Deborah Ross

Winning ways | 16 December 2006

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This Bosnian film about the devastating emotional consequences of war has all the things you might expect from a Bosnian film about the devastating emotional consequences of war: suffering; pain; Soviet-style concrete estates with stinking stairwells; drab little apartments; dreary knitwear; hard-faced people tramping wearily though the slush and the snow; more suffering; more pain, more slush, more snow. But if this sounds like bad news let me tell you the good: there isn’t a single tap-dancing penguin in it. And here is the even better news: this is a gem of a movie. Or at least I think it is a gem of a movie.

I’m a little worried now that I only think this because I am so fed up with what mainstream Hollywood is currently offering. I don’t hate mainstream Hollywood movies as a rule — I cried throughout Brokeback Mountain; even made embarrassing gulping noises — but I just can’t take any more puerile animations or those rom-com narratives in which all contradictions are magically resolved in the happy ending you not only saw coming from a mile off, but seem scarcely worth keeping awake for. Anything but that! Bring on the slush and dreary knitwear! Hang on, though. Whoa. I am going to stick to my guns. Esma’s Secret is a gem of a movie. I’m sure of it. And it did win the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, whereas tap-dancing penguins did not. That has to count for something.

The film, set in Sarajevo after the Balkan war, opens with the camera scanning a group of Bosnian women — we later learn they are taking part in a counselling session — and settling on the face of Esma (Mirjana Karanovic, a wonderful, wonderful actress who makes every look and facial flicker count). The camera then cuts starkly to a thumping, trashy nightclub where Esma, somewhat humiliatingly, as she was a medical student before the war, has gone to seek a second job as a cocktail waitress. Esma needs to raise money. Esma has a 12-year-old daughter, Sara (Luna Mijovic, also magical, but with a weird Bay City Roller hair-do), who is keen to participate in a school trip that costs 200 euros. Esma needs to raise the full price even though a certificate proving that Sara’s father died as a ‘shaheed’ — a war hero — would allow a considerable discount.

Sara’s been told that her father is a shaheed, so why can’t Esma produce the certificate? The plot is basically built upon the tense struggle between Sara’s rising suspicions and Esma’s desperate attempts to hide the truth. What exactly is Esma’s secret? We know she is lying, but why?

Actually, it’s not too hard to work out — there are clues throughout — but I won't say here for fear of ruining the dénouement for all those who aren’t as quick-minded or bright as me. (I think there might be at least three.) This is a film in which hate and love, the past and the present, jostle for supremacy in a mother-daughter relationship as it does, I guess, in any post-war nation. Loving hugs are followed by sharp slaps. Sharp slaps are followed by loving hugs. You’re never certain which way Esma is going to go. Towards anger? Or forgiveness? There is no true violence and no military action, but this is a film about the victims of war all the same.

Esma’s Secret is not a pleasurable fiction. It’s a serious work about real people, real lives and when it’s permissible to stop looking back and to start looking forward. ‘If I remembered everything, I’d kill myself,’ says a character at one stage. This all sounds horribly grim, but the performances are so luminous and the direction (from Jasmila Zbanic) is so assured — a brief glimpse of Esma’s scarred back when she removes her shirt says as much about scarring as these things ever can — that you always feel intimately and, at times, almost desperately involved. I know that, when it comes to it, a lot of people won’t fancy this film, won’t consider it up their street. To these people I will say this: move street. Sorry to come on so strong, but if no one veers off and proclaims the merits of this sort of stuff it’ll be tap-dancing penguins until the very end of time itself. This is a smart, moving film, and ultimately optimistic. Hate may have the questions, but love has the answer. Heavens, that was almost deep. I think I’d best go lie down in a darkened room until it passes...