Srbenka - No end in sight // Verzio X ELTE

In the Croatian coastal city of Rijeka, a theatrical play is about to start. It is called Aleksandra Zecand represents the murder of this 12-year-old Croatian Serb, who was executed along with her parents in Zagreb during the Croatian War of Independence in December 1991. At the entrance of the theater, a small group of ultraconservatives are demonstrating against the organizing of this event. “86 kids from Vukovar” or “When will the Croatian victims have their own theatre play?” are some of the slogans they carry. Croatia is still a very polarized society nowadays, so everything that has something to do with the Serbian community generates controversy. 

However, although it is true that every victim deserves a tribute, there is a big inconsistency in the ultra conservative discourse: to compare two situations, which are unequal. It is not the same to belong to the dominant ideology than to be part of a socially oppressed minority such as the Croatian Serbs, so it is not the same to create a theatrical play about one of the 86 kids from Vukovar than to do it about Aleksandra Zec. Thus, the existence of this theatre play seems quite necessary in many ways.

 Srbenka is a documentary that followed the development of the theatre play, showing how the director and actors approached to the tragic event from the past. Nebojsa Slijepcevic, the creator of the film, builds his discourse through an intense use of ellipsis, which leads to a fragmented narrative based on concrete testimonies or situations that define the essence of what is intended to be told. The author’s main idea is to approach to the case as aseptically as possible, avoiding any temptation of turning his movie into another product of what is known as commodity culture – the transformation of goods, services, ideas and people into objects of trade. There are no morbid shots, such as the violent representations that take place on stage – we never get to watch them; they remain off-screen – or people suffering in front of the camera remembering their own traumatic experiences – during the testimony of a young Croatian Serb woman, the image cuts to another part of the theater when she starts crying, and we only listen to her voice. The gaze is put on the reactions to what is happening on scene, both during the rehearsals and during the different stages of development of the play, as well as during the premiere. As a result, we are able to understand the different visions of the same conflict: how the actors react to the description of the whole case made by Oliver Frljic, the director, how he himself reacts to what he watches during the rehearsals, and, especially, how young generations relate to a past that they did not live, but that they suffer in the present -the group of adolescent girls who play small roles in the play. 

photos: Srbenka

Through the lucid, consistent narration Slijepcevic proposes, we are able to discover the different stages of trauma, as well as the different roles that people play regarding a traumatic event. There is a big differentiation between the two social groups that gather in this production. On the one hand, we have the Croatian Serbs, who are traumatized by their past and by the everyday life experiences that they have to suffer. It is so typical to be discriminated and bullied, that they prefer to hide their Serbian origins. This is something that happens since they are in school, as the protagonist of the documentary, Nina, explains. When she was 7 years old, she asked her mother if they were Serbs. When she realized this fact, she started crying, because she always considered this as a bad thing, and especially because she became aware of all the oppression she was going to suffer during her whole life. So participating in this project is a way for her to confront trauma, and the different scenes in which she explains how she feels – like the moment when she is hesitant about publicly admitting in front of the audience that she is a Serb – are the moments in which she transmits her trauma to the rest of the people  – and, indirectly, to the viewers of the motion picture –, as a way of giving form to her suffering in order to start getting over it. At this point, one of the most intelligent decisions of the creator of the film is to hide this information until the second part of the film, but showing us, with no verbal explanations, just by using eloquent shots of the reactions of Nina, that she is undoubtedly different from the rest of the group, so that we can suspect she is a Croatian Serb before it is confirmed.

 Although you can empathize with the tragic event, it is different when you are part of the oppressed group. This is perfectly depicted with the images in which we can watch how the different girls behave in the different situations, and how they react to what is told in the play. However, in a completely different way, they get traumatized as well, when they become aware of what happened in their own country during the past and especially because this conflict is still currently present. It is similar with the older actors, who, although they seem to be very committed to political causes, they get traumatized when they get in touch with the happening -one of the actresses starts crying when they gather for the first time to be informed in detail about the case. A process of witness traumatization, which is especially powerful in this case, given the fact that, as they are actors who are going to represent the traumatic experience, they will perform the roles of the victims. As well as in the climax of The act of killing(Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, 2012), in which the perpetrator has to perform the role of one of his victims, and he collapses and assimilates all the pain that he has caused, the different roles played by the actors of the theatrical play have a direct effect over the way they are going to deal with witness traumatization -in one of the testimonies, one of the actors tells that he is starting having nightmares about the happening. And, as expected, the director of the play himself is affected by what he watches on stage, a fact that he shares with the rest of the group when he points out his surprise about all the emotions he is having, despite he was so proud of being able, up to that point, to take a healthy distance. 

photo: Srbenka

By building the narration in three different levels of reality, Nebojsa Slijepcevic uses film form and metanarration to expose some necessary, complex questions. The first level is the past, the murder of Aleksandra Zec and her family. As the director of the play exposes in one moment of the picture, this is, by far, the most famous case of all the murders of civilians that took place during the Croatian War of Independence, but, in fact, more than 400 children were assassinated during that period. Why is that? What are the political interests of having let only this homicide reached the press? On the second level we have the play itself, with all the controversy it exposed when it was organized. Not only the Oliver Frljic received threats for doing that, but the rest of the crew might suffer the consequences of having participated in it. Will they have trouble finding new job opportunities? Will they be discriminated, as well as the Croatian Serbs already are? And finally, on the third level, we have the documentary itself. Being a more massive medium, its power to get to a bigger audience is evident. Will it change something? Will the public authorities do something about it, like fomenting its diffusion or starting to take the issue more seriously? At this point it is necessary to highlight another of the many eloquent instants that Slijepcevic created for his movie. The last scene is a long sequence shot in which he follows Nina from the moment she abandons the stage, along with her classmates, until she goes home. While for her friends it is basically an after-school activity, for her is quite different, and you can feel it by just watching her body language. The main goal of the creator of the play was to make the audience feel bad about what they are watching, to go home blaming themselves for being responsible for this situation. This goal is shared by Slijepcevic. Trying to solve the problem of the inherent finitude of every film narration, Slijepcevic shots the last scene in a way that provokes the illusion of infinitude, and he does it to let the audience with the feeling that, in fact, the problem is not solved. By following the nervous walking of Nina on the street, almost trying to escape from her own reality, the spectators are remembered that what they have just watched is the representation of the everyday struggle of people like Nina. A struggle to which there is no end in sight. 

 Paris Pérez Iago
student of ELTE Department of Film Studies