DARA OF JASENOVAC (2021, Serbia)

 Greetings again from the darkness. Knowing that kids are resilient doesn’t lessen the impact of their mistreatment or abuse. Director Predrag Antonijevic and writer Natasa Drakulic (who also stars) focus their film on the fascist Croatian Ustase government during WWII. Croatia housed the only extermination camp run by non-Germans in Europe during the war. The purpose was to preserve the purity of Croatian blood by murdering Serbs, Jews, and Roma. There was even a camp at the Jasenovac complex specifically for kids.

The film opens with armed soldiers marching Serb citizens across the countryside to the awaiting trains. The men are separated from the women and children, and the film mostly follows 10 year old Dara (Biljana Cekic). She is traveling with her mother, older brother, and younger brother Bode, who is not yet two years old. Dara is quiet and strong, and exceedingly observant for her age.

We see bodies being dumped in the river, and then at Gradina Concentration Camp, we watch in horror as the military forces the prisoners into a morbid game of musical chairs. The sole purpose of this is simply to add a level of excitement for the executioners. Even the visiting Nazis seem appalled by this. The film periodically bounces to the camp where Dara’s father is digging mass graves and dumping bodies … at gunpoint, of course. He’s desperate in his attempts to find out if his family is still alive – almost oblivious to how close he is to death himself.

This is young Biljana Cekic’s first screen credit, and she’s remarkable in her ability to convey so much thought and emotion, while maintaining the stone-face necessary to avoid drawing unwanted attention. Her Dara sacrifices much as she kicks into protective mode after tragedy strikes. We’ve seen other Holocaust movies where the day-to-day will to survive is this strong, but the stories are rarely told through the eyes of a 10 year old girl. The Croatian fascists are portrayed as eager sadists, and the healthy boys are brain-washed into “little Serbs”, while the sick children are allowed to die … with Nuns as accomplices.

The frantic actions of the Red Cross are shown as one of the ways we see that even in the worst possible conditions, good-hearted people find a way to help. For Dara, everyone in her life gets taken from her, and we watch relentless misery, dread, pain, and suffering unfold on screen. It’s a reminder of the evils of fascism and the dangers involved with looking down on others due to race or religion. For non-Serbs, this is mostly and unknown and untold story of atrocities and cruelty – upwards of 100,000 were killed. Now that we know of this “Balkan’s Auschwitz”, and we think of modern day Balkan conflicts, we can’t help but wonder what purpose it served. It’s a tough watch, and yet another reminder of the importance of remembering history.

In select theaters February 5, 2021


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