It’s almost impossible to stop looking at the face of Biljana Cekić in the title role of Dara of Jasenovac. But viewers must. They must see beyond the plight of this girl, thrown into the extermination camps of fascist Croatia in World War II. They must see down to the propaganda.
Dara of Jasenovac is Serbia’s entry for an Academy Award for best foreign-language film. However compelling it is, it exploits the Holocaust to gain sympathy. Dara is another Holocaust film, but this time not about the usual round-up of Jews, homosexuals, and gypsies. It is about the annihilation of Serbs. Added to the barbarism of the Nazis is the terror driven by the Ustase government, part of the long regional feud between Serbia and Croatia. The puppet regime of the Axis powers established a complex of camps in Jasenovac that included a camp just for children.
Dara is 10. Nearly silent, ever watchful, she sees through the slats of the train car taking her family to the camp or peers through a chink in a wall. She sees cruel soldiers shooting Serbs, a desperate mother abandoning an infant to a field hand, and brutal nuns smacking Croatian manifestos into Serbian children’s heads. The Croats emulate and try to impress the Nazis when they visit Jasenovac, but even the Germans are disturbed when they witness the Croats’ cruelty.
As she is dragged away, Dara’s loving mother commands Dara never to leave her 2-year-old brother. It’s also hard not to look at that dear boy. However, one must ask, to what degree were the child actors traumatized by their work on this film?
Director Peter Antonijević focuses on these children to highlight the massacre of Serbs. Antonijević exploits drone shots of rivers and accents light shafts amid darkness. He explores eschatology with scenes of the dead, shuffling through snowy whiteouts to the afterlife in a boxcar where they meet again.
At first, the film can seem admirable, its history deplorable, making it were worth an Oscar for its epic message and sweeping photography. But Antonijević’s national agenda insinuates itself under the Jungian snow and the tribal blood and the button-eyed children.