Sarajevo review: Silence Of Reason( 2023)

Sarajevo Film Festival
Documentary Competition

Courtesy of Sarajevo Film Festival

Every war (and its aftermath) is a game-changer. When it comes to the war(s) in Yugoslavia, especially its most brutal phase in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is the first time that highly organized sex crimes were detected and prosecuted at the International Crime Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague (ICTY). One of those cases against Kunarac and others who committed war crimes including mass rapes of women and girls and got engaged in human trafficking in the town of Foča occupied by the Republika Srpska forces, served as the principal material for Kumjana Novakova’s documentary Silence of Reason. Like Novakova’s previous documentary Disturbed Earth, also documenting the war crimes in Bosnia, their aftermath and consequences, it premiered at the Competition Documentary of Sarajevo, where it scooped the Human Rights Award.

Most of the visual material comes from the amateur footage made in and around Foča just before and during the occupation, with some photo material of the same source that shows specific objects. It is accompanied by the off-screen narration by women who ended up in captivity, who were repeatedly beaten and raped by the paramilitaries (the “soldiers” even had “certificates” stating they needed regular sex for battle morale), before being forced to prostitution and eventually sold to slavery to Montenegrin volunteers and taken away.

Their narrations and the film itself tracks their transfers from one object that served as detention centre to another, from military facility in the nearby Buk Bijela, to the Nikola Tesla Secondary School Centre in Alidža, the Partizan building and various private apartments in town, and eventually to the Montenegrin cities of Nikšić and Podgorica, while the visual material tries to illustrate it. The tone is cold and factual, resembling the official documents. Women are identified only by numbers and in rare cases by initials, while their voices are heavily processed, proving the notion that the textual material is made from excerpts of the court testimonies of real persons.

With such raw material of questionable technical quality (the last shot that lasts for several minutes and shows the complete area from a moving vehicle, filmed in higher resolution and with obviously better equipment, is the clear standout) and minimal interventions to it made by the core film crew (such as Vladimir Živković’s sound design, Elena Dinovska Zarapčiev’s graphics and Nuvit Bengol’s visual effects), it is hard to focus on its purely cinematic qualities and to judge it by that, despite right moves and the signature screen black-outs in Jelena Maksimović’s editing. Novakova does not even classify Silence Of Reason as a documentary, but as a “performative reasearch” of the Kunarac case. The whole material comes from it and it consists of 132 prosecution exhibits, court findings and transcripts.

The filmmaker offers only two comments, at the very beginning with a quote of Hannah Arendt (“We have to combat all impulses to mythologize the horrible”), and at the very end on the info-cards about the women who testified and the nature of the Kunarac et al. case as the precedence. But even without them, it is clear that the focus here is on the testimonies and the experiences which will certainly affect anyone with heart in the audience. In the end, Novakova’s approach proves to be right to get the desired effect, prove the point and leave the lasting impression. The events depicted were the consequence of the “silence of reason”, and we have no choice but to shut up and try to find the way to prevent such things in the future.

Year: 2023
Runtime: 63’
Countries: North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Languages: Bosnian, English
Directed by: Kumjana Novakova
Written by: Kumjana Novakova
Editing by: Jelena Maksimović
Sound design by: Vladimir Živković
Visual effects by: Nuvit Bingol
Graphic design by: Elena Dinovska Zarapčiev
Production companies: Medea, Pravo ljudski