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Serbia's shame, on film

April 14, 2006|Jasmila Zbanich | JASMILA ZBANICH is the director of "Grbavica," which won the award for best film at the Berlin Film Festival.

Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina — 'WHORE, YOU think that the Serb heroes would have raped those hideous Muslim women? They are repulsive. They stink," reads a letter sent to actress Mirjana Karanovic. The letter was written in Cyrillic on an old typewriter.

I am shocked. Mirjana is calm.

"In this one, at least they don't threaten me," she says, as I examine the letter to see where it was mailed. A stamp with the image of a rare flower bears a Swiss postmark.

Our film, "Grbavica," named for a district of Sarajevo that was occupied by the Serb military during the 1992-95 Bosnian war, has yet to be screened in Switzerland, so the anonymous sender cannot have seen it. However, the mere fact that Mirjana, Serbia's best-known film actress, accepted the role of a Bosnian Muslim woman raped in a Serbian-run prison camp is enough to motivate hate mail "on the Serbs' behalf."

"My friends in Belgrade congratulate me for how well I am coping with the situation, for being brave," Mirjana tells me as we have lunch in a Sarajevo restaurant. I light a cigarette, although I promised myself that I would quit smoking.

Mirjana's friends are congratulating her because for more than a month she has been exposed to a mudslinging campaign by radical Serbian media, depicting her as a Serb traitor for appearing in the Bosnian film I directed and urging that she be blacklisted from appearing in theaters or on film anywhere in her country.

Undaunted, she is talking in public about the events of the recent war that most citizens of Serbia do not want to hear about. "I don't see anything courageous in what I do. I think it's normal," says Mirjana. She is a strong woman, which was among the reasons I offered her the main role.

"After I gave birth, I said, 'I don't want her. Take her away.... ' I heard her crying, I heard her through the walls.... On the second day, my milk started coming. I said, 'OK, I will feed her. Once.' When they brought her ... when I took her ... she was so tiny and ... so beautiful. I had forgotten that there was anything beautiful in the world."

This is an excerpt from the monologue in which Mirjana's film character describes her decision to keep the baby born of her rape. Mirjana plays the role with volcanic strength and deep emotion. Audiences in Berlin, Sarajevo and Belgrade have had equally powerful reactions. However, there are people who do not want this movie shown. In fact, unless something changes, it will not be shown in the Serb-run part of Bosnia, the Republika Srpska.

This is not an official ban. The owner of the only cinema there had seen the film before it premiered at the Berlin Film Festival. He thought it was excellent and not offensive, so we agreed to show it in the Bosnian Serb city of Banja Luka in March. But he changed his mind after the reactions among radical Serbs in Bosnia and Serbia to my speech in Berlin, in which I called for the arrest of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.

More than a decade ago, the United Nations war crimes tribunal indicted Karadzic and Mladic for war crimes and genocide committed during the Bosnian war, in which about 100,000 people were killed and 2.5 million expelled from their homes. They remain on the run.

The cinema owner was afraid that pro-fascist Serb groups established in support of war criminals would demolish his cinema or use their official connections to audit his taxes, inspect his theater and otherwise ruin him under cover of law. His fears were well-founded, given that Karadzic and Mladic enjoy the support of government officials in Serbia and the Republika Srpska and are widely perceived as national heroes.

Imagine that at the end of World War II, Nazi Germany had not been defeated but rather awarded territory in which to establish an ethnically "pure" republic, in which the lives of Jews and anti-fascists would have been in danger. This is the Republika Srpska today.

The Council of Europe's film fund, Euroimages, issued a statement protesting the decision not to screen the movie, saying it violated the principle of freedom of expression. However, Euroimages cannot protect the cinema owner from the real danger of mobs attacking his audiences.

Eleven years after the war, war criminals still direct our daily lives.

I stub out my cigarette. I am definitely quitting.

A friend from Banja Luka sends me a text message: "A pirated copy of 'Grbavica' is being sold underground here. I hear it's selling like crazy."

Good. I am losing financially, but it is important to break the isolation of the people in the Republika Srpska.

It is spring in Sarajevo. The streets are full of people; the outdoor cafes are open. The city smells of blossoms. Mirjana and I enjoy the beauty of the day.

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