Pretty Villages, Pretty Flame: a film about the war in Bosnia

Directed by Srdjan Dragojevich.

Cast: Dragan Bjelogrlic, Nikola Kojo, Nikola Pejakovich.

This is a low budget Serbian film about the Bosnian civil war that was criticized for being Serb propaganda and a "fascist" film. It is a strong anti-war film that is deeply pessimistic about the political situation in Bosnia, the causes of the war and the future of the region. The war is seen mostly as a rural phenomenon. Its main merit is that it is Serbian and is told from a Bosnian Serb point of view yet the film confirms a point of view that has been prevalent in the Western capitalist press, namely that the Bosnian situation is the result of ages old irreconcilable ethnic prejudice that is deeply rooted in the psyche of all ethnic groups in Bosnia. The war is portrayed as an irrational orgy of violence, destruction that results in people, who in many cases know each other, murdering each other and carrying out senseless destruction. There is no reason at all why these peoples should be at war with each other. The story revolves around Milan, a Serb, and Hamil, a Muslim, who live in the same village and as young boys become best friends, grow up together going through the travails of adolescence and eventually open a garage together until the war starts. They end up on opposite sides of the war. The film tries to explain what happened, once the war starts, to people like Milan and Hamil who had lived for a long time together in peace and friendship. Its only answer is a deep rooted sense of persecution that each ethnic group feels. For most of the film we follow Milan's 6-man Serb paramilitary force in its exploits of violence and destruction. The film is imaginatively constructed through a series of flashbacks and shifting time sequences of 12 years of Yugoslav history. It contains realistic battle sequences that will turn even the most desensitized viewers stomach.

The film contains its share of surrealism, bitter irony and black humor causing one reviewer to call it "the Full Metal Jacket of Bosnia". The climax of the film takes place in a railway tunnel that we are introduced to in the beginning of the film as a tunnel of "brotherhood and unity" built by the Titoists to symbolize the linking of Belgrade and Zagreb. As young boys, Milan and Hamil are scarred to enter the tunnel for fear of an ogre that might live inside. They discover later that the ogre only exists inside themselves. Milan's group of Serbs are chased into the tunnel by a larger Muslim militia that is led by his best friend Hamil and the siege lasts ten days. The whole Bosnian tragedy is played out in microcosm during these ten days. The groups taunt each other with racial slurs and jokes, calling each other "Turks" and "Chetniks" and threatening to hack each other to pieces. We see the taunts are for real as the Muslims send down a Serb women battered and raped beyond recognition. Milan recognizes her as his old schoolteacher and is ordered to shoot her for she might be booby-trapped. He can't pull the trigger so someone else does. We meet each of the Serb militiamen; a tough long haired young peasant named "Fork" who is the best soldier, a former thief, the "professor", an ex-Belgrade junkie sent into the army for rehab, all led by a senior JNA Titoist partisan veteran whose reminiscences of the Tito years and his time with the partisans bring tears to his eyes.

One of the Muslims is a former comrade of his in the JNA. They both accuse each other of betrayal. A female American journalist shows up in the tunnel who cannot speak Serb-Croat and is totally spellbound by the extreme violence, hatred and irrationality. When the militia loots Muslim homes and villages, the Serbs walk out with T.V. sets while the professor walks out only with books. When Milan finally tries to escape he is caught by Hamil. Hamil asks "Why did you burn down our garage?" "I didn't" Milan answers, "Why did you kill my mother?" Milan replies. "I didn't". This brief dialogue highlights the absurdity, brutality and irrationality of the war as well as its personal nature for many of the participants. The film flashes back to a scene in a military hospital where Milan, the junkie, and the professor are all bedridden. Buxom nurses strut around callously flirting with the guard. A peace protest takes place outside the hospital where Milan takes a pint of blood and throws it through the window at them. A Muslim is wheeled in and put in solitary adjacent to the Serbs. Milan saves his dinner fork and drags himself on the floor intent on killing him. The professor goes after him but Milan ends up impaling himself on the fork. All the major characters in the film end up dead. A fitting denouement to this horrible war. In short, the film is a brilliant 'Full Metal Jacket' of the Bosnian war even if its explanations are flawed.

Sam Pawlett