“Women Engaged” in Postwar Bosnian Film

By Cynthia Simmons

© Cynthia Simmons, 2012

In the visual arts, it is arguably engaged women filmmakers and directors who have made the greatest strides for women artists in postwar Bosnia. At the same time, they have, again arguably, achieved the greatest success in drawing international attention to the issues surrounding the Bosnian War and the continuing challenge of recovery and reconciliation. Two of these women, Jasmila Žbanić and Aida Begić, have already received international acclaim for films they directed that depict the plight of women who survived the war.

grbavicaJasmila Žbanić wrote and directed Grbavica/Esma’s Secret (2006), which chronicles the plight of a victim of wartime rape and the daughter she conceived in violence. Žbanić and the lead actress Mirjana Karanović received numerous awards, including the Golden Bear, given to Žbanić at the 2006 Berlin International Film Festival. Grbavica refocused international attention on the aftermath of the Bosnian War and on rape as a war crime. In Bosnia, too, the film brought greater attention to this war crime and its consequences, which still remain, for some in BiH, a taboo subject. In the press kit to the film, Žbanić described the evolution of the film’s theme. Although not herself a victim of wartime rape, she, like her protagonist Esma, underwent a process of acknowledging this aspect of the war as a trauma that persists in the aftermath:

Twenty-thousand women were systematically raped in Bosnia during the war. I lived 100 meters from the front line and was most afraid of this kind of aggression. Since then, rape and its consequences have become an obsession for me: I read and followed everything that was related to this topic. I still didn’t know why I did this, or what I wanted to do with this. When I gave birth to my child, motherhood triggered a whole set of emotions in me—it shocked me completely. I started asking myself, what kind of emotional significance does this have for a woman who has a child who was conceived in hate. That was the moment I knew what I wanted from Grbavica and I wrote it—between breast feeds (cited in Koebel 2009).

Although this film has garnered for Žbanić the most attention internationally, Grbavica was neither her first nor her last film to address the issues facing Bosnian women—and girls—since the war.

A year earlier Žbanić had addressed how or even if the history of the war would be conveyed to future generations. “Birthday” (Rođendan) Žbanić’s contribution to the omnibus film Lost and Found (Izgubljeno i nađeno, 2005), takes place in Mostar, the “city of the bridge,” in western Bosnia and Herzegovina. It follows two girls born on the same day, 9 November 1993, when Croatian forces destroyed the iconic sixteenth-century Old Bridge, and who were raised in silence and isolation on their respective (Bosniak and Croatian) sides of the Neretva River. Dina Iordanova analyzes these films on Bosnian females and war within a broader cohort of films by women filmmakers in Southeastern Europe. She identifies Grbavica and “Birthday” as examples of what she terms “hushed histories.” These she defines as “stories evolving at the peripheries of a peripheral region, narratives of patriarchal dominance and subplots of suppression that do not quite line up to fit into the rough outline but remain hidden, forgotten, relegated to oblivion” (Iordanova, n.d.: 2). She considers such hushed histories a characteristic of women directors in Southeastern Europe. Beyond these characteristics (evident as well in Žbanić’s most recent film and the films of Aida Begić considered below), “Birthday” and Grbavica have contributed to postwar recovery, helping to break the silence that often surrounds the victims of wartime rape, and addressing the postwar generation that in many cases is being raised in ignorance of the events of the 1990s in Bosnia and Herzegovina.[1]

on the pathŽbanić’s most recent film is entitled On the Path (Na putu, 2009), and it addresses her most “hushed” theme to date—the societal tension that has arisen since the war in response to the acceptance by some of Islamic practices much more conservative than those associated historically with the Sufi tradition of Islam in Bosnia. The protagonists of the film, Luna and Amar, both work at the Sarajevo Airport. She is a flight attendant, and he an air traffic controller. Amar fought with the Bosnian Army and both lost their families in the war, but they have found happiness since the war in their love for each other. The film chronicles the effects upon their relationship of Amar’s abuse of alcohol and their inability to conceive a child. Amar is eventually suspended from his job due to his drinking, but his attempt to overcome his dependency through traditional therapies fails. Quite by chance Amar meets a fellow soldier from the war, Bahrija, who has become a devout Muslim. Bahrija takes Amar to the mosque and encourages his conversion to strict Islamic practices. Amar renounces alcohol, but he also embraces a form of religious practice (Wahhabism) that is foreign to Luna (and Bosnia) and leaves the future of their relationship in doubt.

In On the Path, Žbanić confronts the question that relatively few raise publicly today in Bosnia—the influence of Saudi Wahhabism/Salafism in Bosnia since the war. Saudi support was for the most part welcome during the war. The Saudis (among a number of other countries) supplied weapons clandestinely when Bosnia was left virtually defenseless as the result of a UN arms embargo (Andreas 2004: 42-43). Saudi Arabia has continued to provide aid—basic humanitarian aid along with funds to rebuild destroyed mosques and to construct new ones. This influence has complicated the path forward for Bosnians of Muslim heritage. Should secular Bosniaks reclaim their religious heritage? If so, should they practice again the more liberal Sufi Islam of the Ottomans or embrace the Wahhabism of the mujahideen fighters who came to their aid during the war? Non-Muslims and Bosniaks alike may question any tolerant representation of Wahhabism, and Žbanić’s nuanced depiction of a Wahhabi community in On the Path invites debate. The role of the sect in postwar Bosnia remains controversial, if discussed more often privately than in the media. Nonetheless, independent news media—and now Žbanić’s most recent film—have addressed Wahhabism and its role in the development of Muslim identity.

The (Croatian) lead actors of On the Path, Zrinka Cvitešić (Luna) and Leon Lučev (Amar), both gave interviews to the independent weekly Dani that signaled their own attitude toward that theme in the film’s story.  The headlines read, respectively, “My Encounter with the Wahhabis Was Pleasant” (Dani 12 Dec. 2010) and “The Wahhabis' Choice Must Be Respected” (Dani 19 Feb. 2010). Cvitešić admitted that she was completely ignorant on the subject before preparing for the film, but that even then, she avoided learning any more about the Salafi community than Luna knew at the beginning of the story. In any case, both actors speak of their positive experiences among the Wahhabis. The film itself, however, presents a conflicted relationship between these extremely conservative Muslims and other Bosnians.

on the pathMore than any film from Bosnia’s socially engaged women directors, On the Path depicts a contemporary urban, and in many ways upscale, milieu that contrasts with the material and intangible aftermath of the war. Luna and Amar, and their friends Šejla and Dejo, enjoy privileges far beyond the reach of the average citizen of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnians cannot fail to note, and to question, the relative luxury that Luna and Amar enjoy at home—in each scene in their bedroom, the couple lies on a different pair of expensive-looking sheets. They have an apartment in the middle of the city with a view from their rooftop patio of the Sarajevo skyline. Luna is beautiful, Amar handsome, and their surroundings and leisure (white-water rafting) all signal that “life is good.” The director’s choices might seem to reflect a “foreign” (certainly Hollywood) cinematic aesthetic, where most actors in feature films are as gorgeous as their surroundings. Although it may be difficult to imagine such privilege on a controller’s and a flight attendant’s salaries, Luna and Amar’s focus on earthly pleasures and the “material” life contrasts with the spirituality and asceticism of the Wahhabis. The foreign viewer, who is likely oblivious to Hollywood excess that is offered up as “average” and also unfamiliar with life in Bosnia today, might not notice any “extravagance.”  But the question remains, as it still does for the “Hollywood” treatment, whether such exaggeration compromises, even somewhat, a serious consideration of social issues affecting all strata of society.

The depiction of the Wahhabi community may make it difficult for some to suspend disbelief. Their encampment, for so it seems, sits at the edge of the river, outside Sarajevo. Against this backdrop, the “sisters” all work happily and greet each other amicably. There is no sign of conflict in this sunny idyll. But when Luna, who has come to visit Amar there, happens across an English lesson where the children are offered foreign-language instruction along with religious “indoctrination,” or when she experiences what obviously strikes her as the imam’s “Islamist” message (this earthly world obstructs the path toward paradise), the viewer most likely feels the same discomfort. Even more troubling, when Luna out of curiosity visits the mosque in Sarajevo, she comes upon a wedding ceremony. Amar’s friend Bahrija is taking another wife, and an underage one at that. The look that passes between Luna and Bahrija’s wife Nađa (Mirjana Karanović)—the wife who hosted Luna at their settlement—ranges from fury (Luna’s) to resignation (Nađa’s). Luna rages at Amar when he follows after her out of the mosque—about the illegality, and immorality, of what she has just witnessed—bigamy and what strikes her as “pedophilia.” Luna’s fury pales, however, in comparison to that of her grandmother, played by Marija Kohn, when she confronts Amar, who has come to her apartment to celebrate Bajram with other members of Luna’s family. After Amar has finished his shocking rant against the Bosniak practice of Islam, suggesting that the suffering of Bosnian Muslims during the war was punishment from Allah for their non-observant ways (drinking alcohol, eating pork…), Kohn delivers arguably the most powerful rebuttal of Wahhabism in the film, and defense of Islam the “Bosnian way” (See Bringa 1995). If her husband drinks, she says, let him drink, for he stands in good stead with Allah for his good deeds in life, and what is more, she declares, it is she, not the hodža or the reis, who presides over the celebration of Bajram in her home and family.  We recognize the goddess confronting the male leadership of the faith.

on the pathNonetheless, the viewer must also recognize, even if Luna cares not to, that the Wahhabis have offered Amar another path. In fellowship and faith, he has found solace from the loss of his brother and other loved ones in the war, and he has overcome his dependence on alcohol. Bahrija’s wife Nađa has also found a kind of salvation in the Salafi community. She tells Luna that Bahrija married her as a war widow with children (an explanation, in part, of her acceptance of a second, younger wife). And there is the fact that Luna and Amar, incapable of conceiving a child previously, achieve “fertility” only after Amar has returned from the Wahhabis—after resolving to leave Amar, Luna is shocked to learn that she is, after all, pregnant. Interpretations may vary, but Žbanić’s On the Path, like Grbavica, provokes public discourse about the war and its aftermath and thwarts attempts to stifle a consideration of the past.  Invoking a reconsideration of the events of the war, they contribute to the quest for the truth that can facilitate reconciliation. 

In its treatment of an easily forgotten or ignored segment of Bosnian society—rural women survivors—Aida Begić’s award-winning Snow (Snijeg, 2008) qualifies as yet another “hushed history.”[2]  The village of Slavno (in Bosnian, the name means “famous” or “marvelous”) stands for many isolated rural enclaves where, after the war ended in 1995, women and children remained, not knowing the fate of their male loved ones. Theirs is now a woman’s world, where women must find a way forward to support themselves and their families.  They must also preserve memory and maintain hope, all the while coming to terms with their own grief and suffering.

The protagonist of the film, Alma (Zana Marjanović), is a young widow, or so she assumes. Her husband disappeared during the war along with almost all of the men and boys of the village after they were taken from their homes by Bosnian Serb forces. Alma is “covered,” unlike the other young women in the village (except when at prayer), and the viewer comes to realize that her scarves signify not only her centrality to the film, but also her difference. Her decision to observe the requirement of the hijab is never openly addressed in the film, but it was obviously a conscious choice.  Alone in her bedroom one evening, Alma retrieves photographs from a box under her bed. We see from the side tokens and images from the past. In several photos of a young couple, apparently of her and her husband, she wears no headscarf. Other remnants of her past, which Alma fondles and ponders, include a tube of lipstick and a large, fashionable ring. The viewer assumes that Alma is one of the numerous widows of Bosnia who have found comfort in the (perhaps) newfound belief and practices of their hereditary faith.  Some of the most beautiful scenes of the film relate to these practices—Alma walking along the paths of her village, in reality or dream, the folds of her varying scarves moving with the wind, or her performing of the abdest, the ritual washing, before worship.[3] Yet, with the exception of the “grandmother” of the village and another older woman, Alma is the only widow to have taken the veil.

snowTwo males remain in Slavno—an elderly man Mehmed (Emir Hadžihafizbegović), known to all as Dedo (grandfather), who also serves as the imam (religious leader), and a young boy, Ali.  The viewer never learns why this young boy survived, since other boys in the village, taken with their fathers, remain missing as well. The boy never speaks on screen; he communicates symbolically. Throughout the film, Ali’s hair (like the eventual snowfall) invokes a realm of mystery that enforces, or undermines (depending on the perceived source of this “magic”), the spiritual life of the community. Whenever Ali has a nightmare, and he has them often, his hair grows long overnight. In the morning Grandfather diligently cuts it back. The association of the boy’s long hair with fearful events proves ominous when the sight of a Bosnian Serb neighbor who arrives in Slavno causes his hair to grow long in the light of day. Begić has revealed the impetus for this particular element of magical realism (there are others).  It is based in fact.  Her friend survived the war because when young, he wore his hair long and looked like a girl.  But he saw his father murdered. In the film, she inverts this reality—fear precedes the long hair (Guillen 2008).

The complicating events of Snow involve the widows’ attempts to provide a livelihood for themselves and the children by weaving rugs and by selling the various jams and preserves that they prepare from their harvest. Another possibility presents itself when the Bosnian Serb Miro comes to Slavno as a representative of a foreign firm that is attempting to buy the village and surrounding land.[4] The women struggle with both their decision about the land and their complicated reaction, to say the least, to the intrusion of a Bosnian Serb into their stable (if not always harmonious) women’s enclave. When, on his second visit, Miro and his business partner Marc are stranded by a rainstorm and must spend the night in Slavno, extended contact with the women and an ensuing confrontation lead to the dramatic climax of the film.

While the “businessmen” wait out the bad weather, other characters confront emotional “storms.” Sabrina (Jelena Kordić), the character least committed to the village and the other women, and whose attitude toward life appears to be singularly materialistic, decides during the storm to renege on the agreement she signed to sell her land. This decision follows a call she makes to Magnus on Marc’s cellphone, which he has left unattended. Previously, the women in the village have made reference to Sabrina’s “Magnus,” apparently a man she was involved with before the war, and she had asked Miro shortly after meeting him to help her get a visa to Sweden. She calls Magnus’s number and identifies herself, first as Sabrina, then by a pet name, and gets no response. This apparent rejection precipitates a total reversal in her attitude.  She confronts Miro and Marc, demanding that they return the document she signed—she will not leave Slavno. Mehmed then arrives with Ali. No longer terrified by the Serbs, the boy stares knowingly, and righteously, at Miro.  Under Ali’s gaze, Miro breaks down, insisting he killed no one and that he pleaded that the men and boys of Slavno should not be killed.  Finally, he admits that he knows where they are—in the Blue Cave.  The women and Mehmed set out in the wet night; when they come to the footbridge that leads to the cave, Nena Fatima (Irena Mulamuhić) unfurls the rug she has been weaving throughout the film.  She has completed it—during the storm—and this native Bosnian handcraft serves as a “magic carpet” that paves the way to revelation. The women discover the remains of their loved ones (off camera), and then, after the storm, it snows.

The leitmotif of snow, introduced in the title, was reinforced earlier in the film when Azra (Emina Mahmutagić), the youngest girl in the village, playing with flour, tosses it into the air, whirls in delight, and calls out “Snijeg!” (snow). 

snow Yet, the weather that appears magical to children presents a challenge to the adults. When the Bosnian Serb is attempting to convince Alma’s mother-in-law Safija (Vesna Mašić) to sell her plot of land, the largest in the village, he poses the question that is often directed toward the elderly, “And what will you do when the snow falls?” Real snow does eventually fall, the day after the women of Slavno have been reunited with their husbands and sons—the answer to their prayers. Little Azra comes out onto her front porch, whirls under the falling snow, elated, and says again “Snijeg!” In the final scene that forms the coda to the film, the answer to the question “What will you do when the snow falls”? is implied. A year later, Alma remains in the village. Evidently the village  has not been sold, and the women have weathered the “snow” well enough. In the final scene, Alma pushes a cart of what might be bricks past Ali and Azra playing basketball, past a pile of lumber (another indication of new construction), and past the truck belonging to Hamza, a young man from her native Zvornik who earlier in the film had given Alma and Nađa a ride back from their roadside jam stand. Hamza revealed then that he lost his entire family in the war. He offered to help the women to transport their canned foods and to help them with their business. Hamza has come through for the women of Slavno, it seems, and is still involved in their lives.  He will help Alma to fulfill her late husband’s dream—to feed “all of Bosnia” with their bounty of fruits and vegetables. The possibility remains too that Hamza’s evident interest in Alma will be returned. The falling snow has proven that dreams can come true.

Begić identifies the main themes of her film as the freedom to choose and the confrontation with the past. A slice of the women of Slavno’s life in the aftermath gives visual representation to small stories of recovery and individual paths toward the discovery of the truth—that first step on the path toward reconciliation. Begić affirms the significance of such stories:

I think that a return to the past need not be something regressive—to remember some horrid things, something that will pull us into the past…from time to time all of us must confront the lies of the past so that we can simply keep on living. As long as the war or its consequences are present in our lives, they will be present in art as well. Reality is connected to the past. It is impossible to make a film here about anything and avoid it, because it so much defines us, so much colors us, and hinders us so much as well (Begić 2008).

That her film honors the personal odysseys of survivors who face the ravages of history Begić makes clear in her director’s notes, which she prefaces with the proverb “Snow doesn’t fall to cover the hill, but so that each little animal can leave its trace” (Snijeg ne pada da prekrije brijeg, već da svaka zvjerka svoj trag ostavi).[5] This proverb adds another layer of significance to the motif of snow. Having found their loved ones’ remains, the women of Slavno can ensure their “trace” for the future—in the final scene the camera pans over a group of new gravestones on the hillside. Begić invokes this proverb, significantly, if only metatextually.  It hails from the pagan world of folk wisdom, and it enforces an understanding of the layers of metaphysical and religious understandings that conflate and compete with each other in the Bosnian countryside.

As Aida Begić has stated, she will continue to make films that confront the past, that give image and voice to those who might be overlooked (particularly women) in what she considers a misguided or facile rush to move on (Begić 2008). Truth provides the foundation for reconciliation and recovery.

With the international acclaim—and distribution—of their feature films, Jasmila Žbanić and Aida Begić have established most successfully the reputation of women directors and filmmakers in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Other women have gained recognition on a smaller scale and in the field of independent documentary film, which by definition provides greater access to women filmmakers in general (Taubin 2004). Danijela Majstorović, a professor at the University of Banja Luka (Serb Republic), has produced two films that address the plight of vulnerable women in Bosnia. She conceived the idea of her film on human trafficking, Counterpoint for Her (Kontrapunkt za nju, 2004) after learning that a report by the U.S. House of Representatives in 2003 identified Bosnia as the first stop for trafficked women in Southeastern Europe. Her next film Dream Job (Posao snova, 2005) chronicles the fate of young girls lured by “show business” in a society with limited opportunities for women. Both of these films reveal the particular effect on women in Bosnia of post-communist and post-conflict social and economic instability. They indict government and law enforcement for their unwillingness or inability to thwart criminal activity or to provide adequate training, education, and protection for the most vulnerable members of society. Majstorović states that in conjunction with her Center for Social and Cultural Repair, she will continue to produce documentaries: “We want to make doc[umentaries] for […] marginalized groups and we want to at least provoke… society” (Jackson 2006). Women directors and filmmakers are closing the gender gap in this realm of the visual arts in BiH. Even more important for this fragile democracy, their films challenge social and governmental structures and thereby contribute to the growth of civil society.


Notes

1] In an interview with the on-line magazine Aviva, Jasmila Žbanić described how the response to her film in BiH encouraged her to further action—the campaign “For the Dignity of Women.” After screenings of the film, activists collected signatures on petitions that demanded that survivors of rape become eligible for the special assistance that veterans and refugees can receive. URL no longer available.

2] Snijeg received, among other awards, the 2008 Cannes Critics’ Week Grand Prize.

3] Begić concurred with an interviewer from Twitch that she was perhaps influenced by the cinematic focus on women’s headscarves in Iranian film (Guillen 2008). Lončarović (2008: 173) identifies further similarities that Snow shares with Iranian film—silences and a focus “in accord with Islamic philosophy, and particularly its Sufi branch, on metaphysical presence”.

4] Miro is the shortened form of Miroslav, which means “peace” (mir) and “glory” (slava), the latter the source for the name of the village—Slavno. As a Bosnian Serb who fought in the war, Miro certainly belied the “peace” of his name.  However, it cannot be denied that the truth Miro finally shares, about the fate and final resting place of the men and boys of the village, brings peace (mir) to SLAVno.

5] The title also invites the viewer to consider the conceit of Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow. In Begić’s film, “businessmen” arrive in Slavno hoping to purchase land and are stranded by a rainstorm, which turns to snow. Their forced presence in the village leads to revelation. Similarly in Pamuk’s novel, the writer protagonist travels to the town of Kars, ostensibly to investigate the suicides of the “head-scarf girls.” He is stranded in Kars by a snowstorm, with no exit from the dangerous truths that his inquiry has begun to reveal.


Works Cited

“Izbor vehabija treba poštovati,” Dani, 12 December 2010.

“Susret s vehabijama je bio ugodan,” Dani, 19 February 2010

Andreas, Peter, “The Clandestine Political Economy of War and Peace in Bosnia,” International Studies Quarterly 48 (2004): 42-43.

Begić, Aida, “Snijeg je eksces,” Dani,15 August 2008.

Bringa, Tone, Being Muslim the Bosnian Way (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995).

Guillen, Michael, “TIFF08: Snijeg (Snow)—Q&A With Aida Begić”, Twitch 25 September 2008

Iordanova, Dina, “Hidden Histories on Film: Female Director from South Eastern Europe,” ms.

Jackson, Danielle, “Depth of Field: An Interview with Filmmaker Danijela Majstorovic,” PopMatters 20 Sept. 2006,

Koebel, Caroline, “Torture, Maternity, and Truth in Jasmila Zbanic’s Grbavica: Land of My Dreams,” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 51 (2009).

Lončarević, Faruk, “Ubijanje film(ov)a: Sudbina filmskog jeziika u ex-jugoslavenskoj kinematografiji poslije 1992,” Sarajevske sveske, 19-20 (2008).

Taubin, Amy, “Documenting Women,” Ms. Magazine, Summer 2004.

Updated: 25 Jul 12