Grbavica: Winner at 2006 Berlin Film Fest

Bosnia and Herzegovinas 2006 entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Grbavica, can be seen as that countrys attempt to reconcile with its own history–specifically, the history of the Bosnian civil war of the 1990s, which killed over 100,000 and left almost two million more displaced.

The winner of major awards at the 2006 Berlin Film Festival, “Grbavica” played in Europe and other regions last year. It’s released a year later in the U.S. courtesy of the entrepreneurial Strand.

Writer-director Jasmila Zbanic, who was born in Sarajevo, demonstrates how the effects of war linger for years around the edges of society, creeping into every life, covering the skin like a scar. When she uses the wars aftermath as the backdrop for a muted mother-daughter character study, Grbavica has an engaging poignancy and a subtle somberness. However, when she goes for melodramatic catharsis in the final act, her good intentions outrun her filmmaking skill.

Though set in the present, Grbavica is basically a period piece since its characters are dragged down by a conflict that ended more than 10 years ago. Esma (Mirjana Karanovic) and her willful 12-year-old daughter Sara (Luna Mijovic) live in the economically depressed Grbavica district of Sarajevo. Her mother works two menial jobs to support the family–Saras father, whom she never met, died during the war. Sara spends her free hours courting Samir (Kenan Catic), a classmate who also lost his dad during the fighting. Meanwhile, Esma strikes up a friendship with Pelda (Leon Lucev), a bouncer at the nightclub where she serves drinks, and soon the tentative first sparks of a romance emerge.

While the Esma and Saras relationship is front and center, depicted as loving but also prickly, warm but still plagued by a generational gap, the film’s most incisive comments are about Zbanic’s wounded homeland. Symbolically, Esma represents all those who remember a time before bloodshed; the brave face she puts on in front of her daughter barely contains her shell-shocked emotions. Esma may have survived the war, but her psyche and soul didnt. In contrast, born as the war was nearing its end, Sara may stand-in for Bosnias wary present and future, looking to distance itself from a painful past.

The two women are used as national symbols, but Zbanic doesn’t neglect their individual characteristics and struggles. Grbavica digs deeper and rings truer than most Hollywood pictures about the travails of poverty among single-parent households.

Zbanic and cinematographer Christine A. Maier give these womens world a dingy authenticity, as unadorned as the film from the Belgian Dardenne brothers, such as “Rosetta,” or the more recent “L’enfant” (“The Child”). The drab streets and the downbeat faces of coworkers capture vividly and realistically a community that’s not only depressed economically but spiritually, too.

The acting is simple, direct, and powerful. Karanovic wears equal shades of resignation and determination on her face as Esma trudges through each day with one objective, to bring home enough money to financially support her daughter. The character has no motivational speeches, no heartfelt wisdom to impart–shes simply too exhausted most of the time for such grandstanding, though one cannot mistake her love for Sara.

As the adolescent girl, Mijovic superbly portrays an agonizing age. Saras hormones are firing and shes rebellious, but she seems more befuddled than elated by her budding teenage years. When Sara shares a lazy afternoon with Samir, learning how to shoot his dads old pistol, Mijovic displays the girls mixed emotions of terror, thrill, and flirtation. If you have forgotten what the danger and promise of a first love felt like, look at her face in that moment.

The men also deliver strong performances. As the tough guy with an awkward oafishness, Lucevs Pelda at first seems an incompatible mate for Esma, but Lucev reveals the characters soft heart. Like Esma and every adult in sight, Pelda still carries the pain of the Bosnian war around with him. In happier times, Pelda had dreams of attending school and making something out of his life, but in the aftermath of the war, survival is his main intentand consolation.

If Zbanic had focused on telling a quiet story about small victories and large uncertainties among the working poor, Grbavica would have been an impressively understated cultural portrait. Unfortunately, Zbanic cant resist the temptation of adding a melodramatic ending through a late plot revelation, which capsizes her well-observed film. When Saras school needs proof that her father was killed in the war, Esmas reluctance to produce the paperwork raises Saras and our suspicion, though unlike Sara, were able to guess Esmas long-buried secret early on in the film.

Some of the plot twists, though meant to underline how Bosnias past continues to haunt its present, feel manipulative, cheapening the conflict that tore apart a nation. Zbanic wants to memorialize her people, but she ends up diminishing their anguish.


Running time: 90 minutes

Director: Jasmila Zbanic
Production companies: Coop99, Deblokada, Noir film, Jadran
US distribution: Strand Releasing
Producers: arbara Albert, mir Ibrahimovic, uno Wagner
Co-Producers: Borris Michalski, Damir Rihtaric
Screenplay: Jasmila Zbanic
Cinematography: Christine A. Maier
Editor: Niki Mossbck
Production design: Kemal Hrustanovic
Music: Enes Zlatar


Esma (Mirjana Karanovic)
Sara (Luna Mijovic)
Pelda (Leon Lucev)
Samir (Kenan Catic)
Sabina (Jasna Ornela Berry)
Cenga (Dejan Acimovic)
Saran (Bogdan Diklic)

Reviewed by Tim Grierson