The past haunts the present in this coming-of-age drama from Bosnian writer-director Jasmila Zbanic, which won the a prize at last year’s Berlin festival. The film’s original title Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams refers to a Sarajevan suburb, where in the civil war of the 1990s a notorious Serbian torture and rape camp was located.
Unfolding in today’s Sarajevo, Esma’s Secret concentrates on the relationship between a hard-up, middle-aged single mother Esma (Mirjana Karanovic, a regular in Emir Kusturica’s films) and her tomboyish 12-year-old daughter Sara (Luna Mijovic). The latter is told by a teacher that she can go on a school trip, which ordinarily cost €200, for free because her late father was a ‘shaheed’ (a military martyr). So why is Esma, who slaves away by day in a shoe factory and by night as a cocktail waitress, so reluctant to provide Sara with a copy of the required death certificate?
An economical, sensitive storyteller, Zbanic grounds her film in a series of credible interactions, including a tender friendship between Esma and a former soldier Pelda (Leon Lucev), who lost his own father in the fighting and who muses, ‘If I remembered everything, I’d kill myself’. And, while eliciting fine performances, the filmmaker paints a low-key, yet revealing portrait of a society struggling to continue with ‘normal’ life and deal with the legacy of such traumatic suffering.