Thursday, April 22, 2021

Movie Review: "Dara of Jasenovac" (2020)

Since today, April 22nd, the Serbian Orthodox Church commemorates the Serbian new martyrs of the Ustasha death camp in Jasenovac, I thought I would bring to people's attention an excellent new movie about the horrors of this period of Serbian history, called Dara of Jasenovac.

The film Dara of Jasenovac, directed by Predrag Antonijević and written by Nataša Drakulić, is the first feature film about the suffering of Serbs, Jews and Roma, including children, in the Ustasha death camp in Jasenovac, during the so-called Independent State of Croatia, a fascist/nazi puppet-state during World War II. The historical war drama about one of the most horrific concentration camps in history was filmed 76 years after its closure, based on authentic testimonies of camp survivors and with the support of the Film Center of Serbia.

It is about twelve-year-old Dara who, after the Ustasha-German offensive on Kozara, ends up in concentration camps with her mother and two brothers. The horrors she will survive in the Stara Gradiška Camp will make her grow up overnight. Dara's mother and older brother are killed, and the mission of her life becomes to save the life of her younger brother.

This film is Serbia’s official submission for the 2020-21 Academy Awards, which will air this coming Sunday.

I saw this film about a month ago in a theater and it doesn't seem to be available yet in any On Demand or streaming services, however it is expected to be released on May 11th at least On Demand. Till then, check out the trailer below, as well as a few photos of the star of the film visiting the Cathedral of Christ's Resurrection in Podgorica and venerating the grave of the late Metropolitan of Montenegro and the Littoral Amfilohije.

Be warned if you read any reviews of this film, because it is being circulated that this is nothing but Serbian propaganda, even though it is based on testimonies from the time.

Because of this film, the main young actress Biljana Cekic has become a sort of star in Serbia, whose fans more often call her Dara rather than Biljana, which she does not mind at all, and you can see an interview with her in her home (here; in Serbian only). I have included a rough translation below of another short interview with her for those who cannot understand Serbian. As one article writes of her: "She made Serbia cry with shocking scenes from the Ustasha camp, and after the screening of the film, the interest in Biljana did not stop. In addition to receiving numerous praises, many offered to help her, both in terms of acting and life."

Biljana Cekic was also awarded a scholarship from Hilandar Monastery of Mount Athos until she completes school out of gratitude for portraying her character on screen so well. Her family is poor from an impoverished area and it is hoped this scholarship will help in her future studies and her family in their difficult situation. 

Interview With Biljana Cekic

How did this role come about, how did it all start?

One day at school, the teacher handed us papers where it said we could apply, if we wanted, to audition for the film. At first I didn't even know what the movie was, I didn't even plan to apply, but I decided to let my dad sign and that's how it all started. I went to castings and three months after the last casting, they told me I got the role.

How important was it to you to get the role, did you expect it or did you not hope for it? What did those three months look like?

I thought I wouldn't get the role and I didn't have the talent for it at all, but here it is…

You suddenly found yourself from school in the unknown, to being surrounded by professional actors, directors, producers… How was it for you in the beginning, was it difficult?

It was very interesting. The first role and the main role. Everything was interesting to me, stage preparation, costumes, make-up, everything. The scenes were not physically difficult for me, but emotional. The scene at the end of the film was especially difficult for me, when I have to give my brother to Diana Budisavljević.

Is there any scene you would single out as the most important?

The scariest scene is when the detainees go around the chairs, to see who doesn't sit down… And I can't single out the most important scene because the whole film is important, because we are still talking about the truth, about something that really happened.

How did you manage to achieve filming and school obligations? Did you miss classes and what was the understanding of your teachers?

We filmed for three months and I was absent from school, but since we didn’t film every day, we had some classes.

Did you learn about Jasenovac and the sufferings of our people at school?

Yes, we learned something about it in school, so I knew something about Jasenovac, and my great-grandmother was in Jasenovac, so it all helped me in some way.

Your peers watched this movie, and you belong to the visual generation, kids are used to using screens and watching a picture. Is there any difference between reading and learning and watching a movie, when someone is acting? How important is this achievement for your generation?

That is very important. Before that, when we were studying it, I don't think it was that important to my peers, and now everyone really knows about Jasenovac and this film helped them a lot.

There are a lot of articles on the subject of this film, both beautiful and ugly, but everyone agrees that you were great, that you were the most impressive. When you said that you were from Jasenovac, you became a collective character. We all found ourselves in your person, we all reflected in your eyes. How does it feel, in a way, to be a representative of the whole nation?

I am very glad that we made this film and that I was in it. This film is here to show the real truth and to open the eyes of many people. 
New Martyrs of Jasenovac (1941-1945)