A vital insight into one of the most overlooked parts of the Holocaust, and Serbia’s official Oscar entry, Dara of Jasenovac has been struck by accusations of having a nationalist agenda
It feels impossible to review this film for an outside audience without giving you something of a 20th century Balkan history lesson, so here goes. (Those familiar with the subject, please forgive me if my long unused History degree is letting me down.) Two years into the Second World War the Croatian fascist regime, the Ustaše, were appointed to power in the New Independent State of Croatia, a puppet state of Axis-occupied Yugoslavia.
The Ustaše regime were fiercely nationalistic and heavily influenced by Nazi racial ideology, looking down on Jews, Roma people and their neighbouring Serbs who they viewed as threatening the Croat bloodline. Upon coming to power they started a concentration and extermination programme of these peoples that mirrored that happening under Nazi Germany.
Jasenovac was a complex of concentration camps run by the Ustaše in Croatia dedicated to interning and murdering those ”enemies of the state” and is estimated to have killed around 100,000 people, over half of those Serbs. It is unique in being the only concentration camp not run by the Nazis, for grimly having a camp dedicated solely to the imprisonment and murder of children, and for its primitive savagery: many thousands of its victim were shot, beaten or tortured to death rather than facing the detached mechanised horror of the east’s gas chambers.
Dara follows the story of a ten-year-old Serbian girl in the women and children’s camp Stara Gradiška. As her mother and siblings are murdered one by one, she desperately tries to keep her last remaining brother, a two year old infant, alive in the face of sadistic guards and villainous camp management. A few miles away in another camp her father Mile is forced to strip bodies and dig mass graves whilst desperately plotting for ways to escape and look for his family.
The central premise is a touching one and well done. Focusing on the experiences of women and children, the sacrifices mothers are willing to make for their families and the awful reality of children having to step up and become adults at a young age will surely resonate with even the most analytical of viewers. There are decent acting performances from most of the women including young Biljana Čekić as Dara, who is taking on an enormous amount of grim material for a child. The film must be praised also for pulling large amounts of the violence seen on screen from survivor testimonies, attempting to provide an accurate portrayal of the things prisoners were subjected to.
Some of the narrative devices fail though, in particular a fantasy ”ghost like” sequence that the director choses to insert after each character is killed – it becomes old fast. I also took some issue with the production design – the camps looked far too clean. It almost felt that the filmmakers had no concern about showing blood and gore (which they do, with an almost Tarantino-esque hyper reality) but shied away from depicting the awful squalid conditions that arise from imprisoning thousands of people in close quarters with no hygiene facilities.
The elements of this film that have drawn criticism relate to how the Croatians are portrayed (indeed Variety have called it ”thinly veiled propaganda” in their review and both IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes have had to remove it’s user score category after clear vote manipulation.) Ustaše leaders enjoy candlelit dinners whilst prisoners are murdered in front of them for entertainment meanwhile their Nazi guests are disgusted by their behaviour (you know you might have a problem when the Nazi’s are the sympathetic characters.) They delight in gassing sick children without provocation.
Imprisoned Serbian children are forced to wave Croatian flags, sing national songs and parade in Ustaše uniforms. A stone faced priest and a Ratched-esque nun gleefully kill adults and force children to convert to Catholicism. All of this whilst the downtrodden Serbs repeatedly tell each other ”we must not let them wipe us out” on screen. You can see why questions are being asked about the political motivations of this film – even more so when you learn it was funded in part by the Serbian government.
I would not go so far as to write it off as propaganda though. It’s problem really is the utter failure to attempt to add any nuance to the oppressors other than slapping you round the face with ”these are the bad guys, look how sick they are.” Ustaše members are portrayed as consistently handsome with long glossy hair and immaculate, crisply pressed uniforms. They make glib remarks, openly plot world domination and even have sex in the midst of a murder scene.
They are in essence portrayed like comic book supervillains but without the backstory or development. The gassings, beatings and forced conversion did all happen just as they are shown on screen, but when they’re being done by such cartoonish bad guys in makes it very hard to understand the reality of that grim truth.
As the first film ever made about Jasenovac it’s a vital piece of work. The history of the camp has long been a political chess piece batted back and forth between Serbia and Croatia during their conflicts, and continual cover ups and ”debates” over that history has meant that that the wider world may not know it’s name and story as well as say, Auschwitz or Buchenwald. It’s particularly vital at a time when extreme right-wing nationalism continues to rise throughout the Western world and increasing platform is worryingly being given to Holocaust deniers.
However, whilst Dara of Jasenovac may go some way to giving a wider audience a glimpse into the horrors that happened there, it fails to make any attempt to start conversations about the sort of ideology that allowed these things to happen and the dangers that lie within ultra-nationalism. It seems like a missed opportunity.
Dara of Jasenovac feels an important entry into the pantheon of Holocaust and genocide stories told on screen. Whether the film maker succeeds in sharing a teachable lesson from history without getting bogged down in ongoing nationalist rivalry seems another matter.