Dara of Jasenovac is a drama war film that follows the story of the Serbian people living in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia (now Croatia) during World War II through the eyes of a 10-year-old girl named Dara. This is the first film ever about the concentration camp known as Jasenovac despite it being one of the largest in Europe.
Director Predrag Antonijevic had a chat with Borrowing Tape writer Nace DeSanders about his experience making the movie, which is Serbia's official submission to the 2021 Academy Awards for Best International Feature Film.
Dara of Jasenovac releases in select theaters starting February 5, 2021.
Listen to our podcast episode and/or read the transcript, which has been edited and condensed for clarity:
Hey movie lovers! My name is Nace DeSanders of Borrowing Tape, and I am here with Predrag Antonijevic, the director of Dara of Jasenovac — a holocaust film set in what was formerly Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia during WWII. The film is centered around 10-year old Dara, who is sent to the infamous extermination camp known as Jasenovac. Thank you for joining us today, Peter!
Thanks for having me.
Let’s start with the great news. Your film is Serbia's official Academy Awards selection for Best International Feature! Congratulations! How does it feel to receive such a high honor?
Thank you so much. I'm very happy that we would be able to present our picture to the Academy, and as well as to the rest of the world. The Oscars are the most prestigious, the most important awards of our industry. Obviously, it's a also great honor to represent my country in this year's competition.
So, where were you when you found out?
I was actually in L.A. in November. Back in Serbia, the selection committee voted my movie to become the Serbian candidate for the Oscars. And, obviously, all of us who made this movie were very, very happy because it's kinda great that we were able to present this movie to the Academy, as well as to the rest of the world.
It's kind of important because it is about the Holocaust and the chain of concentration camps called 'Jasenovac' during the Second World War. The only camps that were established and run by non-Germans. They were established and run by the Croatian/Nazi movement - the 'Ustaše' movement - who actually were in charge of running the country. During the time, they kind of got free reign from the Germans, and they tried to copy their masters. But kind of — in a way — went even further in the brutality, and how gruesome and horrible and personal all these killings were. Because they didn't have gas chambers for mass destruction of human life, like the Germans did, which means these horrible people were killing human beings with sledgehammers, with knives, with bullets, with axes. Absolutely, it was just [a] macabre, bloody process, and that's what was basically very characteristic of this chain of concentration camps.
Also, they had the camps exclusively for the children, and that was also a unique situation. Some of those kids were killed, some of those kids died from starvation, malnutrition, and diseases. Some of them were trying to re-educate and kind of convert them, and turn them into Croatian kids, even though they were of Serbian origin.
Altogether, it's always important to make movies like this to remind all of us how complex human nature is because it was humans killing humans. It was not some monsters from outer space aliens coming down and slaughtering all these people. Which means that we are always capable as a human race to commit all these horrible things, and that's why it's always important to remind ourselves again and again, especially when we see that even nowadays, you have a situation where people are suffering because of race, gender, religion (all over the world and all places in America). Let's just be honest and remember last year. So, it's always one very short step from a situation like this, when you start in a way — segregating and discriminating people based on all this — race, religion, gender, and start putting them in camps and start doing horrible things to them. Because clearly, it's always hidden in human nature that monsters hide in humanity, and we have to very passionately work on that and all of us and to keep reminding ourselves that it's something that we cannot and should not ever do to the other human beings. That's why I find this movie very engaging and important, even for nowadays, though the story takes place 75 years ago.
Yeah, that's super important. You already answered my second question, I was going to ask, what made you want to tackle such a difficult subject matter. This being the first-ever feature film about the Jasenovac?
Jasenovac was liberated 75 years ago. There was not a single feature made on that concentration camp. There some documentaries, not that many though. Some books written on the subject matter. It's a very touchy and sore point in the relationship in the Balkans. Especially between the Croats and Serbs. Because the Serbs were primarily victims along with the Jews and Roma people. And that kind of thing was never fully and openly discussed between those two nations, never was fully out in the open, subject for a discussion and hopefully down the line, for a reconciliation. That's why there's a lot of anger brewing, to the extent Serb's always think, "Okay, they killed us, they gonna kill us again", and partially, that's probably something which had a little play in the civil war in Yugoslavia in the 90s. At the same time, a lot of Croats, even nowadays are denying that it was a concentration camp. That camp - trying to say that it was some sort of labor camp and basically, that it did not exist. However, in the National Museum of Holocaust in Russia, it's listed just below Auschwitz and they have a great deal of registered victims in those camps, and obviously, a great deal of victims were not registered, because they died before they made it to the camp that they were being put into the evidence (into the paperwork). Which means the majority actually was killed around the villages, forest, thrown into the caves, and it was just something that, yet again, I wish this movie was made like 50 years ago, it would have done much good for both Serbs/Croats.
So, how did you get attached to this project? How did this script find its way to you?
Actually, I was thinking about this story for a long time, because I felt like it would be an important story to be told. I approached Michael Berenbaum, Professor Berenbaum - who is the expert and historian on the Holocaust, and we started discussing the whole project a few years back, maybe 5 years ago. And, we had the concept that everything should be told from the child's perspective and I'd like to explain why. The screenwriter, Natasa Drakulic came aboard and she is a Serb from Croatia. She was expelled in 1995 when a few hundred-thousand Serbs were expelled from Croatia. Her family also suffered in a Jasenovac camp, her great-grandma was killed there. She wrote this fabulous script, and Michael and I chauffeured the whole process and that's how the whole movie basically came about. Simply, the biggest challenge obviously was to stay true to the facts. That's what Michael Berenbaum took care of, which means there is not a single thing that is a result of fiction. It's all like a collection of various things, but all of them did happen. Not necessarily to that little kid, Dara, but it's like a composite truth of various situations, which is proven in the court, or in history. And, we simply did not want, nor did need to start inventing other things, because the whole situation was so gruesome, and that real life was offering so many things that really we just helped those things come out, versus us trying to recreate something. That was the approach we took. We opted to tell the story through the eyes of the kid because that allowed us to escape from moments of gruesome scenes because it was very difficult to show all these things which are taking place. Also, if you don't show them, you don't do justice to the story. If you become very graphic in the kind of your visual depiction of things, the movie becomes unwatchable, then the movie is losing its point, you know? That's why with the kid being present there, it's twofold. One thing is, you kind of observe the things, and at some point, you can back off and see everything in her eyes, and then come back to the event or things that she's watching, and you'll need to stay with the real depiction of the event. But, at the same time, by having this kid, who actually in this movie, comes of age, very rapidly under the most difficult circumstances, you have that kind of journey of a leading character, and that also helps from a drama standpoint.
So, you were saying that historical accuracy is so important. What kind of research went into the making of this film?
Well, I did a lot of research myself for this film, but also Michael Berenbaum was in Jasenovacs at least 10 times over the previous couple of decades, because he served as the President for the Shoah Foundation, and he was working on documenting all the surviving victims of German concentration camps, and he did visit the Jasenovacs many times, and we basically kind of joined forces, and only opted to go for the things which are absolutely proven that they did happen.
Working with child actors seems to be a complicated task. What was the casting process like for these wonderful child actors?
What happened was, we didn't want any kids who went to any kind of acting school, because usually in the acting schools teach them how to act for the commercials or some other stuff. I wanted diamonds in the rough. We went around in the villages in the Bosnian mountains, and there are all these historical people that were taken and put away in Jasenovacs. And, we found 1500 kids from the villages (small towns and villages). Slowly, we narrowed down our choices. But halfway into it, when we met young Biljana Cekic, who plays Dara - it became very clear that her eyes are irresistible, and her ability to behave in such a natural way, it became clear to us that she would be Dara. However, on the first day of shooting, we had like 300 extras, plus 150 crew. And I was thinking, Okay, she did great work when we were rehearsing in the room with a few of us, but what now, if she kind of freezes on the set in front of that many people? I knew that it didn't work on the first day, I had to stop the movie and had to look for someone else. But of course, it worked. And oh boy, did it work. She was absolutely gifted that we were all amazed, and absolutely without her, this movie would not be possible. Because you hang such a heavyweight on the shoulder of 10 years old, in terms of acting and story to be told, and we were very lucky.
Yeah, she did an amazing job! So, was it difficult or emotional for you or anyone else on set to be re-enacting such horror from history?
I think it's difficult because, first of all — all the scenes when it comes to murdering the people and some of the scenes when we put the people under emotional duress. They were hard to watch, even for us who were behind the camera. And also, at the same time, you have the permanent fear, how is it going to look like? Am I making something which is not going to ring true — in terms of emotion and performance? And how do you reenact somebody's death or somebody watching bloodletting all over the place, and what human being would, and how would a human being will be reacting in a situation like this? And those questions were kind of present all the way through, and that's what I went to sleep with on my mind, and woke up every morning kind of trying to keep myself in check my ability to judge how real the whole thing looks like.
Which films and directors have had an impact on you as a filmmaker, and particularly on your film, Dara of Jasenovac?
Well, I have to say that my experience as a young student and filmmaker and prior to that are tied to the movies from the 70s. Then, of course, Oliver Stone, Coppola - all of those movies made about the wars, Vietnam are basically is what kind of impressed me the most. And, little did I know that later in life would put me in connection with Oliver Stone, who produced a movie called "Savior," — which I directed is about the civil war in Yugoslavia. It's something that I'm grateful to this day that I had that opportunity and a young filmmaker's dream. Oh, Oliver Stone, and all of sudden now I'm doing a movie with him. That's pretty much what's influenced me because this is my third war movie, and actually, I'm planning one more, and then I'm going to stop making more movies. But also, I did come from comedy. Let's say, my first movie was a comedy and then after that, I made all this heavy stuff, what can I do?
Thank you so so much, it was so awesome to hear about your film!
Thank you, Nace, thanks for having me.
We'll look forward to hopefully seeing you at the Oscars.