For people who are not Serbian, the appalling story of the Croatian Ustaše-run Jasenovac concentration camps during World War II is almost unknown. Director Predrag Antonijević and screenwriter Nataša Drakulić, a Serbian from Croatia who lost many family members in the camps, tell this story from the point-of-view of 10-year-old Dara Ilić.
The fascist, ultra-nationalist Ustaše killed almost 100,000 people in Jasenovac, most of them Serbs, Roma and Jews. Early in the film, the commandant of the camp entertains a delegation of Nazi visitors by making men play musical chairs and then killing each loser by slashing his throat or crushing his head with a mallet. Even the Nazis are sickened by the Ustaše brutality. The commandant defends his methods by explaining that Croatia is not industrially advanced like Germany, so they have to use whatever methods they have at hand.
The Nazi leader asks, “Why waste all your strength on them [the Serbs]? Didn’t we say only Jews and Roma? Why the Serbs?”
The commandant replies, “Because they’re Serbs.”
If the musical chairs sequence seems too extreme, keep in mind that in real life, the Jasenovac camp leaders used not only adult men, but children.
Enter Dara, played by non-professional Biljana Čekić. She arrives with her mother, her older brother and her younger brother, 18-month-old Bude, after having been separated from her father, who is sent to a camp 20 miles away, where he is forced to work dumping dead bodies into mass graves and into a river. When Dara’s mother tries to prevent her 12-year-old son from being taken away, the Croatian commandant shoots them both to death in front of Dara. As traumatized as she obviously is, Dara dedicates herself to protecting Bude. She does so with the help of other women in the camp and even with secret aid from a Jewish woman who has saved herself by helping the camp authorities.
Meanwhile, Dara’s father discovers his own wife and son among the dead he has to bury. Not surprisingly, he becomes obsessed with trying to escape so that, somehow, he can save Dara and Bude.
To play Dara and the many other children trapped in the camp, Antonijević recruited most of the children from small villages in the area. He shot the film in sequence, partly to cover up the fact that many of them grew too much during the three-month shooting schedule, but also so that the children would better understand the reality they were portraying. He did keep a psychologist on the set, and he did not let the children see the musical chairs sequence.
“They’re still kids,” Antonijević has explained, “but they don’t reach for their phones when there’s a break during shooting. They sit on the ground and they talk. It’s a totally different culture. It’s a very old-fashioned upbringing. They look at life as real. They don’t look at life as a video game.”
As with the Slovak film The Auschwitz Report, Antonijević confronts the question of why we should continue to watch Holocaust films. For him, part of the reason is to remind Croatians about a part of their history that many of them would rather ignore. But also, as he has said, “We see what’s happening in America. We see what’s happening around the world. We have to remind people about fascism. We have to remind people about mistreatment and looking down on people for differences in their race or their religion. That’s an ever-present story. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go away. It doesn’t leave us.”
One of the many disturbing aspects that Dara of Jasenovac reveals is the role played by nuns in the camp. They watch the killings seemingly without emotions, make no attempt to help children who become ill and then try to brainwash the healthy children into becoming “good Croats.”
However, the film does call attention to the fact that even in the worst of times, there are people who try to help, even at the risk of their own lives. At the very beginning of the film, a Serbian mother, carrying a crying baby, makes eye contact with a Croatian woman working in a nearby field and silently hands her baby over to her for safekeeping. And throughout the film, the guards and the inmates have to deal with monthly visits from the Red Cross, who spirit away a limited number of children in a bus, while leaving others behind to their horrible fate. Presumably the camp nuns read the same Bible as the Red Cross workers, but you would never know it by their actions.