With its chequered past and a cast of characters both loved and loathed, it can be especially troublesome in the Balkans.
Acclaimed Serbian actor Nikola Rakočević knows full well the burden of responsibility that such roles present.
His credits span recent history, with lead roles in stage and screen portrals of the trial of Gavrilo Princip, the murder of Srdjan Aleksić, the plight of Serbia’s Slovenian war refugees and the grip of Belgrade’s neo-nazi football hooligans.
“I feel great responsibility for the movies I make, especially when playing real people or real events,’ said Nikola. “It is then even more important not to mess up. It is one of the things that makes me think really seriously when choosing my movies or theatre roles.”
Nikola, who was recognised by judges at the Berlinale International Film Festival as one of Europe’s greatest young actors, has made a point of picking his roles carefully, wary of how they can sometimes distort history, if not handled skilfully.
“Movies need to have a really strong point to make,’ he said. “When I see that in a script and hear it when I am talking with a director, I believe that I do more than just acting and performing a role.
“I believe movies are something that helps raise a new generation. People can learn something from that. Maybe not all of them, but two or three is enough.
“When I was young I watched a lot of movies and picked up a lot of things from them, including some bad things. For example, I saw that you could fight with three or four guys, which I later learned was impossible.
“My friend’s father was a big smoker but she has never smoked a cigarette in her life. He did a great job as a father. He showed her what she shouldn’t do, showed her she has a choice. What is best for her. That is an actor’s responsibility, too.”
As the 1999 NATO bombing campaign intensifies and a direct hit on the TV studios seems more likely, these three people construct their own normalities to overcome fear and retain some form of sanity.
For Nikola’s character Bojan, this means immersing himself in the nightclub world of sex, drugs and house music.
This fictional story heavily inspired by the murder of young Bosnian Serb Srdjan Aleksić who was beaten to death by soldiers from the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS).
Srdjan was shielding his Muslim friend at the time and so has been hailed as a hero in towns across the Balkans.
“I was thinking of my role in Circles when I mentioned the responsibility of playing real characters,’ said Nikola. “It was really a huge responsibility to play a character based on Srdjan Aleksic.
“I was a child at the time of his death and I didn’t know what was going on in the country,’ said Nikola, who grew up during the wars in the former Yugoslavia.
“We didn’t have war and shooting in central Serbia but everything else was affected by the war. It was on the news non-stop. War and death on TV every day.
“At one moment, I had the thought in my mind to go there, to the war, and sacrifice myself. To say, OK, shoot me and stop the war. I’ll sacrifice myself and you can stop fighting. I was just nine years old.
“Of course, that was a really stupid idea. If I had done that, they would have just shot me and gone on with the war anyway. I would have been made a saint but…”
Despite his tender years, those thoughts stuck with Nikola, only to be recalled with fresh relevance when approached about the role in Circles.
“I was really young but when I saw a story about Srdjan Aleksic,‘ said Nikola. “It was a really big thing for me and that moment from my childhood came rushing back to me. That man really did that. He wasn’t just sat thinking in his room. In fact, he probably never thought about sacrificing himself, but he did.
“Circles is monument to a man who did a noble thing. He put himself on the line to help stop the fighting, to save his friend.
“He was a representative of humanity. He didn’t stand on any side, any flag, country or religion or anything else. He represented human beings. To me he is a really big guy, and a strong figure for a lot of people. Not just in Serbia or even the former Yugoslavia. He is an inspiration for everybody, I think.
“There was a strange thing on set. Usually, the lighting guys, electricians etc make jokes. They do their job as best they can but they are not really related to the script. But while we were shooting Circles, the whole crew felt respect for what we were doing.
“We all knew what we were doing had value. We were all touched by this guy and his story. When you saw that, it was like standing at a graveside. There was so much energy. It was incredible. I am proud of that movie.”
The Man Who Defended Gavrilo Princip
Late last year, Nikola again played a real-life role in The Man Who Defended Gavrilo Princip / Branio sam Mladu Bosnu, the story of the trial of the young members of Mlada Bosna, who conspired to kill Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
“I play Rudolf Cistler who, at that moment, was training to be a lawyer in Sarajevo,’ Nikola explained.
“They picked him and five other guys to defend those assassins but he was the only one who tried to do that properly. He was like, OK, you choose me but I want to do my job, no matter who it is.
“At that time, nobody was thinking or saying anything normal. They definitely weren’t trying to defend those who did it. But Rudolf Cistler stood up and, first of all, he defended the law. So it is also a true story about a guy who was caught up in a moment of history.
“I really connected with Rudolf because, through him, I tried to connect with those guys, to understand them.
‘I feel sympathy for murderer Gavrilo Princip’
“I tried to know what they wanted with the assassination, what they were trying to achieve. It was brutal murder but, you know, it was also important for me how you can see one day, one action, even a murder, from a different angle.
“I feel sympathy for them but also I know it was murder. During filming, it was really mixed up in my head, trying to understand what they wanted to say with what they did that day.”
So successful was this film in the anniversary year of the assassination that Nikola was asked to star in a well-received spin-off TV series about the young lawyer.
“You can tell a story one way or another, show the good side or the bad side,’ said Nikola. “You need to be free to give yourself chance to understand that, at least.”