Watching films that have received festival awards, you sometimes ask yourself, "What were they thinking?" Not so with the film that won the Berlin Film Festival's Golden Bear for Best Film in 2006, Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams. It joins the crop of excellent movies made in the last year or so by unknown directors, like Little Miss Sunshine and Half Nelson. It is something of a miracle that any of them got made, all on screenplays by the directors or the director's partner, and they all tell stories as extraordinary as they are absorbing. This first film from writer/director Jasmila Žbanić is set in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzogovina, with characters caught up in the aftermath of the siege of that city by the Bosnian Serbs (the Chetniks, as some in Sarajevo call the besieging Serbs, although the word borders on being a racial slur -- some vocabulary background is helpful).
You may remember the Bosnian War as a series of news headlines, and it is likely that in your mind the words from those headlines -- massacres, ethnic cleansing, snipers, atrocities -- will not be connected to individual faces. That will change after seeing this extraordinary film. In both the opening and closing scenes, the camera of cinematographer Christine A. Maier passes slowly over the faces of a women's therapy group in Sarajevo, settling on Esma (Mirjana Karanović). She is a single mom who lives with her challenging teenage daughter, Sara (Luna Mijović), in a neighborhood called Grbavica. Always struggling to make ends meet, Esma takes an extra job in a bar, which is basically a brothel, to try to raise the 200 euro to pay for Sara's school field trip. Even more troubling, the daughter begins to question the mother's story about her dead father, whom she has grown up believing was a shaheed. The word means martyr in Arabic, which in Sarajevo signifies someone who died defending the city against the Serb army.
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The film does not arrest by visual innovation, although there are some beautiful scenes. It is the emotional territory that the characters traverse, a confusion of terrifying devotion and selfish betrayal between mother and daughter, as well as an improbable love relationship for each of them. These are stories that could be found anywhere but that are made richer, more tragic, because of the context of this city devastated by war. For example, in one of the most remarkable scenes, Esma makes an unlikely emotional connection with Pelda (Leon Lučev), one of the gangsters from the brothel, because they both went to police identifications, attempting to ID the bodies of their fathers killed during the siege. The performances of the two female leads are utterly convincing: at one point, when Sara accuses her mother of looking for a boyfriend so that she can leave her child behind, Karanović clasps Mijović by the head in a gesture that is both tender and forceful. The dialogue is disarmingly simple throughout the movie, but the details in the performances are what make it happen.
Most effectively, Žbanić uses the folk music of Sarajevo to capture the oceanic pull of deep-seated emotions in the characters. Real folk music, which is ancient and has precious little to do with the American pop music of the same name, is best defined as "the music that many sing for a long time." The characters in Grbavica often quote from or sing old songs as a way to connect with something stable. At one point, Sara's boyfriend tries to sing an old song, which the contemptuous Sara belittles. By the end of the story, in possession of the truth about her father, Sara boards the bus for that all-important school trip, where the students are singing one of those old songs. In a touching scene, she listens at first, an unaccustomed smile gradually stealing across her face, until she joins in singing to beloved Sarajevo. By that point, the viewer has learned to love Sarajevo and its old songs, too.
Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams opens today, exclusively at the E Street Cinema, for just one week. You can watch the trailer online.