The early 90s saw a lot of unrest in the Balkan region of Europe. A series of separate conflicts and wars, named the Yugoslav Wars, resulted in the death of 140,000 people and was described as one of the deadliest European conflicts since World War II; war crimes, genocides, crimes against humanity and rape all marked this atrocious moment in history.
Amidst all this, the recently formed state of Croatia was involved in a military conflict with Serbia. Croatians refer to this war as the “Homeland War” or the “Greater-Serbian Aggression.” This was the excuse used by criminals to harass Serbians that lived in Croatia. Among the victims was 12-year old Aleksandra Zec who was brutally murdered alongside her family in 1992 because they were of Serbian descent. No one has ever been convicted for the crime.
For Oliver Frlijć the play is the thing where he will catch the conscience of his audiences. In Nebojsa Slijepcevic’s documentary, Srbenka, we see him delve into his artistic process as he prepares his next play on the murder of Aleksandra. The film takes us into the world where theater is not just made but born—and the emotional and psychological toll it takes on those who bear it.
Frlijć’s art on stage never shies away from the political and Slijepcevic allows us to not only look at the way Frlijć gives out his stage directions but the purposes he has for every movement he asks from his actors. But it’s not just the insight of the play’s director that the documentary’s audiences are given—we are also privy to the connection this war and this event in history has to each and all the actors, across age groups. For some of these actors the war was a very personal experience—this is something that they have seen happen in their own country as they were growing up and so their reactions to this were visceral and emotional.
We hear their testimonies of ethnic discrimination as we see shots of the dark and empty stage. The dust falling into place as their voices echo with pain they had thought was behind them. For some it is the recognition of their own Serbian descent and how they have been treated because of it or how they shy away from even acknowledging their ethnicity in fear of retaliation from nationalists.
Though the documentary speaks exclusively on the Croatia-Serbia conflict how we cope and grow up from conflict and trauma is universal. Trauma is not just inherited but lasting—there are parts of you, and the collective whole, that are never the same and don’t quite recover. It isn’t an excuse for ignorance, as the film and the play get across, but instead it is the first step to recognizing that different truths can exist in the world.
Balancing how war, nationality, racism, and even border politics are spoken about can be difficult. But, Srbenka, by giving us a layered story that doesn’t just focus on the Zec case or even the war but allows us to engage with conversations that are larger than any single one of us.