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Sex, Honor, and Shame: Sexual Violence and Conflict on Film

Sex, Honor, and Shame: Sexual Violence and Conflict on Film

Grbavica, a first feature by Bosnian filmmaker Jasmila Zbanic, won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. It was not a popular choice. For one thing, many people chose to skip the 9 am press screening—a first film about a suffering Bosnian single mother is not particularly inviting after a late night the day before.

Grbavica is a Sarajevo neighborhood where the assault on Sarajevo started. It is filled with ugly socialist-era apartment buildings. During the war, it was occupied by the Serbo-Montengrin Army, and a special war camp was set up where torture took place. It is 100 meters from where Zbanic, the director, lived during the war.

Grbavica is where Esma, the single mother at the center of the film, lives. When we first meet her, she is trying to get a job as a waitress in a nightclub. The focus of Esma's life is her 12-year-old tomboy daughter, Sara. Feisty and outspoken, a champ soccer player, the pain and misery in Sara's life is her absent father. She believes that he died on the front lines as a shaheed—a holy war martyr—in defense of Bosnia.

The struggle to stay alive as a single mother is difficult. There is not enough money. When Esma meets a small-time gangster with a heart of gold and takes him for a boyfriend, this adds enormous stress and tension in the relationship with her daughter. Sara idolizes the martyred father she's never met.

The plot of the film reaches a climactic point over a school outing. Esma tries to collect enough money so that Sara can go on the school bus trip, but the children of shaheeds— Bosnian soldiers who fell in battle – can go free. All they have to do is produce a certificate of how they died. This, as it turns out, Esma can't produce.

As an audience, we know before the 12-year-old Sara does, that there is a dark, ugly and distressing secret about Sara's father and that the shaheed myth is just that—the story told to an innocent child in order to hide the painful truth. At the beginning of the film, we see Esma in a group therapy workshop for women, trying to deal with the psychological scars left by the Bosnian war. The women are paid a small stipend to attend as an incentive. But Esma is not ready to give testimony and share her secret with others. Called to tell her story, she freezes.

We do learn the truth along with Sara—her mother was the prisoner in a camp, where, night after night, she was raped by the soldiers. She doesn't know who Sara's father is. In an emotionally harrowing scene, she yells at Sara, “You are the daughter of a chetnik!”

Grbavica is an imperfect film and is sometimes strained by teetering on the brink of situations which are too predictable and conventionally structured. But Mirjana Karanovic, a veteran of the films of Emir Kursturica, displays a resilient and proud strength as Esma, and first-time actress Luna Mijovic as Sara, is an astonishing acting debut.

At the heart of Grbavica is a searing wound which Jasmila Zbanic exposes in all of its rawness. It is a wound which Esma—as thousands of other women—bear covered, but without the medicine to heal it. It is a brave gesture to poke this wound open, make us watch it, and realize that the pain for victims of violence doesn't end once the treaty is signed and the politicians' attention turns elsewhere. The politicians, after all, are mostly men. The victims of sexual violence in war, are mostly women.

Esma tells how she tried to resist the rape, but her resistance was useless. Now she is forced to live a life of shame, to hide the violence she suffered. And she wants to give a good life to her daughter, an innocent child conceived as a result of the violence Esma suffered. It is a human tragedy of staggering personal proportions.

Grbavica, the first feature film co-produced by Bosnian television along with other European production entities, is a brave film on this intense yet difficult subject. Jasmila Zbanic was a teenager when the war started. She said at the time she was happy because her math test was cancelled. She was most interested in sex. But then she realized that sex was used as part of the war strategy. Women were humiliated in order to destroy an ethnic group. 20,000 women were systematically raped in Bosnia during the war.

She wrote the film, she says, when she had her own child, a child conceived in love. But what emotional significance does this have for a woman whose child was conceived in hate? “That was the moment I knew what I wanted from Grbavica, and I wrote it—between breast feeds.”  

This is Milos Stehlik for Chicago Public Radio's Worldview.


Worldview film contributor Milos Stehlik is the director of Facets Multimedia.

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