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Reflections of War

grbavica: the land of my dreams


close to home

(IFC First Take)

In one way, some hot news stories are like Broadway shows. When theyarrive, they get tremendous attention, which diminishes atdifferent speeds, and then suddenly they disappear. Completely.Other hot news has replaced them. The Broadway shows that have hadtheir day simply evanesce, but the people where the hot newshappened are still there. We can't expect the media to center onplaces or persons after a crisis has passed; but it is healthful toremember that, where that crisis happened, people are still livingtheir lives. They don't evanesce.

Speak the word "Sarajevo" and any sentient person has an emotionalmemory of what happened there. But life didn't stop in Sarajevowhen the reporters and the camera crews moved on (when the showclosed). Battle and bloodshed are, thankfully, no longer on hand,but what is very much there is the life that was affected by thewar. Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams sensitively explores it.

Grbavica is the name of a district in Sarajevo right across fromwhere the writer-director of this film lives. She is JasmilaZbanic, a young woman who has made shorts and now makes her featuredebut with commanding skill. Zbanic focuses on a woman in herforties and her twelve-year-old daughter. The father, we are told,was killed in the war, slaughtered by Chetniks, and is therefore ashaheed, a war martyr.

Esma, the mother, is a waitress in a bar-disco (where some prettywild disco- ing goes on). Sara, the daughter, is of course inschool. They are as affectionate and quarrelsome with each other asloving mothers and daughters usually are. The invisible presence ofthe father is a factor in their lives. That father helps Sara in atussle she has with a schoolmate, a boy about her age, on a soccerfield. (His father, too, was a shaheed.)

A quasi-romance develops between Sara and the boy, more like atouching rendition of how a young male and female learn to behavewith each other within a periphery of good feeling. Meanwhile Esmaattracts a man who works in her bar, and a mature version of herdaughter's romance develops: two people who know from varieties ofexperience what an affair will mean to them and who want to enjoyeach other's company before rushing in. (Sara is naturally jealousof Esma's other interest.) Perceptively, Zbanic concentrates onthese stories that would have happened if there had never been awar, thus depicting some persistences in human beings, but she letsboth the characters' remembrance of the war and the spectators'remembrance of it serve as backdrop and atmosphere. So theserelatively ordinary stories carry with them both a tacit poignancyand a glimmer of hope for the obstinacy of life.

The cinematographer was Christine A. Maier, who helped greatly byputting everything before us in a lucid, matterof-fact way; nofanciness. Zbanic is, of course, responsible--admirable,rather--for employing dailiness as a medium for depth. And herscreenplay ends with a revelation that puts everything we have seenin an even more somber postwar light.

But it is the two leading performances that make the film seemalmost to reach down and embrace us. Mirjana Karanovic, who playsEsma, is famous in her own country but is probably known here, ifat all, for her role in When Father Was Away on Business. She is areassuringly complete actress. About Luna Mijovic, who is Sara,there is the usual news that the director and others auditioned andtested hundreds of girls for the role until they found Mijovic.This time we can truly be glad that they persisted, because she is adelight. A bit too old to be considered a prodigy child who actswell without any knowledge of film, Mijovic--who is making herdebut here--is not misled into imitation because of her previousfilmgoing. With Zbanic's help, she cuts straight to the core ofwhat is needed in each scene, with a kind of arriviste freshnessthat is the result of talent, not naivete. More of Mijovic, please.

Note. Once again a foreign film is distinct from a domestic productbecause of the smoking. Incessant here.

An Israeli film called Close to Home is odd. Fictional, but with anair of expose, it deals with a special unit of the army that iscomposed entirely of women--mostly young--whose assignment is topatrol the streets looking for suspicious persons, asking foridentification, and entering a report on a form. The streets thatthis unit patrols are in Jerusalem. The suspicious persons areArabs or those who look like Arabs. Since dress is not thedifference in most cases, some special ethnic sense is taken forgranted by the officer in charge.

The oddity is that these young women, members of an army in acountry that either is at war or is tautly prepared for war, behavefor the most part as if they were high school girls who had beenchosen to be monitors. They show very little sense of danger orresponsibility (even though a bomb goes off in the streets duringthe picture). The young women flagrantly disobey orders abouttaking breaks, about smoking, even about filling out reports. Theyquarrel among themselves in catty ways. One of them develops acrush on a young man she meets (at the bombing!), and her partnerhelps her to pursue the young man.

In short, this squad is an ill-trained, slovenly bunch of soldiers.That such behavior exists, or can exist, in any army is surelycommonplace, but that Israeli producers should want to make a filmabout the matter at this time is puzzling. For a time. Then thethought occurs that this film is an inverse boast. Thesefilm-makers may be saying that, even in a country so aware ofdangers and so keyed up to deal with them, common human flaws exist:that the Israeli army is not a mass of robots but a group of humanbeings with routine imperfections. Perhaps this argument may be thefilm's reason for being; still, I wouldn't want to be a Jerusalemresident who depended on this particular unit of women forprotection.

The writer-directors Dalia Hager and Vidi Bilu are not, in their ownwork, members of that unit. Their directing has snap and precision;the flow of their film is just swift enough without hurrying. Thetwo leading actresses, Smadar Sayar and Naama Schendar, areadequate. But competent as all the film-making is, Close to Homeleaves us with questions--and only some possible answers.