Movie time: Dara in denial

The film Dara of Jasenovac was launched with as much publicity (a lot) as a regime-controlled media system can muster, promoted (unsuccessfully) as a candidate for the Oscars, and offered up (expensively) to a large public in a television broadcast premiere. It has produced a great deal of debate, much of it not about the quality of the film itself, but about the morality of producing a dramatic account of the genocide committed by the collaborationist Independent State of Croatia (NDH) between 1941 and 1945. There have been lots of passionate exchanges between people who have not seen the film about whether or not it should have been made, which are interesting in the sense that any set of questions and answers that both lack content can possibly be interesting.

No room for doubt exists at all on the question of whether Jasenovac and the events around it are important and deserving of commemoration. This was a massive crime, ideologically motivated, systematically planned, and brutally executed. Nearly every family in the region is directly or indirectly touched by it in some way. The fact that irresponsible and criminal political actors have spent much of the past thirty years abusing its memory and using it to justify a new set of crimes does not do anything to diminish the legitimate claims for recognition by victims and their descendants. The victims deserve good history to be written, good discussions to be engaged, and good films to be made.

This is not a good film.

The reason it is not good is not so much in the “anti-Croatian, anti-Catholic nativism” that Variety’s reviewer condemned it for. A visible effect of the film may have been to animate public contention between pseudonymous traders in the secondary victims’ market putting themselves across as Serbian or Croatian, but the script repeatedly buys insurance against the charge that it is anti-Croatian in the ethnic sense. How? Well, its insurance payments are conveniently cheap. In the opening segment a Croat mother rescues a child from a forced march. The camp guards appear to generally tolerate a couple of cameos by Diana Budisavljević (about whom a much better director made a much better film).  One of the nuns seems kind of concerned when her charges are about to be killed. So there you have it, the producers gave us some nice Croats.

So, does that mean that the director Predrag Antonijević is right when he says that it is an “anti-ustaša, not an anti-Croat film”? Well, the problem is that it is not all that anti-ustaša, at least not in any historically meaningful way.

There exists an ample literature about the ustaša movement and the short-lived “Independent State of Croatia” that operated for four years under the sponsorship of the Nazis. It was a nasty entity that intended, planned, and committed genocide. I mention this because promoters of the film like to make the claim that this bit of history is unknown, or has been repressed, or was silenced, or is systematically denied. These claims are demonstrably false. The crimes of NDH are well documented, widely memorialised, generally known, and the subject of a very considerable research literature, popular non-fiction, and cultural representations including novels, theatre performances, and films. Among the films it would be reasonable to include Branko Marjanović’s Zastava (1949), France Stiglic’s Deveti krug (1960), Eduard Galić’s Crne ptice (1967), and Lordan Zafranović’s Okupacija u 26 slika (1978), among others. Why point all this out? Because claims by nonguitarists who inexplicably call themselves “Prince” aside, the facts here are known by everybody who wants to know them, as well as by some people who do not.

In fact the whole script depends on the assumption that viewers already know a great deal, because it tells them nothing. Who were the ustaše and what motivated them? You won’t find out from this representation where they come from, what they did, or that they were a political movement at all. Instead you see them as a fairly small group of individuals who have some sadistic psychopathologies, that they manifest in a completely unsystematic way. Here and there they will shoot some people, julienne them with sheaf cutters, or whack them to death with hammers. The visual effect is impressive if empty necrophilia is your thing, but it is as far from “truth” about genocide as can be. If this were the way that killings were conducted in the camp there would be a few hundred victims, not 80-90,000.

Genocide is not, as it appears to be in the film, a whimsy of a few whack jobs playing dressup. It is organised and systematic. To give an example, the commission of the genocide in Srebrenica (which, as nationalists will eagerly point out to you, had fewer victims than Jasenovac) involved 25,083 identified participants,  including the people who actually conducted the murders, people who transported victims, people who provided supplies of various kinds, and people who destroyed and altered evidence afterward. Have a look, for example, just at the section of the Mladić trial judgement concerning “burial operations” (here, it begins on page 1574), to get a sense of the scale of mobilisation required just to hide evidence once the crime has already been committed. It is a process that cannot be reduced to a few people and their personal characteristics or emotional conditions. To try to reduce it to that is to trivialise both the scale of the crime and the experience of the victims, to say nothing of grossly narrowing the perpetrators’ scope of responsibility.

In representing the camp itself, the crimes of the ustaše are similarly minimised. There is a stark contrast with the visual style typical of Holocaust films, as a lot of the 2.3 million the director got from public funds was spent on gussying up the production values. There’s lots of lush Slavonian landscape, bucolic farmland, lighting in the Ernest Dickerson palette. The camp quarters are spacious and uncramped, and the warm relationships that develop between the inmates and their solicitous capos are only intermittently interrupted by the visits of guards who pirouette their way through as if they were on a catwalk. The inmates must have a daily laundry service that keeps them permanently uppa druppa with fresh and unwrinkled handkerchiefs.

It goes without saying that this visual rendering of the camp bears no resemblance at all to Nazi-era camps, neither in reality nor in film. A scene of imprisoned children playing a football match suggests the possible influence of an earlier cinematic abuse of Jasenovac, Istina (2016) by the contemptible propagandist Jakov Sedlar.

The bits that represent original contributions by the creators of the film are maudlin, and just awful: ustaše who are so excited by the killing they run off to schtup in car, a kid peeing on Vjekoslav Luburić’s shoe, Ante Vrban constantly eating fruit like some sort of fascist Rastafarian. These innovations will not turn out to have been iconic contributions to the cinema of genocide.

Is there anything good about the film? Well, as noted above, it is visually quite impressive. And there are several actors who succeed, at least partly, in their ongoing battle against the disservice that the scriptwriters did to them.

And as for what is bad about it? Raging condemnations of propaganda aside, it leaves a strange impression. Yes, there is enough random and sadistically depicted killing to satisfy anybody who may have doubted that fascists were really, really bad. But all of it is so thoroughly decontextualised that no insight is offered into the fact that the killing took place as a part of a system, and that this system was promoted on the level of ideas, drew on a sustained supply of materials and personnel, depended on a military and economic sponsor, and was defeated. The scenic elaboration of the camp further undermines any effort to identify with the experiences of people who found themselves in it, while the complete absence of character development makes it impossible to establish any emotional contact, either with the people you are supposed to be crying for or are supposed to be crying about. It’s gossamer violence by cardboard perpetrators. It uses, and in the final analysis betrays, the victims.