Srbenka (2018) gives an insight to the current life and war memories among the Serbian minority in Croatia. The film is a skilful metatheatre that involves both the troupe’s acting and sense of self as they work on their own memories.
Country: Croatia

Some have said that the reputed Croatian theatre director Oliver Frljić stirs up drama wherever he goes. He himself has made it clear on several occasions that for him, the theatre is much less a goal than it is a means of social struggle.

His plays are always attuned to the traumas and anomalies of the historical, geographical and political space from where he originates, and he has been awarded multiple times for his plays.

Srbenka, the documentary film by Nebojša Slijepčević, is based on one of Frljić’s plays – the struggle is that of a Serbian minority against the Croatian nationalist sentiment.

A struggle of identities

The Serbian identity-struggle within Croatia was mobilised during the war in the nineties and has later translated into a political ideology lasting well beyond the war itself. In the nineties, the prevailing belief of many people in Croatia (similarly as in the neighbouring Slovenia) was that a liberal society could only be established by seceding from Yugoslavia. These ideas held that being «communist» tended to conflate with «Serbian». As a consequence, a break with the communist past depended upon severing the ties with Serbia.

«Aleksandra Zec – together with her family – was lynched and then shot and dumped at a landfill in Zagreb in 1991.»

In the creation of the new Croatian nation, and in order to facilitate measures for military preparedness and the conduct of a war, the government – as have the governments of other ex-Yugoslavian states –sought to manipulate public sentiment. This was done by generating symbolic representations idealising both citizens and combatants, by demonising the enemy, and constructing contrasting images of the future that dealt with that of victory and defeat. The importance of «winning the war» became essential.

Srbenka. Director: Nebojša Slijepčević

Murder of the 12-year-old Aleksandra Zec

In 2014, Frljić wrote a theatre play based on the true event of the murder of the 12-year-old Aleksandra Zec of Serbian origin. She – together with her family – was lynched and then shot and dumped in a landfill in Zagreb in 1991. Running parallel to the story of the event – harrowingly re-enacted in the film through actor rehearsals – is the testimony of a young woman who is watching the play, and who is still traumatised by the violence and abuse she experienced as a child in a Croatian school due to her Serbian roots.

«Trauma and remembered violence have proven to be transmitted across generations, both socially and genetically.»

There is also the confession of Nina – the youngest actor in the play at 12 – who reluctantly reveals that she is from a Serbian family herself, a fact which she has been hiding from her Croatian classmates, even though she was born no earlier than in 2001. The point is clear: Ethnic nationalism may have fuelled the wars of the previous generation, but the hatred has been inherited by the generations of their children and grandchildren, even those born several years after the war has ended.

Theatre as collective psychotherapy

Frljić’s theatre plays are rarely based on dramatic texts. They are conceived through a working process and rehearsals with the actors (who often rebel against him). They form the backbone of Slijepčević’s film. Functioning almost as a form of collective psychotherapy, the process creates a metatheatre that involves both the acting and the sense of self of the actors – even though they are distanced by the theatrical device, they must work on their own (or their inherited) memories of war.

Delving into a socio-political issue through art, such as the heritage of wartime-ethnic nationalism in Croatia, makes a lot of sense. It functions as a kind of antipode to popular culture in the Croatia of the nineties, which (for example in cinema or popular music) became an instrument of politics of the Croatian state-building discourse. Frljić’s particular approach makes even more sense in this case: The inheritance of (war) trauma, after all, is political, but it is also deeply personal.

Trauma and remembered violence have proven to be transmitted across generations, both socially and genetically, for example in terms of stress and depression. Traumas of social groups – like the Jewish holocaust, or even the historical oppression of women – are then transmitted across space and time, like ghosts haunting the later generations, shooting them into a future that is not entirely their own. Massive trauma shapes the internal representation of reality of several generations; it becomes an unconscious organising principle passed on by parents and internalised by their children. Carl Jung wrote that we can only free ourselves from the embrace of historical and hereditary determinants with the greatest effort. History, in his words, has compelled us.

A new rise of nationalism

In the Croatian public scene, the national-centred discourses have seemingly faded – they are no longer required. Independence has been achieved: The international processes of post-conflict political normalisation have been initiated and developed, along with the implementation of democratic procedures and talks along the path of Euro-Atlantic integration. However, a new rise of nationalism is looming on the horizon, and it is not just a recrudescence of the ethnic conflict of the nineties. Years of economic failure, the growing geopolitical tension, and rising xenophobia in the face of the refugee crisis have prompted a radicalisation of the society that does not only extend to Croatia or the Balkans but to Europe as a whole.

«The reactionary Western argument of the «savage, inherently violent Balkans» cannot be made any more.»

Once more, the belief that a liberal society may only be achieved through establishing borders is being stubbornly advanced, and the political parties are seeking to manipulate the nationalist public sentiment again for their own means. Newly-elected right-wing governments are generating symbolic representations idealising the citizens, demonising the enemy, and constructing contrasting images of the future: either of national purity or of the «defeat by the Other». This time, the reactionary Western argument of the «savage, inherently violent Balkans» cannot be made any more – Europe must examine itself critically as a whole. However, it seems that what happened after the break-up of Yugoslavia has become relevant again more than two decades later.


See also interview with DA Films, Doc Alliance,
who gave the Doc Alliance Award 2018 to this film.