It is not often that a student graduation film makes it into competition at a leading European documentary showcase, but Anna Armengol’s This Is Bosnia: The Other Face of Europe is an exception to the rule, screening at DocsBarcelona 2020, in common with other festivals, online at this time.
Although it is only 20 minutes long and has the lightest of archival touches – brief footage of the moments before the Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Bosniak men and youths at the hands of Bosnian Serbs of the Army of the Republika Srpska under the command of Ratko Mladić – and images of the notorious graffiti left in military barracks in nearby Potočari by Dutch so-called UN peacekeepers: «No teeth…? A mustache…? Smel like shit….? A Bosnian girl!» (sic) – set the stage for an examination of the long shadow cast by Europe’s largest and most violent conflict since the Second World War.
Armengol sensibly restricts her ambition to a tight focus on the human consequences of the war, alluding to the political fall-out only where strictly necessary. It is this tight focus that impressed judges at a University-Industry Audiovisual Pitching Event, held by the Audiovisual Cluster of Catalonia, in May last year, winning her the best project in terms of values from the Faculty of Communication Sciences of her alma mater, the Universitat Internacional de Catalunya. She was then able to go onto pitch her work at the pitching event last November before a professional audience.
The young director quickly sets the scene and central argument of this accomplished short film, suggesting that 25 years after the conflict was brought to an end by an internationally brokered peace deal, the scars have yet to heal.
A father and his daughter, who was not even born when the war ended, walk through the haunting chalk-white obelisks of the massive Srebrenica-Potočari cemetery, as the father tracks down the graves of relatives slaughtered on the July days in 1995, setting the bleak background to the director’s story.
The young director quickly sets the scene and central argument of this accomplished short film
The fact that the Srebrenica massacre came at the very end of a conflict that comprehensively tore Yugoslavia apart over the space of four years, is one of the more depressing truths of a war that no European politician at the time seemed capable of stopping. For those of us who vividly remember those times (I was in Croatia and remember driving from Zagreb to the Dalmatian coast past a military roadblock at a time when a massive offensive against the Serbian enclave of Knin was underway), Armengol’s thesis that the Bosnian War is today «forgotten» rings true.
Moving away from the dead to the living, she interviews one of those involved in the fighting – a man who lost his brother and sister to the conflict – the haunted expression in his eyes says as much about the war as his words.
For those of us who ever wondered what happened to streams of traumatised refugees, seen every night on our TV news bulletins, fleeing ethnic cleansing and atrocities, Armengol has an answer: many still live in refugee camps.
Although the refugee settlement of Mihatovići, near Tuzla, which houses survivors of the killings in Srebrenica, is a little more sophisticated than the first UN camps people found themselves in, its muddy streets and small terraced houses served by the occasional corner shop, remain basic.
That people who were forced from their homes and communities by hatred a quarter of a century ago and have still not been able to re-establish themselves is shocking, in the way that similar refugee issues in, say, Palestine, hold the power to shock. That there are new generations not even born during the war, which are growing up in such forgotten places is a tragedy.
many still live in refugee camps.
The 1992-95 war in Bosnia cost the lives of 100,000 people and displaced as many as 2 million. According to the UN’s refugee agency, five years ago in 2015, there were still 98,300 internally displaced people, 7,000 of them in temporary or group shelters.
Those figures are unlikely to have changed much by the time Armengol visited the scruffy confines of Mihatovići, home to 150 families. There are few opportunities for work and most dream of escape. One woman’s son found a way out through football, though it clearly pains her that he is now based in Mostar, another Bosnian town with a grim history.
Despite the unhealed wounds, a gritty stream of hope still runs through the place. One of the residents of the refugee camp, who at the most would have been a young child in 1995, says: «I think this country had the potential to be one of the best in Europe. But time has to past. These past 20 years are like nothing. We have not moved one step forward.»
Despite the unhealed wounds, a gritty stream of hope still runs through the place.
When asked why, his response is blunt: «Because of pride. Muslim pride. Serbian pride. Croatian pride. We teach young people they are Croatian, not Bosnians, we teach young people their country is Serbia, not Bosnia. That’s why.»
Armengol clearly has a bright future ahead of her and is a young director to follow.