Through the stories of three people who lived through the 1995 genocide, the documentary ‘Disturbed Earth’ looks at how the past still exerts a powerful influence over everyday life in Srebrenica today.
A haunting image of a truck carrying coffins with recently-exhumed remains of people killed during the 1995 massacres of Bosniaks from Srebrenica takes the audience back to the 20th anniversary of the genocide.
At the very start of the documentary ‘Disturbed Earth’, the viewer gets an introduction to the ritual handover of some of the victims’ remains to their families.
But the film, a collaboration between Kumjan Novakova from North Macedonia and Guillermo Carreras-Candi from Spain, also shows the stories of Srecko, Mirza and Nejra, three people who lived through the 1995 massacres and still live in the Srebrenica area, doing their daily chores, caring for their domestic animals, chopping wood and preparing food.
During the war, Srecko was conscripted into the Bosnian Serb Army. He now lives with his family on a hill above Srebrenica.
Mirza lives close to the Srebrenica Memorial Centre in the small village of Potocari. He survived the July 1995 massacres by hiking across the mountains for days to reach safety in Tuzla.
Nejra, 85, lost her husband and sons in the genocide. She still lives off the land in the Srebrenica area.
Novakova said that she and Carreras-Candi made the film over a seven-year-period, visiting Srebrenica at least four to five times a year. “We didn’t record much of the time. We were just hanging out. We lived with those people and those families. Then when the situation was open to film, we filmed,” she explained.
The work with Mirza and Srecko took much longer than with Nejra, she said: “We clicked with her [Nejra] very quickly and for the last two years we have been recording only with her. The first two years with Srecko, we didn’t turn on the camera at all. With Mirza, the situation was a bit reversed, he wanted to be filmed and talk because he needed to.”
Although the film depicts the everyday world of Srebrenica today, the environment with its abandoned spaces and the interviews with the genocide survivors manage to convey a feeling of the past.
“Layer by layer, we tried to materialise the collective pain in the landscape, the space and the town,” said Novakova, who is also the co-founder of the Pravo Ljudski human rights documentary film festival in Sarajevo.
‘A struggle against sensationalism’
The film uses various sources of material, including the archives of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY. Novakova and Carreras-Candi went through transcripts of witness statements, material from forensic investigations, photographs, videos, audio material and legal documents.
This led them to come up with the title ‘Disturbed Earth’, which refers to ground on which human intervention is apparent, giving a reason to start excavation work in search of a potential mass grave.
The film uses archive material from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY which was used in various court cases related to Srebrenica, original footage and interviews with the main characters, and a poetic personal narrative written by the film-makers which appears on screen every few minutes in English or Bosnian.
As they made the film, Novakova and Carreras-Candi slowly realised the intricacy of the relationships between past, present and future in Srebrenica, as in many other places in the Balkans.
Novakova said that the relationship between film-makers and their protagonists is also always complex.
“The thought that you enter someone’s life and affect it is very heavy for anyone who is not into sensationalism, and our film-making is a struggle against sensationalist cinema,” she explained.
“This was one of the main reasons why we stayed for more than five years in Srebrenica only to learn and to film: we had to give time to the relationships with the protagonists to develop to such an extent so the film became a communal film, a film by all of us in some way,” she said.
Weariness with the past
After winning the Grand Prize at the 14th edition of the DMZ Docs documentary festival in South Korea, ‘Disturbed Earth’ qualified for the preliminary selection for the 2023 Oscars in the feature-length documentary film category. Although it did not get shortlisted, Novakova welcomed the recognition for her independent, non-commercial film.
She said that in Bosnia and Herzegovina, she sees a lot of resentment in society towards work engaging in a critical relationship with the country’s wartime past, however.
“There is a weariness to it because the narrative of the war is still present as if it had been two years ago and not 30,” she said.
“Not only do the dominant nationalistic narratives serve a one-way reading of the past, but also the wider public becomes overwhelmed by the never-ending process of dealing with the past and often refuses to engage with any kind of content that is somehow related to the past,” she added.
She said that some younger people in their mid-twenties even “refuse to discuss the war at all”.
“That is why all projects that involve the public in processes [of dealing with the past] are very important because the presence of such a discourse that there’s been enough talking about the war and let’s turn to the future is impossible.
There is no future without a past,” she argued.
She said she believes that art, cinema and independent cultural initiatives are crucial to these processes of critical engagement with the past in order for nationalistic narratives to be discarded for good.
“Pasts are immortal, and our responsibility is to critically engage with them to make space for stories and collective traumas that were silenced. It is our responsibility as filmmakers and artists to find ways to hear the silenced pasts, to find ways to propose new interpretations of the past,” she said.
(c) 2023, Balkan Insight