Where am I?
You never think your teachers and classmates will become your killers. When it happens to you, how do you learn to live again and rebuild your life in the face of denial and indifference?
In spring 1991, Kevljani village in north-western Bosnia was indistinguishable from the scores of other villages in the rolling green hills that run alongside the border with Croatia. It was a place dominated by young energetic people who had so many dreams about the future: to meet girls or boys, to experience new loves, to visit far off places, and then to establish a family and settle down, grow old and die gracefully in old age. For most Kevljani residents this is where life began and this is where it ended. One of its residents was a young man called Kemal Pervanić.
Fast-forward twelve months and this future no longer existed. Homes were destroyed, lives shattered and the inhabitants of Kevljani were no longer in charge of their destiny. Their lives now belonged to their Serb neighbours who rounded them up into hastily constructed concentration camps, set up in nearby schools and factories. Very soon neighbours started to settle old scores, and Kemal was to be interrogated and tortured by former schoolmates and teachers inside the notorious Omarska concentration camp. Kemal and his brother Kasim were lucky to survive this orgy of violence: scores of others, including many of their neighbours and relatives, were not.
As the western media and governments began to catch up with events in the rapidly dissolving former Yugoslavia, the people of Kevljani were scattered across four continents, but the pull of their village was strong. Since the war, small bands of survivors have returned. Among them is Kemal. As he helps his brother to rebuild their home, he searches for his former teacher and torturer. Two mass graves are discovered in the village, revealing the fate of more than 600 of those who were killed and disappeared in the Omarska camp, many of them former Kevljani residents.
Along the way friends and neighbours tell their stories of war and survival while the search goes on for over a thousand missing family members and friends. What emerges is not so much a desire for revenge as deep nostalgia for the time before the war—when both communities lived in peace—and a longing for things to be as they once were.
Pretty Village is more than a film about one Bosnian village. Its stories can be universally recognised in any society torn apart by conflict.
This film poses the question of whether peace and reconciliation are possible in such an unbalanced society where the criminals are regarded as heroes in their community.
DIRECTOR’S STATEMENT (DAVE EVANS)
It was in the summer of 2011 that my friend Kemal Pervanić brought to me a shoebox full of old tapes. Once I was able to find a Beta player, what I found were hours and hours of images of Kevljani village and Kemal’s family and friends from the late eighties and nineties. It was clearly a time of prosperity; the subjects of the films are the building of new houses, family feasts in the open air with neighbours, children playing. It’s a picture of a confident people, at ease with themselves and planning for the future. Behind the camera is Kemal’s cousin. He has been working in West Germany as a Gastarbeiter and has used his earnings to buy an early Beta camera.
In the UK, at the same time, my father has just bought a similar camera and is annoying us by, like Kemal’s cousin, insisting on filming every detail of our lives. These faces are familiar to me. They are the faces of my family and friends. At any given moment I could be watching my own life and that of my family and friends unfold on the tapes.
Within a couple of years it’s all gone, the new houses are rubble, and weeds and saplings grow amongst the ruins. The cars are gone, and the families are scattered across three continents or dead. Their neighbours have done this to them, not some occupying army, and they have taken what they can from the houses: linen, cutlery, decorative items, serviceable cars, tractors and agricultural implements, livestock, everything. Their houses are razed to their ground; mosques are desecrated and blown to pieces. In the space of a few weeks it as if they had never been there. Five hundred years of history are rubbed out in a moment.
I first went to Bosnia an innocent. I was there to run a drama project with kids. Twenty years after the war, I reasoned, I would find a country that was in the process of rebuilding, where people would just want to get on with their lives. After all, I reasoned, less than eighteen years after the end of WWII Germany was in the midst of its economic miracle and British bands were playing in Hamburg bars.
But in Kevljani the war seemed very close, the damage all too apparent in a landscape of lush green fields and rolling hills still punctuated by the ruins of burnt-out houses and abandoned factories. In Kevljani, at least, and in the neighbouring towns and villages of Kozarac and Prijedor, Bosniaks had returned. The numbers were small, but they were starting to lay roots again. They returned to find their old jobs gone, their posts given to war criminals and their associates. The local administration was in the control of men who’d planned their expulsion and destruction of their villages. They had come back out of necessity—their visas had expired, they'd failed to settle elsewhere—but also out of defiance and a desire to show that they would not be beaten. These ruins were their homes and where weeds stood now were once their fields.
In the middle of the village is a memorial, a single stone that commemorated 456 lives that ended in a mass grave in the middle of the village—what we would think of as the village green. While the diggers dug and the forensics team sifted through the soil, the neighbours passed by and expressed no knowledge, no shame, no remorse for the discovery of all those corpses. Their former friends, their former neighbours dead under ten metres of damp, black, Bosnian earth and soil.
For many in our film it was the first time that they had opened up to each other about what had happened to them. Perhaps the most powerful moment was when we went to visit Besima, the mother of Dzevad Velić. It’s the story of a mother and the child she will never see again. But it’s also the story of a village and an entire country. What they most desired was not revenge but reconciliation, the opportunity to meet their neighbours and have them acknowledge what was done to them those days in May.
In a way this one interview encapsulated everything that we tried to achieve: the story of how, in little over a few weeks in the middle of 1992, before the western media had even woken up to what was going on, the historic Muslim communities of northwest Bosnia had been obliterated in the biggest massacres seen in Europe since World War II. As the war developed and the furore over concentration camps died down, the war settled in Western eyes into a tiny prism of the siege of Sarajevo and later Srebrenica. The killing fields of northwest Bosnia largely forgotten, its people sacrificed by the peace accords that awarded their lands to the genocidal Bosnian Serb Republic.
In focussing exclusively on the story of a small village and a few families who have returned, I believe that we have succeeded in making the complexities of the conflict accessible on a human level. These were people, whose only wish was to live in peace, were caught up in history. Many of them regarded themselves first and foremost as Yugoslavs, it was only when the shells started falling that they realized that they had become Muslims, unwanted strangers in their own homes.
PRODUCER'S STATEMENT (KEMAL PERVANIĆ)
For many years after I was released from concentration camps in Bosnia, I used to tell my story in public. I am often interviewed for TV and radio programs in the UK and abroad however, I have not always been happy how the media presented these stories. To put this right, I wanted to film my story in my own words, and I wanted others from my village to do the same. The first chance occurred when I visited my village in 2002, ten years after it was destroyed by my Serb neighbours. I came with a cameraman and recorded a lot of footage. The film was never made.
Nine years passed until a new opportunity was presented to make the film. I met Dave Evans, who came to work as a volunteer on an arts project (www.mostmiraproject.org) which I started for local children whose parents often knew each other from the camp days. Dave produced a short film for the project, and I was impressed. I asked him to work with me, and he was not impressed. There was no money in place, no film crew, no agents, no TV commission - just me, my ideas and quite a bit of homemade archived footage from happy days of yesteryear and, more recently, from survivors’ first attempts to return to the village.
The turning point came when Dave visited the Omarska camp with me on 6 August 2011. He was standing with me at the very place he read about from my book. I was retelling that story, with some emotion, in front of him. The trigger for the film was finally pulled. The journey ahead would be very long and very painful for both of us, but once we started shooting there was no turning back. The best possible start was to begin at home by filming my brother Kasim, one of the few people who now permanently live in the village. Kasim and I survived seven months of hell in two Serb-run concentration camps. Today, Kasim represents the backbone of the small village community. In his attempt to survive, he interacts with Serb neighbours, some of them former Omarska guards, out of necessity. On the surface the urge to survive seems to bridge even the deepest of enmities. But scratch that surface and another reality will emerge. Some other Pretty Village protagonists are not as pragmatic. Their pain is still deeply etched into their aging faces.
These are the people I have known my whole life. We were once part of a close knit community. My conversations with them were often very painful. As a filmmaker I wanted them to tell their stories, yet as their neighbour, friend and fellow survivor I had to be constantly vigilant not to push them too far. Reliving traumatic memories can cause them a lot of damage even two decades after those events. These people put their trust into my hands like little innocent children. They talked to me not as a filmmaker but as their fellow villager. That's what makes this story different from other films on similar subjects. Yet, when you watch their faces, you are presented with an image of a broken society. You watch a story of not one Bosnian Muslim village, but of people who mourn their loss of innocence even though deep down they know it will never come back. At the same time, they are very resilient and proud people. They have returned to live in the midst of former perpetrators who not only refuse to apologise for their crimes, but who attempted to conceal the evidence of their crimes in two mass graves hiding the remains of more than 600 of their victims. Once the film protagonists watched the final cut, I felt a huge relief knowing they approved of the way Dave and I told their stories. The film finally provided an acknowledgment of their suffering and that of their community.
Now it's your turn to watch their story.