Review: Sarajevo’s overwhelming past and uncertain future

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This article was originally appeared in New York Transatlantic on April 25, 2017.


A still from “Smrt u Sarajevu (Death in Sarajevo)” | Margo Cinema.

Artists and politicians have noted that the bloody 20th century began and ended in Sarajevo. More than one hundred years have passed since 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip triggered the First World War with a pistol shot, and 25 have passed since the Bosnian war began. Debates about both wars—whether Princip was freedom fighter or a terrorist, whether Serbs were aggressors or victims—are still debated in Bosnia-Herzegovina as if they happened yesterday.

Bosnian Oscar-winner Danis Tanović’s Smrt u Sarajevu (Death in Sarajevo) made its US premiere at the Bosnian-Herzegovinian Film Festival on April 15. The film satirizes and confronts life in modern day Bosnia: a life where contests over the past overshadow a present plagued by corruption and stagnation.

Loosely inspired by Bernard-Henri Lévy’s play “Hotel Europe,” the film takes place on June 28, 2014, at the fictional Hotel Europa in Sarajevo, spanning from the roof to the basement strip club. The staff is preparing for the 100th Anniversary Commemoration of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand amid a heated debate over the meaning of the event, the hotel defaulting on loans and workers going on strike after two months without pay.

Economic conditions within Bosnia remain dire: the state’s GDP per capita in 2016 was $11,000, compared with a $39,200 average in the European Union. Youth unemployment has risen to nearly 70 percent, which has resulted in crippling brain drain as young people look abroad for employment. For those who remain, a system of patronage and clientelism still dictates opportunities, and political party affiliation (most often a marker for ethnicity) is key.

The political landscape is often worse. While political parties like Naša Stranka (Our Party)—of which Tanović is a founding member—are working to re-center politics around issues, most parties are still formed along ethnic lines. Politicians continue to exploit ethnic narratives and identities in order to centralize their support and remain in power. And so, little has changed since the war ended in 1995.

Danis Tanović (left) at the US premiere of his movie Smrt u Sarajevu (Death in Sarajevo).  |  Stephanie Sugars

This is the world to which the film transports us: a society obsessed with and overwhelmed by the past. But, by following three different story lines within the hotel, the audience is presented with three realities of the contemporary Bosnian experience.

First, hotel manager Omer (Izudin Bajrović) engages in increasingly desperate (and shady) attempts to push off impending bankruptcy. The hotel workers, though perhaps not fully aware of their employer’s economic hardship, decide to push back. Mother and daughter—Hatidža (Faketa Salihbegović-Avdagić) and Lamija (Snežana Vidović)—both work in the hotel, but respond to the workers’ strike in various ways. Hatidža recognizes the injustice and necessity of change, while Lamija, having seen the strike organizer brutally beaten, fears for her mother. All three are symbolic of approaches to coping with harsh economic conditions and state brutality: accept your lot, fight it or use corruption to your own advantage.

Jacques Weber—who plays himself preparing to perform “Hotel Europe” in 2014—is the second perspective, transformed into a symbol of the European Union’s alienation from and failure to meet its debt to Bosnia. As he rehearses in French in his hotel room, he is unintelligible to the Bosnians who’ve set up a surveillance camera in his room and oblivious to the chaos of the hotel (and of the country) around him. Instead, he pontificates on the importance of being with his “brothers of Sarajevo,” and struggles to, as he himself reflects, wave the flag of Europe that he holds as the one, true hope for the region. “Yet,” Weber says, “I’m haunted by images of shame and sadness”: The one thing he seems to share with his hosts.

The most direct exploration of memories of the past and their impact on the present comes in the third perspective, through the news broadcast of journalist Vedrana (Vedrana Seksan) as she interviews historians and professors about Gavrilo Princip and Franz Ferdinand. Her interview with Gavrilo Princip (Muhamed Hadžović)—a Serb nationalist named after the famous assassin, following a tradition among his descendants—leads to a heated debate that mirrors the divided perspectives still fracturing the region.

Gavrilo claims that Serbians acted in response to Croat and Bosniak moves to “cut up Yugoslavia.” Vedrana retorts that they weren’t the ones cleansing territory, and that Serbs left Sarajevo because of the siege of the city, not Bosniak-led cleansing. Gavrilo recalls Mušan “Caco” Topalović (garnering cheers of agreement from a few members of the audience), a commander in the Bosnia-Herzegovina Army turned smuggler, gangster and, ultimately, murderer, targeting Serbs in Sarajevo. Further, he said, the cleansing continued after the war with the removal of streets named after Serbs. “We got rid of the streets named after chetnik thugs!” Vedrana replies. Eventually, she even calls him a chetnik, an ethnic slur for Serbs that refers to the ultra-conservative, Serb nationalist paramilitary and political organization. “Well done,” Gavrilo responds wryly. “You see how well we can converse.”

This lack of common ground prevents the country from moving on. During an earlier interview, Vedrana remarked that it “seems to be Bosnia-Herzegovina’s fate: to have two histories.” Yet, without a shared understanding of the past, it seems impossible to move towards a future. “If you can never agree on who started the war, it’s never over,” Tanović said following the film screening.

There is little unity in Bosnia. 2014 saw major protests on the corruption and economic stagnation in Bosnia, as well as major flooding that devastated the eastern regions of the state. Both events drew the narrative away from ethnicity. Vedrana, however, reflects that “‘We’ only exist when disaster strikes, where there’s a war or a flood. Otherwise it’s just ‘me,’ ‘us,’ and ‘them.’” Partisanship remains rampant, even as individuals look for a viable alternative.

As one audience member remarked during the Q&A, the film has no happy ending, no heartwarming or inspiring conclusion or prescription. Gavrilo speculatively asks Vedrana, “Who would Gavrilo kill if he was alive today?” “He wouldn’t kill anyone,” she flatly replies. “There’s no one you could kill today that would change anything. Today, Gavrilo would kill himself.”

But Tanović is—and argues his film is as well—optimistic in outlook: “I like to believe that things are changing—slowly. Very slowly… I know it’s been 20 years, and it’ll probably take 20 more,” but things are changing. “If you could get a government for four years who would decide to stop fighting amongst themselves and would agree to work for four years to do things that are good for the people, everything would change.” Presidential elections will take place in 2018. Perhaps Bosnia will find the change it desperately needs.