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Vukovar

By Jim Bartlett, Editor in Chief

Vukovar is an exceptional film about the Eastern Slavonian city severely ravaged in the initial stages of the Croatian war in 1991. Directed by Boro Draskovic, the film stars Boris Isakovic as Toma, a Serb, and Mirjana Jokovic as his Croatian wife Anna. It is a classic tale of love torn asunder by war, but with a twist. It was filmed on location in the real life ruins of Vukovar with active front lines nearby.

I am not a film reviewer, but I have seen my share of war movies and this one is pretty good. There is none of the hell-for-leather glory hounding, or outright propaganda of many films produced while a war is in progress. And because this exceptional feature was filmed during the Bosnian war, it is as accurate as any war movie ever made. The sets were the streets and the military equipment is about authentic as it gets. More than likely a lot of it helped "dress" the war in the first place, back in 1991.

The film's best attribute is its apolitical evaluation of the war. Director Boro Draskovic, who is half Croatian and half Bosnian, went to great pains and extra edits to avoid the never-ending rounds of Balkan finger pointing. With the exception of a few scenes that have aggravated certain players in the politics of the region, namely the Croats, the film keeps to its central theme of otherwise normal people, deeply in love, caught up in extraordinary circumstances.
The opening scenes depicting the approaching war see Croat extremists stirring up trouble with local Serbs in Vukovar. Many Croatians objected to this, claiming that it laid blame for the war with them. The Croatian government actually had the film yanked from a screening at a UN cultural event, claiming that it didnít demonstrate enough sensitivity toward the Croatian victims of Vukovar. In Croatia, Vukovar is seen as a sort of Gettysburg, and one way or another they are bent on returning the province to their control. The movie has proven to be a lightning rod for political outcry even though it has cleaned house with honors at every film festival where it has shown, from Cannesí coveted Palm DíOr to the recent Newport Beach Film Festival where it took best of show.


I can see how political problems can occur with such an emotionally-charged topic since Vukovar suffered as no other city during the Croatian war. It was almost literally blown off the map and refugees from the battle and subsequent fall still languish in refugee centers across Croatia five years after the fact. There are also thousands still unaccounted for. The siege of Vukovar hospital set the pattern for the years of ethnic cleansing that swept the Balkans. Before the war, 68,000 Serbs and 125,000 ethnic Croatians, Hungarians, Muslims and other groups lived in greater Vukovar. Only a few hundred non-serbs, mostly the elderly and ill, remain.

In the opening scenes, when things begin to degenerate between neighbors, a carload of Croat extremists carry out a night raid in a Serb neighborhood, shooting up a house with an AK and being fired back at by the Serbs who seem to spring from every window and door. This is the big inflammatory moment for ethnically-charged audiences, but they donít bother to remember that Anna is a Croat married to a Serb and living in a Serb neighborhood.

In this context, there was no other way to show how the extremism that destroyed Vukovar was a very grassroots movement when it came to the hands-on work of ethnic division, regardless of who was pulling the strings. From my point of view, this underscores the chaotic stages early in Yugoslavia's implosion where the local butcher, baker and candlestick maker were caught up in the tide of fratricide. Never mind that director Draskovic is of a Croat and Serb mixed marriage, and being an educated man can see the motivations on both sides, as does his leading lady, Mirjana Jokovic with whom I shared lunch recently.


Mirjana is typical of many young progressives in the Balkans. Young, educated, and as pretty in real life as she is in the movie. She is a Serb, but very apolitical about it. As we talked, it was quickly apparent that she is a woman who can think for herself and not one to tow a party line.

As a working actress from Belgrade, she was spared the humiliations and depravations of the war zone and, I think, has a clearer outlook on the problems because of it. During the filming, she lived in Vukovar for a month and a half in slightly-renovated facilities that housed the operation in a city that remains shattered by the big guns of '91 and within earshot of then active front lines that snake across that part of Slavonia. "We would hear bombs, you know," she said "but you get used to it. It's amazing. The first three days you cannot sleep. The fourth and fifth you’re fine, and after a month and a half well..."

We talked about how the younger generation, and people in general have been affected by the beyond the actualities of combat and hunger. "The tragedy of war is that it lasts for much longer than it really lasts. I mean that feeling of war, it has to last many years before people can actually feel normal. I think for the rest of their lives, because they were the witness of something, I think the human race shouldn't go through that. It doesn't matter which side."

We talked for over an hour about all that has gone on and all that is going on there, not so much an interview, but as people who have both been there. We covered the width and breadth of everything from post traumatic stress in veterans to the opposition movements in Belgrade and war profiteers. Her overall take on it all was, "I hate everyone who is trying to excite or make the bigger anger." Amen.

Overall, I think the movie deserves a look, if for no other reason than to see a good piece of work done in less than ideal conditions. In order to get the real point of it all, before going in, forget everything you have ever heard about Yugoslavia and their nasty little war. This movie is too powerful and too encompassing and goes far beyond the Balkans. If you go in with a lot of preconceived baggage, you will miss the point entirely.


Additional resources
Tribunal Hears how Serb Helped Croat Survive Vukovar
Account of the Siege of Vukovar
The People of Vukovar
Photo Exhibit from Pavao Pavlicic
The History of Vukovar
Vukovar City Net Home Page
Human Rights at Vukovar
Vukovar County Chamber
Home Page of Stanislav Banic, a Vukovar Area Resident

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