When the civil war broke out in Bosnia Herzegovina, Jasmila Zbanic was 17 years old.

“At the time, I had one main thing on the brain, and that was sex, like any ordinary teenager,” she laughs, “but the war changed everything. I learned that sex could be used as a weapon in warfare, and that rape was one of the worst brutalities that could happen to a human being. Like everyone else in Sarajevo, I was horrified. The world had turned into a place of horror and unspeakable evil.”

That memory is one of the things that propelled Zbanic to become a filmmaker. After making short films and documentaries on the aftermath of the Balkan War, Zbanic got the funds together to create “Grbavica” — (released in Japan as “Sarajevo no Hana”), a quiet heartache of a film that deals with one of Bosnia’s most lingering traumas: the systematic rape and humiliation of thousands of women, both Serb and Muslim.

Director Jasmila Zbanic
Run Time 95 minutes
Language Bosnian
Opens Opens Dec. 8, 2007
Children of Glory
Director Krisztina Goda
Run Time 120 minutes
Language Hungarian, Russian, English
Opens Opens Nov. 23, 2007

“Women were confined in camps where they were subject to daily brutality. When the women became pregnant, they were forced to give birth, as part of ethnic cleansing. Many chose suicide, and many abandoned their babies,” explains Zbanic. “But on one occasion when I was making a documentary, I interviewed a woman who had gotten pregnant and had given birth. She told me that after all the pain and trauma, when she saw the baby she was astonished — she had never seen anything so beautiful in her life.”

That meeting decided the film’s story, one that picked up 12 years after this woman and thousands like her held their newborns in their arms.

Esma (Mirjana Karanovic, a regular in Bosnian director Emil Kusturica’s films) is a single mother in her 30s. Living in the Sarajevo district of Grbavica with her 12-year-old daughter Sara (Luna Mijovic), she works in a shoe factory and barely makes ends meet. Esma is a reticent, unexpressive woman, but when she attends the state-sponsored therapy sessions for female war victims her reticence turns into complete, stony silence — even though she is encouraged time and again to talk. She goes to the sessions only when money is doled out, and when she picks up the cash she leaves in a hurry.

Esma has told her daughter that her father died as a war hero (called shaheed in Bosnian) and that the girl should be proud of this. The tomboyish and combative Sara is at a difficult age. In school she’s drawn to classmate Samir (Kenan Catic), who shows her a gun inherited from his father (“he was a war hero too!”). Sara presses Esma to give her some similar token she could show off, then flies into tantrums of rage when Esma evades her pleas.

The situation becomes worse when a school field trip is announced; the fee is 200 euro (¥32,000) but children of the shaheed can go for free. Taking it for granted that she can go, Sara doesn’t understand why Esma cannot provide the necessary documentation about her father.

The film is compelling, not just because of the complexity of the mother-daughter relationship, but because it provides a window into the lives of people who live under a state system that provides therapy sessions for rape victims, but at the same time has no qualms about discriminating between the children of the shaheed and the others.

“For a long time, the victims had to live with shame and humiliation,” says Zbanic. “Especially in rural villages where people are more conservative. But the church and Islamic leaders have both decreed that these victims should be treated on the same level as war heroes, that they are clean and have nothing to be ashamed of.”

Zbanic adds too that this is not a documentary and would not like the world to think “all Bosnian men are horrible — I get that reaction a lot!”

But she did want to stress that for many rape victims, there is still “an economic war” going on, simply because they’re single parents supporting children. “A lot of women are unemployed, or like Esma, working long hours in a factory to scrape by.”

If nothing else, the film stresses how the war is over but the battles continue, especially for women.

“But I think women are stronger than men, they will always find a way out, in any situation,” says Zbanic.

For 39-year-old filmmaker Krisztina Goda, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was a distant shadow that cast a slight but perceptible gloom over her childhood.

“I am of the generation that missed out on the one of the most dramatic moments in my country’s history,” she says. “I heard about it of course, from snippets of adult conversations. But it was still a very delicate subject. No one talked about it in public, at least not until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.”

Nearly two decades after that, the time is finally ripe for a movie like “Szabadsag, Szerelem (“Children of Glory” — released in Japan as “Kimi no Namida Donau ni Nagare”),” which tackles the 1956 revolution, as well as highlighting a forgotten slice of sports history: a bloody water-polo match between Hungary and the Soviet Union at the Melbourne Olympic Games that same year.

An excellent historical depiction with a solid, restrained love-story at its core, at first viewing “Children of Glory” seems crafted by a heavy-handed veteran instead of the young and fragile-looking Goda. What compelled her to helm such an ambitious grand-scale project, which came on the heels of her successful debut, “Just Sex and Nothing Else?”?

“The subject just fascinated me, and I knew that I wanted to share this piece of Hungarian history with the rest of the world,” Goda says. “Now was the time, and I thought that it may never come again, so I had better get on with it.”

Goda studied filmmaking at UCLA, and it shows in the structural logistics and the down-to-earth dialogue; clearly, she is versed in the technique of crowd-pleasing, Hollywood-style filmmaking. (She even asked screenwriter Joe Eszterhas of “Basic Instinct,” to come on board.)

At the same time, “Children of Glory” is charged with European sensitivities and aesthetics. Goda saves realism for the details of each frame.

“For example, I insisted that the leading actress should not look pretty, or be well-dressed. No one could look like a fashion model and be a political activist in 1950s Hungary,” she says. “People were hungry; they wore clothes that were handed down from relatives; houses and buildings were underheated so everyone had this pinched, tired look.”

Certainly, protagonist Viki (Kata Dobo) looks fatigued, and she spends much of the film with wounds and scars on her face. The daughter of Budapest intellectuals who were tortured and killed by the Hungarian secret police known as the AVO, Viki throws body and soul into fighting for freedom. Her beauty is in her strength and willingness to serve the common good — it’s this trait that keeps her love-story from falling headlong into war-time melodrama (think “Pearl Harbor”).

Her lover Karesi (Ivan Fenyo), though, has the looks of a romantic lead, one that could carry a 1940s Hollywood movie all by himself. The star player in the Hungarian national water-polo team, Karesi initially cannot understand Viki’s passion for political activism. When he witnesses the brutalities of the police and the Soviets unfolding on the streets in daylight, though, he discards his neutral views to join forces with Viki, knowing this will probably destroy his chances to play in the Olympic Games.

“Just before the revolution, violence on the streets escalated daily,” says Goda. “Women and children were gunned down or arrested and executed. Children were held in prison until they turned 18 and then executed. That was the way it was.”

Viki convinces Karesi to take off for Melbourne, after which they pitch their strengths against the Soviets and AVO, each in their separate ways on either sides of the globe.

“It took this long for Hungary to make this movie and face this painful period of history.” says Goda. “I just hope that the film paves the way for others like it, because there are too many untold stories in the world.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.