MIFF Review: Grbavica (Bosnia-Herzegovina, Austria)

The Balkan war of the early nineties heralded the first common usage of that sordid neologism “ethnic cleansing”. Never before had a phrase so horrifyingly wrapped in irony such bloody and rapacious acts. In the wake of an awkward peace, achieving a semblance of normality is almost impossible for those survivors who have experienced the inconceivable gamut of human cruelty and trauma. But a semblance of normality is exactly what the characters in Grbavica are trying to reclaim. For some it is through denial, for some it is through escape, for some it is through illusion but for no one is it easy.

This remarkable debut from Jasmila Zbanic centres around a mother, Esma, and her daughter, Sara. However, as the haunting opening shot suggests, this is not a singular story, this is the common story, the shared past, the lowest and most tragic of common denominators. The first act of the film is domestic and calm but there are subtle hints of an undercurrent of remembered dangers and the legacy of war. This uneasiness is unsettlingly omnipresent and the tension is such that danger seems to lurk everywhere underneath the blanket of crunching snow that shrouds Sarajevo’s scars.

To not give away too much of this film is key, because it is in a shared unfolding of the protective illusions that one experiences the full weight of the drama. Zbanic is neither interested in raking us through a pessimistic quagmire nor in glossing over the dark reality of an unhealed nation. And in giving us both despair and hope, both hate and love she has crafted a film that is neither detached nor sentimental but startlingly expressive.