Trauma — the damage done to a people through acts of violence, whether in a moment during a massacre or over a prolonged period of oppression — is a thread running through many of the international features competing in this year’s Oscar race: The raw horror of the 1995 Srebrenica genocide in Jasmila Zbanic’s Quo Vadis, Aida?, from Bosnia and Herzegovina; the all-but-forgotten 1962 Soviet state massacre of striking factory workers in Russia’s Dear Comrades!, from director Andrei Konchalovsky; the hidden horror, and thirst for revenge for unpunished atrocities, that seeps through Jayro Bustamante’s genre tale La Llorona, Guatemala’s official Oscar entry; Philippe Lacôte’s Night of the Kings for Ivory Coast that struggles to find meaning in the violent legacy of colonialism and more recent political upheavals through a combination of storytelling techniques both Western and traditional; and Kaouther Ben Hania’s The Man Who Sold His Skin, for Tunisia, which takes as its central theme the exploitation of Syrian refugees, even the exploitation of their trauma itself.
It’s notable that this year’s International Feature Oscar shortlist does not include any films on the Holocaust, the central trauma of the 20th century. It’s a rare exception. The Nazi genocide of European Jews, or its traumatic aftermath, is the subject of such Oscar winners as Son of Saul (Hungary, 2015), Ida (Poland, 2014), The Counterfeiters (Austria, 2007) and Nowhere in Africa (Germany, 2002). Instead, this year’s contenders look at national stories that have been largely forgotten or passed over despite their very real and continuing impact on their people and societies left behind.
It was 25 years ago that Bosnian Serbs, led by Gen. Ratko Mladic, gathered up 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys near the town of Srebrenica, bused them to killing sites, shot them and dumped the bodies into mass graves. U.N. peacekeeping troops did nothing. Zbanic, whose 2006 Oscar-nominated debut, Grbavica, examined the aftermath of the massacre — in particular the mass rape of Muslim women by Bosnian Serb soldiers — goes directly to the source with Quo Vadis, Aida? The film tracks the horrific events as seen through the eyes of a Bosnian translator (played by Serbian actress Jasna Djuricic), as she tries to push the U.N. commanders to intervene while racing against time to save her husband and two sons from the coming slaughter.
There have been endless hours of documentary and newsreel footage about Srebrenica. There has been a criminal trial of Mladic — who in 2017 was sentenced to life imprisonment for genocide and crimes against humanity— but Quo Vadis, Aida? has become the definitive film of this European tragedy.
The 1962 Novocherkassk massacre was not covered by CNN. The shootings of peaceful striking factory workers by the Soviet state police — estimates vary, but at least 26 protesters were killed and perhaps as many as 87 wounded — were wiped from Russia’s official history. The cover-up began immediately after the killings, when Moscow imposed a nationwide news blackout. The story remained hidden until 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Konchalovsky reflects that sense of censored memory in Dear Comrades! by shooting his movie in the style of the elliptical, state-approved Soviet films of the period, complete with a tacked-on, deliberately hollow happy ending. Like Quo Vadis, Aida?, it tells its traumatic tale through the eyes of a determined, relentless woman: loyal Soviet apparatchik Lyudmila (Julia Vysotskaya), a faithful Stalinist who initially sees the strikers as traitors to the state, before the guns start firing.
In his Oscar contender, Guatemalan director Bustamante looks at the state massacre of ethnic Mayan civilians in the 1980s (also known as the Silent Holocaust) by reinterpreting the folktale of a vengeful spirit — The Weeping Woman, or La Llorona — into a cry for social justice. In the original tale, the ghost is the guilty one — a mother who drowns her two children and is cursed to walk the world mourning them.
Bustamante turns her into a vengeful spirit, haunting the guilty conscience of Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz), on trial for crimes of genocide committed against the Mayan peasants when he was president. Monteverde is a stand-in for real-life former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who was indicted for genocide but pardoned by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court. In La Llorona, unlike in real life, Mayan victims get to confront the general and bring him to task for his crimes against humanity. As with this year’s Russian and Bosnian entries, the heart of Guatemala’s Oscar hopeful is its strong women, foremost María Mercedes Coroy as the vengeful spirit and Sabrina De La Hoz as the aging general’s disenchanted daughter.
Men — a Syrian refugee and inmates of an Ivory Coast prison — are center stage in the two African contenders for best international feature. Both films — Ben Hania’s The Man Who Sold His Skin and Lacôte’s Night of the Kings — take a complex approach to telling stories of national trauma. Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni) is a Syrian refugee living in Lebanon and desperate to travel to Europe to reunite with his lover, Abeer (Dea Liane). In desperation, he enters a Faustian pact: agreeing to let an artist use Sam’s back as a human canvas for an enormous tattoo of a Schengen visa, the document needed to gain entry into Europe. As an actual piece of art and a working commodity, Sam is free to travel across borders, something not possible for Sam the human being. Part political commentary, part moral satire on the art industry, The Man Who Sold His Skin is also a knowing critique of how stories of trauma — like this movie itself — themselves exploit the suffering of the people they depict.
Lacôte’s Night of the Kings is perhaps the most complex film on the Oscar shortlist. Set in Ivory Coast’s infamous La Maca prison, it is a modern-day One Thousand and One Nights. Like Scheherazade, a new prisoner called Roman (Bakary Koné) is tasked with inventing a tale that will keep his audience of fellow criminals captivated until the morning light or face execution. What follows is an intoxicating hybrid of storytelling styles, with Lacôte borrowing from Shakespeare and cinema — Fernando Meirelles’ Brazilian crime drama City of God is name-checked — and combining them with the oral tradition of the West African griot, in which history is told through narrative, music, poetry and dance. Roman’s story knits together the personal and the political. Lacôte at one point splices in clips of former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo, whose refusal to accept electoral defeat in 2011 plunged the country into violence.
What emerges is the narrative of a man and, by extension, a nation struggling to survive and to overcome the damage of the distant and recent past. As with all the tales of trauma on this year’s International Feature shortlist, the fight is as much about the story as about who gets to tell it. READ MORE: https://apple.news/ANBsEMcsvT4y9XQ795ZR2GA
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