To anyone from former Yugoslavia or the global Balkan diaspora, Mirjana Karanović needs no introduction. For the benefit of the rest: Karanović has been a star of the stage and screen in the Balkan peninsula for decades—before, during, and after the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. Her breakout role came in Emir Kusturica’s When Father Was Away on Business (1985) and her fame crystallized by way of his Underground (1995), both films that won a Palme D’Or at Cannes. Karanović was praised by some and derided by others for being the first Serbian actor after the fighting to appear in movies produced in Croatia (Witnesses, 2003) and Bosnia (Esma’s Secret, 2006), the latter of which took home the Berlin Film Festival’s Golden Bear and follows a single mother in post-war Sarajevo as she carefully guards the secret that her child, now coming-of-age, was born of a wartime rape. She has more than once been accused of treason, but she has also received several prizes from Serbian organizations, like the Winning Freedom and Konstantin Obradović awards, for promoting tolerance and human rights. 

In 2016, for the first time in her career, Karanović turned to writing and directing. The result, A Good Wife, co-written with Stevan Filipović and Darko Lungulov, premiered at Sundance that year. (Its original title, Dobra Žena, is a double entendre, as žena means both wife and woman.) The film tells the seemingly simple story of Milena, devoted housewife and mother, who is dealing with the challenges of aging and watching her three children become young adults. The narrative hinges on two discoveries: Milena’s doctor finds a lump in her breast during a routine exam and, while cleaning the house one day, Milena comes across a forgotten VHS cassette in a drawer. The tape begins with footage of a childhood birthday party for her eldest daughter, taken in the ’90s, and then cuts abruptly to her husband, Vlada, leading an execution of several Bosnian men during the war. Karanović took as inspiration documentary footage from 1995 of the Serb paramilitary unit the Scorpions that aired on both Radio Television Serbia (RTS) and the independent station B92 in 2005, leading to the arrests of several Scorpion members. Two decades have passed since the end of the war, but, as the film seeks to show, the region’s reconciliation process remains undone. Former combatants and civilians still carry these histories in their bones.

The Yugoslav Wars of Succession came to a close in 1999 after a decade of brutal violence—torture, mass rapes, the propagation of death camps—motivated by strong ethnic divisions between Serbs, Bosnians, Croats, Slovenians, and Kosovan Albanians. Following the fighting and the breakup of the Yugoslav state, the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) was set up in the Netherlands by the United Nations as a court of law to try war crimes. No official Balkan-based state-sponsored tribunals for reconciliation exist. Economic and social recovery has been slow in Serbia, and compliance with the ICTY-driven reconciliation process has become inextricably linked to access to foreign aid and membership in international organizations, notably the European Union. According to widespread Serbian sentiment, the ICTY disproportionately holds Serbs responsible for the wars; the majority of ICTY indictees are of Serbian origin. The Serbian government continues to deny the full extent of its involvement, since many crimes are attributed to paramilitary groups. As a result, the state does not officially recognize veterans of the war and has not put mechanisms in place to support them and their families—unlike in Bosnia and Croatia, where this is the case, and veterans are often celebrated as national heroes.

Karanović points to the lasting traumas of the war in her new film as a way of addressing the burden of silence. Of the need for young people in the Balkans to confront the past, she says: “It’s like you inherit a house full of garbage, and you say, ‘This doesn’t concern me, who made all this trash; I’m going to live over here in this one room, and I’ll arrange it as I wish.’ But then you have a family, and you can no longer live in that one room anymore. You have to start to throw out some of that garbage in order to be able to live well.” How, she asks through work that is both regionally specific and internationally relevant, can someone reckon with a legacy of violence that touches every aspect of their intimate life when they were not personally involved in that violence? How might individual reckoning help a whole social body move toward acknowledging and taking responsibility for its dark history? I spoke with Karanović over Skype about these and other subjects: identity politics and the fallacy of ethnicity in the Balkans, passivity and denial, the global patriarchy, and the impossibility of un-seeing violence.

Aurora Prelević for Guernica                                              

Guernica: What was it like to transition to writing and directing after having established yourself as an actress?

Mirjana Karanović: About six or seven years ago, I thought about writing a story that I could make into a film. I didn’t have a concrete idea that I wanted to realize; it was just a desire in me. But there was always another voice saying, Where is this coming from? There are people who are much better than you, filmmakers who can’t manage to make films because it’s so difficult and complicated in Serbia, and it costs a lot.

Around this time, I was traveling, and I just began to write spontaneously. When I got to the airport and onto the plane, I continued to write, and by the time I got home, I had written almost half the story. Then I sat at my computer and I typed it all up and continued to write. I finished it and sent it to Mirko Kovač, who was one of the most important writers from the former Yugoslavia and a very famous screenwriter of Yugoslav films [Kovač died in 2013]. We didn’t know each other personally, but he knew who I was, and I called him up, and he read what I wrote. In fact, I’d called him to ask him if he would write a screenplay for my story, but he said that he was very busy, that he wasn’t able to, but that he supported what I’d written and thought it had major potential. He advised me to find someone, a writer who was young and full of energy and had experience and enthusiasm and wisdom to bring to the project. So I called Stevan Filipović, a young film director in Serbia who is quite courageous.

I dealt with the script and the story and getting funding for so many years that I was really ready when it came time to film. By that time we were a whole team, actors and sets and everything; it was just executing something that I had prepared to do for so, so long. It was a lot less of a shock than I had expected. I’d imagined it would be much harder, but I had phenomenal collaborators, from the producers to the camera persons to the actors, who really stood behind me and the story. I was very happy with how it all came out in the end.

Guernica: During the question-and-answer period after the film screening at the Bosnian-Herzegovinian Film Festival in New York, you said something like, “Go ahead, you should all try something new like I did, it’s never too late to learn.”

Mirjana Karanović: When I was young I thought that when I got older my life would be established, or that I would have developed some frameworks, some habits to hold on to. I thought that youth was the time for action and learning. Yes, it is, but making something for yourself, trying new things, and acquiring new skills don’t only belong to the realm of youth. I am always curious about exploring a new artistic sphere or traveling somewhere I haven’t been to before—doing things that aren’t quite in my comfort zone.

Guernica: You mentioned that you had a great deal of support from the people who worked with you on the project, but you’ve also said it was difficult to get funding. Do you think this had something to do with the nature of the story?

Mirjana Karanović: At first, Film Center Serbia, the government funding commission, did not want to support it, which was only logical, given the political situation. Many films here are supported by government funding, because the expenses of making a film are always far higher than the earnings made. I think that only in America, or India, or China—bigger countries—does it actually pay to make your own films. Serbia, especially, has limited funds and there are so many people who want that funding. There’s a huge amount of corruption and usually these commissions only support particular projects; they’re not objective. It’s a total gamble whether you’ll get funding or not.

I started with partial funds from the province of Vojvodina and I applied to many European funds that don’t, in general, support film projects, but that support projects that address some sort of regional opening—the kinds of themes that my film is about. In the end, I managed to collect some funds to film, and then, after that, when we finished, Film Center Serbia actually supported the postproduction.

Guernica: So it wasn’t a wholesale rejection on the part of the Serbian government?

Mirjana Karanović: No. In the end, I went to them and said, “Look at my footage. I’ll give you the film so you can look at what I’ve made.” I didn’t make a film that fuels conflict, that fuels tensions. Quite the opposite. I wanted to touch on a human dimension that I think is needed. This isn’t a film that focuses on who supports whom, but one that merely deals with ordinary people who feel the consequences of what happened here.

All of us in Serbia know very well that these crimes have been committed, and that knowledge lives somewhere within us as a fact, although that information is very difficult to accept.

Guernica: Who was your intended audience?

Mirjana Karanović: I made this film for people in Serbia. I couldn’t count on the film to draw attention from foreign festivals, though it was very touching to me that it did and that we got all the awards that we did. Primarily, I wanted this film to be seen by people here. By which I mean not only in Serbia, but in Bosnia and in Croatia, because this is where the people whom this story speaks to live, these are the people who understand what it’s about, what those emotions are that bind us all together like a knot. I think that today we don’t know how to resolve that knot, to ease the nausea that we all feel toward this really recent past.

Guernica: You’ve spoken about how you identify as both Bosnian and Serbian. I’m also often asked, “But where are you from?” And I always say, “I’m from Yugoslavia,” which makes it sound like I live in a nostalgic imaginary world where that country exists. But I think that it is accurate: that is, in fact, where I am from.

Your film is intended for all Balkan people and is about what we share, regardless of where we live currently. It really constitutes an effort to understand each other’s experiences, across post-Yugoslav nation-states, better. We can’t look only at what happened in the wars; we need to consider the question of what to do next and how we’re going to live together now.

Mirjana Karanović: Yes, exactly. You’re completely right. And I think that, for me, communication is very important. I can understand that—and I rationally accept that—today these are all separate states, that there are separate parliaments, political structures, economies, ministries, etc. But the question of who is from where originally is one that existed regardless of Yugoslavia. Even before the creation of Yugoslavia, on this land, people were constantly migrating, settling and resettling, leaving again, looking for a better life.

My grandfather is—and before him, my ancestors are—from Bosnia. At some point after the beginning of the last century, my family moved to Serbia because there simply wasn’t any good land to work and they had to go where they could survive. All of this is revealed in our personal history, it’s written somewhere in our memories, but not in the history textbooks. I’m not talking about people belonging to a nation-state; I really feel that Bosnia is the place that I come from, in a different sense.

And who knows where the ancestors of my ancestors came from? I think that here, in the Balkans, genetic testing would reveal a shocking fact: that the majority of the genetic makeup of everyone here—Serbs, Croats, Macedonians, Slovenians, Montenegrins, and Bosnians—is almost identical. This space in which we now live, these Balkans, is an expanse across which many people passed, stayed, left. There is a Slavic base, of course, but everything is so mixed now.

Today, communication is faster and faster, and it’s much easier to travel to different places, to live elsewhere. In a hundred years from now, I don’t believe there will be anywhere on the planet that you’ll be able to call a nation of pure people. I think it is really absurd to even think this way, to somehow separate ourselves and say, “We’re not the same as you.” You have this in Croatia: “We cannot be like Serbs.” And you have the same thing in Serbia: “We are totally different from Croats.” Well, that’s not true. Scientific facts show something totally different.

Guernica: Can art help the reconciliation process along?

Mirjana Karanović: Art and politics operate in completely different spaces. I think that states need to do their job to uncover the truth and help people confront the horrors that were done in their name. When it’s left only to individuals to either feel something or not feel something, it leads to what’s happening here today, where not a single country—not Croatia, not Serbia, not Bosnia—is part of an effort to engage in a reconciliation process. If people are left to figure it out alone then many people won’t. The vast majority will sweep it under the carpet and hide it away, holding on to their own fear.

I think that an artist can and must make their stance known, their view, their emotional response, but an artist cannot control how and what people will think or how people will change in response to the work. Politicians, the education system, the media, social groups, activists—all these others join in the reconciliation process in a different way and by other means. So it isn’t simple. As an artist, you make something, and the only thing you can do is wish that someone will hear you, from the depths of your soul.

And not just hear you, but also start thinking about themselves, too. The great majority of people don’t think about themselves, and don’t want to. You can’t count on a large number of people, you have to count on the awakened individuals. My film doesn’t speak to the masses but to individual people, in an attempt to awaken empathy and a sense of responsibility in them. For me, it is absolutely irrelevant what social position my audience comes from; what’s relevant is that they be intelligent and willing to think about themselves in relation to society.

Guernica: Why are the war crimes tried at the Hague in the ICTY not viewed as an attempt at reconciling with the past?

Mirjana Karanović: Because there is no political will to reconcile among the various nations and people in the Balkans. Everyone seems to be in agreement that it’s better we continue to hate each other. That’s how politicians build up their support base, as if they’re the saviors of the people, defending them against the enemy.

Guernica: At the end of the film screening I attended, there was total silence in the theater. During the Q&A, you talked about how the exact same happened the first time you screened the film in Serbia. It’s not that people didn’t want to speak so much as there weren’t words.

Mirjana Karanović: Yes. I thought the same thing, that people were just not able to talk about it, not that they didn’t want to. That it was just too emotional to speak in that moment.

Guernica: Literal silence extends itself as a social and political metaphor. In the movie, Milena’s eldest child, Natasha, is an adult and an artist living independently in Belgrade; she’s roughly a decade older than Katarina and Miloš, her siblings, who are teenagers, still living at home in the suburbs. How do they represent different experiences of this silence?

Mirjana Karanović: I see this young generation—and they aren’t all the same, of course, but this is how I see the vast majority of them—as simply trying to be practical, to deal with utilitarian matters: What am I going to live off of? Who will I live with? How will I find my way in life? They don’t want to deal with the past, and they don’t consider it part of their lives. They think that it’s something that their parents should deal with, maybe, but that they need to move forward.

But I think that when these young people grow a bit older, the past will be something that each of them will, in any case, have to deal with. Because nothing disappears; everything that happened at one time will remain. It’s like you inherit a house full of garbage, and you say, “This doesn’t concern me, who made all this trash; I’m going to live over here in this one room, and I’ll arrange it as I wish.” But then you have a family, and you can no longer live in that one room anymore. You have to start to throw out some of that garbage in order to be able to live well. By the time I go from this earth, some young people, some new generation, will have to address this mess that their ancestors made and somehow set a new course.

Guernica: Tell me about the relationship between Milena and Natasha. Milena’s husband, Vlada, doesn’t want to speak to his daughter anymore because she wrote something critical about the war. But Milena continues to visit her, and there is this one beautiful scene where she tells her daughter: “I’m proud of you.”

Mirjana Karanović: For the first time in her life, Milena tells Natasha that she is proud of her. This really isn’t something that is often said to daughters here. Somehow it’s better that a daughter doesn’t challenge expectations of femininity so much, isn’t so outspoken and open in her thinking. Milena is a typical byproduct of a patriarchal society, where she has to maintain some sort of phenomenal harmony and pretend that nothing bad ever happens or happened. So she is actually trying to be the family peacekeeper, to not take sides, to be some sort of bridge between the two warring parties.

Guernica: I saw some connections between Esma’s Secret, Jasmila Zbanić’s 2006 film that you star in, and A Good Wife. Something about generations, and mothers and daughters, and how each has a different role to play in the processing of the war. They are totally different stories, but I was wondering if Esma’s Secret informed your film.

Mirjana Karanović: Yes, in both stories the main character is harboring a secret about the past and attempting to pretend it doesn’t exist. But Esma’s Secret isn’t so much about a question of confronting the past; it’s more about trusting in the future. I don’t think that Esma believes that there can be a future with her daughter in which the truth is told. For this reason, she tries to protect her daughter by pretending that what happened to her never did.

That film suggests that you can live with trauma, that you can survive and live with the consequences of evil. The character I played experienced an act of violence from which something beautiful was born. Her daughter ties her to the horror of what happened to her during the war, which she refuses, in the first place, to deal with, and then there is a danger that she might lose her child because of it. Evil can’t take away our capacity to love.

Guernica: A Good Wife features a staged version of some actual footage of the Serbian paramilitary unit the Scorpions committing war crimes. Can you tell us a bit about this element of the film?

Mirjana Karanović: I first watched the video live on television and then I watched a documentary film about the Scorpions. I was very affected by this footage, and I couldn’t believe that there weren’t any films or plays that addressed this story directly. The video that was played on television really shook me.

In the beginning, I, of course, thought about the victims, and how the families of the victims might feel seeing this. But then I started to think about the other side of things, of the killers, and their families. How would the wife of one of these men look upon these actions? Could she feel indifferent about what her husband did during the war? That’s where the idea for the film was born. And yes, it is a view from Serbia, specifically, because those men went from Serbia to Bosnia, where they participated in those acts of war. [The footage shown on TV took place in Bosnia, but the same unit was involved in the wars in Croatia and Kosovo, as well.]

And this footage wasn’t of the regular army, or the police, because Serbia never officially participated in the war. These videos were the first time that people in Serbia had the opportunity to actually see documentary footage of these horrors.

Guernica: Why tell a fictional story that uses a documentary element as opposed to making a documentary film?

Mirjana Karanović: That original footage is very difficult to watch, very heavy.

Guernica: I still haven’t watched it.

Mirjana Karanović: It’s really horrible. People, generally, can’t stand to watch live footage of someone killing someone else. People can’t accept it and then they can’t think about it, either. A fictional film is a much more convenient way for someone to accept and think about these things. Because you know that it’s actors, that it isn’t real, even while, at the same time, you know that these things really did happen.

Guernica: Throughout the film, Milena is trying to decide what to do with this VHS cassette and also how to deal with the cancer in her body. Why does she make the choices she does?

Mirjana Karanović: If she’d chosen otherwise, that would have meant death. And I’m not on the side of death and I don’t think that death is the solution. She chooses life.

Guernica: Her moral dilemma is also the moral dilemma of contemporary Serbia.   

Mirjana Karanović: Yes. I wanted to come at this from this different angle. I wanted to take a really intimate and private look at the dilemma the whole society faces.

Guernica: Another interesting female character in the film is Milena’s neighbor, Lepa. Milena and Lepa have two brief chance encounters on the street that point to how the legacy of war exists not only in the men who fought, but also in the women in their lives. The second time they meet in the film, Milena mentions how well respected Lepa’s husband was, and Lepa reveals to Milena that in fact he physically abused her.

Mirjana Karanović: I wanted to put an outsider in there who looks like a trophy wife, just a pretty face who married well. [Lepa means pretty, and is a common Serbian name for a woman.] She has a house and a fancy car and an expensive watch. She’s the widow of a big hero—that is, a hero according to some. He was a famous commander, but it’s all a façade, of course, behind which sits something completely different.

She presents as this stupid, pretty little gold digger, but she’s not that way at all. And of course, her husband was no kind of hero; he was an everyday tyrant who beat his wife. She is happy, actually, when he dies, but what’s terrible is that she can’t say a word about this to anyone. She just lives with this secret history of abuse alone. She hides it and lets people maintain the wrong impression of him because she simply doesn’t have the power to change it—and speaking wouldn’t change anything, really. She didn’t have the power when he was alive to do anything about it, either.

Milena, throughout the entire film, tries to push aside her own secrets, to pretend and continue to believe that nothing happened. What I tried to depict in this scene [when Lepa admits to having been abused] is that once you see the truth, you are forever changed. You can’t unsee it; you can push it aside and pretend it’s not there, but you can’t actually get rid of it.

First, you have the denial phase, then the anger phase, then depression, then negotiation, and, in the end, acceptance. That’s how it goes in an individual’s story, but what happens when a large group, such as the citizens of a country, go through these phases? I have no idea. I just don’t know.

Guernica: The characters of Suzana and Dejan—separately and as a couple—also play a role in helping Milena accept reality. They are outsiders, too, in a way: they are in Milena’s intimate social circle but don’t actually seem to be friends with the others. Suzana and Dejan don’t have children; they only have each other. And alcohol.

Mirjana Karanović: Suzana and Dejan are the utter opposite of Milena and Vlada. Every day, Suzana and Dejan pay the price of confronting what happened during the war. That is why they drink all the time, why they are falling apart and have nothing to their name—because the whole time they are conscious of the horrors that happened. Suzana’s husband told her what he did during the war in great detail. There are no secrets between them. So the viewer sees the price people have to pay for the past, for making poor choices, and Milena understands this, too.

She understands, looking at Suzana, how much she has profited from her own secrecy, from not asking her husband where he was during the war and what he did. She’s always kept quiet and minded her own business. She was a good wife, mother, housewife, focused on raising her children.

Guernica: The film is full of these beautifully rendered scenes that depict intimate spaces—or the lack of intimacy—that the female characters share, and what can and can’t be spoken about in their relationships.

Mirjana Karanović: Women here are tied to their husbands, which means that a woman is only as powerful as her man. It’s also a very common and clichéd view here that a wife can influence her husband from the shadows. So when someone wants to get something, often they will go to the wife of a powerful man first, as if to open the smaller door, to prepare the terrain to see if that thing can or can’t happen. This is what Suzana does when she begs Milena to talk to her husband and assure Vlada that Dejan won’t speak about what they did during the war to anyone. Vlada’s reaction to this is: Stay out of it.

In the ’90s, I was in a monodrama theater piece called Eva Braun. Among the many women who were Hitler’s lovers, Braun was the only one who remained until the end. She knew to never, under any circumstances, involve herself in his affairs. All of the women who were with him, his various lovers—and there were plenty—at some point thought that they could control him, advise him, ask him, Why did you do this, why don’t you do that instead?, and that was always the moment when he cut off his relationship with them.

I recognize this principle, that to keep a powerful man is to not get involved in his affairs. This is universal. If you’ve ever watched The Sopranos, it’s the same principle: mafia wives operate according to a double morality. He can kill, sell drugs, whatever, and so long as she doesn’t concern herself with it, and doesn’t make a scene, everything is OK.

Guernica: At your screening in New York, you said that you’ve been called a traitor in your country. Can you tell me more about this?

Mirjana Karanović: I don’t really care to talk about that. I can’t deal with that whole “who thinks what about me” anymore. It’s so boring.

Aurora Prelević

Aurora Prelević was born in Montréal, a second-generation Canadian with Yugoslav roots. She holds an MA from the New School for Social Research and is based in Brooklyn. She works at the intersection of memory, performance, and gender studies and is currently working on a book of essays entitled My Country is the Most Beautiful of All: A Eulogy for Yugoslavia.

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