War Legacy

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Review of 'Esma's Secret', Director: Jasmila Zbanic

Esma's Secret gives us a glimpse of a country little featured in our newspapers these days. Set in contemporary Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, it reveals a still battle-scarred country - physically, economically and individually.

The outcome of Western intervention in the Balkans in the wars of the 1990s was deemed benign by its supporters - supposedly designed to bring stability and prosperous Western style economies. One of the most compelling aspects of this film is the lie given to such a picture.

The film shows a Sarajevo dressed in grey skies, and miserable winter conditions with desolate buildings still unbuilt ten years after the bombing and siege of Sarajevo - a far cry from the prosperous multicultural city of the past.

The war in Bosnia was ended under the Bill Clinton brokered Dayton Agreement which sanctioned the division of Yugoslavia into different ethnic areas and divided Bosnia into a Serb Bosnia and a Croat/Muslim area. Since then Bosnia has been run as a "protectorate" by the United Nations and European Union (EU). The outcome of ten years of neo-colonial rule looks pretty depressing.

The main characters in this film have lives that were drastically altered by the war - youthful promises ended by the war and never resumed. Today the prospects for most people revolve around the receiving of meagre EU aid, jobs in what look like a throwback to a 1950s old style "Soviet" infrastructure, or working for the local entrepreneur mafia boss.

Esma, the film's central character, is one of those people. She is a single mother, struggling to bring up her 12 year old daughter Sara. The relationship is a complex one, filled with love but tested by the long hours Esma works to make ends meet and by the insecurity and growing independence of her daughter. But their situation is further complicated by Esma's secret, which she has, until now, kept from her daughter.

The trauma of being without a father is offset for Sara by knowing that he died nobly as a "Shaheed" - a war martyr. When she is asked to bring a certificate to school verifying her father's death in order to qualify to attend a school trip free of charge, she is thrown into confrontation with her mother who pays for the trip in full rather than producing the certificate. Esma's secret is exposed and she is forced to tell her daughter how she was conceived.

War is the most brutal and dehumanising of human activities. Esma's secret is the consequence of that brutality. The director Jasmila Zbanic, who was at school when the war started, grew up in the Grbavica area in which the film is set - an area which was then under siege by the Serbo-Montenegrin army.

Zbanic has set out to make a film which looks at this most brutalising aspect of war, how people deal with it and the enduring sense of hope there is in individuals' capacity to love and thus overcome hate. It is on this level that the film is most successful. Mirjana Karanovic and Luna Mijovic, playing mother and daughter respectively, deliver really good performances which lend the film much of its power and sincerity.

Esma's Secret won the Golden Bear award at this year's Berlin film festival. However, the film will not be seen in the Serbian sections of Bosnia and Herzegovina. According to the distributor's president his reasons were both political and economic: "We live in the Serb part of Bosnia and we don't want to provoke a revolt of the Serb population, and since there is no interest in the movie, we do not have the economic interest to show it."

This says much about the reality of Bosnia today. In some ways the distributor's comment reflects real limitations with the film. Despite intentions which are clearly genuine, it is difficult to deal with a war that is so recent, and has such continuing consequences, through the eyes of one family.