The Scorpions notorious Serbian paramilitary unit has inspired two of Serbia’s most prominent filmmakers to write A Good Wife, a film that is already picking up awards and plaudits even before shooting has wrapped.
Esteemed Serbian actress Mirjana Karanović (Grbavica/Esma’s Story) and out-spoken director Stevan Filipović (Skinning/Šišanje) have drawn from a well-known conviction of members of this unit to write a script that will put a personal spin on difficult issues in Serbia’s recent past.
“This story is based on the Scorpions case, where members of this special police unit killed six Bosniak civilians in the nineties and videotaped the crime,’ said Stevan, explaining the real-life inspiration for the script he co-wrote with Mirjana. “The tape later leaked, and they were arrested.
Never Suspected A Thing
“Mirjana and I wanted to try and see this story from the point of view of the immediate families of the war criminals, to ask questions like exactly how innocent is this ‘good wife’ that was living with this man for so long, and ‘never suspected a thing’? What is her story? What is the degree of her own responsibility?”
“This is a coming out story about a woman who, after more than 30 years of suburban bliss, discovers that her husband is a war criminal. She now has to face all the truths in her life that she’s been hiding from herself for so many years.”
So far, the response to A Good Wife has been extremely positive, with leading writers and artists providing encouragement to the project. “We have received a really great response from different people, people whose opinions we really believe in,’ Mirjana told Wild Rooster. “I sent the script to friends in the theatre and some writers. Their reaction was really encouraging. The first came from the novelist Mirka Kolac. He wrote some of the greatest scripts in the history of Yugoslav cinematography. He encouraged me to continue with this project and now we are here. I hope that the film is going to as good as the script.”
The project received a major boost at the recent Sarajevo Film Festival, where Stevan and Mirjana won the Arte Award for Development to help drive their project towards a release in 2013. “Awards like these really help to make the film more visible on an international level, which is always a good thing for a movie coming from a small country like Serbia,’ said Stevan. “On the other hand, now we have more responsibility to make, as one jury member pointed out after the ceremony, a darn good film.”
Such pressures should not concern these two filmmakers. Director Stevan Filipović is known for Šišanje/Skinning, a film that attracted attention for its portrayal of fascist extremists in Belgrade, while Mirjana Karanović has a string of high profile roles under her belt, such as Underground and When Father Was Away On Business.
“I consider Mirjana to be the best actress in Serbia today,’ said Stevan. “I admire her work immensely. More importantly, I have great respect for her political activism and bravery to stand up to injustice and speak out against stupidity, nationalism and hatred.”
Average Serbian Family
Mirjana explained the motivation behind the lead character in A Good Wife: “I came across this story about a woman who discovers that her husband is actually a war criminal, that he killed people during the war in the nineties,’ she said. “This is a great shock, of course. I chose this because I think that this is a radical situation.
“This is the hardest situation for anybody. To discover that somebody you used to live with for decades is actually somebody else. Somebody you thought you knew, somebody you love. This is not a question of getting revenge because she does not love him anymore. Everything is OK with them, they have a good life. This is an average Serbian family and she is a good person. A good wife.
Presenting hard evidence of the atrocities was key to the story, said Mirjana: “I wanted to put her in a position where the truth is in front of her, where she cannot deny it. In Serbia, we say ‘OK, but there is no proof. If I could see the proof I would believe, but this is just hearsay. This is not true. The other side says this and they are just making lies. These are just mean people who fabricate stories about the war’. But this is not just words, it is pictures. It is something that you cannot say is fabricated or a fake.
“At the end she has learned that confronting the truth is very painful and after this point her life cannot be the same. Nothing is the same, but at least we do not live in lies and in denial. We can start something. It is a new beginning. It is very hard for somebody who is 50 years old to start over but that is why this is a story about somebody who can lose so much but she has to lose this to be able to start something.”
In Cold Blood
Tackling such a potentially polarising story that is sure to attract attention demands a great deal of care, research and preparation, which both Mirjana and Stevan pride themselves on getting right. “For me, as a director, it was really important to learn as much as I could about the case,’ said Stevan. “We interviewed a lot of people and got all the transcripts of the trials, which really helped to get a glimpse into the psyche of people who were able to execute kids in cold blood, and then write it off as ‘doing their jobs’.”
Mirjana explained how she tried to understand the main character and drive the story. “I was in a play in the theatre,’ she said. “It was about a really simple, average woman. It was a very successful performance. It is still on stage in Belgrade. I started to think about this kind of woman: really simple, average, quiet, accepting life as it is and not making any noise. I am quite different. I always announce my disagreement loudly. I don’t like anybody to push me or to force to me to do something I don’t like. So I started to think about this other kind of woman.
“At one moment I started to connect this with the situation in my country, where we all tend to act like everything is ok. Everybody thinks that if we avoid seeing the shit around us, the shit somehow magically disappears. I am very angry because people think like this, but then I start to think about their situation, to see the world through eyes of this type of woman.”
Nothing to Lose
Neither Stevan nor Mirjana shirk from tackling difficult stories that need to be told if a society can acknowledge the truth and move on. “I am not afraid any more, not afraid of anything that could happen next,’ said Mirjana. “I am in my fifties. This is an age when it is absurd to be afraid. I have nothing to lose. I am a big girl now.”
Stevan hopes that this film will address rarely discussed issues. “I think this is a very powerful story that speaks volumes about the way we deal (or rather, don’t deal) with problems in Serbia today,’ he said. “It communicates with audiences on a very personal level, through this woman’s intimate struggle.
“For me as a filmmaker, it is always interesting and important to talk about the things that plague us as a society, but which are hidden or ignored for various reasons. Judging by the way people react to these stories, I think it is not possible to really move on without first being able to honestly address all the important questions.”
Mirjana added: “I don’t know what stage we are at in Serbia, or what is going on in Serbia generally. I just know that this has to be done. There is no other way. If we postpone this, it is going to be harder and harder for the next generation.
“I am afraid that postponing issues is becoming a custom in the Balkans. We forget our mistakes from history. But then also we don’t appreciate our achievements. We are stuck in a situation where we don’t know who we are.
“Sometimes this part of the world reminds me of a teenager. We are in a teenage stage. Not only Serbia, but the whole region. We are behaving like teenagers. We are raging, we are rebellious but we don’t know against whom, just against any authority. But if some higher authority appears, we are so submissive, afraid. We are so loud and we will always point to somebody else’s faults but never to our own. We are just teenagers.
“We are so frustrated that we think that nobody loves us, that everybody just thinks bad about us. But, on the other side, we are so pleased when somebody comes to our country and says ‘Oh, how wonderful you are, how talented, how good’, and then we behave like kittens wanting attention. We are so fragile.
“We need truth, even if this truth is painful, People here are so afraid that if they accept the truth, then everything good will disappear. Look at the reaction Stevan received to Šišanje. We are so insecure that we feel one movie could destroy our reputation.”
Angelina’s Flop Movie
The extreme reaction to Angelina Jolie’s fatally flawed flop, In the Land of Blood and Honey, is a case in point, said Mirjana. “When we talk about the reactions in Serbia, the main criticism about Angelina Jolie is that the story she is telling in her movie never happened,’ she said. “So when the bad reviews start to show up in foreign press, they saw it as an opportunity. They said, ‘Yeah, look, look! She made a bad movie. That must mean that there was no rape in Bosnia’. OK, maybe she did make a bad movie, but the rape happened. That is the main point.
“So it is a pity her movie is not better because it is an important story to tell. But I think it is very hard for a person like Angelina. Even when she has the best intentions to help and to make changes, it is very hard for people from Hollywood to make a good movie about any problem in some other part of the world. They just don’t know. It’s not that I don’t appreciate her involvement – she tries to help – but…”
Mirjana has first-hand experience of how directors with good intentions can get it so badly wrong. “Many years ago, I read a play about two psychiatrists going to Bosnia to help with raped women in a trauma centre,’ she said. “In this play I read the monologues of these Bosnian women where they describe in detail how they were raped. And it is completely wrong. It is how some American woman would describe what happened to her. But in Bosnia, in the Balkans, women would never ever expose such details about what happened.
“It is a different culture. I have read original documents of what happened in these refugee centres where the rape victims were interviewed about what happened to them and it is like this: The war started, I was alone, my husband is dead, and I stay in my home and then this man with a mask started coming to my house every day. I was so ashamed. He could be my son and he came every day. One day I couldn’t stand any more and I picked up my things and went. That is all these women said. They could not share the detail. It would be out of the question. It shows that we have to talk about what we know the best.”
Directorial Debut For Mirjana
While Mirjana has an illustrious career as an actress, this will mark her cinema directorial debut. “I have been a professor of acting for 18 years, so I had to direct something on stage but I didn’t ever direct a movie,’ said Mirjana. “I wanted to direct this story, not because of my ambitions to be a director but to be involved as much as I can in this project. Not just as an actress but to be involved in other aspects of the movie. I thought I was best to tell this story and I wanted to co-operate with somebody who shares my artistic and political ideas. That is why I chose Stevan to help me through this process.
“I did not know him before. I liked Šišanje very much and I had read his articles in newspapers and on some websites, about subjects in our society. That’s the reason I called him. I like directors who deliver a combination of visual identity and emotional statements.
“It is very good working with Stevan. He is very optimistic, very tolerant. I need this because I am very vain. Sometimes I can become very depressed, insecure and intolerant. I am a perfectionist but I am getting better. He and I are a good team because I know how to work with actors, I am very good in this preparation period, and I am going to prepare actors, to lead rehearsals. He is good with the rest of it.”
There is a responsibility attached to any film that raises difficult issues, said Stevan: “I think it is extremely important for a film maker to be responsible. “We communicate with an audience of millions, and I certainly felt the weight of that responsibility when I was doing Skinning. We consciously tried to use every trick in a book not to make a film that would inspire violence, and I’m happy to say that we were successful in that effort.
“After Skinning, I learned that it’s ok not to be afraid all the time, and that there are always going to be some extreme reactions to what I do, especially in a country as scarred as Serbia.”
Many believe that Skinning/Šišanje was an important film for Serbia, addressing issues that had been brushed under the carpet. It also received a lot of positive international attention and critical acclaim.
“No way I could have ever imagined the film would receive such a reaction,’ said Stevan. “I could not see that the whole experience would be that intense. The way the film reflected Serbian reality, and the fact that most of our set pieces actually happened on the streets of Belgrade, was for me a really strange blend of art and life, that pushed my career in a whole different direction after Shaitan’s Warrior. I became much more political, and much more aware of the dynamics of processes that shaped this country to how it is today.”
It is important that an awareness of responsibility as a director should not translate into a fear of expression. “It is very important to be aware of the extent of our influence, and the fact that we cannot change the world overnight and in radical ways through the medium of film,’ said Stevan. “If we, as filmmakers, are content that our role in this change is just a grain of sand in a huge desert, than it’s ok. But meeting just one person who tells you that Skinning changed his or her beliefs, or Shaitan’s Warrior gave them faith in movie magic, is reason enough for me to keep doing this job.”