Surviving Has Its Consequences

It’s comforting to know that teen angst is not unique to American culture. Or maybe it’s not so comforting, considering the issues that teens in other countries have to face that American kids just don’t. Released in the UK as Esma’s Secret: Grbavica, the film, shot on location in Bosnia and Herzegovina, explores the relationship between a Bosnian teen and her single mother, and the events leading up to a heart-breaking revelation.

Esma is a woman with a secret—one that threatens not only her relationship with her daughter, Sara, but Sara’s very identity. Struggling to make ends meet in the chaos of postwar Bosnia, the not-so-young mother takes a night job as a bar waitress in hopes of making enough money to pay for Sara’s big class trip, for which children of shaheeds, or confirmed war casualties, are offered a discount. When Esma’s excuses and cover-ups for not coming up with the necessary paperwork don’t add up, Sara confronts her, and the truth threatens to shatter both mother and daughter.

Jasmila Zbanic, director of Grbavica

While not as emotionally gripping as I had personally hoped, Grbavica still moved me. War is never pretty, and a ceasefire is never the end—it’s just the beginning of a part of every war called The Aftermath. The Aftermath is the wake of walking wounded, haunting memories, terrible secrets, and broken families. It is the plight of the ones left to pick up the pieces and rebuild their lives and their countries all at once, when the life has been ripped out of them. Grbavica focuses specifically on the women and children who survived the bullets, but haven’t necessarily made it out fully alive. It is a dark picture that refuses to be depressing while still effectively showing the world that the fight isn’t over yet.

Artistically, the film makes a proud stand, and is most certainly deserving of the three awards it won at the Berlin Film Festival. The cinematography captures both scenery and characters at their best, often showing people against the stark backgrounds of bombed buildings and other structural casualties of war. Filmed mostly during the frigid eastern European winter, the snow and ice symbolize both the clean slate of a postwar country as well as the sense of being frozen in place, restricted by centuries of fighting over cultural and religious issues. As the class trip coincides with the revelation of Esma’s secret as well as the coming of spring, the bleakness begins to lift, and the movie ends with a sense of hope and reconciliation amidst the still-reigning turmoil.

In addition to the strength of the story, skillfully written and directed by Jasmila Zbanic, the performances are stellar. Mirjana Karanovic, as the weary Esma, beautifully portrays the complexities of raising a child on her own, in a postwar setting, with a secret she’d rather keep from herself as well as from her daughter. Her understated approach defines the struggles of many Bosnian women who are still desperately trying to pull their lives together in the midst of the looming chaos. Luna Mijovic, as Sara, also shines in her role as a coming-of-age young woman, whose sense of identity is founded upon an untruth meant to protect her, but which ultimately nearly destroy her. The rest of Zbanic’s cast is equally strong, offering a meaningful and moving portrayal of life in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Grbavica opened my eyes to the pain of postwar countries, and the consequences of surviving. A powerful story with powerful acting, Zbanic’s film is as educational as it is beautiful.

Grbavica is not rated, but I would probably put a hard PG to it, if not a PG-13 for the subject matter and thematic material. Kids younger than 13 probably wouldn’t enjoy it much, anyway, as it is obviously subtitled, and there is quite a bit of subtext to follow in order to grasp the progression of the story.

Courtesy of a regional publicist, Jenn viewed a publicity screener of Grbavica.