The Bosnian Herzegovinian Film Festival in New York City recently premiered a documentary movie on the White Armband Initiative, the event taking place in Prijedor each year on May 31st. Transitional justice experts Refik Hodžić and Eldar Sarajlić discussed the process of dealing with the past in the country
The Bosnian Herzegovinian Film Festival (BHFF) ran from May 1st to May 3rd at Tribeca Cinemas, and like every year provided an opportunity to talk about Bosnia in the heart of New York City.
The festival is a product of the Bosnian diaspora in the United States, it was inaugurated in 2003 and since 2005 it is produced by two not-for-profit cultural organizations, Radio-Voice of Bosnia Herzegovina and the Academy of Bosnia Herzegovina. It shows a mix of about 15 features, documentaries and shorts either directed by Bosnians or focused on the country. By now, the festival has become an annual encounter not only for Balkan communities living in the US, but also for enthusiasts of Balkan culture and of cinema.
Although there is no official theme, Bosnia’s wartime past and its legacies in the present clearly emerged as the invisible thread in the festival.
Even the roundtable organized during this year’s festival and moderated by Refik Hodžić1 and Eldar Sarajlić2 was devoted to the arduous process of reckoning with the past, and was inspired by two documentary films presented in the festival’s first day. Trnopolje, a forgotten summer (by Zabou Cârrière, Taina Tervonen, Jean-Baptiste Delpias; France, 2012) and May 31st (by Mirza Ajnadžić; Bosnia Herzegovina, 2013) both cast light on the collective process of remembrance of the war in the northern municipality of Prijedor. In 1992 Prijedor saw one of the war’s bloodiest ethnic cleansing campaigns and was the site for three of the most infamous concentration camps: Omarska, Keraterm and Trnopolje.
The first film (Trnopolje, a forgotten summer) collects testimonies about the prison camp set up in 1992, where non-Serb civilians were regularly abused as part of the ethnic cleansing campaign carried out to eliminate non-Serbs form the area. Throughout the film, the survivors evince their frustration at the stubborn reticence of the town’s majority to acknowledge the existence of the camp, whose premises have been converted again into an elementary school. The film is the first co-work of three French filmmakers, whose aim was that of revitalizing the debate about the camp and the crimes committed therein.
The second (May 31st), in its world premiere at BHFF, tells the story of the White Armband Initiative through the lens of one of the activists’ camera. In 2012 the town’s mayor has prohibited any demonstrations to commemorate the victims of these crimes. To protest this regulation, a group of activists have begun to display a white armband on May 31, the date when Bosnian-Serbs seized the municipality and forced non-Serbs to don this same attire. It is one of the few initiatives in the region that is entirely grassroots and multi-ethnic.
Refik Hodžić and Eldar Sarajlić saw each film as representing a different way of reckoning with the past. “In the first film [Trnopolje forgotten summer] we notice that there is a large group of people that don’t want to talk about what happened during the war because they see through the lens of a certain ideological narrative: either these people that were in the concentration camps were a collateral damage of creating an ethnically cleansed state, or they were a military enemy that needed to be neutralized in a certain way,” remarked Eldar Sarajlić. He emphasized that both these narratives are ideological, which is revealed for instance by the choice of the victims’ relatives to put the inscription Šehid on the graves of those who died as a result of ethnic cleansing: “Šehid is the name for a martyr of Islam, somebody who has died defending Islam. So this is an ideological narrative that doesn’t do justice to the victims, because they weren’t necessarily religious or aware of their Muslim identity.”
Refik Hodžić agreed that the first film effectively emblematized Bosnia’s current deadlock: “When I was watching the first film, it was giving me feelings of frustration: my god yet another film that is going through the same elements of what has happened to us, giving the impression that nothing has changed! That is exactly the feeling that we live with, this feeling of being trapped.”
The second film conversely depicted a reaction to this deadlock, a post-ideological movement born out of this sense of frustration. “It shows that we can find a post-ideological voice on these issues – commented Eldar Sarajlić – although the term is kind of problematic and I tend to agree with those who think that there is no post-ideological political agency. But when I saw the second film, I thought that there is a way, because these activists are simply re-creating a practice that has happened during the war when the authorities in Prijedor ordered all non-Serbs to wear white armbands. So they are not interpreting anything, they are not adding anything to the story, they are simply re-creating something and giving it out to the people, to look at it and then interpret it. So I thought that this might be a proper way to address these issues with activism, and maybe this is also a reason why the White Armband Initiative has managed to galvanize even some non-Bosniak support.”
Refik Hodžić added that the movement illustrated in the second film can be seen as post-ideological in the sense that “it has to do with a great feeling of frustration,” which is very well articulated in the words of Nikola, one of the activists. When in the film he is asked why he took part in the initiative, especially considering the risks, he responds: “If I am to live in a place like this, then the worse thing that can happen to me is not getting beaten up, but actually reconciling with this situation.”
When asked if the reluctance to address the past and the ensuing frustration that come up in both films can be attributed to a lack of justice deliverance in the country, Refik Hodžić said the problem was more complex: “Bosnia is in proportion to the number of people that live there, the country with the highest number of people tried anywhere in the world, including Germany. We use to think that Nuremberg took care of everything, but it put on trial 21 people, and then later there were the Frankfurt trials and some other local trials, but it was minuscule in comparison with the extent of crimes that were committed. In Cambodia 2 million people were killed: you have a handful of people on trial for that. The municipality of Prijedor has the highest number of people on trial for war crimes on the planet! So I don’t think Bosnia is not doing enough when it comes to criminal trials.” However, he reminded that local and national politicians had done everything they could to undercut and delegitimize the attempts to seek justice.
He added that this is also the responsibility of the international community: “Bosnia is not only undergoing a post-conflict transition, but also a political transition - because we were a socialist society - which is largely overseen by the international community. Basically the members of the international community separated the two things and thought that war crimes trials could take care of the post-conflict transition, while they were making deals with Bosnian politicians to privatize the industries and undertake institutional changes. But those same politicians made sure that there was no progress whatsoever in facing the past, on the contrary they reinforced the narratives of hatred and division. That is why the effect of trials on denial was minimal.”
Instead, what can bring a real change are those “grassroots, and not donor-driven, but frustration-driven” initiatives, like the White Armband Initiative depicted in the second film (May 31st), as well as the protests erupted in Tuzla last February, said both moderators.
“The reason why we don’t find the first film and its attitude towards the past political, is that it doesn’t go beyond the nationalist vocabulary. What the protests did so miraculously was to introduce new words in the public arena. Once we introduce new vocabulary, the politicians have to respond to that, to adjust,” suggested Eldar Sarajilić.
Refik Hodžić agreed that the recent protests “finally started shifting the discourse toward the social justice issue, to issues that matter,” but he was less optimistic and argued that change would not happen without a revolutionary event. The politicians had been far too effective at appropriating and de-legitimizing the movement: “It was very interesting what happened this February. The space opened and the discussion changed and then the beast struck back and started closing the space, which is now closed almost completely, and it is back to artificial issues, like the secession of the Republika Srpska.”
This does not mean that there is no hope, emphasized Refik Hodžić. However the discourse must be shifted away once again from those artificial issues through which the nationalist propaganda so effectively promotes apathy among Bosnian citizens, back to the social justice issues that really matter in their life.
And in this process, the role of films, culture and media is crucial, agreed both moderators. Even of films that, like May 31st, introduce new ways of talking about the past talk that go beyond the nationalist ideologies. Because changing the way we talk about Bosnia’s past is crucial for shifting the discourse about its future.
“These films are important because 20 years later there are still issues deep in there that need to be revealed and stories that need to be told. And in the absence of institutional efforts, films are the mirror against which we can see ourselves,” concluded Refik Hodžić.
1 Refik Hodžić is a Bosnian filmmaker and co-funder of the film production company XY; he is also director of communication at the International Center for Transitional Justice in New York City and previously worked as a spokesperson for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
2 Eldar Sarajlić is a PhD candidate in Political Theory at the Central European University in Budapest and lecturer at the City University of New York, Brooklyn College.
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