Only fools have children at this time and day.
— Saran (Bogdan Diklic)
In his New York Review of Books essay, “September 11 at the Movies,” Daniel Mendelsohn questions a current trend — both critical and aesthetic — in privileging “authenticity” as a component of art. Such thinking, he writes, defines fidelity to “reality” as a moral virtue, a refusal of “exploitation.” The resulting “flatly passive, affectless” recreations draw emotional responses not “from the way in which the action has been treated by the writer and the director, but rather from the prior historical knowledge you already bring to the occasion — it’s only awful to watch because you know something like it happened to real people.” Such films may bear witness to versions of history, but they do little to illuminate it. Refusal to probe, to question and interpret — in short, to attempt the process of art — renders them mute.
Jasmila Žbanic’s Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams similarly fails to offer its own artistic “reality.” On the official webpage, the director says her film is “about TRUTH, a cosmic power necessary to progress, and very much needed by society in Bosnia and Herzegovina who must strive to reach maturity.” Such dogmatic pronouncements usually signal pedantic intent, and Zbanic teaches so intently that she forgets to make her “truth” matter to her characters, or to the audience.
The film follows Esma (Mirjana Karanovic), struggling to raise her daughter, Sara (Luna Mijovic), in the aftermath of the Balkan War. They live in Grbavica, a neighborhood of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo. The film opens on a counseling group comprised of two dozen women, all of whom receive public assistance; we learn later that in Sara’s school, to have a martyred father (a “shaheed”) is a mark of belonging, more common than not, and that rival crime lords are jockeying for control of the neighborhood’s meager businesses.
Sara believes her father was killed in the war, yet when she asks her mother for the certificate proving his martyrdom, Esma becomes sullen and withdrawn. An early scene demonstrates Esma’s ambivalence toward her daughter and foreshadows what’s to come: after waking her mother, Sara engages in a typical bout of mother-daughter horseplay. The game ends, though, with Sara pinning her mother to the floor, and Esma reacting violently. When at last she abruptly tells Sara to get ready for school, her back is turned to the camera, now as closed off from the audience as from her daughter.
In her pursuit of “history,” Sara repeatedly functions as a surrogate for viewers who don’t bring their own knowledgeable backgrounds to the film. She, like most Western viewers, has little concept of the horrors of the Balkan War; she knows only its grim aftermath. She reads the war through her mother, who remains inscrutably distant, or through the second-generation tales she hears at school. Again, this serves Žbanic’s ideology better than her drama, the point being that the film is about, in her words, “VICTIMS who, though they did not commit any crime, they are still not entirely innocent in relation to future generations.”
This could be a powerful, complex idea. But in Grbavica, theme supersedes character and history trumps art. Sara and Esma thrust and parry with one another, but they’re just biding time until the film’s climax, which foregrounds a historical point about the Balkans War, that 20,000 Bosnian women were systematically raped by Serb soldiers. But in the context of the film, this “revelation” has little dramatic weight. History, in the final accounting, is not enough.