The plot of “Ustanicka ulica“ [Ustanicka Street] is an artistic interpretation of our reality. That is why it carries some deeper truths than the ones we recognise in reality.
While they are happening, no one seems to know about the war crimes committed by their own people. After the bloodshed ends, everyone suddenly knows everything.
And that everything boils down to several banal phrases. They are: every war has its crimes, they committed many more of them than we did, our crimes – if we can call them that at all – are our revenge for severe atrocities from the past. Let others put their own people on trial first and only then will we think about whether there are any grounds for reconsidering the deeds and actions of our beloved leaders, dear ministers, heroic generals, and all the others whose rule and patriotism is based solely on shedding someone else’s innocent blood.
That is how things appear in the first post-war years. After that, when a little more time has past, there is an era of oblivion, relative values and indifference. Why open old wounds, one can often hear. Even more often, people say that the present should not be burdened with the past; we must all look to the future.
Because, as opposed to other kinds of crime, war crime always wears a fig leaf of politics, ideology, twisted concepts of patriotism, religion, and ethnic background. Murderers in everyday, peacetime life are only murderers, and possible extenuating circumstances are established at one remove from the crime and are in no way taken for granted.
When it comes to war criminals, however, everything is upside down; only when all the excuses for the crimes that were committed are used up and wear off, are the perpetrators arrested and finally put on trial. And that’s how it is everywhere – from the Balkans to Afghanistan.
However, there are and always will be people who are not ready to turn their heads away, who will call war crimes and their perpetrators by their proper name, despite the danger and pressures, and they will prosecute them, if needs be, till the end of eternity.
As the least important member, but never the less a member, of the creative team behind “Ustanicka ulica”, I helped develop the storyline concerning the work of the War Crime Prosecutor’s Office in Belgrade.
There were a lot of dilemmas. How not to turn the script, and subsequently the film, into a vapid political pamphlet, into a manifesto of sterile political correctness and cheap sensationalism?
On the other hand, how to do you address one of the most important subjects in society without flirting with populism and nationalism, those eternal guards at the gates of our recent, blood-soaked past?
And when it comes to me, how do you take my own journalistic experience of battlefields, courts, meetings with people from both sides of the law, refugees and victims of war crimes of all ethnicities and hand all that over to the producer, scriptwriters and director?
In short, a feature film is not a documentary, and even less a journalistic article. The laws of one profession simply do not apply to another. I realised thisduring the four years it took us to work on the script after various digressions and dead ends.
Some of my experiences, powerful according to the responsesof readers or TV viewers, turned out to be banal and unconvincing in the context of the film. And then there were passing remarks of mine that the scriptwriters took as a basis for further development. After endless drafts and rewrites, the film was finally built as a story about various human fates. Although all the characters are fictional, all of them exist – they are our neighbours, friends, relatives, ourselves with our own ups and downs.
Similarly, although the film deals with an unspecified crime, it does not mean its fictional – such crimes occurred everywhere in the former Yugoslavia where ethnic blood cells were counted and separated with the help of gunpowder charges.
And the demonic mechanism which connects the film’s protagonists is also real: those people and organisations laybehind the war crimes then, just as they are trying to do everything in their power to conceal them today, acting then and now only because of money, position and power. Those people aren’t named either – but if after all we are not capable of recognising them and opposing them, we are truly doomed.
“Ustanička ulica” is based on reality, but it is not in any way reality. The cases of the actual War Crime Prosecutor’s Office are infinitely slower, judicial procedure is applied at every step of the investigation, you have crime scene investigations, exhumations, forensic experts, to name just a few.
But this film is not an imagined one. Just as in real life, the crime is always brutal and sickeningly banal, and its perpetrators are fairly common and quiet men, people from whom inconceivable cruelty and inhumanity burst out consciously and deliberately at the time when rifles were put in their hands and they were told that anything goes in the name of their nation.
In that context, there is not much to be said about them. Like all the rest, they have their own worries and joys, passions and fears, dreams and aspirations, and the very fact that they are so common and recognisable makes it hard to believe that they were capable of committing such monstrous deeds. And they were.
A similar thing goes for the strongmen on whose behalf all these war crimes were committed. While in a position of power – formal or informal, it does not matter – they seem self-confident, they own all the truths, they manipulate other people’s lives and other people’s misery carelessly, in accordance with their own conceptions of ethnic and state interests.
When they finally fall and face justice, they are difficult to watch and listen to without a sense of shame and unease: they are obsessed with petty comforts and imagined sicknesses, demand rights they had not granted to anyone before They are repulsively condescending and ready to do everything to shift their own responsibility to somebody else. Are these people really like that? Yes, they are exactly like that.
Finally, you have war crime prosecutors, people whose job is extremely difficult, dangerous, stressful...I have known these people long enough to know that they have all paid a high personal and family price for the job that they do. Not, of course, as high as the one paid in the film, but high enough that each and every one of them may rightfully wonder: “Why am I doing all this and do I really need all this?”
Prosecutors should not be idealised: they know best of all the compromises and mistakes they have made, how many set ups and intrigues they fell for, including ones stemming from their own ranks. And still, without these people, just the way they arewith their continual and sometimes Don Quixote-like work, Serbia would not have anything good to hope for.
The plot of the film “Ustanička ulica” – let me reiterate – is an artistic interpretation of our reality. And that is why it carries some deeper truths than the ones we recognise in reality.
Filip Svarm is the editor-in-chief of weekly Vreme and expert consultant on the script for "Ustanicka ulica".
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