Winner of the Un Certain Regard award at the 65th Cannes Film Festival, Aida Begic’s Children of Sarajevo (Djeca, 2012) is a tightly-focused drama, portraying life in contemporary Bosnia from the point of view of the war orphans now reaching maturity. Marija Pikic plays Rahima, a 23-year-old woman who, after a misspent youth, has found solace and direction in Islam, practising the Hajib and wearing a headscarf.
Rahima works as a chef in an expensive restaurant run by Rizo (Aleksandar Seksan), a shady character with a bad temper. She also lives with her 14-year-old brother Nedim (Ismir Gagula), in a rundown suburb rife with graffiti. Rahima has some allies – the workers at the restaurant bicker and joke, but they obviously care for each other – but she is fiercely independent and someone who has fought all her life. However, when Nedim gets into a fight at school, things begin to unravel. The other boy involved in the fracas is the son of a government minister and the school is demanding Rahima replace the broken iPhone which was damaged in the incident. It also turns out that Nedim has been missing school and is involved in some serious criminal activity.
Pikic is brilliant as Rahima. She has the deliberate movements of someone who works a double shift and then comes home to find everything to do. Her former life is brought against her all the time, and yet at the same time no one gives her any credit for her reformed life of discipline and stoic self-sacrifice. Gagula’s Nedim is almost the dictionary definition of the sulky teenager, ever ready with the cocky reply, but never lending his sister a hand and constantly criticising and blaming her. There is one moment of tenderness when Rahima suggests she play Gran Turismo with him, but this is almost inevitably cut short.
Bosnia is a country of huge divisions, as exemplified by the contrast between the restaurant and the kitchen, the luxury of the minister’s home and the poverty of Rahima’s apartment. The police are in the service of those in power, and likewise the headmistress of Nedim’s school immediately knows who the troublemaker is based on background. The social worker is also grimly unsympathetic, telling Nedim that at least he will grow up to be a better person than his sister did.
The war appears in old video footage which shows a population trying to get on with normal lives even as the siege takes its bloody toll. Children of Sarajevo’s opening depicts a children’s performance with the sound of gunfire and explosions coming from nearby, and the psychological reverberations of the conflict can be heard in the exaggerated soundtrack.
It is to Begic’s credit that with Children of Sarajevo she manages to give the viewer an intimation of hope and optimism at the end of what is otherwise a fairly grim portrait of day to day existence in the Bosnian capital. Begic does this without resorting to a Raining Stones (1993) twist of fate, or the intervention of some third party. Indeed, many of Rahima and Nedim’s problems remain unresolved and threats are imminent, but they are together and they are still surviving long after the world and Bosnia itself has forgotten them.