Film Sermon: "Grbavica", by Jasmila Žbanić

Service on the occasion of the awarding of the 10th European John Templeton Film Award

At the beginning of his letter to the Romans, Apostle Paul reflects on the role of the law. On the law of God and the law of sin. Thus, I preface my sermon with some verses from his extensive considerations from the 7th chapter:


I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! 

Romans 7, 18-25


Dear congregation,

Sara, a twelve-year-old girl, wakes her mother from a deep sleep. The latter would like to go on sleeping, but finally allows her daughter’s teasing. The two frolic about in the flat, throw pillows at each other, fight with each other for fun, lie on the floor. Sara kneels above her mother, who is lying on her back, and pushes her arms to the floor like a winner. And suddenly, the game is over. The mother shakes off her daughter, shouts at her and sends her off to school. Esma, the mother, must obviously have remembered something traumatic – something that destroys everything that could happen in the happy encounter of this moment.

This is one of the first scenes in the film Grbavica by Jasmila Žbanić – the film we are awarding with the John Templeton Film Award today: last year’s best European film in view of religious progress. There are the small and precise observations of everyday things  that show that the grounds on which women, in this case Esma, move in Grbavica and Sarajewo, are full of profound crevices. Everywhere, past experiences loom over the events and the encounters of the present and show a traumatic trail of life. It shows how Esma buys – with the very little money that she has – a trout for her daughter because Sara likes trouts so much. She watches the killing of the fish in an almost petrified way. And then she disturbs the daughter’s obvious pleasure while eating the delicious meal with her orders: she asks her daughter to wash her hands first and then to cut her finger nails until the fish has gone cold and the daughter refuses to eat the cold fish. More and more the audience realizes that Esma’s life is full of deep cracks that determine her relationships, especially those to men. Cracks whose causes cannot be seen but that influence and direct everything that a human being can feel, do or plan.

Of course, today’s spectator of Grbavica knows or guesses at least that Bosnian Esma is a victim of the Serbian mass rapes of the Balkan war and that Sara was conceived in one of these rapes. And this exactly is the artistic sensibility and spiritual power of the film: it does not show those brutal scenes, but the terrible consequences that these events have for today’s life. If it was all about a unique event, it would give us the creeps, we could condemn it and we would get down to business after a while. But here, it becomes tangible how this event that happened 12 or 13 years ago  still disturbs and destroys the life of the affected. It was a disruption of life’s normality that cannot be compensated. Paul describes it – in concrete words -  in his letter to the Romans: suddenly,  something becomes apparent in our lives: the “force of evil” that he calls “the law of sin”. Under which life cannot unfold and develop anymore.

Can the biblical words that I read at the beginning of this sermon, help with the understanding of Jasmila Žbanić’s film and of the events that it deals with? I guess most of you will have felt uneasy hearing these words. Not only because Paul finds himself at the limits of his intellectual powers and because his statements are as ambiguous as they are difficult to understand. But also that which we believe to have understood upon first hearing Paul’s words reinforce our uneasiness. It is obvious that Paul proceeds from the assumption that the human being is split – and he describes this split as a division into flesh and spirit. No, it is not about the Christian animosity against the body  that has often been described – you need to take a closer look. It is the contrast between what the human being was created and meant for and how he/she appears and acts – this is what the Apostle describes. 

There is a force working within us, Paul says, a force that causes a ruin that I cannot really wish for. This is a line of argument that must annoy those who are concerned with the entity of the person and the ethical responsibility of the human being.  But maybe, Paul only enunciates that which psychoanalysis will later observe thus: human beings are not masters in their own house. It is the unease that attacks me every time I experience something bad – a mortification that is an unease in its and my inner and outer constitution. 

In her book “Evil in Modern Thought”, the American philosopher Susan Neiman has tried to give a more detailed description of the evil as we experience it at present. She contrasts the Lisbon earthquake of 1955 with the Auschwitz experience. The great agitation that the earthquake caused, resulted from the shocking realisation that the entity of nature and human history – that had so far been presumed to be self-evident – had long ceased to exist. Nature opposes human beings – and the human beings cannot count on nature any more. Auschwitz provokes an even greater agitation with its crimes, its million fold murders: human beings cannot count on themselves any more. The self-evident distinction of human beings into good and evil that concentrates evil on humans with an evil intention, is no longer valid. Behind their desks, normal, ordinary bureaucrats become general staff organisers of a mass murder of whose extent and consequences they have not got a single clue. And somehow, by looking away, because of cowardice and infatuation, a whole people becomes mixed up in it. Not even a national attribution does justice to this phenomenon – as world history proves. Allegedly having good aims, wars of extermination are planned and executed with highly visible consequences. All outlines seem to blur. Deep inside, we have lost faith in ourselves – this is the philosopher’s judgement that I share. A possibility of human nature has been revealed -  a possibility that we would have wished never to have experienced. The permanent experience of evil today has long made us helpless and speechless.

In her film, Jasmila Žbanić adds the experiences of Grbavica and Sarajevo to those of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Treblinka. Women can feel and understand more intensely what a rape means than I can. But one thing can be comprehended by male spectators of Grbavica as well: What Esma and many other women had to suffer for months in the concentration camps represents – in all its violence towards their bodies – attempted murder of their souls. And this is also a greatly agitating moment: The experience of evil is not limited to humans with fundamentally evil intentions. It may be that rape has been declared a strategic means of war: to plant the winner’s seed into the bodies of the defeated. This is incomprehensible: Humans next to whom you have lived peacefully for decades suddenly descend on you like animals. No, in most of the cases we are not talking about cynical villains, but men as the film shows them: men who fight for their survival with all tricks; men who try their luck in soccer bets; men who have become different victims of this war than the women – victims in the destruction of their aims in life and their brutalisation. The distinction into good and evil does not work any more. You will have to co-exist with these people. Ancient insights prove their relevance once again – like one of Paul’s: “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” And the scream from deep inside becomes clearly audible again in the images of Grbavica: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

Yes, redemption. That’s where it all leads to. That’s where the Apostle’s considerations culminate, as does the film. Knowing about redemption keeps the desire for life’s fulfilment. Knowing about redemption saves us from final ruin, from the final indistiguishability of good and bad. Knowing about redemption counts on the convertibility of things. “Only if what is can be changed, is what is not everything,” another philosopher says. Our insight, our actions, our experience of the world has no other light than the one that comes from redemption. Only when we know about and believe in the completion of all things, we can perceive and tolerate life’s cracks and smithereens. 

It is a long way out of the depths of the experience of evil. In all its reservation, the film Grbavica accompanies us on this way. The enunciation of truth is part of it – overcoming the fearful and shameful silence. The children looking for truth help as they finally want to know who their fathers are and where they come from.  It is a bitter realisation that one is not the loved and wanted child of a fallen freedom fighter, but the product of one of many hateful rapes that one would want to forget as quickly as possible, but cannot. The farewell to her own childlike ideals is also part of it and as a demonstration of it, Sara shaves off her hair that she allegedly inherited from her father. The women’s solidarity is part of this way that leads out of the hell of the experience of evil. The common destiny of the suffering who open mouths and ears in the face of the assumed redemption to put the so far unsaid into hesitant and tentative words.

This redemption has got a face and a name. “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!”, Paul exclaims after this avowal of the human’s entanglement with the law of sin. Christians have experienced the encounter with this man as a deliverance from the force of evil – this man who was and is the force of love and the divine determination of humans. In Grbavica, I meet other names and other faces. And I realise more and more that I do not dare to pit one against the other and that they are – in a different manner – similar experiences and destinations of the human being. The film’s Ilahijas, the songs that are dedicated to God, still follow me around. “This sky above us is only a shadow,” it says. “The seven steps of heaven are in our hearts. Spring is within us. When our tears fall, the desert blooms.” There is hardly a more powerful way to express the faith in redemption in the midst of all the experiences of evil. 

Thus, the film ends with a perspective that is no certainty, but hope. The experience of evil brings with it deracination, helplessness and homelessness. The certainty of a redemption restores a piece of home to the humans. “I love Sarajevo,” the children sing on the bus that takes them on a trip. And at the end, Sara joins in whole-heartedly. The place of the suffered curse has become a place where she can live again, that she can love again. There is no security, no guarantee for something that will last. But it is the expression of a hope that one can live again – for the time being at least.