Traumatic Reckoning on Celluloid: The Case of Post-Yugoslav Film

Dragana Obradovic on Dijana Jelača’s Dislocated Screen Memory: Narrating Trauma in Post-Yugoslav Cinema (Palgrave 2016), “the first study that thematically gathers twenty-odd years of Balkan cinematography by giving an analytic voice to highly complex and sophisticated webs of traumatic representation.”

The spectacle of war has always been an appealing theme for filmmakers. In the history of cinema, individual conflicts have a tendency to generate their own relatively stable and consistent aesthetic codes. The experience of trauma that invariably saturates and constitutes experiences of war is, however, much more indirect in the language of cinema. There is no established visual vocabulary for trauma: it takes on much more ambiguous, quieter, and at times unrecognizable forms of reckoning with the consequences of conflict. Dijana Jelača’s Dislocated Screen Memory: Narrating Trauma in Post-Yugoslav Cinema (Palgrave 2016) is the first study that thematically gathers twenty-odd years of Balkan cinematography by giving an analytic voice to highly complex and sophisticated webs of traumatic representation. The challenge in examining trauma on the screen, says Jelača, is that “cinematic trauma praxis resides in the things that cannot be overtly said or directly shown, but sometimes only hinted at.”

The importance of the book lies not only in its fresh insights on the dominant tropes of representation that emerged in post-Yugoslav films (such as self-Balkanization), but also in its approach to trauma. Jelača argues that trauma is an experience that needs politicized and collective readings, but that it can also change those scripts, that it can challenge social narratives and values. While trauma is often individually experienced, and often medically treated in confidential isolation, it also needs a broader context that takes into account the subject’s socio-economic relations, their familial ties, their gender. The accent put on psychological healing in situations of trauma tends to eclipse the social and political settings thereby reducing the agency of the traumatized subject by stressing their role as victim. Jelača’s take on trauma constantly keeps the inter-dependency between the personal and social in view.

In post-Yugoslav cinema, trauma is predominantly reflected and constituted through what Jelača calls “dislocated screen memory”. [12] Screen memory is originally a Freudian term that refers to a subject’s recollection of a past event that is in fact a substitute for a more elusive (because troubling) memory. The concept of the screen is refocused in Jelača’s book to incorporate “the cultural, public domains of cinematic mediation.” [13] In other words, the book opens up the possibility of reading traumatic screen memory as a dislocating mechanism that disrupts conventional, normative, and socially and politically established narratives about “who should be loved, who should be hated, who should be ignored, and who empathized with.” (13) The point here is not simply to encourage an acknowledgment of the victimhood of ethnic Others. Rather, Jelača’s take on the traumatized subject is far more nuanced, since it takes into account traumatized subjectivities as constituted (for instance) by social class, gender, sexuality, and age. This necessarily involves displacing “ethnocentric frameworks of separate national cinemas” as well as their national narratives and mythologies.

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Dislocated Screen Memory thus brings much needed attention to marginalized themes and marginalized films. The chapter on queer identities in the context of (post)conflict experience, is a case in point. Queer film as such cannot be said to exist in the post-Yugoslav region: this is to say that even when queer themes are centralized in films (like Dalibor Matanić’s 2002 Fine Dead Girls), they do not dismantle heteronormative institutions and conventions. Nonetheless, representations of queer ways of being are presented as a “productively affirmative response to national trauma” that challenges social prejudices about queer bodies as unproductive and threatening to the national body. [106] This is true even for films that do not explicitly depict a queer or gay character as socially visible since, as Jelača argues, it is important not to read this as a failure of the subject to assimilate and integrate (by coming out, for instance). Rather she suggests that the inscription of silences around non-normative sexual identity are indicative of the pressures of the local context upon the individual: “Silences around queer practices become all the more pivotal in the contexts such as this post-conflict one, where sexual identity is sometimes policed to a distinctly violent extent.” [131] One of the concluding insights of this chapter is a paradigmatic argument for Jelača’s entire book: reading queer trauma as “both constituted by and constitutive of the public cultures centered around the collective trauma of national emergence” throws into relief other sites of unacknowledged social marginalization. [135] The book reads like many inter-connected histories of trauma across social groups, ethnicities, and genders.

This is most evident in the chapter on youth subcultures and the spectre of transgenerational trauma. Since the 1990s, the traumatized subjects of post-Yugoslav film have gotten younger over the years. Stories of individuals who participated in the war give way to survivor narratives that yield to representations of adolescents and their subcultures of bleak, socially and economically deprived environments. The focus on youth subcultures, Jelača says, stems from the identity of “a group [of filmmakers] that has come of age at a particular time, and inherited a certain habitus (a set of class-based, invisible structures, affinities and cultural preferences) that is now being reflected, examined and dissected on screen through youth’s rebellion against the violent parent culture.” In our conversation, she stresses that it is not a coincidence “that Yugoslav New Film came about approximately twenty years after World War II, when a new rebellious generation came of age and started questioning received truths.” Yet this comparison is more a thematic parallel—both of these historical moments produced films of youthful aimlessness, vagrancy, and disassociation from the dominant parent culture—rather than an argument that a new wave or movement has arrived in post-Yugoslav cinema.

Recent films like Klip, Tilva Ros, and Children of Sarajevo signal the emergence of a new class consciousness in post-Yugoslav cinema; a class that embodies all the disappointments of socio-economic transition in the region. In theme and social critique (if not aesthetically), these films share many points of contact with films that have recently been grouped as “the cinema of precarity,” including the work of auteurs like the Dardenne brothers or the early films of Ramin Bahrani. What makes post-Yugoslav films in general distinct from the tendencies towards social realism in transnational cinema is the additional dimension of traumatic war experience and its trans-generational transfer. Jelača argues that the intersection of these two elements—war trauma and post-socialist economic transition—reveals how much the possibility of articulating trauma is conditioned by factors such as social class and gender. What we see in post-Yugoslav films—especially those about youth subcultures—is that, “precarious lives of groups in lower socioeconomic positions […] are more vulnerable to prolonged aftereffects of trauma because of their social stuckness in the structures of cruel optimism.” [210]

The term “cruel optimism” was coined by critical theorist Lauren Berlant to refer to the ways people create attachments to various fantasies of ‘a good life’ in order to invigorate difficult, impoverished lives that are compromised by lack of social or economic mobility. These ideas of a good life—often presented as a life that will be attained in the future—helps the individual navigate the despairing circumstances of their present. This is the optimism. The cruelty lies in the fact that, often, these fantasies reinforce or deteriorate the conditions of their lives. The fantasy or the object does not bring the happiness the individual thought it would bring. This situation is most poignantly portrayed in Jasmila Žbanić’s celebrated 2006 film Grbavica. The film represented an important turning point in public discourse on the taboo subject of mass rapes of predominantly Bosnian Muslim women during the wars of the 1990s. The narrative centres around Esma, who was imprisoned and impregnated in a rape camp, and her teenage daughter Sara who, at the beginning of the film, has no knowledge of the violent history of her conception. It is in the depiction of Sara that Jelača traces the presence of cruel optimism in the film. Sara believes that her father died a martyr in the war and, through invented stories about his past, secures her own ethnic belonging. Her fantasies of her martyred father coalesce with “the norms of heroic ethno-national(ist) masculinity” and, by extension, ensure her own acceptable identity in post-war Bosnia. [88] This fantasy collapses in the climax of the film and, as Jelača writes, “Sara’s failure to maintain the fantasy of the ethnically pure, unambiguous futurity reveals a crisis of every category that has come to inform her subjectivity up until that point.” [88] Rebuilding the traumatized subject outside the structures of cruel optimism then becomes the key undertaking not just for the young protagonist of this film but for the collective and national bodies in transitional post-Yugoslav space.

A crucial thread that unites the diverse films analyzed in Dislocated Screen Memory is the assertion that trauma is a political and social phenomenon; that it exceeds individual experience, grief, pain. The experience of and response to trauma are, of course, narratives that need individual address, but trauma also needs to be situated with historical, ethical, and political contexts. This is an equally significant stand, though more controversial, vis-à-vis perpetrator trauma. In the introduction to her book, Jelača is quite right to state that discussing the traumatization of perpetrators is not to imply an absence of responsibility but rather to call overt attention to personal and collective accountability. Post-Yugoslav cinema, writes Jelača, has repeatedly represented “structural accountability through intimate impact rather than collective abstraction.” [73] She argues further that the “focus on perpetrator trauma as an important aspect of war and postwar experience might bring into intimate focus, rather than conceal, the material dimensions of the institutionalized structures that place an individual in the role of a participant in mass atrocities in the first place.” [4] The film that gives a complex political and aesthetic treatment to this theme is the contentious Pretty Village Pretty Flame directed by Srđan Dragojević and released in 1996.

Readings of the film in the past have debated whether it is an ideological work of Serbian ethno-nationalist politics that, in its depiction of a masculine experience, erases all victim positions. Appreciation of its visual and aesthetic accomplishments are further complicated by the fact the film was filmed in Eastern Bosnia—the site of some of the most intense Bosnian Serb attacks against Bosnian Muslims—in the last months of the war. Yet Jelača argues that any type of “stable narrative of absolute guilt and innocence” that a viewer attempts to impose on the film “collapses under the pressure of unassimilated trauma” evident in the film’s dislocated screen memory. (77) Dislocated screen memory in this particular context refers to the structure of the narrative, which is predominantly told from the point of view of Milan, the film’s Bosnian Serb protagonist. Milan’s fragile psyche is coeval with the film’s “complex web of flashbacks” and non-linear time frame that jumps back and forth to include recollections of life before the war. [69] It is, in Jelača’s words, “a subjectively and feverishly framed masculinist traumatic memory.” (75) Throughout the course of the film, this screen memory calls attention to its own limitations, to what is kept in the mental pockets between the memories—namely, the suppression of violence and crimes that have been committed. (72) Women’s (typically violent) stories, Jelača adds, are a demonstration of this: they “puncture the dominant narrative” because they are “repressed in traumatic memory” and threaten to further dislocate the emotional stability of the main protagonist.” (75) The relationship between the organizing framework of unassimilated memory and its ethno-nationalist interpellation is then perceptible, writes Jelača, in the film’s form as a trauma text. The ideological interpellation of that trauma is “the beginning of the story rather than its end.”(80) The presence of trauma is actually a symptom of an individual burdened by the violent acts committed by that same person, but it is a burden that has also been torn away from grand ideology, from large-scale politics.

Dislocated Screen Memory explores another line of connection between memory and violence: namely, “self-Balkanizing fatalism”. [51] Standard explanations of self-Balkanization (from scholars such as Dina Iordanova) coalesce around the function of it being a “self-objectifying device” for the benefit of “pleasuring the Western gaze.” [Jelača 167] Films that posses elements of self-Balkanizing tendencies offer, as Slavoj Žižek puts it, “to the Western liberal gaze […] precisely what this gaze wants to see in the Balkan war—the spectacle of a timeless, incomprehensible, mythical cycle of passions, in contrast to decadent and anemic Western life.” [Zizek, 1997:38 in Jelača, 167] However, Jelača relates these phenomena—particularly that of inevitable masculine violence—to long-term suppression of violent memories that recur in pathological form. Whatever reservations the viewer might hold about Kusturica’s Underground or Dragojević’s Pretty Village Pretty Flame, in our conversation she says that “they both offer provocative theories about trauma.” In the book, she writes that tendencies of self-Balkanization “might be considered as an inadvertent indication of a history of traumatic injury, where cinematic texts reflect a repetition compulsion as a way to attempt to work through the unresolved traumas of both past and present.” [52] In discussing the 2011 Serbian film The Enemy, Jelača makes a point that is equally valid as a broader insight. In The Enemy, characters encounter supernatural and paranormal manifestations that are actually rationally explained. However, the characters themselves succumb to the mysterious forces and kill each other suggesting that it is easier to submit to mystification than a painful encounter with reality. Thus, when Jelača proposes that the paradigm of irrational hatreds is evidently a “symbolic substitute for facing perpetrator trauma” in the film, it is an insight equally relevant for other cultural forms. [53,43] She raises the point that self-Balkanization—as a trope of self-representation in films, literature, and art—can function as resistance to psychological working through and accountability.

The final note in Jelača’s analysis is to stress that the structures of dislocated screen memory in post-Yugoslav film offer hope rather than melancholia: possibility (of agency, of recovery) rather than failure in the “aftermath of grave injury.” (219) This possibility can also be one of resistance or challenge to the collective, ethnically-organized narratives that tend to constitute or organize the traumatized subject or the perpetrator. This is not about erasing the negative experience for some reflexive positive psychological disposition but about letting the “bad feelings” (after Sarah Ahmed) guide the reparation of the many wounds.

Dijana Jelača’s Dislocated Screen Memory: Narrating Trauma in Post-Yugoslav Cinema is out now and available on Palgrave’s website.


Cover photo: Grbavica (2006)

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Dragana Obradovic

Dragana Obradovic is an assistant professor at the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Toronto.