“Dara of Jasenovac” (Dara iz Jasenovca) is a technical beauty, but leaves us wondering about the purpose and effect of Holocaust films moving forward
Serbia’s official submission for the 2021 Academy Awards, Dara of Jasenovac, reminds us that no matter how many Holocaust films are made, there are important details and individual stories that have not yet been represented on the screen. Directed by Predrag Antonijević, Dara of Jasenovac is the first film about the Jasenovac complex in The Independent State of Croatia during the 1940s, which was run by the fascist Ustase government and used for the systematic murder of ethnic Serbs, Jews, and Roma people. While the film’s protagonist, 10-year-old Dara (Biljana Čekić), is not based on a specific historical person, the filmmakers chose to tell the story from a child’s perspective to emphasize the fact that there were specific camps in Jasenovac for children. The film begins when Dara is first transported to the complex along with her mother, infant brother, and other people from her village. She is subsequently moved through different facilities, gradually coming to understand the evil unfolding around her as those who entered the camp with her are killed one by one. Taking on more responsibility than she should ever have to bear, Dara resolves to do everything she can to keep her brother alive.
As far as its purpose of telling a story that has yet to be shared on screen, Dara of Jasenovac is fairly successful. The movie highlights details that were specific to the situation in Jasenovac, such as the role of the Catholic church in the operation of the camp, and it is evident that Antonijević conducted extensive historical research before he began production. Dara of Jasenovac is also a technical success, excelling in each category from acting to cinematography and music. Eleven-year-old Čekić, who was selected for the part of Dara from among hundreds of non-professional actresses from rural Bosnia, expresses emotional integrity and strength well beyond her years. Čekić displays a quiet and steadfast resolve as Dara focuses all her energy on saving her brother, making it easy to forget just how young Dara is supposed to be. Čekić does everything that the script requires of her and more.
However, I wonder if the story would have been more successful if it had required something different from Dara. Dara of Jasenovac wants to tell a story from a child’s perspective, and it certainly starts off this way. But as the story continues, Dara becomes one of several characters that we simply observe from a distance, despite the fact that she gets the most screen time. Ultimately, the story is not told from her perspective, but rather, it is told from an outsider’s perspective that simply focuses on Dara and glorifies her strength in an almost Madonna-like way. As soon as Dara arrives in Jasenovac, her maturity and determination seem to come out of nowhere. It’s not that she sheds herself of all childish concerns in the midst of complete terror, but it’s like she never had such childlike concerns to begin with. While there’s nothing wrong with recognizing the strength of survivors, this sort of glorification distances us from Dara by making her into an angelic hero rather than a dynamic figure who represents the lives of real children who were subjected to absolute evil and injustice. Without a realistic human figure for us to identify with, we are distanced from the horrors of the Holocaust and protected from feeling any kind of personal responsibility towards our fellow humans today. Despite Antonijević’s best intentions, Dara of Jasenovac is just a bit too emotionally neat, as if it was made to benefit the audience with a gratifying catharsis rather than to challenge and convict them through a child’s perspective.
It is also worth mentioning that one of Dara of Jasenovac’s most violent scenes, which depicts a horrific game of deadly musical chairs that some of the adult prisoners are forced to play for the guards’ sadistic amusement, takes a strange turn in tone that makes the film as a whole difficult to figure out. Based on the press notes provided for Dara of Jasenovac, it’s clear that Antonijević understood the problems in presenting this specific event on screen and carefully considered how to honor the truth without glorifying violence. He makes a wise choice in changing some of the details of this historical account for the screen (the prisoners involved in real life were children and not adults), however the scene still seems to take pleasure in violence as it juxtaposes this event with both birth and sex. The film seems to be a little too pleased with itself as it places Dara in the middle of all these thematic binaries. Additionally, the festive music, dramatic lighting, and the depiction of bloodshed itself all create a sudden and inappropriate satirical tone that, considering how serious the rest of the film is, simply don’t fit in.
Aside from that scene, there’s no doubt that Antonijević has directed a beautiful film that is, by many standards, a success. However, while Dara of Jasenovac memorializes a specific part of the Holocaust that should definitely be remembered, we are at a point in the production of Holocaust cinema where we must get past the practice of simply putting forth images that the audience recognizes as horrific. We can’t just tell stories that inspire. We must also ask audiences to evaluate themselves, take responsibility, and recognize any part they might play in the injustices of society today.
In select theatres now
For more information and screening locations, visit the film's official site.
"Our embodied spectator, possibly perverse in her fantasies and diverse in her experience, possesses agency...finally, she must now be held accountable for it."