Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Nominated for Best International Feature at the 93rd Academy Awards, it’s the official submission from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Of all the films in this year’s category of Best International Feature, Thomas Vinterberg who directed Another Round got nominated for Best Director at the Oscars. I haven’t seen all the films in the Best International Feature category, but, based on what I’ve seen in this Bosnian film, I would have preferred that the female director here got the recognition. It was also nominated at the BAFTA Awards for Best Film Not in the English Language and Best Director for Jasmila Žbanić, so at least she got some acknowledgement. Based on her work here though, she deserves more.
This film is about the Bosnian War, which occurred from 1992 to 1995. This film doesn’t go into the history of that war or what the conflict was about. We are simply thrust into the conflict, as it’s happening. That history or context is complicated, but, to try to summarize it, the Bosnian War was fought between Bosnia and the nation of Serbia. Bosnia was a republic and Serbia was a republic. Both were part of the greater Yugoslavia. When Yugoslavia ended and the republics became separate again, there were a lot of Serbian people in Bosnia who formed their own army and who started fighting and killing the Bosnian people who were mostly a Muslim population. It got so bad that the Serbian army started engaging in what was called ethnic cleansing or what was considered the first case of genocide since World War II.
Jasna Djuricic stars as Aida Selmanagic, a translator who works for the United Nations. She lives in a town called Srebrenica, which is near the eastern border next to Serbia. Because of the town’s location, the Serbian army thought it was a strategic place to invade and take over. The UN sent Dutch forces to protect the town and make it a safe zone, specifically because it was a place where refugees were being sent. The Dutch set up a UN base or facility nearby. Aida works there and helps to translate during meetings of the Dutch with the Bosnian people. She speaks multiple languages, including English, which is the common language of the UN workers.
Aida has a family that includes her husband named Nihad and her two sons. Both her sons are teenagers. One is 17 named Sejo and the other is college age, maybe 19 or 20, named Hamdija. When the Serbian army attacks the town, the three men flee from their apartment home. There are some who want to flee into the woods to hide, but, along with hundreds and hundreds of others, they go to the UN base where Aida works. The base takes in as many as they can, but hundreds and hundreds have to wait just outside the gate.
Johan Heldenbergh co-stars as Karremans, a colonel who is the commander of the UN base. He’s an older man with a thick mustache who looks like he might be in his 50’s or 60’s. He looks like he has experience in the army and being in command, but he is highly frustrated because it doesn’t seem as if he has any real power. He’s supposed to be protecting the Bosnian people, but it seems as if he’s not allowed to use force against the Serbian army. He’s constantly on the phone asking generals or officials at the UN to authorize air support or air strikes, but he’s not getting it. He wants to do something but feels hindered or hampered from doing anything.
Raymond Thiry also co-stars as Franken, a major who also has a leadership position at the UN base. His attitude is a bit different. He seems more cynical and detached. He too understands that he’s hindered or hampered from doing anything more to help the Bosnian people. But unlike Karremans, Franken doesn’t appear bothered. He doesn’t seem to care whether the people live or die. The fact that most of the people are crowded without food or toilets doesn’t phase him. There is a wave or undercurrent of fear or cowardice with the UN soldiers beneath Franken. That same wave seems to affect Karremans, but not Franken. He’s the apathetic perspective to what will come to be revealed as an atrocity.
Even though this film is mainly about a group of people stuck inside one building and having to do nothing but wait, wait for rescue or salvation, Žbanić manages to make it exciting. Djuricic is in her 50’s but her character, Aida, is running around and trying desperately to find a way to save her family. There’s even a sequence toward the end of her doing so that feels as tense and engaging as any action scene in any blockbuster. At the same time, Žbanić never leans into the depiction of violence as most action films or blockbusters would. We understand that there are brutal murders occurring, but it happens off screen or just out of view of the camera. Yet, Žbanić makes us feel the violence in certain and effective ways.
There has been a Hollywood film that has done that about the Bosnian War. That film was Behind Enemy Lines (2001). It was built more on gratuitous action or sensationalizing the violence of the Bosnian War. That film also was centered around telling the story from the perspective of a white American, detaching us a little bit from the horror that the Bosnian people faced. A better film that came out that year was No Man’s Land (2001), which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. No Man’s Land was more about Bosnian and Serbian soldiers, as well as the ineffectual or corrupt UN.
Unlike those aforementioned films, this film is centered around the civilians, the Bosnian civilians, and specifically a woman and a mother trying to do what she can to protect the male members of her family from becoming victims in the war. Most of the overt threats appear to be aimed at the Bosnian men. However, there is one scene that is specifically pointed at a threat to a woman. Žbanić herself did a feature about the female victims who were more subjected to rape and sexual assault to which she explored the aftermath in Grbavica (2007). Angelina Jolie did a more harrowing film on that subject with In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011).
Finally, Boris Isakovic plays Ratko Mladić, the Serbian general who was responsible for the war crimes, including the genocide against the Bosnian people. While Djuricic is giving a breathless and panicked performance, Mladić is the opposite in that he’s so calm and relaxed. Even under gunfire, he’s strangely calm, which makes every word he utters all the more chilling. He hardly raises his voice and even when he’s saying things that are supposed to be reassuring, he comes across as evermore terrifying. It’s brilliant casting and a brilliant performance. Again, as of now, I’ve only seen three of the five nominated films for Best International Feature. It probably won’t win, but this film would get my vote.
Not Rated but for mature audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 44 mins.
Available on Hulu.