The Holocaust may be one of the most, if not the most widely portrayed event in media, especially when you look at European cinema in comparison to the United States, but it is traditionally very single-faceted. Yes, obviously the majority of portrayals will involve the Jewish extermination; they were the highest casualty rate and were the heaviest targeted during WW2. And with the spectre of anti-Semitism still very alive globally, the stories need to be told, remembered, and kept alive. But non-Jewish Poles, Romani, LGBTQA+, Communist, and disabled peoples were also sought out for extermination by the German Reich and others.
In Jasenovac, the only non-German run series of concentration camps in Europe, the Croatian overseers targeted another group with extreme ferocity and cruelty in order to “purify” their country: Serbians. This all but forgotten and ignored atrocity and attempted genocide of the Serbian people during The Holocaust is portrayed in heartbreaking, brutal fidelity in Peter Antonijevic’s now Oscar Short-listed film, Dara of Jasenovac.
Like the recent WW2/Post WW2 era film The Painted Bird, and the renowned novel adaptation The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Dara lets us see the horror of the Serbian extermination through a child’s eyes. The actress of the titular 10 year old girl, Dara (Biljana Cekic) evokes a performance tinged with wisdom and an understanding of the trauma far beyond her years. As family and friends perish around her, and as she is forced to view brutal murders of the sick induced by zyklon b gas, and of the old with a grotesque game of musical chairs, we watch her come of age all too quickly as she fights to protect both herself and her baby brother from separation. And must make choices that no adult, much less a child, should ever have to make in their darkest nightmares. If there is a young actress to keep a close eye on as she takes on more roles and matures even more in her acting prowess, Cekic is absolutely the one. She flits between pensive and loving, quiet rage and deep sorrow with incredible ease, and holds her own playing against actors at times three times her age.
One of these actors portrays her father (Zlatan Vidovic), a man who never directly interacts with her, but is achingly close to her in an adjacent camp. There, he’s forced to bury the dead prisoners in mass graves day after day, after day, dreading the moment where he finally sees the corpses of his family come to him on the arriving trucks. He is, in a sense, an accessory in the process of their suffering and untimely death. Like Dara, he says very little, but sees very much. He’s torn on both sides by a deep desire to die, as well as a burning need to see his family again.
The pair of these estranged family members are aided in their respective battles by a Greek-chorus-esque cast of humans: from Serb, to Jew, to mothers, The Red Cross, and complete strangers who engender themselves as family—many at the cost of their own lives. These aren’t just bodies for the sake of shock and awe, as many war and genocide films can be guilty of. They are human beings we see and hear, no matter how briefly, who have hopes, fear, and lives. They matter, and their selflessness both provides Dara with a path towards taking her and her brother’s lives into her hands, as well as providing her father with the will to carry on.
The set dressing itself is haunting. Rather than a fenced in, barbed wire gulag, the camps of Jasenovac were partially built in existing town structures. They blend “conventional” agrarian labor and life with a sickening, blood-tinged veneer of beautiful flowing rivers now bloated with corpses. This intimates that for the Croatians living downstream, claiming to not know what was going on around them was an impossibility. In this way the mundane becomes horrific: golden corn fields are both the grain keeping the prisoners alive with their meager rations and a temptation for theft for just one morsel more punishable by death, barns and hay serve as makeshift beds but also harborers of disease and a substrate to soak up the blood and fluids that surround them as their numbers dwindle. It makes for an uncomfortable and eerie portrayal of how even the most idyllic seeming of agrarian communities with stunning natural beauty surrounding them can still be twisted and used as a hollow backdrop, a thin veneer for the despicable cruelty humans are capable of levying on one another.
Dara of Jasenovac is a poignant, heart-wrenching, and deeply needed film about the people left behind in our discussions of war and human atrocity. If the truth can come from the mouths and eyes of babes, a much needed truth is spoken to us by Dara, if we’re willing to pay attention.