The Reeler


February 15, 2007

Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams

A mother and daughter learn to be a family in the aching aftermath of war

The truth is better sung than spoken in Grbavica, and throughout Jasmila Zbanic's writing and directing debut, music -- whether it be the cathartic envelopment of club rock or simple balm of folk songs -- offers collective respite for a people still too raw to speak directly about the past. In the titular suburb of Sarajevo, which Zbanic shoots as a kind of slush-covered, psychic wasteland, teenage boys sing teasing odes to their crushes, sing-alongs break out on public transportation and class trips, and Esma (Mirjana Karanovic), a middle-aged mother and veteran of a Serbian prison camp, can weep freely among a host of Bosnian women, with their frank, painted faces, to the lyrics of a song being sung at a women’s group therapy meeting. Esma lives with her daughter Sara (Luna Mijovic) in as much peace as you can live with a 12-year-old girl, particularly in Grbavica, where camps housed and tortured much of the population during the war of the early 1990s and where mass graves are still being uncovered.

Sara is a feuder; with her flashing eyes, full mouth and Joan Jett shag, she plays among the boys at school, eventually coming to blows with Samir (Kenan Catic), a violent meeting that blooms into a tentative sort of romance. Sara is proud (as most of the students are) that her father is a shaheed (war martyr), and in that she and Samir find something in common. At home Sara is equally quick to anger, her behavior something knowing Americans would swiftly diagnose as "acting out." And though she does throw down increasingly dire gauntlets for her mother, testing the boundaries of what is acceptable and what can be expected, there is something behind Sara's casually vicious eruptions; her self-righteousness is recognizable and right on time, but in this case, also painfully on target.

The central plot conceit is a school trip Sara is determined to take and the 200 euros Esma must scrape together to make it happen. Rather than produce the papers that would prove Sara's father was a shaheed (and garner a big discount), Esma decides to take on a job, resolute that her daughter should get what she wants. Zbanic captures the complex emotional interplay of a mother and almost-teen daughter with stark, startling scenes in which the two surge wildly along a pendulum of brittle resentment and bonhomie. Both actresses are extraordinary in these scenes; in one a goofy wake-up call turns into a tickling match which rolls onto the floor, and Esma's sudden vulnerability, when pinned under her daughter, snaps instantly into fury, and the moment curdles. Laughter races from Esma's eyes continually, as though she no longer trusts common emotion, or mirth, and will draw it short every time.

"God gave woman a body so she could rule the world," a dancer tells Esma at the pointedly named "Amerika Bar," a seedy red-light dive where she works as a waitress. It sounds like something an American would say, possibly even something one woman would say to another woman before stooping and high-kicking for a roomful of men. But coming from someone who lived through a war whose central strategy included the systematic subversion of the female body -- of female power -- the flaky bravado of such a declaration grows terrible wings, large and black enough to shelter the 20,000 women raped in Bosnia as prisoners of war. Not how soon we forget, but how often, and for the people of Sarajevo, how imperative.

Esma, diligent on the job and in the sad little black, bambi bow they make her wear as part of the uniform, is befriended by one of the thugs associated with the bar, and they suss each other out by their willingness to share pieces of the unspoken past. Sara, meanwhile, grows increasingly desperate for a connection to her father, and not only to prove his legacy to her classmates. Unable to connect to corny Bosnian folk lyrics about the conflict, she seeks the tangible; she wants that piece of paper. Zbanic, herself a resident of Grbavica who lived 100 feet from the front, infuses both Sara and Esma's anger and grief with her own. Less sure of herself in handling her male characters, many of whom are shiny-shirted former war profiteers (even Esma's would-be boyfriend is a hitman nostalgic for wartime, when “people loved each other more"), Zbanic succeeds with young Samir, who is as tentative and tender as he is troubled.

Grbavica's exploration of citizenry reeling in the aftermath of a war -- the halting, tumultuous process of re-learning what can be expected of countrymen, family and even one’s self -- culminates in a horrifying scene between Esma and Sara and the forced extraction of a truth. When a war ends new boundaries are set, new borders are laid down and new names given; Sara, as one of those names, is a reminder that the process of reckoning goes far beyond the geographical, and that the lines that separate us are the easiest ones to draw.

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