News 20 Apr 17

Zagreb Award For Jasenovac Film Director Draws Protests

Zagreb city assembly has awarded the maker of a controversial documentary on the Ustasa-run concentration camp at Jasenovac - despite claims that it sets out to downplay the crimes committed there during World War II.

Sven Milekic
Jakov Sedlar. Photo: Beta

Zagreb city assembly on Wednesday controversially gave the Award of the City of Zagreb – along with 4,000 euros – to the film director Jakov Sedlar whose film on the former concentration camp at Jasenovac has outraged Jewish, Serbian, left-wing and anti-Nazi groups as well as Israeli diplomats among others.

He was nominated earlier this month by the city's Committee for Public Recognition, headed by Mayor Milan Bandic.

One of the committee’s members, TV host Romano Bolkovic, said he was not present at the session when Sedlar was nominated, while two others, economist Josip Tica and PR expert Aleksandra Kolaric, voted against.

Other members, the president of the Zagreb branch of the ruling Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, assembly chair Andrija Mikulic, as well as Mayor Bandic and four other members - Ana Stavljenic-Rukavina, Jelena Pavicic Vukicevic, Josip Petrac and Robert Balic – voted for.

The row over Sedlar concerns his documentary Jasenovac – The Truth, on the wartime camp at Jasenovac, run by the then ruling Fascist Ustasa movement, where it is believed that over 83,000 Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-fascists were killed.

Accusing him of downplaying the Ustasa crimes in the camp, the Anti-Fascist League of Croatia reported him for “public incitement to violence and hatred” in July.

The League claimed that Sedlar had used his film to target the country’s ethnic and religious minorities, particularly Serbs.

The film also angered some Croatian Jews after it was screened in April 2016. The Israeli ambassador to Croatia, Zina Kalay Kleitman, wrote in an open letter that the film “attempts to revise historical facts and offends the feelings of people who have lost their loved ones in Jasenovac”.

Journalist Lovro Krnic proved that Sedlar had used a faked photo-montage of a 1945 front page of the Croatian newspaper Vjesnik in an attempt to show that the Communists, who had just seized power, had falsified the facts about Jasenovac.

Before the award ceremony, small rival groups of protesters gathered in front of the assembly on Wednesday, one protesting against his nomination and the other advocating the award.

“We believe Jakov Sedlar falsified the truth and does not deserve the prize,” Rada Boric, a rights activist and vice-president of the New Left party, said in the name of the first group.

On the other side, a member of an association of veterans of the independence war of the 1990s, Zorica Greguric, said that her group had come to give support to the “celebrated Croatian director”.

“It took courage to deal with this topic and objectively show the situation, supporting it by displaying documents and facts,” she said.

Representatives of Croatian Jewish and Serbian communities, as well as the Anti-Fascist League, sent an open letter to the assembly on Tuesday, urging them not to present him with the award.

They said the film showed Jasenovac only as a labour camp and “downplayed and degraded the victims of Jasenovac, and denied the Holocaust and genocide committed by the Ustasa regime”.

The chief Nazi-hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, Efraim Zuroff, wrote to the city assembly on Tuesday, saying the film tried to “re-write the history of the Independent Croatian State [the Ustasa-led puppet state] and deny the horrific crimes committed in Jasenovac.

“Sedlar's attempts to reduce the number of innocent Serbs, Jews, Roma and Croatian anti-fascists who were killed by the Ustasa in Jasenovac are an insult to the victims and the reason for fierce criticism, not awards,” Zuroff wrote.

Sedlar wrote in his own open letter, sent on Tuesday, that he had not downplayed any crimes.

“Never, not in a single film of mine or public appearance, have I ever incited to hatred or tried to deny any crime; never in any thoughts did I say anything positive about fascism. Fascism, like communism, is an evil that only a sick man can support and promote,” he said.

He maintained that he wanted only to open up a discussion and to tackle what he called “Communist-led” accusations that had stigmatised the Croatian people, by exaggerating the death toll at the camp. He also claimed that Jasenovac continued to exist after 1945 as a Communist-led death camp, a claim that is generally disputed.

“In the future, fascists will emerge from the ranks of anti-fascists,” Sedlar concluded in his letter, claiming it was said by the British wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill. However, the International Churchill Society, dedicated to preserving his legacy, has denied Churchill said these words.

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