SUPPORT: Srebrenica and a Generation of Consciousness

Thoughts on BELVEDERE, ORDINARY PEOPLE and a quiet day in July

Remembering Srebrenica: a scene from Ahmed Imamovic's BELVEDERE

Srebrenica. A salt-mining town in Bosnia near the Serbian border, small and unassuming, like any semi-rural enclave. Yet, in 1995, it gained notoriety as the site of one of modern history (and warfare’s) most epic acts of genocide: an unparalleled massacre of human life, 8,000 mostly Muslim men and boys on a quiet day in July, that for years has breathed like an open wound, gone without closure and, seemingly disappeared from global public consciousness.

Until recently. In late-spring, the arrest and extradition of General Ratko Mladić (the individual widely believed to be the orchestrator of the Srebrenica massacre) to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), thrust the event back into a global spotlight. Mladić is the last of some 150+ fugitives identified by the United Nations as having committed war crimes during the Balkans conflict of the 1990s and his arrest—coupled with this summer’s arrest of accused war criminal, Goran Hadzic—marks another phase in the continuing odyssey of Balkans nations to move beyond the tragic inertia of its past.

But how does a person, family or nation really “move beyond”—let alone understand—such an event and history? Years ago, in South Africa, following the end of apartheid, the country’s fledgling government established the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, by which victims and perpetrators of gross human rights violations publicly testified, and even confessed, their actions to one another in an effort to acknowledge the tragedy of their collective past.  It was a magnanimous gesture, but one that has not since reoccurred in any nation, and is unlikely to occur in the Balkans…

Years later, victims of Srebrenica are buried

Regardless, this hardly means that lives are not remembered. Or, that the circumstances and impact of Srebrenica are not discussed. For years since the conflict and massacre, the Bosnian government, with support of the international community, has been exhuming the mass graves of victims, so that survivors can identify and bury family members.  In 2003, a memorial was inaugurated in Srebrenica for all victims and in 2004, the Republika Srpska issued a formal apology for the massacre (which was retracted recently).  And, with each passing year, families affected by the genocide have returned to Srebrenica to bury their loved ones in annual commemoration of the event.

More importantly, though, since the end of the conflict, individuals have begun to tell and re-tell the story of Srebrenica and the Balkans conflict, partly as a requiem for its victims, but also as a collective exorcism of the past. Oral histories, formal testimonies, books and investigative journalism have all played a role in understanding the “story of Srebrenica,” and with each individual expression comes a communal acknowledgment of one of Bosnia’s most brutal memories—which, much like capture of Mladic, is one step in “moving beyond” the moment.

Film also holds an important place in understanding Srebrenica. In the 90s, video journalism and reality television were just beginning to capture public imagination and interest, and the Balkans conflict was one of the phenomenon’s first subjects.  The Siege of Sarajevo and the catastrophic humanitarian crisis of the war was captured in vivid and real-time detail by reporters and videographers—many of them from the Balkans—and etched immediate and indelible images on global public consciousness like no previous war. And from those images and personal witnesses came an unfortunate wealth of content that framed a generation of film, and filmmaking.

Conflict and Conscience: a scene from Vladimir Perisic's ORDINARY PEOPLE

Last year, we presented audiences with ORDINARY PEOPLE by Serbian director Vladimir Perisic—a film borne from this creative genesis of war, and a work that has the uncommon distinction of being the only film in our Global Lens Collection that depicts a prolonged act of genocide; shot in an uncompromising and ordinary landscape with more attention to the minutiae of a soldier’s daily routine than the lives he eventually affects, it is set in an unspecified time of conflict that depicts a series of killings with an obvious similarity to Srebrenica.

Vladimir’s film is a quiet introspection into the psychology of a soldier, a man and individual, who commits a horrifying act out of allegiance to authority, rather than morality. And as GFI Board member, Igor Kirman, in his upcoming review of the film, most succinctly describes, the film presents a question of morality “harder to answer than may at first appear.” Ultimately, it is a film that keeps us forever suspended in time to inhabit and re-inhabit the exact moment of cruel and callous intention, the psychology that forms the foundation of a film like BELVEDERE.

BELVEDERE, currently featured in Global Lens 2011, is the “sequel” to GO WEST (Bosnian director Ahmed Imamovic’s debut feature about life during the Balkans conflict of the 90s), and it propels our understanding of Srebrenica into the present, far from the killing fields of ORDINARY PEOPLE; in tones of nothing more than black & white, it paints an achingly beautiful portrait of one woman’s quest to overcome the loss of her family following the genocide of Srebrenica. And, more significantly, documents the physical process of identifying the remains of family members, entombed and exhumed by the horrifying memory of that day.

Bosnian director Ahmed Imamovic

As a work of art, politic and culture, BELVEDERE strives to answer that question of how survivors of such a tragedy can indeed ‘move on’—by simply showing us, as viewers, how life has indeed carried forth since the event:  a woman walks in the rain across a landscape that bears no physical scars of its history, hundreds of other women make a home in a refugee camp named “Belvedere,” for children who have no living memory of their past. Life continues, with the mantle and yoke of memory, and from within that process grow films, and filmmakers, like Ahmed and Vladimir.

ORDINARY PEOPLE and BELVEDERE are only two examples of how those who lived through the events of Srebrenica interpret the legacy of that day, and its surrounding war. But from their understanding comes our awareness, personal and precise, of a region and moment in time that many people outside of the Balkans have forgotten—and that for every person in the Balkans, is a living, breathing history that began on a quiet day in July, and continues so many years later.

ORDINARY PEOPLE and BELVEDERE are presented as part of the Global Lens film series which is made possible by generous contributions to the Global Film Initiative.  If you’d like to make a donation, please click here, and if you’d like to purchase a Global Lens film, please visit our online catalogue (all proceeds and profits from Global Lens are reinvested in our Granting Program, which provides production funding twice a year to filmmakers in emerging nations of Africa, Asia, Central & Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Middle East).

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