Life & Culture

Film review: Dara of Jasenovac

This Serbian film feels misjudged and gratuitous says Linda Marric



There have been more than a few film productions about the atrocities that took place during the Holocaust, but Serbian director Predrag Antonijevic’s Dara of Jasenovac feels a little different. Selected by Serbia as its entry for this year’s Best International Film Oscar, the film tells the story of a young Serbian girl who comes face to face with the horrors inflicted by fascistic Croatian forces against Serbs and Jews in the 1940s.

Written by Natasa Drakulic, Dara of Jasenovac often feels needlessly gratuitous in its depictions of some of the most sadistic acts of violence inflicted against men, women and children as though the film takes pleasure in depicting these atrocities in every lurid detail.

During the course of the Second World War, the independent state of Croatia, which was led by the fascist Ustase government, established a concentration camp complex known as Jasenovac to exterminate ethnic Serbs, Jews and Roma people. The camp was the only operation run by non-Germans in Europe and became notorious when it transpired what had occurred within its grounds.

We first meet ten-year-old Dara (Biljana Cekic) as she is rounded up alongside her mother Nada (Alisa Radakovic) and two brothers and transported by train to Jasenovac. At the camp, Dara is left in shock after witnessing the killing of most of the men who had arrived with her earlier in a cruel game of musical chairs devised by the vicious officers who oversaw the facility; a game which sees the loser of each round eviscerated by the officer in front of his German guests.

When her mother and teenage brother are murdered in cold blood by the camp’s commander, Dara is left alone to look after her infant brother as they are transported alongside the remaining women to a nearby mill for work. There, the young girl must plot a path towards freedom with the help of Jewish prisoner Blankica (Jelena Grujicic). Meanwhile Dara’s father Mile (Zlatan Vidovic) who had been tasked with burying the dead in mass graves is distraught when he discovers his own wife and son among the dead.

Although not based on a true story, we are told that the film’s screenplay comes from several witness testimonies by those who were present at the time.

While we know for sure that these things did happen, one wonders about the political messages contained in the film.

Granted, Antonijevic presents a handsomely made film on the technical side of things, but there is something that doesn’t sit right with the film’s intention in a contemporary setting. Those familiar with the long and painful history of the Balkans and the senseless conflicts of the 90s will be au fait with the precarious relationship between Serbs and Croats since the break up of the former republic of Yugoslavia. To add even more fuel to an already inflammatory situation feels beyond irresponsible and not to mention a little disingenuous.

Overall, the film’s saving grace is Biljana Cekic’s beautifully understated performance, but beside telling a timely story about the region’s dark past, the film often descends into nationalistic and anti-Croat fervour which in turn only serves to dilute its message.

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