The nightmares that last beyond the wars

Special to The Times

JASMILA Zbanic's debut film takes place after the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s but reveals its psychic scars. "I want to show that drama doesn't lie only in blood and destroyed buildings," said Zbanic, who was a teenager during the siege of Sarajevo, "but in daily life, in ordinary human beings."

The film she has written and directed, "Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams" (opening in March), is named after a neighborhood in Sarajevo that was turned into a war camp by the Serbo-Montenegrin army during the wars.

Esma (Mirjana Karanovic), a single mother raising her budding adolescent daughter (Luna Mijovic), is trying to negotiate a new job as a cocktail waitress while holding on to her dignity. The rub is, that dignity was long ago compromised when she was raped during the war, a secret she hides from the world and most especially her beloved daughter.

In February, Zbanic's feature won the Golden Bear, the top award at the Berlin International Film Festival, beating out much higher-profile fare as "The New World" and "Syriana." This past fall, she was invited to Los Angeles for the AFI International Film Festival, where her movie won the Grand Jury Award for International Feature.

Tall, with short hair and dark, oblong glasses, Zbanic, 32, speaks expressive, if heavily accented, English. During the war, she lived just 100 meters from the front line. Bombs would randomly fall nearby, reports of atrocities perpetrated on civilians haunted their consciousness. On a recent fall day, sitting at an outdoor cafe set up at the AFI fest atop the ArcLight theater, there are moments when tears well up in her eyes as she speaks. Most of all, she says, she felt compelled to tell a story that had been buried, the story of the up to 20,000 women who had been assaulted and raped during the war. "It was war strategy to humiliate women," says Zbanic, "and through them to defeat an enemy, a nation."

She spent three years working on the script, doing research by attending women's support group meetings and interviewing women who had been raped by soldiers.

"I felt many times I couldn't go on, many times I gave up," she admits. "It made me so angry, the women didn't have the status of civil war victims, they were treated like garbage. They lived on the bottom, and they didn't deserve it."

When she completed the first draft, it was flooded with that anger. "One of my friends said, 'You don't want to kill your audience, you want to tell a story,' " Zbanic says. "I read somewhere where Virginia Woolf said that in order to write you have to get rid of your anger and rage, and that helped." She made revisions.

Then the casting. Zbanic always knew that hers would be "an actor's film." For Esma, she turned to veteran actress Karanovic, best known for being in the films of Emir Kusturica, including "When Father Was Away on Business." To find Esma's daughter Sara, they interviewed 2,000 high school students, with a select 30 put through a seven-day workshop. Thirteen-year-old Mijovic was the director's choice.

"I liked her from the beginning," says Zbanic, "but it was important to see how enthusiastic she would be, how she listened, how she learned."

For Zbanic, making the movie not only fulfills a film school dream to resist fascism through storytelling, it is also the fulfillment of an obligation to the history she has lived. As she says, "My generation has to deal with how to overcome a trauma, how to overcome destruction, and how to tell the truth to the next generation."

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