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Ellen Klein reviews a poignant and thoughtful film from her adopted home town of Sarajevo – Remake.
“Friendship and love are the most important things in the world.”
I live on Zagrebacka, or Zagreb Street. My apartment on the eighth story was probably once an upscale flat, but is now out of date and run down. The exterior of the building is riddled with bullet holes while inside there’s little capacity for hot water, no new appliances, and a refrigerator that hasn’t worked quite right since it was shot. Evidence of the 1992-1995 war is everywhere.
This, however, should be no surprise given that the siege of Sarajevo started here, right here, just outside my building. Grbavica (Grab-ba-veet-sa, the name of this section of town) is also an important setting in the 2003 film about the war entitled Remake, directed by Dino Mustafic (in Bosnian with English subtitles). It begins with a family being suddenly swept into the war as Serb forces appear and start kicking down doors. In the film the Serbs (Orthodox Christians) living in Grbavica are forced at gunpoint to serve in the military while the Bosniaks (Muslims) are rounded up, killed, or sent to work camps. Neighbors, friends and even family members, are pitted against each other, often to the death.
Remake is also a ‘remake’ – a story about Bosnia’s past during WWII. The life of the protagonist, Bosniak Tarik (Ermin Bravo), in 1992 is paralleled with the life of his father Achmed (Ermin Sijamija) fifty years earlier. Both men are trapped in a besieged Sarajevo and struggle to survive the horrors of prison camps.
But this is not the only story. The postmodern subtext is what truly captures the title of the film as father and son serve as a metaphor of doom for all future generations. Although I had been in Sarajevo only a few weeks prior to the film’s release in February of 2003, many of the scenes – streets, shops, and restaurants – were familiar sights already too much like home, and I felt an immediate personal connection. In addition, Mustafic studied philosophy (my colleague being one of his professors) and there is no doubt that Remake is an attempt to reconstruct Bosnia’s recent history in the light of his own intellectual heritage – post-Kantian German Idealism combined with postmodern French Deconstruction.
For instance, one scene takes place in a prison where Tarik and his fellow Bosniaks are constantly humiliated for the amusement of a trio of Serbian guards. One of the young Bosniaks is made to stand before the guards and sing. His voice starts soft and timid, but slowly crescendos into a hypnotic melody that mesmerizes the guards, the prisoners, and the audience. But like watching a time bomb tick away its last few seconds, you are too captivated by the scene to shield yourself against the inevitable explosion of sickening cruelty that obliterates the beautiful spell. The effect is that one slice of a past perception is made present in awareness, culminating in the dual Heideggerian/Derridian challenge that the sensational moment that seems to be most important – i.e., the discomfort of the ‘now’ – may be nothing more than a philosophical bias.
Although incredibly moving, Remake (35mm, 1:42 minutes) suffers from several ‘first feature’ problems. For instance, Mustafic tries to take, in his own words, a very ‘intimate and local’ story (via the autobiographical script of Zlato Topcic) and expand it to fit the imposing canvas of the big screen, and some scenes come across awkwardly. In addition, the attempt to visually weave Tarik’s and Achmed’s two stories together into one epic causes abrupt transitions in the film’s flow. What is lost aesthetically, however, is gained politically – politics being both the essence and impetus of this work. Mustafic wanted the world to know that Bosnia is now the keeper of a ‘lost generation’; tens of thousands of Muslims, Croats and Serbs were killed, wounded or psychologically scarred by a war that, in the minds of contemporary Bosnians, still doesn’t make sense. Nostalgically Mustafic laments, “you know, we led a normal European life before the war.” Bosnians wish the rest of the world viewed them, in the words of many of my students here at the University of Sarajevo, as ‘normal’.
Adding to Remake’s mystique is its postmodern fascination with itself via the more general subject of film. The story opens with Tarik and his best friend Miro (Aleksander Seksan), a Bosnian Serb, playing their ritual game of pantomina, hand charades in which film is always the subject. In addition Tarik’s love of film finds artistic expression, and manifests itself in a screenplay (a film within a film.) Then with a jolt, art is eclipsed by war, the two friends are pulled apart by the tide of the rising conflict, and their game of pantomina becomes the way to reach out across the gulf of ethnic hatred. The theme of film develops further when, in the midst of the siege, Tarik is catapulted into the limelight as a French producer discovers his screenplay and makes him their concern de jour. Though much fanfare is made of Tarik and his plight during a reception in Paris, his film is reduced to a futile plea for a patronizing international community that samples human crises like so many hors d’oeuvres. What should have been a smooth synthesis of the dialectical notions (à la Hegel) of past and present, art and reality, used to exemplify the whole of history instead runs headlong into its own post-structuralist limitations – after all, Tarik is simply one man telling one story.
But Remake’s hard-hitting critique of the Continent and its philosophical heritage has not prevented it from having international appeal. It has been invited to fourteen film festivals including Istanbul, Paris and London, and Mustafic plans to take the film to the United States in the fall. It seems that in spite of its ‘local’ flavor, Remake is disturbingly global. One not only learns about the psyche of the contemporary Bosnian, someone who sees everyone – foreigner, countryman, neighbor, friend, and even lover, as the ‘other’ – one is also forced to challenge the very idea of perceiving anyone as the ‘other’ (via ethnic or religious distinctions) in the first place.
Most fascinating is the last scene. Here Tarik and Miro play a final round of pantomina. The clue: a single thumb pointing down. Within the scope of the game the film in question is markedly domestic, but the universal meaning of ‘thumbs down’ cannot be ignored. The dual meaning of this single hand gesture ensures that Remake, as a story of ethnic hatred and war, transcends its place and time. That is, as long as archaic tribalism is still so much a part of contemporary life, no one is exempt from its sad conclusion.
For all its emotional power and political implications, Remake leaves one in a state of stunned ambivalence. Both the text and tone express a jaded pessimism (perhaps understandably) towards the impact of such films, as if it expects its own impact to soon ebb into impotence. Remake cannot claim to be a take-it-as-you-will story about the war in Bosnia given its selfconsciousness about film and culture. It therefore seems to mock itself and its subject with the kind of resigned nihilism so indicative of postmodern culture.
The real power of Remake is not its story about a sad and war-torn past, but its foreshadowing an even grimmer future. For Bosnia there is no way to break the Nietzscheanesque eternal recurrence of war. There can be no happy ending.
© DR E.R. KLEIN 2004
Ellen Klein is a philosopher and Fulbright Scholar in Residence at the University of Sarajevo. She is the author of several books, including Undressing Feminism (Paragon House) and People First: Professional and Business Ethics Without Ethics (University Press of America). She is a full time professor at Flagler College in St Augustine, Florida.