Book and Movie Reviews

 

Below are reviews of some of the more notable documentaries, movies and books I’ve watched and read while researching my novel set in the former Yugoslavia and in present-day Australia. I’ll add to this list periodically, so please check back if you’re interested.

Please note that I’ve divided the books into three groups; you can click on each heading to jump straight to any of these sections:

  • Sarajevo: non-fiction books that focus mostly on the 1992-1995 Siege of Sarajevo;
  • Srebrenica: non-fiction books about the Srebrenica Massacre;
  • General: non-fiction books and a couple of novels that give more general insight into the former Yugoslavia and/or the Yugoslav wars.

Documentaries:

Death of Yugoslavia, BBC, 1995. This is a great documentary, although not without its flaws. It consists of 6 hour-long episodes. The first charts the rise of nationalism in the late ’80’s, the second the historic roots of the war. Later episodes cover the Siege of Sarajevo and the events in Srebrenica: the declaration of the enclave as a UN ‘safe area’ and the subsequent massacres that showed how little that meant. The final episode examines the events that led to the signing of the 1995 Dayton Accord and the war’s end.

All of the main players are interviewed here or shown in archival footage: Milošević, Kučan, Tuđman, Izetbegović, Mladić, Karadžić, Orić and many more ― and it’s fascinating to see the players’ own spin on events. However, as my husband noted when watching this documentary with me, and as many other watchers have noted, the English subtitles accompanying comments made in Serbian are not always entirely accurate.

A Cry from the Grave, BBC, 1999. A chilling examination of the Srebrenica massacre, this documentary uses footage shot by a Serbian journalist after the town’s fall, as well as interviews with several Muslim survivors.

There are also countless websites/blogs and clips on YouTube (eg. the Mladić files) that focus on the Yugoslav Wars. Be warned: some are very graphic, and sickeningly full of vitriol.

Movies:

The Black Bomber (Crni bombarder), 1992. The story of Crni, a young man who hosts a subversive radio show in a highly authoritarian state which parallels Milošević’s Yugoslavia.

Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (Lepo sela lepo gore), 1996. This is essentially the tale of two boyhood best friends, one a Bosnian Serb, one a Bosnian Muslim, and the demise of their friendship during the war. Much of the impact of this movie comes, I think, from the fact that it’s not told chronologically. Instead, scenes from the boys’ idyllic childhood are interspersed with harrowing war scenes.

Underground (Podzemlje), 1995. This classic from director Emir Kusturica won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in the year of its release. It’s the surreal, absurd, and yet ultimately extraordinarily touching story of war profiteer Marko Dren and his lover, Natalija, who together conspire to lock Marko’s best friend Blacky (another Crni) and a bunch of other people in a tunnel beneath Belgrade. There, poor Blacky and friends, convinced by Marko that World War II is still on, spend decades churning out weapons which the enterprising Marko sells above ground. By the time Blacky finally emerges from the tunnel, it’s 1992, and yes, war is indeed still on: it’s the height of the Yugoslav wars. A brilliant movie, with a wonderful soundtrack by Goran Bregović.

Welcome to Sarajevo, 1997. A British movie very loosely based on the events described in Natasha’s Story (see below). Stars Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei and uses real footage of war-torn Sarajevo.

When Father was away on business (Otac na službenom putu), 1985. Another Palme d’Or winner from Emir Kusturica, this movie also stars Miki Manojlović (Marko in Underground). In 1950’s Yugoslavia, to say someone had ‘gone away on business’ was a euphemistic way of saying they’d been sent to a forced labour camp because of a suspected lack of loyalty to the State. This is the story of what happens to one such Bosnian Muslim man and his family after the father makes the wrong kind of comment about a cartoon depicting Stalin and Marx, and is subsequently ‘sent away on business’. The story is told from the point of view of the man’s youngest son, Malik. It’s not as compelling as Underground, but still makes for interesting viewing.

Books:

Sarajevo

Besieged: Life under Fire on a Sarajevo Street, by Barbara Demick, 2011 ed. This is the fascinating true story of 10 families living on one street in Sarajevo, Logavina Street, during the siege. Demick certainly chose a great street – Logavina Street was home to Muslim, Croat and Serb families, including a couple of mixed families. It was also home to one of Sarajevo’s most famous Serbs, General Jovan Divjak, a man who identified himself as an ‘Orthodox Bosnian’ and who left the Yugoslav People’s Army to defend the city he loved by helping build the fledgling Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

This book provides countless quotidian details about life during the siege as well as detailing the people of Sarajevo’s courage, endurance and black humour (for example, one of the bleakest jokes of that bleak time, after the besiegers cut off the gas many Sarajevans relied upon for cooking and heating, was: What’s the difference between Sarajevo and Auschwitz? Answer: Auschwitz had gas.) The book also includes siege recipes, for example, for meatless schnitzels (basically, grind up some stale bread, shape it into patties and fry it).

In this edition, Demick returns to Sarajevo in 2011 and catches up with the surviving residents of Logavina Street, as well as offering a sober assessment of Bosnia’s future. Throughout the book, Demick’s depictions of the people she interviews are sensitive and insightful.

Blue Helmets and Black Markets: the Business of Survival in the Siege of Sarajevo, by Peter Andreas, 2008. A deeply depressing but very important book that should be required reading for anyone interested in the Siege of Sarajevo. This book provides a ‘behind-the-scenes’ or ‘backstage’ view of the events of the siege – the black marketeering, the prostitution rings (some of those young UN peacekeepers needed a good brothel to relax in, it seems, after a hard day’s work keeping the peace), the people trafficking etc. So while most of Sarajevo’s inhabitants cowered from the shells and endured starvation, war profiteers on both sides of the siege lines made and broke deals with each other and, in the process, ended up becoming extremely rich.

Some of the criminal acts Andreas describes were not purely about money: he details, for example, the Sarajevo city officials’ refusal to turn on an emergency water treatment system provided by a relief organization. The system would have provided the city’s people with running water for at least part of the day, but it would also have meant an end to the heart-wrenching imagery of Sarajevans struggling to get water from the Miljacka River while the snipers fired down on them. And heart-wrenching imagery was a vital public relations tool in the city’s struggle for international sympathy and support.

Fascinating, eye-opening but depressing stuff.

Goodbye Sarajevo, by Atka Reid and Hana Schofield. The true story of two sisters separated by the war in Bosnia. 21-year-old Atka stays in Sarajevo during the siege. Because she can speak English, Atka picks up work as a translator for foreign journalists covering the war. Through her work, she meets Andrew Schofield, a New Zealand photojournalist who later becomes her husband. Meanwhile, Atka’s12-year-old sister Hana, evacuated from Sarajevo one month into the war, has to come to terms with life as a refugee in Croatia. Atka and Hana alternate telling their stories chapter by chapter.

This book vividly depicts the heartache of families torn apart by the war, of family members not knowing, sometimes for months at a time, the whereabouts and circumstances of other family members. In one particularly vivid scene, Atka is in New Zealand watching a news report on TV about the latest marketplace bombing in Sarajevo when, to her horror, she glimpses her mother’s face amongst the crowd.

Finally, with the help of Andrew’s parents, Atka and Hana’s family reunites in New Zealand.

Natasha’s Story, by Michael Nicholson

Michael Nicholson is a British war correspondent who ‘smuggled’ a nine-year-old Bosnian girl out of an orphanage during the height of the Siege of Sarajevo and took her back to England to live with his family. This is his tale of how he did it, and of the problems and rewards he and his wife faced in helping Natasha adapt to her new life after the traumas of her past.

While I found this book beautifully written and fascinating, especially the sections devoted to the war itself, I finished it feeling a little puzzled about Michael Nicholson’s own motives and decision-making processes in becoming a war correspondent. I wanted to know more about how he views his profession and what value he places on it, given that the role of journalists during the siege of Sarajevo was particularly contentious. I also found his anti-Serb bias a bit extreme in places, especially when he paraphrases an ‘expert’ anthropologist who compares Serbs, in their savagery, to one of the most primitive and brutal tribes of the Amazon basin.

The movie ‘Welcome to Sarajevo’ is very loosely based on the events depicted in Natasha’s Story.

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Srebrenica

Blood and Vengeance: One Family’s Story of the War in Bosnia, by Chuck Sudetic. Chuck Sudetic has a family connection to this tale: he’s married to a Serbian woman from Belgrade whose sister married into a Bosnian Muslim family, the family of the title. Sudetic’s story relates the Celik family’s history from the beginnings of the twentieth century up until the fall of Srebrenica, during which the patriarch Huso Celik and his son-in-law Muhamed Halilović disappeared, Muhamed probably being murdered on the same day his young wife gave birth to their son.

The book is based on extensive interviews with the surviving members of the Celik family as well as other inhabitants, Muslim and Serb, of this strife-torn eastern corner of Bosnia. Very readable and chilling, Blood and Vengeance details decades of atrocities: those committed by the Ustaše in the Second World War, those committed by Muslims against Serbs during the most recent war and, of course, the Serb atrocities against Muslims committed after the fall of Srebrenica.

Endgame: the Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica, Europe’s Worst Massacre since World War II, by David Rohde, 2012 ed. I cried reading this book. In this incredibly thorough and detailed examination of the massacres that followed the fall of Srebrenica, Pulitzer-prize winning author David Rohde relies on interviews with participants in and survivors of the massacres, as well as the Dutch UN peacekeepers who watched much of the atrocity unfold while being powerless to stop it. Rohde devotes a chapter to the events of each day from Thursday July 6 to Sunday July 16, in other words from the immediate lead-up to the town’s fall and the subsequent days of slaughter. There is also a chapter covering the aftermath of the killings and an epilogue in which the author examines (but finds no evidence for) some of the conspiracy theories regarding the fall of Srebrenica ― theories provided fertile ground by inexplicable events like the Bosnian Army’s removal of Srebrenica’s military commander, Naser Orić, in the weeks immediately preceding the town’s fall. And, as Rohde describes so very well, the total impotence and incompetence of the UN forces (right up to the high command) comes across as so ridiculous it’s no wonder some conspiracy theorists believe the UN actually wanted or even planned Srebrenica’s fall.

One of the participants Rohde interviews in Endgame is a Bosnian Croat soldier named Dražen Erdemović, a young man who fought at various times on all three sides in the Yugoslav wars. Erdemović eventually ended up on the Serb side in time to take part in the mass slaughter of Srebrenica’s Muslims. After the war, a deeply traumatised Erdemović voluntarily turned himself in to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. I’ve also read his testimony in the ICTY online archives (see below). It makes for heartbreaking reading but of course, so too do the testimonies of survivors like Mevludin Orić, who after the murderers’ bullets missed him spent hours lying among the corpses of family members and friends before he was finally able to escape.

All in all, as harrowing as this book is, Rohde’s careful efforts to describe the massacre from the point of view of all involved make this book essential reading for anyone who wants to know more about the horrendous events in and around Srebrenica in July 1995.

Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime, by Jan Willem Honig and Norbert Both, 1996. Much drier and certainly not as arresting as Rohde’s book, but still a useful account of the massacre and international actions in the lead-up and aftermath.

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General

Atrocity, Punishment and International Law, Mark A. Drumbl, 2007. A thought-provoking examination of the nature of war crimes, the effectiveness of international criminal courts in punishing and/or preventing war crimes, and possible alternatives to the use of international courts. Drumbl is quite critical of some aspects of international war crimes trials. He points out that, obviously, one of the major differences between war crimes and ordinary crimes is that war crimes are often a collective action, an action that is ‘normalised’ in the society that commits them, even seen as ‘right’. Mass atrocities, in other words, require mass participation, which therefore makes punishing a few figureheads in the same way that we punish ordinary criminals somewhat problematic.

Balkan Ghosts: A Journey through History, by Robert D. Kaplan, 2005 ed. According to the author’s foreword (and various other reports), this was the book that convinced Bill Clinton there was no point in America getting involved in the war in Bosnia, because the whole conflagration was simply another manifestation of the endless ethnic rivalries described in Balkan Ghosts. Kaplan claims to be rather unhappy that his travel memoir was interpreted this way, and prefaces this edition with five of his newspaper articles that demonstrate his commitment to international involvement in enforcing peace in Bosnia.

The book itself has four parts. Part 1 covers parts of the former Yugoslavia (Croatia, Old Serbia and Albania, Macedonia and Belgrade). Note that, as Kaplan says in the foreword, he actually said very little about Bosnia in his book. Part 2, the part I found the most riveting, covers Romania, which Kaplan describes in turns as breathtakingly beautiful and gut-wrenchingly ugly, especially the post-industrial wastelands of eastern Romania. Part 3 details the complexities of Bulgaria’s history. Part 4 describes Greece, with much attention paid to the astonishing double-life Andreas Papandreou, former Prime Minister of Greece and ‘the most original of Balkan ghosts’, in Kaplan’s words.

Overall, this book is richly evocative of the landscapes, architecture and people of the Balkans, both now and in the past. But if you want to learn more about the former Yugoslavia, I’d suggest you try some other books as well.

The Bridge over the Drina, by Ivo Andrić, 1945, English translation published in 1959. This book, which won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961, is essentially the centuries-long tale of the Mehmed Pasha Bridge that today still spans the River Drina in the Bosnian town of Višegrad (after having been destroyed in WW1 and rebuilt). It is also, of course, the story of the people ― the Turks, Austrians, Serbs, Croats, Muslims and more ― who live and die on and around the bridge. The story begins with the bridge’s construction in the sixteenth century when Višegrad was ruled by the Ottoman Turks and continues up until the events that precipitated World War One, and therefore provides a wide-ranging view of Bosnia’s troubled, tumultuous history. Not only is this book heartbreaking and filled with richly fascinating characters, the translation into English from the original Serbo-Croat also reads beautifully. A wonderful novel.

Death of Yugoslavia (also published as Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation), by Laura Silber and Allan Little, 1995. This is a concise, easy-to-follow and very readable book that spans the rise of the nationalist leaders and the lead-up to war in the late ‘80’s and finishes with the signing of the Dayton Agreement in 1995. Silber was also chief consultant on the 6-part BBC series of the same name discussed above; this book makes a great accompaniment to the documentary series.

The Fall of Milosevic: the October 5th Revolution, by Dragan Bujosević and Ivan Radovanović, 2003. The tone is a bit gung-ho in places and there’s a lot of macho posturing, but this is still a riveting account of Milošević’s downfall in October 2000, as told by the actual participants during interviews with the authors.

Hunting the Tiger: The Fast Life and Violent Death of the Balkans’ Most Dangerous Man, by Christopher S. Stewart, 2007. Stewart begins his fast-paced, well-researched biography of Željko ‘Arkan’ Raznatović with a lurid account of a train journey the author made through Serbia as a backpacker in 1998. I had to have a bit of a chuckle to myself reading this because he makes the train trip sound so dangerous. And the men on the train all read like Četniks on speed: bearded, filthy, smashed-nosed thugs. But then again, maybe I’m biased – I’m married to a Serb and took a train through Serbia in 1994 myself (yep, during the war, as a solitary 21-year-old female backpacker) and was also hauled off the train by border guards in the middle of the night because I did not have a visa. Contrary to Stewart’s experience, I was treated with great hospitality: the entire train stopped to wait for me while the relevant official was woken up and came out, yawning and blinking sleepily, and stamped my passport. Later, one of the Serb men on the train took off his sweater, folded it up and insisted I use it as a pillow for the duration of the journey! I must have been super-lucky, I know.

Following the train journey prologue, Stewart plunges into Part 1 of the book, which describes Arkan’s childhood and early career as Europe’s notorious ‘smiling bank robber’, after which Arkan ended up on Interpol’s Most Wanted list. Stewart also interviews a former member of the Yugoslav State Security service, the UDBA, who confirms Arkan’s role during this period as a hit man for the Yugoslav government.

In Part 2, Stewart details Arkan’s return to Yugoslavia, his involvement with the Red Star soccer fans and his formation of what would become his paramilitary group, the Tigers. The most harrowing parts of the book are those in which Stewart describes, through interviews with former members, Arkan and his Tigers’ exploits in Vukovar and during the ethnic cleansing of eastern Bosnia. Stewart also covers how, in another abrupt turnaround, Arkan temporarily left the messiness of war to become a politician in Kosovo.

Part 3 focuses on Arkan’s assassination in a hotel lobby in Belgrade in 2000. In this section, Stewart also interviews Arkan’s determinedly disingenuous pop star wife, Ceca, the Madonna of the Balkans, who fell for Arkan, she says, because “I could tell he was a very strong man, and I liked strong men.”

One of the most telling descriptions of Arkan in Stewart’s book comes from a Serb villager saved by Arkan in the early days of the war. He describes how, when Arkan and the Tigers entered the village, he was hungry, in pain, and had just soiled his pants from fear. Then Arkan appeared. “All of us were grateful to him,” the villager says. “That man saved us. He is crazy. He is a tsar. He is God. He is Popeye.”

Indeed.

Knife, by Vuk Drašković, 1982, English translation published in 2000. I found this book by the Serbian writer and anti-Milošević campaigner Vuk Drašković quite difficult to read in places. It’s partly the translation, I think, which has grown men ‘giggling’ over their villainous deeds, partly the relentless, graphic violence, partly the story itself. Basically, though, this is the story of Alija, a young man who discovers that he is not the Bosniak he always believed himself to be, but is in fact a Serb adopted as a baby by a Muslim woman after his entire family was murdered during the Ustaše horror of the Second World War. The novel details Alija’s quest for his true identity and his struggle to come to terms with it.

Kosovo: A Short History, by Noel Malcolm, 1998. There’s nothing ‘short’ about this brick of a book. If you want a detailed, meticulous thousand-years-plus history of Kosovo, this is it.

The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obrecht, 2011. This beautifully written, Orange Prize-winning novel, set in an unnamed, war-damaged Balkan country which is obviously Serbia, features amazingly atmospheric descriptions. The tale spans decades, and is the story of a young woman searching for the answers to her grandfather’s death. Her search leads her back to the village her grandfather grew up in, and to a deaf-mute woman the villagers dub the Tiger’s Wife due to her mysterious affinity for a tiger living in the woods above the village. Interspersed with the tale of the tiger’s wife is the story of the grandfather as a young man, and his dealings with a mysterious Deathless Man, a man who never ages and claims he cannot die. A beautiful, tragic and magical tale with wonderful evocations of Yugoslavia then and now.

Tito and the Rise and Fall of Yugoslavia, by Richard West, 1994. A very readable book written by an Englishman with a long history of interest and involvement in Yugoslavia. It includes appalling details about the horrors of the Ustaše regime lightened by some wonderful anecdotes that reveal Tito’s wicked sense of humour. One such anecdote describes how England’s Prince Charles once visited Tito and brought him, as a gift, a bottle of exceptionally fine malt whiskey. Over the course of the evening, Charles asked Tito if he was planning to open the whiskey. Tito’s reply? “Oh no,” he said. “We save that for special occasions.”!!

The Warrior’s Honor: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience, by Michael Ignatieff, 1998. In this thought-provoking rumination on the nature of modern ethnic warfare and the usefulness or lack thereof of international intervention, Ignatieff cites examples not only from the Yugoslav wars, but also from Rwanda and Angola. He also considers the ethics of television portrayals of international conflicts and critically examines the history and philosophy of the International Red Cross. Compelling, profound, and very readable.

The War in Bosnia-Herzegovina: Ethnic Conflict and International Intervention, by Steven L. Burg and Paul S. Shoup, 1999. This book is aimed at a scholarly audience and as such goes into massive amounts of detail and includes painstakingly drawn analyses of all the main events. It includes plenty of maps as well as tables of figures from the 1991 census, showing population distributions just prior to the war. The first half of the book covers the actual war, the second half the various peace plans and the dilemmas of intervention.

Yugoslavia’s Ethnic Nightmare: the Inside Story of Europe’s Unfolding Ordeal, edited by Jasminka Udovicki and James Ridgeway, 1995. As the title suggests, this anthology was written by anti-war journalists of all ethnicities from the former Yugoslavia. It provides a very sober account of the lead-up to the wars and the early years of the conflict. The chapter “Media Wars” gives a chilling account of Milosević’s stranglehold on the state media in Serbia and his use of toxic, ‘death porn’ propaganda to corrupt people’s minds. The chapter “The Serbian Resistance” also provides a perspective often neglected in Western accounts of the wars by charting the many ways in which ordinary Serbs showed their disapproval of and discontent with the war and Milošević’s regime.

Other information: For firsthand accounts of the Yugoslav wars, the online archives of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia includes amongst its 150 000+ documents the statements of witnesses and war criminals, as well as transcripts of all its court cases.

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