Serbia officially submits “Dara of Jasenovac” directed by Predag Peter Antonijević for consideration in the 2020-2021 Academy Awards.
The movie is based on accounts from survivors of Croatian death camps during the Holocaust in 1941. Jasenovac was a complex of concentration camps run by the fascist Ustaše government. The camps imprisoned Serbs, Jews, and Roma people, and some camps were designated specifically for children.
In the opening, Dara asks why the women working in a field nearby, who do not look different from those around her, are not also forced march to trains. Her older brother says it is because they are Croatian. Dara is a 10-year-old girl joined by her mother Nada (Anja Stanic Ilić), older brother of twelve Jovo (Marko Pipić), and younger brother Bude who is not yet two. The family walks among women and children at the instruction of Ustaše officials. Early on, we see that Dara questions, but is not naive and unfortunately she is not allowed to maintain her childhood innocence. She witnesses unfathomable torture and killing from the moment she steps on the train to Jasenovac.
Biljana Čekic portrays the resilient and determined Dara in her first acting role. Dara must care for her baby brother while facing constant threats of starvation, punishment, and illness. She overcomes all of this while witnessing horrific murders and suffering daily. For a young actress, Čekic conveys an immense amount of maturity. She navigates the camps with a stern face, not unfazed by the atrocities around her, but steadfast in protecting her family.
Resilience is a common trait among the many women in the film. When we meet Dara, she and her family do not know that her father is alive in a nearby camp. Many other families traveling with Dara are also unaware of the whereabouts of their husbands and fathers. The women take on the feat of protecting their children while they themselves struggle to survive. Much of the drama of the movie surrounds the difficult decisions these women must make when faced with the horrors of genocide. Should they steal corn for their hungry children and potentially face a beating? Should they send their children off for the chance of a better life and risk never seeing them again? These questions deepen the horrors of the Holocaust beyond the gruesome murders by expressing the psychological trauma imposed on the victims.
Above all, Dara of Jasenovac is a Holocaust movie centered on children. It plays out the ways children are cared for in a time of crisis and the ways in which they are forced to care for each other. It is also a story of how these children are seen as the only hope, both to their parents and to the perpetrators attempting to indoctrinate them. Dara joins a plethora of movies about the Holocaust and the atrocities performed in death camps. However, Dara of Jasenovac is unique in focusing on the stories of the Serbs and in placing a 10-year-old as the protagonist of a story of ultimate survival.
Dara of Jasenovac premieres in the United States on February 5.