A Film's Provocative Look At Bosnian War's Horror

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 28, 2006

BELGRADE -- A crowd showed up in early March for the Belgrade debut of "Grbavica," a movie about a Muslim woman who is raped by a Serb during Bosnia's ethnic war of the 1990s and her decision to keep the daughter she gives birth to.

Before the projector began rolling, there was a word from Serbs who don't acknowledge that any such crimes were committed, much less that they should be the subject of a film screened in the Serbian capital. "Traitors," they yelled as muscular ushers ejected them from the meeting hall.

"That was expected. But we have to confront all this," said Mirjana Karanovic, the actress who plays the mother.

Perhaps more than any other participant in the production, Karanovic is at the center of controversy and curiosity. She is Serbia's best-known film actress, and much admired. It was unthinkable for a Serb to play the victim of Serbs in a country where many people, if not hostile to acknowledging wartime atrocities, at least think the blame should be spread to all nationalities.

Karanovic had no second thoughts. "There was no reluctance. I knew such rapes happened. Maybe not the details, but I knew it was true," she said in an interview. "This film tells the story. It applies to everyone."

Grbavica is a district of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, which was once a mixed city of Serbs, Muslims and Croats. Grbavica was badly battered during the 3 1/2 -year siege of the city, where the Serbs worked to drive out Muslims and Croats. Serb irregular forces occupied, then looted and raped, in Grbavica, which lies across a river from downtown.

Hardly a building in Grbavica escaped damage. When Serb forces surrendered the area to foreign peacekeepers in 1996, the Serbs set houses on fire as they withdrew. More than a decade later, Sarajevo remains largely segregated, with Serbs settling outside in an area known as new Sarajevo, and Muslims dominating the city proper.

"The Sarajevo that was before the war will never exist again," Karanovic said. "We didn't think so much in terms of nationality. When people ask me what it's like to play a Muslim woman, I tell them being a Muslim was not so much a part of life of Bosnia, as it is becoming. We Serbs and Muslims are similar to each other, no matter what people say. I didn't have to transform my whole personality."

The ethnic divisions of today's Sarajevo made the multicultural production of "Grbavica" all the more notable. Shot in Sarajevo, the film is a joint Austrian, Bosnian, German and Croatian creation. The director, Jasmila Zbanic, is a young Bosnian documentary filmmaker.

In February, the film won the Golden Bear award for best film at the Berlin Film Festival. Zbanic made news at the festival when, upon receiving the award, she appealed for the capture of fugitive Bosnian Serb wartime leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.

That remark dashed whatever chance the film had to play in Serb-dominated parts of Bosnia. The distributor, Vlado Ljevar, told reporters, "We don't want to screen a film that would provoke Serbs and cause a revolt, while we would stand to make no money from it." But it showed in theaters in Sarajevo and other Muslim and Croat parts of the country.

In the states that once belonged to Yugoslavia, some people still believe that the Balkan wars didn't need to happen and that the crazy-quilt ethnic makeup of the region was a blessing, not a burden. Karanovic is one. She continues to live the shattered dream.

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