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VISIONS DU RÉEL 2018

Review: Srbenka

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- Nebojša Slijepčević's eagerly anticipated documentary on the controversial murder of a 12-year-old girl explores the issue through work on a theatre play about the same subject

Review: Srbenka

European documentary circles have been looking forward immensely to the second feature by Croatian filmmaker Nebojša Slijepčević (Gangster of Love [+see also:
film review
trailer
film profile
]
) – as a project, Srbenka [+see also:
trailer
interview: Nebojša Slijepčević
film profile
]
went through various development programmes and triumphed at Sarajevo's Docu Rough Cut Boutique last year. Croatian society, on the other hand, has been struggling with the subject matter since the murder of 12-year-old Serbian girl Aleksandra Zec in 1991, at the beginning of the war in Croatia. It has become a symbol of intolerance and ethnic cleansing, and a wound that does not heal, repeatedly causing divisions and turmoil.

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Now the film is here, and it has just world-premiered in the International Competition of Visions du Réel, also snagging a Special Mention (see the news). Slijepčević decided to follow work on a theatre play by famous director Oliver Frljić, who is celebrated in liberal Balkan circles and in many European countries – and attacked by right-wing conservatives at home – for his provocative, politically charged shows. 

The film opens with a touching testimony by a Serbian woman who is the same age as Aleksandra Zec would have been today if she had been alive, who tearfully describes the various ways she has been harassed throughout her life on account of her nationality. She is sitting in a darkened theatre auditorium, dressed in black, struggling to get the words out. Her often-devastating testimony will later be scattered throughout the film as a voice-over. 

Frljić works with actors as well as with four 12-year-old girls, one of them Serbian, who will be featured in the play, and who tell all about their own experiences. The whole process is highly emotional and painful for the whole professional cast – they are mostly in their thirties, so the war represents a childhood trauma for them. And through the four schoolgirls, we see that 20 years after the war, Croatian society still wears the scars and the perception of the Serbian minority has not significantly changed, and probably will not do so for a long time. 

Slijepčević's approach of tackling the very delicate issue through another level of representation – the stage play – which deals with the theme on its own terms has a twofold function: firstly, it allows him to explore the story through the perceptions and ideas of creative people who are delving deep into the subject, instead of an investigative form that would feature interviews with witnesses, sociologists or political figures, diluting the power of the story. Secondly, it helps to avoid over-the-top sentimentality that it would otherwise be so easy to slip into. Just one crime-scene photo, and several are shown in the film, is enough to make any heart sink. And as for the role and presence of the Serbian schoolgirl in the play: you simply have to see and hear her.

Srbenka is a production by Croatia's Restart. The international rights are available.

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