bosnia,’ framing her film as an endeavor to engage the spectator in dialogue and drive the subject to reflect on the traumatic contents of Bosnian realities. “The language of art and spaces of cultural production thus host a blend of witnessing to the injury and loss of bodies, spaces, and ideas, experienced as a radical betrayal of trust in the entire symbolic worlds and power of mechanisms underpinning them” (Husanović 2009: 106). Although the notion of ‘witnessing’ suggests passivity, through her definition of art as a transformative model of communication that engages the subject, Husanović points toward the investigation of how visual representation of women, as Elissa Helms states, “acted as vehicles through which civilizational and national boundaries were drawn” (Helms 2008: 111).

In regards to this metaphorical terrain, Helms analyzed several post-war images featuring Bosnian women, noting how gendered representations were being used for positioning within regional, European, and global hierarchies. Helms explains how views describing the symbolic positioning of Bosnia as either a bridge or crossroads between East and West or as a space where Christian and Muslim civilizations clash are predicated on notions of identity organized around social dichotomies whose boundaries are shifted to suit specific political agendas. These dichotomies are referenced by visual symbols, including, as Helms’s work has shown, the image of women’s bodies, which can be utilized to communicate metaphorical meanings. In this essay I have attempted to explain how Jasmila Žbanić, through the medium of film, in its organization and material, adds to this discourse on women’s visual representation and role in society. In Grbavica and On the Path, formal strategies are mobilized to resist the official political aesthetic practice of appropriation, representation, and codification.


Works Cited

Biro, Yvette. 2007 “Plain, Pain: Grbavica.” Rouge.

Butler, Alison. 2002. Women’s Cinema: The Contested Cinema. London: Wallflower Press.

Elsaesser, Thomas. 2005. “Our Balkanist Gaze: About Memory’s No Man’s Land,” in European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, pp. 356-369.

Galt, Rosalind. 2006. The New European Cinema: Redrawing the Map. New York: Columbia University Press.

Helms, Elissa. 2003. “Gendered Visions of the Bosnian Future.” Ph.D. Dissertation in Anthropology, University of Pittsburgh.

___. 2008. “East and West Kiss: Gender, Orientalism, and Balkanism in Muslim-Majority Bosnia and Herzegovina.” Slavic Review 67.1, pp. 88-119.

Husanović, Jasna. 2009. “The Politics of Gender, Witnessing, Postcoloniality, and Trauma.” Feminist Theory 10.1, pp. 99-119.  

Horton, Andrew James. 2002. “Lyric Landscapes and Living Hell.” Kinoeye 2 (17).

Honeycutt, Kirk. 2006. “Grbavica.” Hollywood Reporter (October 30).

Ibrahimović, Nedžad. 2010. “Na pola puta.” Dani 665 (March 12).

Iordanova, Dina. 2001. The Cinema of Flames: Balkan Film Culture and the Media. London: The British Film Industry.

Jameson, Federic. 2005. “Thoughts on Balkan Cinema,” in Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Film. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, pp. 232-257.

Koebel, Caroline. 2009. “Torture, Maternity, and Truth in  Jasmila Žbanić’s Grbavica: Land of My Dreams.” Jump Cut 51.

Lončarević, Faruk. 2008. “Ubijanje film(om)a: Sudbina filmskog jezika u exjugoslavenskoj kinematografiji poslije 1992.” Sarajevske sveske 19-20, pp. 165-174.

Pavičić, Jurica. 2010. “‘Cinema of Normalization:’ Changes of Stylistic Model in Post-Yugoslav Cinema After the 1990s.” Studies in Eastern European Cinema 1.1, pp. 43-46. 

Žarkov, Dubravka. 2007. The Body of War. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Žižek, Slavoj. 1997. “Underground, or Ethnic Cleansing as a Continuation of Poetry by Other Means.” InterCommunication 18.

Updated: 14 Jul 12