Jasmilla Zbanic’s bleak directorial debut is a sombre tale of a mother’s struggle not only to deal with her tricksy teenage daughter, but her own past and the mixed feelings it has left her for that child. It is also a tale of the aftermath of war and the forgotten price often paid by women.
The film opens as Esma, played with quiet dignity by Mirjana Karanovic, pushes her way through a night club dance floor. It feels like a war zone. She is here for work that she hopes will raise enough money to pay for her daughter, 12-year-old Sara (Luna Mirovic) to go on a school trip.
That money is tight is clear from the worn expression that clouds Esma’s face, the tiny flat she shares with Sara and the general air of despair that haunts everyone we see on screen. That is not surprising. This is Sarajevo, a few years on from the vicious war that tore Bosnia apart. Worse still, Esma lives in the suburb of Grbvavica, a place made notorious during the war when it was turned into a suburban concentration camp.
Throughout the film there are hints at what her secret is. At a women’s group, we listen to survivors of the war talk about their loss and abuse, Esma insists on paying for Sara’s trip, rather than having the fees paid, as is the right of the wife of a shaaheed (war martyr), and there are scars on her back, long lacerations, that go deeper than flesh…
Despite the overwhelmingly bleak feel to the picture (it is filmed in winter) there is light relief. Esma finds comfort – and a path towards renewal – through her friendship with a nightclub bouncer, whose hard appearance hides a man equally brutalised by the conflict. It is this friendship that marks a change in Esma’s life, a gradual unravelling of the secret coiled tight inside her.
As Esma, Karanovic dominates the film. Her subtle performance lends a dignity to her character not found in more conventional approaches to the aftermath of war. The relationship between mother and daughter is note perfect, Karanovic and Mirovic capture the ambivalence at the heart of parent’s feelings for teen children breaking away and asking awkward questions.
Director Zbanic struck gold with unknown Mirovic, who was chosen to play Sara following auditions at local schools. She has also struck gold with her own script, which manages to show the fine line between victim and survivor, lending dignity to the women whose names are not recorded in the lists of war martyrs. A a debut it promises much, and explains the clutch of awards that have followed the film throughout the world.