The Weight of the Past

While the contemporary regional cinematography has created a nearly separate thematic and genre area to confront the bloody wartime past as a constant segment of Balkan history, the theatre still enters this cathartic space timidly and unconsciously. Although in their works, both film and theatre, in their distinct characteristic and painful ways, confront the bloody wartime past as a constant segment of Balkan history, openly inviting dialogue and call for redemption, reconciliation, and catharsis, it can be observed that they rarely do so from the perspective of their own crimes, or from the perspective of crimes committed in their name. Certainly, the most striking conclusion that can be drawn when it comes to dealing with the past in the Balkans is that the older generations of authors, those directly affected by the past war, are the ones embarking on this uncertain path. It is in their films and plays that the main characters try to rid themselves of the heavy burden of the past: men, former soldiers, wipe the tears of the present, while children mostly remain alone and scared in the darkness of the future. However, the new generations that are coming do not look back at the past or want to take responsibility for it, but instead, they seek the light within themselves, dealing only with the themes that concern their present.

With bodies in the truck

The film that not only made the biggest leap in dealing with the past but also showed, back in 2018, that young filmmakers have the power to take over the torch of truth if their artistic predecessors can’t or won’t, is “The Load” (Teret in Serbian), directed by Ognjen Glavonić. This film deals with a horrific crime that has been kept silent in Serbia for over 20 years. It bravely, directly, honestly, and emotionally shows how an individual in the Balkans confronts the burden of the legacy of criminal politics and the mentality of its acceptance. “The Load” tells the story of a truck driver Vlada (played by Leon Lučev), who during NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999, is tasked with transporting a mysterious cargo from Kosovo to Belgrade, which is in some way connected to the one from Glavonić’s documentary “Depth Two” (2016). On the other hand, this documentary begins with the discovery of a freezer full of Albanian bodies killed in Kosovo, at the bottom of Đerdap, and later it is revealed that there were more than 700 civilians, including 75 children, who were killed by Serbian police, military, and paramilitary forces. Vlada is joined on his journey by a teenage boy Paja (played by Pavle Čemerikić), who is obviously trying to escape the war in Kosovo. Their relationship defines “The Load” as a generational film about the “load” that the older generation left to the younger one. In this film, the circle of the burden of life in former Yugoslavia, marked by excavations of pits and burying of bodies, begins with symbols of the People’s Liberation War, such as a lighter with a dedication to the Battle of Sutjeska, which Vlada keeps as a gift from his veteran father, and ends with a “gift” that he will leave to his son. During Vlada and Paja’s journey through Serbia with a truck full of bodies, they stop at places that on the one hand, show a kind of a society in ruins in the twilight of Slobodan Milošević’s rule: deserted roads and abandoned ruins, and local taverns with songs by Svetlana Ražnatović Ceca. On the other hand, the film indicates a complete denial of memory of the anti-fascist struggle and the erasure of the meaning of the inscription “When needed, repeat me,” which stands on the neglected monument to the Battle of Popina. In the end, the remaining question is what Vlada will give to his son: Will it be a freezer full of bodies, loaded up by the same fascist hands against which his father fought, or the acceptance of personal responsibility for the crimes committed by the state in which he lives today?

War veterans also cry

After dealing with the past, there remains a reckoning with the present and accepting what remains on the face after wiping away the tears. This is exactly what the film Men Don’t Cry (2017) directed by Alen Drljević deals with – the present deeply immersed in the war past. The main protagonists of Drljević’s film are war veterans and former members of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatian Defence Council, and the Army of Republika Srpska, who, in the last war in the territories of former Yugoslavia, fought on opposite sides of the front line, and are now struggling with the consequences of that conflict. They become guests of an isolated mountain hotel as participants in a workshop aimed at dealing with the past, but the path of reconciliation and redemption is paved with ominous spirits that open old wounds and stir up new conflicts. “Although the war ended 20 years ago, it still continues in your heads,” mediator Ivan from Slovenia (Sebastian Cavazza) tells his “patients” at the beginning of the peace workshop. As the story unfolds, the characters open up in front of their former enemies and recount the war from their perspectives, which has been lurking in the most hidden rooms of their psyche for years. Following the psychotherapist’s instructions that “the best way to confront PTSD is a direct encounter with former enemies,” former soldiers not only recount their war traumas but also re-enact them in the style of Konstantin Stanislavsky’s System, in which actors use the so-called emotional memory, or search for the moment from their own lives when they felt the desired emotion so that they could relive it on stage. And indeed, by confronting their physical enemies, they actually defeat those who have been hiding in them for years and have not allowed them to continue with their lives.

Between reality, theatre, and film

After director Oliver Frljić directed a play about a girl named Aleksandra Zec, who was killed in December 1991 by members of the reserve unit of the Croatian Ministry of Internal Affairs, director Nebojša Slijepčević, while filming rehearsals for that theatrical production, created a documentary film titled Srbenka (2018). This documentary is a simple but also specific as in addition to the necessary reference to the aforementioned crime, for which no one was charged despite there being a confession, deals with the perennially relevant question in these areas: What is it like to be of another nationality and live in a “foreign” city? Or, how is it to be a Serb – or a “Srbenka,” as the twelve-year-old girl Nina calls herself in the documentary – in Croatia? While Frljić’s play deals with the concrete case and the act of the murder of Aleksandra Zec and her family, and thus calls for a societal dealing with the past, this documentary deals with the Croatian present, in which the aforementioned crime is still being ignored. Srbenka does not deal with Croatia’s attitude towards the murder of Aleksandra Zec, but rather with the twelve-year-old girl of Serbian nationality from Rijeka, Nina, who in today’s Croatia, so many years after the war, still feels ashamed and afraid to be a Serb. By merging Aleksandra, who was physically killed, and Nina, who is being psychologically and spiritually killed by society, and with the help of theatrical rehearsals as a kind of psychotherapy, the director actually proves that the war in these areas is still not over, even for generations born after the cessation of shooting, shelling, and literal killing.

“Sit and write, Darko!”

Since the publication of the novel “Schindler’s Lift” by Darko Cvijetić in 2018, it has been in the focus of the regional public, both for its unusual structure, interweaving of genres, and storytelling skills, and its anti-war role and the collective healing power it invokes after confronting personal trauma. “Schindler’s Lift” is above all a stylized artistic work of truth, but also a personal tribute to the neighbours killed in Prijedor: Bosniaks, and Croats, with whom the author Darko Cvijetić shared life in a huge multi-story community – the Red skyscraper – which became a death ghetto and a metaphorical mass grave with the onset of war. The Schindler brand elevator, once a “proof of urbanity” and a space for children’s play and freedom, became the killer of a girl named Stojanka Stoja Kobas. “As there had been no electricity for days, it was her favourite place to play for almost a month. She put her head through the hole in the broken glass of the elevator door. She called to someone, perhaps a friend, also a six-year-old girl from the fifth floor, halving her weight. Suddenly, the power came back. Suddenly, someone called the elevator (the Schindler),” Cvijetić writes, revealing later that it was his father who had called the elevator that killed the little girl. In his “reading” of Cvijetić’s novel, director Kokan Mladenović opens the play with his departure, which is, “calling” the character of Darko Cvijetić (Admir Glamočak), who comes onto the stage with a bound novel, a supplementary edition that includes an additional chapter – Čarolijica. This is, therefore, a true story, shaped in literary language and in the form of the other stories in the novel, in which Darko Cvijetić describes his encounter with the mother of the deceased girl Stojanka Kobas, at her grave, a year after the publication of “Schindler’s Lift.” The director revives this encounter on stage in a kind of surreal, clearly symbolic atmosphere, in which Stojanka’s mother (Tatjana Šojić) pulls her daughter’s grave on a rope, a concrete “four-sided figure without any slab,” and leaves it on the stage, in front of the character of Darko. On that grave, the characters/actors will then build a colourful Lego skyscraper from blocks, singing songs from work actions and embedding a part of themselves in their future home, indicating that the foundations of the skyscraper were built on death, while at the same time the girl’s grave gets its monument, which is missing in reality. Monuments for those who were killed are, through their personal side, the most direct possible confrontation with the collective past. Cvijetić continued to build on this in his next novel, “Sleeping on the Floor,” which Kokan Mladenović also turned into a play, this time completely merging the reality and theatre of Darko the Witness, Darko the Writer, and Darko the Actor. “Sit and write, Darko! The world will not build itself,” Darko’s mother would say to him in reality. He would write that sentence in his novel, and the actress would then say it on stage. This is precisely the best example of the weight of the artistic process of dealing with the past, which does not end with a spoken line, but with a complete understanding from the audience, whose eyes refuse to see and ears refuse to hear when faced with the past.

Mirza Skenderagić was born in Sarajevo in 1986. He has a degree in journalism from the Faculty of Political Sciences in Sarajevo in 2009. In 2018, he earned a university degree in dramaturgy from the Academy of Performing Arts, also in Sarajevo. He was awarded the Karim Zaimović Foundation scholarship for 2014. His documentary film “I Can Speak” won the Golden Apple at the 13th Bosnian-Herzegovinian Film Festival in New York, the First Prize at the Festival of New in Slavonski Brod, and recognition at the Pravo Ljudski Film Festival in 2016.

For the drama “Wake Me Up When It’s Over” in 2016, he won the First Heartefact Award for the best regional contemporary socially engaged drama text. With the drama “And We Dreamed of Trees” in 2020, he was selected as a finalist. The drama “Wake Me When It’s Over” was included in the eponymous anthology of Bosnian drama in Polish language. He is one of the winners of the regional competition “Stories from the Balcony, Stories from the Balkans”. He has published a large number of original texts, studies, essays, film, literary and theatrical reviews, interviews, and short stories. He is currently a member of the editorial board of the Drama and Documentary Program of Radio BiH.