My Review of “ReGeneration” in Oslobodjenje

I’ve got a review of Emir Kapetanovic & Zana Marjanovic’s new documentary film, “ReGeneration,” in the special New Year’s Eve / New Year’s Day edition of Oslobodjenje, Sarajevo’s venerated daily newspaper. You can check it out online here!

HUGE thanks to Amila Kahrovic-Posavljak for translating. If you’re like me and better off reading in English, here’s the English text:

Film Review

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Struggling to Normalize Normal Life

“ReGeneration” (2018). Produced by Zana Marjanović and directed by Emir Kapetanović, with the support of USAID and IRI Global. Bosnian / Serbian / Croatian, with English subtitles. Runtime: 75 minutes.

On a warm, inviting evening near the end of May, 1995, Bosnian teenagers poured into Tuzla’s main square. It was an assertion, and a long-awaited taste, of freedom. Fascist violence had terrorized their proudly multicultural city for years, and they wanted nothing more than a normal night out. Then a shell eviscerated everything. Some seventy of Tuzla’s youth died that night, and a generation was lost. That July, there would be genocide in Srebrenica; that August, a marketplace massacre in Sarajevo; that November, the Dayton Peace Accords would finally bring a merciful end to the slaughter.

Almost twenty-five years later, the scars and wounds, unfathomably deep, remain. Trauma haunts the survivors; political gridlock and corruption are endemic; unemployment soars. For the youth who have grown up in this haunted postwar, post-socialist society, questions about the future have possessed existential urgency almost from birth.

It’s into this forbidding psychological and cultural terrain that the documentary film “ReGeneration” enters. Produced by Zana Marjanović (an actor best known for her lead role in Angelina Jolie’s “In the Land of Blood and Honey”) and directed by Emir Kapetanović (“Ricochet,” “Patriot”), it follows ten youth “reconciliation ambassadors” (Serb, Croat, and Bosniak) as they travel across the country in a quest to understand their past and envision their future. Painstakingly, they interview war veterans, survivors, politicians, religious leaders, activists, artists, relatives, and peers. It puts them in an excruciating sort of limbo. They feel obliged to honor the survivors and the dead, but in order to forge something new, something entirely their own, they’ll have to exorcise countless demons. Their weary elders’ nightmares, rage, sorrow, rationalizations, and indifference offset any wisdom and encouragement they have left to give. The resulting, pervasive dysfunction has compelled these youth, like all children of abusers and the abused, to become adults far too soon.

The ambassadors seem happiest, and most creative, when they can be alone together. One of their first ideas for a public demonstration is simply to offer free hugs to passersby in Sanski Most (a city in northwestern Bosnia-Herzegovina less than twenty miles from the site of the Omarska concentration and rape camp, which was run by ultranationalist Serbs). It’s a basic expression of human connection, but also something of a research question: if the youth reveal their names, with all their loaded ethnic associations, will strangers spurn their embrace?

Such youthful innocence can be revolutionary. A gorgeous moment in the film comes when Vahida, a Muslim ambassador from Stolac, brings her new best friend (Mario, a Serb from Zvornik) home to meet her extended family. Joy, hospitality, and laughter – older than any ideology, older than any organized religion – reign that day in Stolac, a city where ultranationalist Croats obliterated their neighbors’ 16th-century mosque and still talk ceaselessly of secession.

Yet the ambassadors know that innocence alone cannot carry the day. Some of the scenes in the film that feel most authentically hopeful come when they tap their deep reserves of adolescent skepticism, flex their new muscle for cultural and political analysis, and vent raw, righteous frustration and anger in the face of adults’ evasions and lies. We hear Lorena, a Croat, fume about the absurdity of having two schools – one for Croats, one for Bosniaks – under one roof in her hometown of Gornji Vakuf-Uskoplje. And we see Neđo, a tough young Serb with a braided beard, ask a politician point-blank how much longer they “intend to get rich and build their careers on nationalism and the destruction of young lives?”

These kids aren’t playing around. The crucial question – the life-and-death question – is whether they can ultimately banish the country’s ghosts, sustain their creativity and hope, and enjoy their birthright: a safe and prosperous Bosnia-Herzegovina, free of lethal corruption and murderous fundamentalisms. A safe and prosperous Bosnia-Herzegovina, with all the soothing beauty of the country’s alpine mountains and crystal waters. A safe and prosperous Bosnia-Herzegovina, with all the driving pulse and effervescent romance of a Tuzla May night.

Tom Simpson, Ph.D., teaches courses on religion, human rights, global ethics, and genocide at Phillips Exeter Academy. He is the assistant managing director of Čuvaj Se, a literary human rights organization dedicated to amplifying the voices of writers in conflict and post-conflict zones. he is the former director of Emory University’s “Journeys of Reconciliation,” an international travel program focusing on religion, conflict, and peacebuilding. He is the interviews editor for American Microreviews and Interviews, his essays on postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina have appeared in the literary magazine Numéro Cinq, and in 2016 the University of North Carolina Press published his award-winning book, American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism, 1867-1940.

About Tom Simpson

Tom Simpson teaches religion, ethics, philosophy, and human rights at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, NH. He is the author of *American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism, 1867-1940* (University of North Carolina Press, 2016) and nonfiction essays about Bosnia for the Canadian literary magazine *Numero Cinq*. Born in 1975 in Olean, NY, he earned the Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Virginia, where he specialized in American religious history. He writes, teaches, and lectures about religion in America, popular culture, Mormonism, and Bosnia. He lives in Exeter with his partner, Alexis Simpson, and their two children.
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