About the Kristijan Milić’s heroic saga on the Croatian civil war (1991-1995)
I somehow like genre of war films even though they are most often terribly biased. Their usual purpose is, unfortunately, pure propaganda. However, there are rare exceptions of war films which are ambivalent in their discourse dealing with injustice and universal horrors of war; films such as Platoon (Oliver Stone), The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick), Savior (Predrag Antonijević) or Pretty Village Pretty Flames (Srđan Dragojević) all deeply consider the far-reaching consequences of war on the societies and especially on individual who is voluntarily or involuntarily involved in it. And the film of Croatian director Kristijan Milić, The Living and The Dead (2007), followed similar idea: it showed the absurdity of tripartite war in Bosnia and Herzegovina by depicting platoon of Croatian soldiers caught in the crossfire of small, historically insignificant but deadly skirmish in Central Bosnia. The soldiers are then haunted by turbulent past of the place where they are trapped, on the historical frontiers of different religions and ideologies. The place has already been soaked with blood during the World War II. And yet again, for the second time in the 20th century it bled during senseless wars following the breakup of Yugoslavia. The doomed soldiers are confronted with their predecessors, soldiers of Croatian fascist-backed regime in the 1940s (NDH), who were massacred here by communist guerrillas. The reality is blended with fiction in order to create a metaphor for banality of the conflict, for blind ideology of defending one’s own tradition by erasing the one of the Others. It is a metaphor for the history repeating itself over and over again. The Living and The Dead is no doubt an anti-war film that looks deep into the causes and consequences of ongoing conflicts in the area, the conflicts that could be easily defined as post-colonial legacy.
So I was eager to see Milić’s next film Broj 55 (Number 55) that again focuses on the recent conflict that took place in his immediate surroundings (what else could director of war films from former Yugoslavia do than dig deeper into his own tragedy?). But I was appalled when I read an interview with the director who proudly said that the film is dedicated to the heroes of the homeland/civil war in Croatia (1991-1995). Were there any heroes in this tragic civil war? And I was even more shocked when I finally saw the film. It is pure propaganda inspired by the Hollywood films from the golden age of Reagan era anti-communist sentiments in the 1980s such as Missing in Action, Rambo III or Red Dawn. However, even in the US the producers and commissioners have lately realised that ruthless, straight-forward and into-your-face propaganda does not work anymore. Nowadays, audience does not believe anymore that people of Iraq wanted invasion and strove for democracy. Nonetheless, Milić follows these patterns: the film, that narrates one and only truth about the war, reflect a very simplistic division to forces of good and evil, division between “us and them”.
The armed conflict in Croatia was increasingly spreading since the spring of 1991. It soon became bloody total war. Moreover, its national and ideological background has blurred rational perception of those involved in it and even nowadays Croatian and Serbian side can not consent on its most basic definition. Croats claim it was not a civil war but a foreign aggression, Serbs claim they were only defending their homes and villages. The conflict was actually identical to what is currently going on in Ukraine. Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia to which Serbian minority concentrated in certain areas did not agree and had rebelled, backed by Yugoslav federal army, against the local police and newly formed armed forces. One of the places of fierce fighting was the town of Pakrac with surrounding areas. The film Broj 55 is set in this area in September of 1991 when the clashes were in full force but the front line has not yet been firmly established.
Already at the beginning the viewer learns that film is based on real events. A platoon of special forces arrive to the shaky front line, eager to fight. They are portrayed as honest, brave and simple people who are otherwise peaceful citizens but when the homeland is at stake, they transform to ruthless warriors. On their second day of service they decide to provoke Serbian paramilitaries in the nearby village across the front line. They squeeze 18 soldiers in an improvised armed vehicle and drive straight to ambush. And then it all starts. After being attacked in a surreal-looking empty village they retreat into a house and make it a fortress. The Serbs who are portrayed (like all villains in films) as evil, blood-thirsty, irrational, disorganised and utterly stupid try to capture the house with impossible World War I era military tactics. Of course, from military point of view, the trapped and surrounded soldiers are in much worse position and therefore there is no need for constant (unsuccessful) onslaughts that leave hundreds of attackers dead. But they don’t stop. They are like zombies trying to get into the house, while their dead bodies are piling up. On the other side the defenders, rational and responsible, become aware they are going to die. There are elements of American-style war melodrama: they are solemnly dying one after another, one of the wounded soldiers tries to convince the others to leave him there to fight until the end; however, they collectively decide they are going to fight until the end and die together – for their homeland, for the future, for freedom and prosperity. So they fight an epic battle and die heroic death in the Croatian Thermopylae. The two who were caught wounded are slaughtered by drunk and blood-thirsty enemies.
The film therefore continues spreading the notion of conflict as it was imposed on both warring sides by immense propaganda. They both, Serbs and Croats, portrayed each other as faceless enemy, as monsters with no morality and no regret. In this war, the evil Other was a significant source of hatred and military morale. The absurdity of propaganda on both sides is probably the best explored and illustrated in an amazing book War of Images: Contemporary War Photography (2013) by Sandra Vitaljić who profoundly explores the power of images in the press and discusses the role of television in the 1990s’ wars in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. But Milić has none of it. On the contrary, his film is just another source of prejudices and stereotypes about the Others in the bloody war from which nobody – apart from few war profiters – benefited from.
Furthermore, what has really happened in the village of Kusonje is not so heroic. The plot is partially correct; the group of soldiers went on patrol and got trapped in this strategically quite insignificant village. Their action had a single purpose of exhibiting muscles but it ran out of control when they got ambushed and trapped in an empty house without proper equipment and without experiences. Seven soldiers who survived the night under siege surrendered after less than 24-hours of “battle”. They were all executed on the spot. So in real life these soldiers were not heroes but rather victims of the situation. They were not brave but rather naïve and inexperienced. Some (Croatian) sources even suggest they were sacrificed for the media war.
The film Broj 55 thus plays on the chords of national pride in order to justify unnecessary casualties of the war (that apparently nobody wanted – both sides claim they were pushed into it). Even after almost 25 years the most tricky question for inhabitants of all former Yugoslav republics is those about the gains of the war. What did this four-year struggle bring to the people of Croatia and Serbia? Nowadays, above all, the states of former Yugoslavia lack economic sovereignty. They are playgrounds for the neo-liberal experiment, they are provinces that provide cheap labour force and export talented minds. It is a very sad picture. Therefore the fable of the film Broj 55 shows pure manipulation of historical facts and ignores one of the most obvious outcomes of the war. The territory captured by Serbian insurgents in 1991 and recaptured by Croatian armed forces in 1995 is nowadays predominantly deserted, godforsaken land where nobody, neither Serbs nor Croats, wants to live anymore. There are no more heroes anymore.
© Miha Colner, 14 March 2015