Awash in daily news of mass savagery, collective memory grows short. We feel for the women of Afghanistan, but who these days remembers the war widows and rape victims of the 1992–1995 civil war that sent Yugoslavia to hell and brought it back a divided country? Now comes the young Bosnian writer-director Jasmila Zbanic to remind us of one of the more devastating consequences of “ethnic cleansing,” a Serbo-Croatian euphemism for genocide that has since morphed into a gruesomely useful term to describe mass killings from Rwanda to Iraq. Titled with heavy irony, Gbravica: The Land of My Dreams, which carried off the Golden Bear at last year’s Berlin Film Festival and was Bosnia-Herzegovina’s official 2006 entry for the foreign-language Oscar, is not the first, or the most graphic, movie to be made about the rape of more than 20,000 Bosnian women by Serbo-Montenegrin forces. But it is no less haunting for that, in part because Zbanic’s subject is not violence itself, but the way its cruel aftermath washes through the everyday lives of those who survive.
A tale of motherly love complicated by the wounds of the past, Gbravica is set in the eponymous Sarajevo neighborhood that was formerly a Serbian internment camp and now houses a large concentration of women who subsist on slim government handouts and bitter memories. The word gbravica also means “woman with a hump,” an evocative image that Zbanic uses to symbolize the burden carried by Esma, a careworn, middle-aged single mother played with matter-of-fact directness by Mirjana Karanovic, a veteran star of the films of Emir Kusturica. For all Esma’s sad brown eyes, the movie’s tone is far from lugubrious. We see her giggling at a local women’s center, then roughhousing happily on her living-room floor with her 12-year-old daughter, Sara (played by the enchanting sprite Luna Mijovic). At first, the movie plays its cards close to its chest: When Sara playfully pins her mother’s hands to the floor and Esma suddenly stiffens in pain and grows agitated, it seems as though we’re in for a cancer weepie. In fact, there’s a long-held secret — masked by a tacitly agreed-upon fiction about the identity of Sara’s missing father — that gnaws away at this loving but scrappy intimacy between mother and daughter, driving them both to the point of crisis.
While Sara ratchets up the risky behavior with a wild boy and a gun, Esma, in an effort to make extra money to finance her daughter’s class trip, wears herself out by working two jobs that hold up a mirror not just to her plight, but to a society disfigured by its brutal wars. By day, she works in a shoe factory, sustained by an all-female culture of women united by common suffering. By night, she serves drinks in a bar whose masculine sexual vibe, hitched to openly condoned violence, reduces her to a twisted tangle of pain and rage. Gbravica is not, formally or intellectually, an especially sophisticated work. Its politics come with a very small p, and Zbanic’s youthful faith in the notion that the truth shall make you free verges on the reductive when applied to a country still reeling from the age-old use of sex as a tool of domination. At times, the characters can barely breathe without giving voice to wider social conflicts. Straining plausibility, Esma strikes up a tentative romance with, of all things, a sensitive hit man. But Gbravica is a womanly movie in the best sense: Zbanic has a deeply feminine sense of how crisis gets filtered through the moments of daily life. She is no wuss, though: Before we hear the film’s two final songs, a keening voice of despair followed by the hopeful trill of a bus full of schoolchildren going on vacation, there comes a shattering confession of maternal love and hatred — the legacy of a generation of women who, day after day, must carry their humps on their backs, and shrug them off in the name of the future.
GBRAVICA: THE LAND OF MY DREAMS | Written and directed by JASMILA ZBANIC | Produced by BARBARA ALBERT, DAMIR IBRAHIMOVIC and BRUNO WAGNER | Released by Strand Releasing | Music Hall and Playhouse 7