Director: Jasmila Zbanic (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Austria, Germany). Year of Release: 2006
Grbavica, Sarajevo. Esma is trying to get a job at a seedy bar, where the bouncers have tattoos on the back of their necks which imply they’re something to do with the mafia. She’s soon taking drinks to an audience which is primarily there to get drunk and listen to kitschy Balkan singers. The dance floor is full to bursting, so the work is exhausting. In the cloakrooms, a fellow waitress advises Esma to uncover her tits a bit more so that she’s able to get more tips.
In the day time, Esma works in a shoe factors, so she has little time to bring up her daughter Sara, who constantly fights with the baby sitter. Sara is about 12, and has a Keira Knightley poster on her wall. She is either starting to get stroppy, or the stroppiness has been there for a long time, probably the latter. Either way, she fights with a boy on the football field when he constantly fouls her. Although he’s twice her size, you wouldn’t bet against her winning the fight.
Esma attends counselling sessions where women sit in a hall and talk about their war-time traumas. Many of the women stay silent, as does Esma. One shouts that this is all useless and that she’s only there for the small donation that the women get for attending the session. Another woman laughs hysterically throughout. There are some ordeals that need more than a lirrle counselling to overcome.
Esma is obsessively trying to raise the €200 needed for Sara to attend a school trip. The money paid out at the counselling meeting is peanuts, and her employers – old and new – are reluctant to give her advance. Her family and friends are as hard up as she is. As the date by which she needs to pay the money approaches, she gets increasingly desperate, while telling Sara that there’s absolutely nothing to worry about.
Sara doesn’t understand the problem. Wasn’t her father a shaheed – a martyr who died in the war. Didn’t her mother regularly go to the exhumations to try and identify her husband’s body? The children of shaheed are exempted from paying for school trips. If your dad was injured, you get a discount. Esma carries on fobbing her daughter off, saying that she needs a certificate from the town hall, and that she’s too busy working to sort it out, but she’ll come good before the trip.
Both Esma and Sara start to get involved in tentative romances. Esma is pursued by Pelda, one of the bouncers at the club who’s sure he remembers her from some of the exhumations. Pelda recounts the time when he was sure that he recognised his father after seeing a body with the same shoes and thick coat. But another woman also claimed the body, and after she opened the mouth to reveal gold teeth, he had to reluctantly concede that this wasn’t his dad,
Meanwhile, Sara has started to see Samir, the boy who’d tried to push her off the football field for trying to play a boy’s sport. After the near-fight, the pair start to bond on the basis of both their fathers being shaheed. When Samir produces his late father’s pistol, Sara is ecstatic, insisting that she both looks after the gun, and also gets to shoot it a bit. Although the gun reappears later on, it doesn’t have quite the Chekhovian devastation that you might have been fearing.
All this is leading up to a big reveal which makes so much sense that I’m sure that many viewers anticipated it way in advance. If you’re one of those viewers, then I’m a little sorry for you. I hadn’t been trying to predict what would happen, and everything snuck up on me unexpectedly. Which meant that the reveal was such a shock, such a punch in the gut, that my visceral reaction was almost physical. I was both moved and appalled by the everyday experience that the film related.
On one level, Grbavica is “just” a war film – or rather a film that shows that wars do not come to an end when a couple of generals agree on a ceasefire. Even on this level, it is more meaningful than any number of films which are set in a country estate or in a palace where the biggest dramatic tension comes from a rich man trying to overcome his speech impediment. In contrast, this film is about things which actually matter, and seriously affect real people’s lives.
But Grbavica is not just about people in general, or even about the poor people who always have to pay most for war. Although it is a film which does contain 3-dimensional male characters who do not have things easy, it shows the specific problems that particularly affect women, How the increased aggression which appears in society as a whole has a deleterious effect on the everyday life of working class women. As the world drifts into another war, we should pay attention.
The production values of the film are low, and the budget could barely pay for 30 seconds of special effects. Indeed, the version we saw this evening was played from a DVD which insisted on sticking every quarter hour or so. The effect was to clearly show that you don’t need CGI to move or disturb your audience. Better depend on first rate acting and a tragic plot that doesn’t offer any real way out. Grbavica is heart breaking, and I mean this in an entirely good – and horrible – way.