In praise of Jasmila
by Aleksandar Hemon
I woke up this morning with the intention of furiously attacking the phrase ‘constituent people’, so prominent in the discussion on constitutional changes, because it should be evident that any political order in which the most important and at the same time the smallest political unit is ‘a people’ is essentially anti-democratic. Political parties and institutions that base their legitimacy on representing ‘a people’ necessarily and inevitably overlook and infringe the interests and needs of individuals, be they ‘others’ or members of a ‘people’ whose interests have nothing to do with national interests, and who are consequently not represented in the existing institutions and parties. In the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina, any debate on changing the Dayton constitution that does not aspire to a political order based on ‘one citizen - one vote’ is simply a waste of time.
A little later my anger jumped like a spark to the phrase ‘political reality’, which usually serves as a political excuse for those who represent ‘constituent peoples’ at the expense of their individual members. The monstrous phrase ‘political reality’ implies that what has happened in Bosnia is a kind of natural disaster. We somehow got to this ‘reality’ and now we have to live with it; and political structures play the role of the Red Cross/Crescent: they are there not to change what cannot be changed, but to help the survivors and clear the rubble. But in individual, human reality, what is going on is that those who have created our catastrophic ‘political reality’ are now insisting either that nothing can be changed, or that if it can they will change it slowly, in their own good time, but not too much. Needless to say the policy of ‘political reality’ excludes individuals - only ‘constituent peoples’ need apply - so they cannot even dream of having any influence on change, unless they compromise by becoming one of ‘the people’. Hence the general passivity of the Bosnia-Herzegovina citizenry: politics simply functions at another level of reality, which to the ordinary man and woman appears distant and demented, and which is why even relatively honest politicians seems to belong to the same nightmare. Politics in Bosnia is a bad movie which no one understands, though all the actors and their roles are quite familiar.
I must admit that I am no different in this regard. The rage that consumes me each time I think about this leads me to the same kind of passivity: writing does not appeal to me; I feel a bore to myself and others; I have nothing worthwhile to say, because it seems to me that everyone already knows everything, and if they don’t know it no one can help them. It seems to me that everything will be as before, regardless of individual writing or other efforts. All one can do is hope that things will somehow of themselves get better. It is an inherently humiliating situation, in which helplessness is imposed though we all pretend that it is a matter of choice.
It is perhaps because of this shameful passivity, among other things, that I feel so unbelievably happy and proud of Jasmila Žbanić - her person and her work. Not only is she one of those magnificent Bosnian and Sarajevo individuals (for some reason mainly film-makers) who - despite the non-existence of infrastructure and lack of intellect at the state level - have succeeded in somehow making something. She has also made a film whose beauty and humanity surpass ‘political reality’ to such an extent that the incompetent realists who are now preening themselves over the corpse of the Dayton constitution should immediately resign and retire to Neum, to spend in that coastal reservation the rest of their insignificant lives.
The reality in Grbavica is organized around Esma and Sara. They are constituent units which exist at our (we being all of us except the state and government) level of reality, where no life choice is easy because it has to be made in that foul ‘reality’ in a way that preserves self-respect; where misfortune and crime dominate and human goodness is noticeably absent, except in precious albeit damaged individuals such as Jasmila’s heroines. Esma and Sara live in a world in which ‘constituent peoples’ and ‘political reality’ are wholly devoid of human meaning, hence shown up for what they are - empty lies. Esma and Sara do not belong to ‘political reality’, except as faceless and insignificant members of a ‘constituent people’ - that is their tragedy. But Jasmila saves such and similar lives from the collective amnesia on which ‘political reality’ is founded; she deals with human beings with whom the state refuses to deal in the name of the constituent collectivity. The ethical engagement of Grbavica is to be found right here, an engagement that is something far greater than a banal political one. Cowards deal with constituent peoples, brave women with human fate.
Much, and rightly, has been said about the success of Bosnian film in the last few years. Prizes are an excellent thing, of course; worthy of respect too is the fact that our cinema has produced a talented generation of professionals (Tanović, Žalica, Begović, Žbanić, etc.). They have created their infrastructure in spite of the present-day Bosnian state, which always insists that they are its own babies. But the true success is to be found in the fact that Bosnian film has taken possession of - and seized from the constituent zombies - the reality in which the great majority of the population of Bosnia-Herzegovina lives. It has shown the suffering population that there is someone who respects life made up of individual decisions; that there is a way out of this shameful passivity.
Translated from Dani (Sarajevo), 10 March 2005