DARA OF JASENOVAC is a brutal film about a lesser-known part of the Holocaust. Based on the testimony of survivors, it expounds on Jasenovac, the only Fascist concentration camps in World War II that were not run by the Nazis themselves. Instead, inspired and advised by the Nazis, they were established by the Roman Catholic Ustasha regime in Croatia, with the express purpose of exterminating not just Jews and Roma, but also the Serbian population, whose crime was being the wrong kind of Christian.
The film has generated controversy about a political and cultural tensions that still fester in that part of the world, and certainly the sight of a stern Catholic nun efficiently, even ruthlessly, following the orders given by the camp’s commander is a damning one. But the filmmakers have also carefully bookended the story with ordinary Croats, outside of any party or religious affiliation, risking much to help the targeted Serbs.
It begins with the march of 10-year-old Dara (Biljana Cekic), her mother and brothers towards the cattle car that will take them to the Jasenovac camp that is set aside for women and children. The Ustasha brutalize them as they go while two Serbian women harvesting a crop by the side of the road look on. One advises the other not to get involved, advice that goes unheeded as she makes eye contact with a young woman carrying a baby. It is a chance moment and a split-second decision that leaves the baby with the Serbian women and safety.
Chance and split-second decisions drive the action. At the camp, we see again the horrors that made up the Holocaust. An old woman shot point blank for concealing a piece of jewelry; an officer coldly looking into the eyes of sick children and tossing a canister of lethal gas at them before quickly shutting the door on them; a game of musical chairs with deadly consequences. Through it all, as the adults around her disappear one by one, Dara is left to care for her siblings, and then the other children whose mothers beg her to protect them as best she can in case they should disappear, though Dara is barely able to take care of herself.
Cekic is astonishing. From the innocence of her opening words as she asks her brother what the difference is between her and those women on the side of the road, to a child weary beyond her years, she has both the blank stare of trauma that can’t be processed, and the quiet determination to keep her promises. Yet when she begs to visit her sick brother, or for a fellow prisoner who collaborates with the guards to look the other way at a decisive moment, she is with those big eyes a vulnerable, frightened child at the mercy of everyone around her. She retains Dara’s humanity as well. When feeing a precious apple to her ailing baby brother, it’s the way the bites of a bit to give to a boy even sicker with the same care and same lack of hesitation.
The parallel story finds Dara’s father ((Zlatan Vidović)) also imprisoned in Jasenovac, though in a different camp. Tasked with disposing of the dead, he and a fellow prisoner muse philosophically about the value of staying alive while living with the uncertainty of whether their loved ones are alive or dead. And dreading each new delivery of the dead in which there might be a familiar face.
Predrag Peter Antonijević is decisive when portraying the villains of his film for what they are. The sadism, especially the casual sadism, is very tough to watch, as is the sight of a Fascist couple having sex while listening with obvious relish to people being murdered. He also tackles more difficult issues, the prisoner who collaborates in a desperate attempt to save her one remaining daughter, and another collaborator who singles out Dara’s father when the rest of his squad is set for execution. When Dara tells the woman she has no soul, it brings her up short, and when she replies that she does have one, the question is far from settled, leaving the viewer with a queasy sensation about where the instinct for self-preservation can lead.
The direction by Antonijević shows great sensitivity, ensuring that no death is merely a statistic in even the shortest of introductions to a character. He focuses his camera on reactions, particularly Dara’s, as much as on the savage acts themselves, and creating an overwhelming sense of despair and suspense as people are forced to make those ci-mentioned split-second decisions that can cost them their lives.
DARA OF JAENOVAC’s closing bookend is a Croatian woman representing the Red Cross taking children out of Jasenovac. If the take on the events is Serbian, much appreciated measures have been taken to prevent it being completely one-sided. The film may echo the tropes of other stories about the Holocaust’s concentration camps, but it is well-done with fine cinematography, exceptional performances, and chilling questions about the human capacity for both good and for evil. As such, it becomes a mitzvah and a fulfillment of the obligations to bear witness and never forget.