In an Academy Awards ceremony hardly lacking for milestones, one went overlooked amid the glamorous histrionics: Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s very first Oscar entrant, nabbed the foreign-language prize from that adorable superwaif Amélie. BAMcinématek’s doc-dominated program “No Man’s Land: The Splintering of Yugoslavia” (April 12-14) offers Tanovic’s previous nonfiction work—shot during and after the war in Bosnia—as well as films from Serbia, Croatia, and Kosovo.
Sarajevo was burning when Polish-born filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski trained his camera on Radovan Karadjic for Serbian Epics (1993), in which the now fugitive war criminal patiently explains that his fighters aren’t besieging the city but defending it from marauding Turks. Writer-director of last year’s refugee tale Last Resort, Pawlikowski adds mordant touches (an intertitle reads, “Leader of the Bosnian Serbs Visits His Mother”) to a chilling portrait in extremist nationalism. Karadjic strolls serenely through incongruously verdant countryside, purring about “Serbian destiny” while idle soldiers stand in wait, drunkenly whiling away the hours with renditions of sadistic anthems.
Pawlikowski sometimes edits Serbian Epics to reinforce a clichéd cartoon image of genetic bloodthirst. Bozidar Knezevic’s doc Operation “Storm” (2001) expands the aperture: Croatian refugees return to the newly liberated village of Knin sporting as much enthusiasm for ethnic cleansing as their Serbian neighbors had before. “Now they can experience what they had done to us,” says one Croat; indeed, in the gruesome barter that ensued, hundreds were killed and tens of thousands driven from their homes. Tracking mile upon mile of abandoned farmland choked with weeds and the remains of burned-out houses, Knezevic’s coolly observed film documents the suffering of civilian Serbs with a candor that much mainstream media has found inconvenient.
Aftermaths are Tanovic’s topic in Dawn (1996) and Awakening (1998). The latter travels yet more ruined landscapes in rural Bosnia, encountering the few embittered souls who eke out an existence in what remains very much a battle zone: There’s no emergency aid, no electricity, their houses sit in piles of rubble, and winter is coming. The Bosnian subject of Dawn endures an endless, nerve-shredding wait for the wife and children he hasn’t seen since losing his arms and eyesight in a blast; the final scene of their reunion, shuddering with inextricable joy and sorrow, is one of the most quietly devastating in memory. Tanovic needlessly underlines the moment by adding an epigraph, one equally suited to all of these films: “The soul’s wounds are immortal.”