Writer-director Jasmila Žbanić’s Grbavica (Esma's Secret), an Official Competition entry here in Berlin, tells the apparently simple story of mother Esma and daughter Sara, who try to get by in the Grbavica neighbourhood of Sarajevo despite a chronic lack of money (Esma works two jobs), Sara’s teenage insecurities and tantrums and the constant reminders of the war that surround them, even though fighting ended years ago. Spearheaded by two first-class performances by Mirjana Karanović (Kusturica's Underground, Zivot je cudo) as Esma and Luna Mijović as her rebellious daughter, the drama is a low-key approach to one of the gravest yet little-discussed problems of war: its far-reaching aftermath.
Esma has always told her 12-year-old daughter that her father died as a shaheed or hero during the war. But when Sara - who was born during that war - asks for a certificate of her father’s status as a shaheed because it will get her a discount on an upcoming school excursion, her mother has problems coming up with the right papers. Instead Esma works in a shoe factory by day and in a disco by night to come up with the required cash and still comes up short. At the disco she meets a bouncer (Leon Lucev) with whom she becomes romantically entangled, much to the chagrin of Sara, who has her own love-hate relationship (not necessarily in that order) with a boy from her class who inherited a gun from his father who was also a shaheed. The gun will play an important role in the film’s third act, which revolves around Esme's secret which I will not reveal here.
Žbanić’s film, though featuring two males in supporting roles, is a feminine film through and through - which does not mean it cannot be appreciated by men. The female duo of Karanović and Mijović portrays the fates of not just their characters but of scores of women in Grbavica and throughout the states of former Yugoslavia. Žbanić also has a wonderful eye for detail that uncovers many of the aspects of life in former Yugoslavia that are considered normal there but are shocking for anyone who has not lived in a country where there has been a war recently. When the bouncer takes Esma home, he asks her if he has not seen her somewhere before? At the body investigation sessions perhaps, every time when a new mass grave is opened and people come in droves in the hope of reclaiming the body of a loved one? Grbavica is there to remind is that a war keeps affecting people’s lives long after the guns have been put down, and even then, guns can resurface in various forms.