The opening scene of Dara Of Jasenovac, Serbia’s submission to the International Feature Oscar race, gives a poignant hint of the horrors to come. The setting is rural Croatia in the 1940s. A large group of Serbian women and children are being marched to a train station by armed guards. Two Croatian women work in the fields, watching them fearfully, also cautious of their own fate. One catches the eye of a woman in the line who’s holding a baby, understanding her pleading look. With one small, sad, wordless nod, an infant is left with a stranger, his mother knowing that the alternative will likely be far worse.
Directed by Peter Antonijević, Dara Of Jasenovac is full of these heartbreaking moments, where life or death decisions are made in an instant. Sometimes these are made by the Serbian prisoners trying to protect their children; others by workers in the camps who must decide whether to risk their own lives by helping the prisoners. Fatal calls are made daily by the Ustase guards, who murder with a casual cruelty — even a crust of bread or a crying baby could mean a death sentence.
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Often seen through the eyes of 10-year-old Dara, these atrocities are frequent occurrences in Jasenovac, the chain of death camps where Serbs, Jews and Roma people were held. Played with quiet dignity by Biljana Čekić, Dara’s soulful eyes witness terrible events. One memorable scene sees her looking after a couple of boys when their mother is giving birth next door, aided only by other prisoners. Peeking through a hole in the wall, Dara sees Vjekoslav “Maks” Luburić (Marko Janketić) hosting a lavish outdoor dinner, welcoming dignitaries with a display of musical chairs, in which the losing prisoners are slaughtered. High-ranking guard Nada Šakić (Alisa Radaković), is also watching the executions — while having sex with her husband in the back of a car.
The addition of the sex scene feels a little out of a step with the overall tone, and it’s not the only time that the guards come close to caricature. But despite some heavy-handed moments, it’s hard not to be struck by the horror on display, especially knowing that director Antonijević and writer Nataša Drakulić based their screenplay on survivor testimony and court transcripts, creating a “composite truth”, as Antonijević calls it.
While most of the narrative focus is on Dara and her two year old brother, Budo, it occasionally shifts to Dara’s father, who has been given the job of throwing dead bodies into the water, dreading the day he might recognize one of them. But this is at its strongest when exploring the connections between female prisoners, as they form swift bonds out of necessity and struggle to stay close to their children, holding onto a glimmer of hope that some might escape to a better place. Despite the film’s grim content and long running time, this hope helps us stay with Dara until the story’s moving ending.
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