Filming Images of War



SAN FRANCISCO. — "Imagine if you can,'' says Sarajevo filmmaker Ademi Kenovic, ''a million mortar shells falling on your city, with all your streets crowded with people. I don't think you can.''

Ever since civil war flared in Bosnia a year ago, Mr. Kenovic, a Bosnian of Muslim origin who lost his mother to one of those million or more shells, has committed himself along with several colleagues and film students to ''the agonizing process'' of documenting the impact of the war on his homeland. He brought the results of that work -- produced with rudimentary equipment, almost no electricity, recycled tape and film, and often at the risk of life and limb of the filmmakers -- to show at the recent San Francisco Film Festival.

Mr. Kenovic cites three key points about the current tragedy he wants to drive home to people who are not there. First, the films ''serve to remind people of how enormously dangerous these concepts of ethnic purification and extreme nationalism are.'' Second, they show ''how whole ways of life are disappearing, whole towns of people living normally just disappear.'' And third, he hopes viewers will realize how ''even when these amazingly powerful Western media show the horrors that are happening, they make them seem like they really aren't happening.''

Mr. Kenovic describes a film made by a Bosnian-Serb film student who left school to work as an orderly in a front-line hospital. ''After four months, I met him and asked him what he was doing,'' Mr. Kenovic says. ''He said, 'I burn legs' -- meaning he takes amputated body parts from surgery to the crematorium where he burns them. 'Film it,' I told him.''

Entitled ''I Burn Legs,'' the 15-minute film features the young filmmaker talking about his gruesome work at the hospital, with close-ups of legless and armless patients and of the crematorium. ''The main feeling you get is not just the terror of what is being shown but the absolutely broken mind of the young filmmaker,'' Mr. Kenovic says. ''This is what happens to all of us . . . scattered minds, and after four months the inability to imagine anything normal or different.''

He describes another film, a seven-minute video shot by an amateur moments after a mortar shell has landed in the middle of a line of people waiting for water. ''I used the tape because for once, I wanted to show what happens when one of these hits people. These people in the video didn't need surgery. . . . They were, I want to say, more than dead.''

Mr. Kenovic says another filmmaker took many risks to make a film called ''Bums and Dogs'' -- a portrait of the once respectable, now ruined, Grand Hotel. It houses some 15 people and the same number of dogs, ''of good origin,'' living side by side, begging and sometimes fighting each other as they comb through garbage dumps for edible scraps. Some of the people have learned to follow the dogs to find stashes of rotting food. ''This is, of course, a metaphor for life in Sarajevo -- but it is also the real thing,'' Mr. Kenovic says.

Another film, ''Wedding in Sarajevo,'' shows how strong the urge is to hold on to normality. The work, by filmmaker Milan Trivic, depicts a family's decision to go on with a wedding even after the groom was killed two days earlier. The symbolic ceremony proceeds inside the house while the dead groom is buried in the yard outside.

Mr. Kenovic, who is married to a Serbian film actress, says he wants to make clear to Americans that the Serbs are not the only ones to blame for the war. ''It's not just Serbs, it's extreme nationalists on all sides, and people have to be careful about this,'' he cautions.

The filmmaker stops short of calling for full military intervention. ''It would be foolish for me as a filmmaker to talk of military action. But the people must be protected in a practical way.'' He finds the international paralysis over what to do profoundly dangerous and deeply disturbing.

''These films are not just meant to save Bosnia, they are made to help save the rest of the world from these terrible states of mind . . . '' Mr. Kenovic emphasizes. ''It's not only Bosnia, it's Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania, Greece, Turkey. And then it's the Ukraine and Russia. The whole world will be in flames and you won't be able to pull out of it.''

After Sarajevo, landing in San Francisco feels a little like landing on the planet Pluto, Mr. Kenovic confides. From here he was to take his films to New York and then to Paris and Prague. He has been nominated for the ''Felix,'' the European equivalent of the ''Oscar.''

Then, he says, it's back to Bosnia to ''continue shooting, producing and documenting'' the suffering he fears will continue unabated.

Dennis Bernstein is an investigative journalist. He wrote this article for Pacific News Service.

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