Esma's Secret (15)

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The Independent Culture

In a rare scene in Esma's Secret not to feature women, three Bosnian men meet high above Sarajevo. These guys are friends, former soldiers in the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, tough survivors; yet not so tough that they can deal with the past satisfactorily, or enjoy nostalgia without pain. "If I remembered everything," says one, "I'd kill myself."

This fine first feature by Jasmila Zbanic, winner of the Golden Bear in Berlin, is about survivors and their memories. In Bosnia, 20,000 women were raped by Serbian soldiers, their systematic assault one sick manifestation of the ethnic hatred that scarred the region. This statistic is the dark shadow that hangs over Esma's Secret.

The film opens with a female group therapy session, the camera moving over a mass of faces, grief bubbling behind closed eyes. One woman whose eyes are open, and dry, is Esma (Mirjana Karanovic); perhaps because she has to deal not only with the memory of her terrible experience, but also with the day-to-day consequences. A single mother, struggling on government aid and with a rebellious, 12-year-old tomboy daughter, Sara (Luna Mijovic), Esma has no regard for grief - attending the therapy sessions only because they come with a cheque. Esma's grief is bottled up, buried in concrete; in its place is an intense, focused desperation.

The immediate concern is Sara's school trip. As a child of a shaheed, a war martyr, Sara can attend for free on presentation of her father's death certificate. But Esma seems not to know where the papers are, and sets out instead to find the money, taking a demeaning job as a cocktail waitress in a nightclub. Her behaviour irritates the girl, and the two start to drift apart. As they do, each develops a significant male friendship: Esma with a bouncer at the club, Sara with a boy who also lost his father in the war - prompting the girl to want to know more about her own.

Zbanic's style is deceptively low-key. There are few conflicts, and the temperature of these is cooled by the glum, snowy milieu. But beneath the surface of the film, as beneath the surface of Esma's resolve, flow turbulent waters and heartrending torment.