Explaining Bosnia's War Through Film
School pupils in Bosnia and Serbia have welcomed a series of IWPR films about how individual lives were changed by the Bosnian war, saying this was the right way to inform the younger generation about their countries’ recent histories.
The short TV documentaries, which IWPR produced together with Sarajevo-based production company Mebius Film, form a series called “20 Years Later”, and feature people who displayed humanity and moral courage and helped others at the worst of times, and regardless of ethnic and political divisions.
The films sparked heated debate about the war and its consequences when they were shown in schools. School pupils in both Serbia and Bosnia said they revealed aspects of the 1992-95 war that they had not previously known about.
“Every story you hear in this country sets people apart, puts them into boxes, and makes them take sides. This film was different, and that's why I liked it.”
Ajla, pupil at Dobrinja High School, Sarajevo
One film, about the experiences of a Bosniak, a Serb and a Croat who were all imprisoned by one of the other sides during the war, was screened at Dobrinja High School in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo in early March. It was a rare opportunity for young people to hear of the sufferings of members of other ethnic groups, not just of their own.
“I’ve never heard testimony from a Serb who suffered in the war,” a pupil called Ajla told IWPR after the screening. “Until now, I thought of Serbs only as war crime perpetrators. But now I can see that – as one of the detainees in this film said – there are two kinds of people, those who suffer and those who make other people suffer. I completely agree that those who make people suffer are war crime perpetrators, regardless of their [ethnicity] or ideology.”
Ajla’s classmate Zerina said the situation in Bosnia today was like a “passive war” in which the “burden of hatred is passed on to new generations”.
Most of the young people who took part in the conversation after the screening agreed that all sides needed to look at their own pasts openly and objectively, even if that meant accepting unpleasant facts.
“I hope that kids from all ethnic groups and from all over the region get to see this film,” Zerina said. “You know, we live mostly with people of our own ethnic group. My parents wouldn’t tell me about crimes committed by members of our ethnic group.”
One young man named Amer described the films as a “perfect educational tool” which would contribute to “better understanding and more tolerance”.
Ajla agreed that objectivity was important.
“Every story you hear in this country sets people apart, puts them into boxes, and makes them take sides. This film was different, and that's why I liked it,” she said.
For many Bosnian families, discussing what happened during the war stirs up deep and painful personal memories.
At one point, a pupil named Amina burst into tears.
“I lost a brother in the war, a brother whom I never knew, whom I’d have been really happy to meet in person,” she said, adding that the film reminded her of how everyone who suffered has a family that suffered, too.
“Until we learn to share the pain with each other, it will be hard to find common ground and move towards a better future,” she said.
“These films can broaden children’s horizons and make them realise where they live, what happened here, how others live, how others died, why they died and who is responsible.”
Goran Bimbasic, Pancevo school director, Serbia
Similar discussions took place after pupils at Josif Pancic High School in the Serbian town of Pancevo watched another film in the series in March. The film they saw was “The Acting Mum”, about a Bosnian Serb women who fostered two Bosniak children.
As one pupil, Stevan, noted, “The wars in the Balkans created a situation in which it was unusual for a Serb woman to adopt Bosniak children. The wars of the Nineties left deep scars on people in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, and that’s why I think her actions were brave”.
Another pupil, Aleksandra, said many people in Serbia hated people of other nationalities.
“There was a Croatian boy in my primary school and one of our classmates was constantly picking on him and even used to beat him up,” she said. “He wouldn’t let him hang out with the other kids. As a result, the boy left our school and no one has heard from him since. I thought it was horrible. I don’t think we have a reason to hate one another. We are all human.”
A heated debate ensued when one pupil who took part in the discussion said he felt hostility towards Albanians “because they are killing and slaughtering Serbs in Kosovo”. Almost all his classmates said he was wrong to hate members of other ethnic groups and to see Serbs only as victims.
“What you think about them is exactly what they think about us. That’s not an argument – that way, we’ll always hate each other,” Milica, another pupil, said.
The young people at the Pancevo school insisted on seeing another film in the series. “The Righteous Man” is about Lazar Manojlovic, a Serb who was the director of a primary school in Bijeljina and refused orders given by the local Bosnian Serb authorities to expel all non-Serb children when war broke out in 1992. The film also features a Bosniak girl who went to his school during the war.
After watching the film, the audience remained quiet for a few moments. Natalija was the first to break the silence.
“The director of the Bijeljina school was a truly good person, unlike all other Serbs in the town who forced him out solely because he was trying to help his pupils,” she said. “I can’t even imagine what it was like for that Bosniak girl. I cannot imagine walking down the street and having people look down on me just because my name is different.”
All the pupils said it was hard to find out what really happened during the Balkan wars because they did not learn about it at school. They said films like this should be screened at other schools to help strip away prejudices.
The school’s history teacher, Miodrag Radojkovic, said his pupils had “no one to talk to about [the war], so schools should provide some information on the events of the Nineties”.
He said the history textbooks in current use were totally inadequate, as they were written 15 years ago and contained only a few sentences about the wars.
“That leaves space for the children to form their own mistaken perceptions,” he continued. “IWPR’s films are really good, and they made these young people think. Multiculturalism needs to be cherished in Serbia. We have to explain to children that they have to live together and respect one another other, because that’s the only way they can move forward.”
Natalija was less optimistic, saying, “I don’t think there will ever come a time when everyone in all countries in the region will learn the same facts about the Balkan wars. We will always get just one side of the story.”
The Pancevo school’s director Goran Bimbasic said he believed the IWPR films were tackling the recent past in the Balkans in the right way.
“We have to show those children what happened in this region in recent decades,” he said. “We have to teach them that there are things in life they must never ignore, because denial and obliviousness have plagued our country for too long.
Documentary film was a good medium for achieving this, he said.
“The IWPR films can really enrich these young people – they can teach them that we should all live together and get along as much as possible,” he said. “These films can broaden children’s horizons and make them realise where they live, what happened here, how others live, how others died, why they died and who is responsible.”
Velma Saric is an IWPR-trained reporter in Sarajevo. Iva Martinovic is an RFE and IWPR reporter in Belgrade.