Darkness There and Nothing More is not an easy film to watch. Tea Tupajic – who was just seven years old when the Yugoslav Civil War erupted, swiftly turning her hometown of Sarajevo into a besieged community – chooses a minimalist setting to seek answers from two former Dutch soldiers who were part of a UN force supposed to protest Bosnian Muslims from their Serb enemies.
Nor is this an easy film to understand unless the viewer has at least some idea of the history of the war in Bosnia, although arguably specific knowledge of the massacre at Srebrenica is not necessary, as Darkness There and Nothing More could be about any conflict, any failure of protection that people thought they had been afforded in horrific, evil circumstances.
A pitch-black auditorium
Set in an almost pitch-black auditorium (the Frascati Theatre, Amsterdam) and shot over one night, Tupajic’s debut documentary features just herself and two middle-aged men.
But before we meet Harm, still tortured with guilt over leaving a small boy he befriended to his fate when he left Bosnia (Srebrenica, we guess though are not explicitly told) just before Serbs massacred Bosniaks, and Frank, a character so closed off that he says nothing can touch his heart because it is hidden behind a wall of concrete, Tupajic introduces us to the darkness and nothing more.
For the first minute and a half or more, all we see is a black screen, gradually noises off emerge and, as our eyes become accustomed to the darkness, we see the outline of a woman rising from rest.
It is Tupajic, who sits upright as Harm enters, sits nearby, and they begin a sporadic conversation; it is fully 10 minutes into the film that we begin to hear anything substantive.
This is all part of Tupajic’s purpose. She is seeking to understand how it was that a couple of hundred young Dutch soldiers failed to protect boys and men seeking shelter in their base in fear of their lives. She wants to know the inner world of the men in whom so much hope had been invested by terrified Bosnians who, in the summer of 1995, faced heavily armed Serb forces intent on their extermination.
She is seeking to understand how it was that a couple of hundred young Dutch soldiers failed to protect boys and men seeking shelter in their base in fear of their lives.
She gropes for meaning with Harm – of the two who have answered her call to join her on this nocturnal mission – the more sensitive.
«I lost my trust in the UN during my service in Bosnia,» he tells her as he shows her a large tattoo he has covering his right shoulder. The tattoo depicts an eagle and the symbol for the Dutch army’s Third Battalion – known as the Dutchbatt III, based in Srebrenica. He says the tattoo represents the pride he feels in serving in that battalion, despite what happened in Bosnia.
The guilt he feels is survivor guilt; having befriended a young Bosnian boy who would hang around the camp, Harm was suddenly offered two weeks’ leave in July 1995 – and thus was back home when he saw TV footage that emerged after the infamous massacre at Srebrenica. He still struggles with that guilt and admits that he started smoking again recently after his first trip back to Bosnia since those days.
Frank, a stocky character who, like Harm, is also bald (though this may be due to treatment he is receiving for cancer of the oesophagus), is less open. He tells the director that his service in Bosnia was «a period when I was not loving myself; I wore headphones and played loud music from home to give me a sense of not being there. We were ordered not to fraternise with the locals, and I made sure not to know anyone’s name from all the faces I saw every day.»
Frank is cut off from his feelings – something he says that goes back to his childhood and how he was parented – and his coldness upsets and frightens Tupajic, who is soon in tears, wondering how he would feel if he were treated in such a way as he treated the Bosnians. Frank struggles to articulate an answer. When asked if he cries, he says not for himself but that a tear came to his eye when an old comrade, who had committed suicide, was laid to rest.
«Have you ever considered suicide yourself, Frank?» she asks him. «No, never,» he answers without a note of irony.
Tupajic reckons that it is simply «not normal» for any mature, sensitive person to have never considered suicide. Frank replies, «feelings don’t pass that concrete wall around my heart.»
«feelings don’t pass that concrete wall around my heart.»
The darkness and glacial pace of the film allow for plenty of time to reflect. I thought back to how I felt when I read Gitta Sereny’s Into That Darkness, her seminal study of how a closed heart allows an ordinary man to commit acts of extraordinary evil, based on 70 hours of interviews with Franz Stangl, the commandant of Nazi death camp Treblinka.
And a line from First World War British poet Wilfred Owen’s Sensibility – «But cursed are the dullards whom no cannon stuns,» came to mind as Frank continued to blunder about in his insensitivity.
Tupajic is hoping for some understanding, for some curiosity from these men about her life and that of her family and friends – none of whom truly survived the war, whether they lived or not, she says. She is doomed to failure, for these are two worlds that never truly met: the one was screened in some fictitious international community notion of doing right, the other that suffered the deaths, rape, and violence.
Even when confronted with the horrid, racist graffiti Dutch troops left behind at their barracks, such as the infamous, «No teeth? A mustache? Smel [sic] like shit? Bosnian girl!» Frank is unemotive. Tupajic tells him she is still suffering from growing up during the war. He mumbles, «Suffering is in the eye of the beholder.»
At one point, she snaps at him, telling him to «stop talking!» She storms off to re-arrange some stage curtains, the chalk-on-a-blackboard screeching covering her screams.
Harm tries to comfort her inner child – offering her a trauma bear, that kind that is given to Dutch children after accidents or other alarming events. She does not even really understand in what world this could help someone who has suffered as she has.
When daylight comes – and the lights go up – Frank has already quietly left. Harm and Tupajic hug before he leaves wordlessly.
In the canon of documentaries about the Bosnian war, this is an unusual and affecting film.