Hatred in the Balkans

The night the news of the capture of former President of Serbian Bosnia, Radovan Karadzic, reached Australia, SBS’s Dateline ran footage of both Karadzic and army commander Radko Mladic in conversation with SBS’s cameraman/producer David Brill. The images were courtesy of Brill himself and came from a documentary he had made from the Serbian side in 1993, which was first screened on the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent. Brill is an old friend so naturally I rang to congratulate him.

“How much got to air back then?” I asked.

“Not as much as I wanted,” David replied. “Would you like to see the rushes?”

Would I! It’s always fascinating to watch a master film-maker at work and an account of the making of the film would make a good story for Quadrant, especially as none of this material had been seen since 1993 and the bulk of it not even then. I had no views on the Serbian-Croatian civil war so I could examine the film evidence objectively.

I didn’t realise what I’d let myself in for. In thirty-minute tapes, Brill covers nearly everything. There were twenty-two hours of material, none of which could be safely ignored. But together they constitute an extraordinary portrait of a country on the verge of insanity.

It began early in 1993 with Brill, always a compulsive news watcher, becoming increasingly aware that most of the coverage of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia between the Croats and Muslims, on the one hand, and the Serbs on the other, was coming from the Croatian-Muslim point of view. Like any good newsman David wanted to know if there was another side to the story. He knew that the main television station was in Sarajevo—a Muslim-Croatian town that was under siege by the Serbs and that all the news agencies would have to file there.

David was not alone in his concerns. The Australian Serbian community were understandably even more disturbed, and what is more, anxious to “set the record straight”. So when he was approached through a colleague, Andrew Psarianos, by members of the Serb community who wanted someone to make a film from the Serbian point of view, David came back with his own proposal. Yes, he would like to make a film from the Serbian side but it was not going to be propaganda. The Australian Serbs agreed and put their contacts here and in Serbia at the film-makers’ disposal.

Misha, a hotelier from South Australia, who was already staying with family in Bosnia-Herzegovina, was recruited to act as guide and translator along with Marko, a twenty-six-year-old lawyer and reserve Australian Army officer. David thought he should have a reporter along as well, and managed to interest Carmel Travers, best known at that time for her work on Beyond 2000. She too insisted to their Serbian backers that any report must be objective. As a mother of two children Travers was worried about the risks, so it was agreed that David would go over first, and if it was reasonably safe she would join them.

The team, which now also included Andrew Psarianos as sound recordist, set out in July 1993 for Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. They acquired a van and two fearsome-looking Serbian guards armed with rifles and a box of hand grenades and set out to drive through the war zones. It was not long before they encountered evidence of the deep-seated hatreds that had set Serb against Croat, attitudes that were shared by Misha and Marko, as David discovered when he recorded brief interviews with them.

They stopped by the roadside where soldiers were directing traffic and checking identification. The film shows David questioning a tall, distinctly scruffy looking NCO.

“What are you doing?” David asks.

“Looking for Muslims.”


“To stop terrorists killing Serbs.”

“What terrorists?”

“Muslims, Croats too, like they did in 1941.”

This was all laboriously interpreted by Misha. (Misha was a good interpreter but the soldiers were very suspicious.) All the while the soundtrack is filled with the sound of gunfire. David pointed out that there was supposed to be a ceasefire. The soldiers claimed they were just returning sniper fire from the other side. David believes this was all nonsense. Certainly there was fire coming from the Croatian positions but most was from the Serbians, including the odd machine-gun. “I have no doubt if I had not been there they would have been going at it hammer and tongs,” he says.

The allusion to 1941 refers to the creation during the Second World War of a Croatian state that was pro-Nazi, which embarked on a vicious campaign against the Serbs and Muslims. The grievances from that time festered for thirty-five years. After the death of Marshal Tito in 1980 all the repressed hatreds came to the surface. Repeatedly in the film David asks Serbians to describe some specific atrocity, only to be referred back to 1941.

It was the same when they reached the hills overlooking Sarajevo. “We are just returning fire,” they tell David. The camera cuts to a pile of shell casings. They were able to drive into the suburbs of Sarajevo. There David spotted a beautiful blonde girl using a tree for cover, firing a rifle with a telescopic site into the town. It would have made a powerful image but the Serbians would not let him take the shot. On another occasion a senior officer tells Brill they are going to attack some Croatians on the other side of the hill. There are no enemy soldiers in evidence but the Serbians clearly relish aiming and loading a piece of heavy artillery. One soldier kisses a shell before it is loaded and tells David, “I kiss her because I love her and want her to kill Ustasha”. The Ustasha was the organisation responsible for the mass murder of Serbs in 1941.

When shooting these sequences Brill has always claimed he remained impartial and the unedited footage bears him out. He remains uncertain, however, about the way he was implicated in an interrogation. They had been visiting an army barracks where some very young new recruits were being trained. There was a lot of firing but not much marksmanship and the unedited material shows them immature and giggly, more like not very well trained school cadets. They mouthed all the clichés about wanting to fight Croats and Muslims but seemed far from ready for combat. (Most of them were killed shortly after.) Then the CO, who “seemed quite reasonable”, asked David if he would like to talk to some prisoners they had just captured.

Brill followed the Serbian colonel into an office to find a handsome young doctor and an attractive nurse both trembling with fright. The unedited tape shows David asking a few simple questions, to which the doctor replies in fluent English. Brill quickly realised something was wrong. Behind him there was an officer who had been questioning the prisoners. He can be seen waving David off when he tries to include him in the shot. There follows a further sequence where Marko virtually takes over the interrogation of the couple. Brill remembers him swaggering in but couldn’t recall how he had reacted when Marko tried to start a political debate. The rushes show that he turned off the camera. Brill does recall saying to the CO, “You know I’ve got all that in here,” and the man replying that the prisoners would soon be exchanged. David still wonders. The presence of a camera inevitably changes the “reality” being recorded. In a situation like this, Brill believes, his camera must never take sides.

David has no problems with one of the tours de force I found in the rushes. The sequence begins in a town square with young men and women relaxing, flirting, drinking wine and coffee. This seems to be going on for ever then a Fiat pulls up and armed soldiers and their girlfriends pour out into the crowd. Another angle shows the square filled with armed men. As Brill frames a shot of some girls sitting on a wall one reaches behind her and pulls out an automatic that she waves at the camera—and the unarmed photographer.

One of the most chilling moments of the expedition didn’t make it to film. They were stopped at a checkpoint by an officer who David could see had been too long in the front line. One of the younger members of the party was so nervous that he couldn’t help smiling. The next moment the officer had pulled his gun. Brill jumped out of the car, put his arm around the man’s shoulders and calmed him down, only to discover that he was a reserve officer and the head of Yugoslav television.

Throughout the shoot the rushes show David trying to find the humanity behind the swaggering and hatred. There are extended shots of gutted and devastated houses, washing left on the line. A Serbian family return to the ruins of their home and allow Brill to film them picking through the rubble. Another sequence in a Serbian cemetery shows crosses over graves which from the dates have to be those of children. Then there is David’s love affair with the countryside. A whole thirty-minute tape is devoted to shots of the scenery, and very beautiful they are too.

Still, whenever Brill tries to probe any of the Serbians about the Muslims and Croats who had been their neighbours for nearly forty years out come all the clichés. The closest they come to eliciting a human response is when Carmel Travers interviews a clearly devastated young man. His eyes are infinitely expressive but all he can do is repeat the usual propaganda. For me, David’s rushes portray a community that has suffered greatly, but is committed to violence and hatred. This, I believe, has to be kept in mind when evaluating Brill’s two key interviews with Karadzic and Mladic.

Thanks to Misha’s persistence, David was able to get in to see Karadzic at his headquarters in Pale overlooking Sarajevo. The place was overrun with soldiers that they were forbidden to film, and Karadzic’s aides were clearly angry that the Australians were taking up so much of the President’s time. David has filmed his share of dangerous lunatics. “Idi Amin was charming at least up to the moment he became irritated with someone and reached for his revolver.”

Karadzic was nothing like this. He gives the most lucid exposition of the 1940s background they were to get in Bosnia. Then the President explains that he doesn’t want to take Muslim territory but is prepared to discuss borders. Karadzic produces a map and traces the outlines of his borders for a Serbian state. The President spoke fluent English, so for once there was interaction between David and his subject without the need for an interpreter.

Mladic, later to be described by Karadzic as insane (the President had been a psychiatrist before entering politics) was quite different. To be sure, he was charming and helpful. The rushes show him consenting to two takes from different angles and he cuts a spectacular figure in a bright green uniform that might have been worn by Franco during the Spanish Civil War. But his “explanation” of the civil war is simply crazy. For him it is all the fault of the Germans and the Austrians who want to recreate the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Very little from these interviews was included in the seventeen-minute program that went to air on Foreign Correspondent. Carmel Travers and editor Lew Griffiths managed to keep the report strictly neutral (David was on assignment in South Africa) but the ABC were clearly apprehensive about the program. The presenter, George Negus, emphasised in the introduction the limitations Brill and Travers had been forced to work under. Instead of using David’s interview with Karadzic, it was decided that Negus would confront the man himself. With only the current news stories to work from, Negus found that most of his criticisms were easily deflected by the Serbian President. But unlike most modern politicians, Karadzic answered all the questions that were put to him and Negus was able to get him to express his fears about the intensity of emotion on all sides of the Balkan disaster.

Of course, all this took place before the appalling massacres of 1994 and 1995, and Brill’s film portrays communities consumed by old and new hatreds. This is recognised by Karadzic and the President of the New Yugoslavia, Dobrica Cocic, interviewed by Carmel Travers in Tito’s old office towards the end of the shoot. Both stressed the intensity of the ethnic hatreds on all sides. These, in Cocic’s words, would scare any normal person.

David Brill would be the last person to claim to be an expert on Bosnia. All that his extraordinary film archive can do is to illuminate the terrible ironies and tragic passions of the former Yugoslavia in 1993. For any director/photographer that is by any standards a considerable achievement—especially when it is borne in mind that, as the footage shows, he and his crew were dodging sniper fire virtually throughout.

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