June 9, 2005
In Balkans, Video Letters Reconcile Lost Friends
By ALAN RIDING
PARIS, June 8 - Documentary film directors are often inspired by a dose of idealism, and even by the belief that their exposure of some atrocity or injustice can stir public outrage and government action. But rare is the case where filmmakers actually set out to do good and can claim to have achieved it. Eric van den Broek and Katarina Rejger are two such directors.
Five years ago, having already made several movies about the aftermath of the Balkan wars of the 1990's, the Dutch couple embarked on an extraordinary project called "Videoletters, " designed to further reconciliation among people from the former Yugoslavia who had once been friends and who had been separated and even alienated by the bloody nationalist conflict.
The idea was simple: someone who had lost touch with, say, a childhood friend or a lifelong neighbor from a different ethnic group was invited to record a message. The directors then traced and showed the video letter to the "lost" friend, who was usually eager to reply. In most cases, the exchange resulted in an emotional reunion.
What has given these experiences political weight, however, is that since April, nine of these video letters have been broadcast by television stations in each of the seven nations that were once Yugoslavia - Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzogovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Macedonia.
"I think in general the reaction has been very positive," Mr. van den Broek said Monday in a telephone interview from Montenegro, a stop on a bus tour across the former Yugoslavia in which he and his partner are showing video letters in villages. "It's about people and that's what they recognize. It's not about politics."
Six of these video letters will be shown at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival (hrw.org/iff), opening Thursday at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center in New York. It will screen 20 feature movies and documentaries through June 23. "Videoletters," to be shown in two groups between June 19 and 23, is also the winner of the festival's 2005 Nestor Almendros Prize, named after the late Spanish cinematographer. The festival's program includes films set in Northern Ireland, Kenya, Iraq, Brazil, China, Colombia, Peru, Argentina and Palestine as well as the former Yugoslavia - movies that might otherwise never reach a wider public. More fundamentally, though, the festival is itself a declaration of cinema's power to expose human rights abuses and to celebrate those who combat them.
Rather than revisiting horrors, the project seeks to demonstrate that reconciliation is possible, starting with individuals for whom ethnic differences were unimportant - many former Yugoslavs are themselves of mixed extraction - until the conflicts convulsed their lives.
In "Ivana and Senad," one episode to be shown, Ivana Nikolic, a Serb, records a video letter to Senad, a Muslim boy with cerebral palsy whom she informally adopted at a Belgrade hospital and who fled the city when war erupted. After a lengthy search, which leads first to Senad's peasant parents, Mr. van den Broek and Ms. Rejger find the boy in another town and show him Ivana's message. They filmed Ivana's reunion with Senad.
"Emil and Sasa" recounts how the war separated two youths who grew up in Pale, the wartime capital of the Serb-dominated area of Bosnia. Emil, whose father is Muslim, fled to the Netherlands, while Sasa, whose father is Serb, was recruited into the Bosnian Serb Army. Now Sasa reaches out with a video letter, but Emil is troubled by rumors that Sasa killed a Muslim acquaintance in the war. Sasa fervently denies the accusation and Emil finally agrees to talk it all over in person.
Mr. van den Broek said that at first many people were unwilling to make video letters for fear of being rebuffed or of being thought traitors. "It was easier to deliver them because we would tell people they'd received a video letter and ask if they'd like to see it," Mr. van den Broek recalled. "We wouldn't say who sent it, so they were curious. And when they saw it, they'd break down in tears."
Only in two cases, he said, did recipients refuse to respond. In the divided city of Mostar, a Muslim sent a video letter to a Croatian friend who lived nearby but whom he had not seen in nine years. Mr. van den Broek said the Croatian consulted a Catholic priest, who ordered him not to respond. And in a second case, he said, a Serb refused to answer a video letter from a Muslim friend because he feared it would become known that he had fought alongside the Muslims.
Now, bolstered by good television ratings, the project has grown. Its website (videoletters.net) offers guidance and information. Actors and singers have recorded video letters to fellow artists of other nationalities. Across the region, there are 60 places where people can record their own video letters. Bosnian radio stations now announce when a video letter has arrived from Serbia so that, if willing, its addressee can come forward.
Accompanied by a multiethnic team of 25, including a five-piece band, Mr. van den Broek and Ms. Rejger have also begun showing video letters and organizing debates in different communities. "We start the day at school, where children are invited to draw their 'dream flags' instead of national flags," Ms. Rejger said. "Sometimes children bring their parents to the screening. Others come because they have seen the video letters on television."
She says that she and Mr. van den Broek have also been welcomed in towns where once they were not. And in two war-scarred towns, she says, officials are now cooperative. Pale's mayor, for instance, recorded a video letter to mayors across the former Yugoslavia, while the mayor of Srebrenica, where 7,000 Muslims were massacred in 1995, sent a conciliatory message back.
The directors have been approached by the Dutch government with the idea of expanding their project to Israel and Palestine, Russia and Africa. "We don't want to do it ourselves, but we'd like to train people and offer our support," Mr. van den Broek said. "We've become managers of a great team, but we'd like to film again."
Hopefully someone in Civil affairs in Iraq will read this and start assembling teams RIGHT NOW.
An often relearned lesson is that it is VERY hard to create peace with armed force (short of actually killing EVERYBODY)..
Making peace, as opposed to ending a war... a brand new paradigm. perhaps too late for our current crisis, but we've been improving our capacity to prosecute war since the founding of the species and giving a real effort at this for a few centuries would certainly be worthwhile..
This is a new beginning and perhaps this and other things could justify a 'Department of Peace'..not as a utopian ideal, but a real adjunct to policy and execution.
We have the best war making and war ending machine in the history of the world.. the ONLY thing that seems to frustrate them is the inability to actually MAKE peace. The military as whole has protested rightly all along that this is a very very different job for the one they've trained and been organized to do. So perhaps research into , and funding and training for an organization that MIGHT be a start in this direction makes sense.
And if it takes a half century or even a century to really become effective wont it still be worth the effort?