Review: ‘Dara of Jasenovac,’ starring Biljana Čekić

February 14, 2021

by Carla Hay

Biljana Čekić in “Dara of Jasenovac” (Photo courtesy of 101 Studios)

“Dara of Jasenovac”

Directed by Predrag Antonijević

Serbian and Croatian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place Croatia during World War II, the dramatic film “Dara of Jasenovac” features an all-white cast of characters portraying concentration camp prisoners and their oppressors.

Culture Clash: Ethnic Serbs, Jews and Roma people were imprisoned, tortured and killed by Croatians who were sympathetic to Nazi beliefs.

Culture Audience: “Dara of Jasenovac” will appeal primarily to people interested in a dramatic portrayal about the dark side of Croatian history, and viewers should expect to see many depressing and violent scenes.

Marko Pipić, Anja Stanić and Igor Djordjević in “Dara of Jasenovac” (Photo courtesy of 101 Studios)

Just say the words “concentration camp movie,” and you can figure out what’s in the film, so sensitive viewers should be warned. The dramatic film “Dara of Jasenovac” is well-acted and thoughtfully constructed, but the movie’s disturbing onslaught of violence (including heartbreaking depictions of children being murdered) will make this film very difficult to watch for many people. The movie has fictional characters but is inspired by real-life experiences of ethnic Serbs, Jews and Roma people who were imprisoned in Croatian concentration camps built by Croatia’s then-fascist Ustase government during the 1940s/World War II era. The most notorious Croatian concentration camp was called Jasenovac.

Directed by Predrag Antonijević and written by Natasa Drakulić, “Dara of Jasenovac” tells the story of a 10-year-old Serbian girl named Dara Ilić (played by Biljana Čekić) and her family’s tortuous saga of being separated and imprisoned in concentration camps in Croatia. Her father Mile Ilić (played by Zlatan Vidović) has been sent to the Donja Gradina Concentration Camp. A few kilometers away at Jasenovac are the rest of his immediate family: Dara, who is very introverted; her 12-year-old brother Jovo (played by Marko Pipić); her 1-year-old brother Budo, nicknamed Bude (played by triplets Luka, Jakov and Simon Saranović); and their mother Nada (played by Anja Stanić Ilić), who faces constant threats to have any or all of her children taken away from her.

Most of the movie depicts the violence, starvation and other traumas that this family and other people experience in the concentration camps. Although the movie has Dara’s name in the title, the story is often seen from the perspective of the adult prisoners. Dara endures immense tragedies, but she’s probably one of the most stoic characters you’ll ever see in a concentration camp movie, because she rarely cries or screams in terror, even when certain people she’s close to are murdered in front of her.

The torturers and murderers in this story are men and women who share in the Nazi belief of exterminating those who are not Christian or those who are considered ethnically “inferior.” Their leader in this story is Vjekoslav “Maks” Luburić (played by Marko Janketić), who is feared the most by the prisoners. His underlings, who are also very cruel and sadistic, include his second-in-command Ljabo Miloš (played by Bogdan Bogdanović) and Maks’ sister Nada Sakić (played by Alisa Radaković). And the movie doesn’t gloss over factual history that some nuns and other members of the clergy were complicit in helping people who operated concentration camps.

Mile befriends another prisoner named Jaša (played by Bojan ZiroviIlić), whose wife, four sons and one daughter were all murdered when they stayed behind in Sarajevo. As prisoners on work duty, Mile and Jaša are often tasked with dumping bodies of concentration camp victims in ditches or throwing murdered corpses into a river. It results in some harrowing scenes that further intensify the atrocities of what people witnessed in real life.

Meanwhile, Mile’s wife Nada has no idea where he is and asks another Jasenovac prisoner named Anđelko (played by Marko Pavlovski) if he’s seen her husband. Anđelko tells her that Mile is probably at Grandina, where many of the men have been sent to separate them from their families. Nada and her children soon find out that trying to reunite with Mile has to wait when they’re all just trying to survive and not be separated themselves. There are several times in the story when all five of the Ilić family members face the possibility of being torn apart from each other for various reasons.

At Jasenovac, there are three female prisoners who make a big difference in helping Dara and her family overcome some obstacles. One of them is compassionate Vera Stanić (played by Sandra Ljubojević), who steps up in a pivotal moment and pretends to be Mile’s sister, so that the Ilić family won’t be separated. There’s also feisty Mileva Kovar (played by Nikolina Friganović), who is severely beaten for stealing corn for her children. And a kind Jewish woman named Blankica (played by Jelena Grujićić) is especially fond of Dara and gives her helpful tips on survival.

The many gruesome murder scenes in the film include a vile game of musical chairs that the soldiers force the male prisoners to play. The odd man out gets his throat slit and stabbed. And sometimes a prisoner will have his throat cut for random reasons. The scene ends with the soldiers beating the prisoners to death.

This movie is relentless in showing people getting shot, beaten, stabbed and murdered in other horrific ways. And there’s no sugarcoating of the violence that happens to the children. There’s even a scene of kids who are locked in a room while a soldier throws a grenade inside to kill them. This is a movie that shows the worst of humanity, made all the more horrifying because it re-enacts what happened in real life.

Every time a significant character dies in the movie, “Dara of Jasanovec” has a technique of depicting how that person has passed into the afterlife, by showing the character walking through a snowstorm and stepping into a gloomy train car. As the story goes on, the train car gets filled up with more and more people, while more snow starts to fall. The snow is a metaphor for the worsening storm of this sickening Holocaust.

“Dara of Jasenovac” gets all of the production elements right in accurately portraying the hell of concentration camps. The actors all give convincing performances. However, the character of Dara is a bit of an enigma throughout the entire story. Viewers do not get any sense of what her hopes and dreams were before this terrible tragedy. She’s brave but very quiet, and she often barely reacts when a lot of terrible things are happening around her. But it’s also a realistic portrayal of how someone can be when they’re in shock.

It isn’t until the last third of the film, when Dara is faced with being permanently separated from her younger brother Budo, that Dara shows a fiery will to fight for her family. However, viewers should not expect to see a cliché ending where the people who survive live happily ever after. “Dara of Jasenovac” is a haunting and impactful story of how the evils of concentration camps have left permanent damage to countless families and are a shameful part of human history.

101 Studios released “Dara of Jasenovac” in select U.S. cinemas on February 5, 2021. The movie was released in Serbia in 2020.

Review: ‘The Lawyer,’ starring Eimutis Kvoščiauskas, Doğaç Yıldız and Darya Ekamasova

September 5, 2020

by Carla Hay

Eimutis Kvoščiauskas and Doğaç Yildic in “The Lawyer” (Photo courtesy of TLA Releasing)

“The Lawyer”

Directed by Romas Zabarauskas

Some language in Lithuanian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Lithuania and Serbia, the drama “The Lawyer” features a mostly white European cast (with a few Middle Eastern people) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An openly gay lawyer, who falls for a male webcam model, finds out that his new love interest is a Syrian refugee in Serbia, and the lawyer tries to get him asylum in another country.

Culture Audience: “The Lawyer” will appeal primarily to people who like stylishly made independent dramas with realistic scenarios and storylines about the LGBTQ community and immigration issues.

Eimutis Kvoščiauskas and Doğaç Yildic in “The Lawyer” (Photo courtesy of TLA Releasing)

LGBTQ rights and immigration issues collide in the drama “The Lawyer,” a quietly effective drama that shines a light on how the sexuality of LGBTQ war refugees might affect their immigration status. Written, directed and produced by Romas Zabarauskas, “The Lawyer” takes its time (the first third of the film) to get to the heart of the story, which is viewed from the perspective of a protagonist named Marius (played by Eimutis Kvoščiauskas), an openly gay Lithuanian attorney in his 40s who lives alone but he has an active social life.

It’s shown in the beginning of the film that Marius (who lives and works as a corporate attorney in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius) has a reassuring way with people where he likes to help solve their problems. The opening scene is of Marius at his law office, calming down a demanding socialite friend of his named Darya Ivanova (played by Darya Ekamasova), who has stormed into the office because she’s upset that a gossip website has made a less-than-flattering remark about an outfit that she wore to an event.

Darya had worn a shirt with a large print of the insignia that was on the flag of former Soviet Union. The website’s published a photo of Darya in the outfit, with the headline: “Darya Ivanova’s Shocking Out: Nostalgia for the Soviet Occupation?” Darya is so offended that she wants to sue the website and she’s already been browbeating an unwitting receptionist at Marius’ law firm to get someone at the law firm to do something about this “problem.”

Even though Marius reminds Daria that his law firm does corporate law and wouldn’t be able to take the case, he tells her he’ll see what he can do. “How can we refuse to work with Madame Darya?” he tells her. Darya thanks him effusively and leaves before she can further berate any more employees. Marius’ ability to diffuse the situation is the first indication that Marius likes to see himself as a “fixer” of people’s problems. And this personality trait explains much of what he does later in the movie.

Marius, who is single and doesn’t have any children, has a circle of friends in the LGBTQ community. During a house party dinner with some of these friends, it’s revealed that Marius has a reputation for being promiscuous, although he insists that he would be in a serious, monogamous relationship if he could find true love. Marius laments, “I’m an old poof in homophobic Lithuania.”

At this dinner, Marius has been somewhat set up on a blind date with a bisexual transgender man named Pranas (played by Danilas Pavilionis), who works as a sculptor. After the dinner, when Marius and Pranas are alone together, they talk some more and find out they’re not very compatible. Pranas (who’s about 15 to 20 years younger than Marius) calls Marius a “privileged corporate lawyer.” When Marius asks Pranas if he would make a sculpture of Marius if Marius commissioned it, Pranas replies that Marius wouldn’t have the money for it. Oh, snap. That’s the end of that date.

Marius’ attorney salary has given him a very comfortable upscale life (and the sleekly modern apartment to prove it), but he’s not as wealthy as his friend Darya. As for his love life, Marius’ promiscuity is hinted at in the movie, but it’s not really shown, except for later in the story when he randomly picks up a guy. It’s hinted that Marius can have a tendency to be self-absorbed. When he talks to his friends who set him up on the blind date with Pranas, they are dismayed to find out that that Marius didn’t recognize Pranas, who was featured in a LGBTQ “coming out” public service announcement that was co-sponsored by Marius’ law firm.

Marius and Paranas didn’t have a love connection, perhaps because Marius’ attention has been on his favorite webcam model, a handsome man who calls himself Ron. After some mutual flirting through their webcam chats, Marius persuades the model to give him his personal phone number, which is against the rules.

Marius and the model continue their conversations privately, and the model reveals that his real name is Ali (played by Doğaç Yildiz), and that he’s a Syrian refugee living in Belgrade, Serbia. Ali also tells Marius that he’s gotten suspended from the webcam service because another use reported him for giving out his personal phone number to a customer.

Meanwhile, Marius gets his own bad news: His mother calls to tell him that his father has died. When he goes back to his hometown to attend the funeral, his mother (played by Neringa Bulotaitė) tells Marius that Marius’ father was sorry for the way things went. It’s not stated outright, but it’s implied that Marius and his father were estranged at the time of his death, but it’s not stated why they were estranged. Marius’ earlier comment about Lithuania being “homophobic” certainly suggests that he’s experienced bigotry or hatred about his sexuality, perhaps from his father. The movie doesn’t go into details about how long Marius has been openly gay.

A turning point in Marius and Ali’s relationship happens when Marius tells Ali about his father’s death, and Ali comforts him in a very compassionate and sincere way. It’s the first sign that they will have more than a superficial online relationship because there’s an unspoken bond they now share over grief and loss. Marius decides to visit Ali in Serbia, where Marius will be for a week.

Marius and Ali’s first date is very casual: They go jogging. Ali doesn’t want them to become lovers right away, but Marius reminds him that he’s only going to be in Serbia for a week. Ali opens up a little more about his refugee situation and he insists that he doesn’t want to be thought of as a victim. “You’re too handsome to be a victim,” Marius tells Ali. Ali responds, “You’re too handsome to be a lawyer.” Yes, it’s that kind of movie with corny romantic dialogue.

However, since Marius is an attorney, Ali asks Marius if there is any way that Marius can help. Marius tells Ali that he’s a corporate attorney and doesn’t know anything about immigration law Marius is also hurt because he thinks that Ali isn’t interested in dating him and just wanted to use him for his legal services. They agree that perhaps there was a misunderstanding and they should part ways.

But since Marius has a “savior” complex, he changes his mind and tracks down Ali at the refugee camp in Krnjaca, where Ali lives. Ali is very surprised and somewhat embarrassed to see Marius there, but he agrees to accept Marius’ help. Marius insist that Ali spent the rest of the week with him at Marius’ hotel. Ali tells Marius that he’s bisexual and that he’s not fully “out of the closet” yet.

At first Marius tries to keep things platonic, but one thing leads to another and they become lovers. Ali, who is originally from the Syrian capital of Damascus, tells Marius about some painful losses he’s experienced because of the Syrian war. Ali says he wants to move to another country, but he doesn’t want to be openly identify as a member of the LGBTQ community, which would give him a better chance of being out in a “protected” status with immigration. Ali also says he hasn’t been the victim of a homophobic hate crime, so that makes it even more difficult for him to apply for refugee status.

What happens to Ali and Marius and their new romance is shown in the rest of the movie, which takes great care to depict this love story in a touching and sometimes humorous way. Viewers will want to root for this couple as they navigate the complications of international law and immigrant refugee policies. One of the biggest obstacles to Ali and Marius living together is that Lithuania does not have an immigration policy for Syrian refugees that is as open and friendly as other countries’ policies. And Marius has no intention of moving to Serbia, since Ali doesn’t want to stay in Serbia either.

“The Lawyer” writer/director/producer Zabarauskas made the right decision to have the story told from Marius’ point of view because Marius represents the “privileged blind spot” that many people have when they hear about war refugees but don’t really think much about refugees until a refugee problem affects them directly. The people who are most likely to watch “The Lawyer” are those who probably have this “privileged blind spot” too, and it might make these viewers think of the fallout of the Syrian war in more human terms.

The movie’s stylish cinematography (by Narvydas Naujalis) plays with color palettes in a meaningful way. When Marius is feeling lust or love, he’s shaded in red. The morning after Ali and Marius become lovers, they wake up in their hotel in a scene that is shot in black and white, recalling the romance of old European movies.

Where “The Lawyer” falls a little short at times is in its writing and acting. The dialogue can be a bit hokey. For example, in the scene where Ali asks Marius for help with his immigration status, Marius tells Ali: “You may be Cinderella, but I’m no Prince Charming.” The spoiled socialite character of Darya is also unnecessary to the story, although there’s a scene in her art gallery that’s visually compelling because of the oversized photos on the walls and how they are filmed.

Kvoščiauskas can be a little wooden as an actor. But to be fair, his stiff demeanor could also be interpreted as Marius being somewhat closed off from his emotions until he falls for Ali. Yildiz has a more natural, more believable style to his acting. The movie definitely gets better in the second half, when Marius and Ali’s relationship starts to develop.

Although the movie’s screenwriting and acting have minor flaws, “The Lawyer” is worth watching for the overall story. The emotions of the characters are depicted in an authentic way. And the movie makes an unforgettable point of showing how the negative effects of a war reach far beyond the borders of the country at war.

TLA Releasing released “The Lawyer” on DVD on August 18, 2020. Dekkoo premiered the movie on August 20, 2020.

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