Embodied Memory and Trauma: Recovering from Rape in Jasmila Zbanic's "Grbavica"

By Michael A. Gold
2010, Vol. 2 No. 03 | pg. 1/3 |

On its simplest level, Jasmila Zbanic’s 2006 Grbavica examines how the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s still shape life in post- Sarajevo. The film’s protagonist, Esma, is struggling to cope with the aftermath of being a victim in the systematic rapes committed by soldiers during the Yugoslav wars. Over ten years after her rape and subsequent pregnancy, Esma is now the single mother of an adolescent daughter who begins to question her identity. As Esma tries to protect her daughter from the fact of her birth, she also struggles to recover from her personal trauma and shake off her past. Grbavica examines the trauma associated with physical violation, coming to the conclusion that it is only by using methods that exist below the level of language that victims can truly recover.

The way in which Zbanic approaches Esma’s trauma sets Grbavica apart from most films that deal with the problems of memory. Films such as Alain Renais’ Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1964) rely on the flashback in order to demonstrate how haunting the past can be and the extent of its influence on the present (Horeck 105; Turim 209). But Grbavica consciously ignores the past, choosing to show Esma moving through her everyday life rather than examining her time in a prisoner of war camp or depicting the multiple gang rapes she suffered. As Caroline Koebel puts it, Zbanic focuses on “Esma’s struggle to exist in the present.”

The precise nature of Esma’s struggle is identified by Roberta Culbertson. Because rape is an act of physical violation, Culbertson believes that the experience is,

“Locked within [one’s own] skin, played out within it in actions other than words, in patterns of consciousness below the everyday and the constructions of language. Trapped there, the violation seems to continue in a reverberating present that belies the supposed linearity of time and the possibility of endings.” (170)

Culbertson sees this reverberating present as a “memory-knowledge” that does not follow the patterns of traditional “memory.” Rather than being a personal, narrative account of something completed in the past, this “memory-knowledge” is not locatable in time or easily narrated. Instead, it is felt as a constant presence that shapes current events and how the survivor experiences them.

The result is an internalization of violation in a strictly nonnarrative form (Culbertson 169). Memory resurfaces as fragmented images lacking continuity, rendering unbelievable to both survivors and strangers. This stems in part from this embodied memory-knowledge’s existence at a level beneath the realm of speech and communication. Survivors are thus placed in a paradox of needing to communicate a truth that obeys the logic of the subconscious and seems unreachable both to the self and to others (Culbertson 170). 

For Culbertson, traditional narrative forms are cultural silencers to the embodied memory of physical . Because of the inability to transform a physical recollection of physical pain and trauma into the language required by traditional narrative patterns, these experiences and memories become marginalized by the accepted metanarrative. This exclusion gives the experience of physical violence an ephemeral ambiguity that causes survivors and strangers to question its existence. Furthermore, the use of nonnarrative organization to open the film opposes traditional narrative patterns, attacking the marginalization that traditional narrative patterns cause.

Culbertson’s emphasis on a memory-knowledge that is experienced through fleeting images and physical sensation provides an interesting perspective from which to examine Grbavica’s opening sequence. Distinctly nonnarrative, the sequence indicates how language is ineffective as a mechanism for reconciling traumatic memory and demonstrates the need for forms of coping that attack a deeper level of consciousness.

The film opens with a static shot of the luxurious handwoven carpet at the women’s center where rape victims go to receive therapy and government money. The carpet’s bright colors are woven into an abstract pattern that seems at once randomly asymmetric yet somehow coherent. As the camera begins a slow pan, it comes across a hand interrupting the shot of the rug. Thus, from the very beginning of the film, a strong emphasis is put on the body and the physical experience of living with trauma. A melancholy song begins on the soundtrack. The music, which Zbanic chooses not to subtitle, seems to fit with the strange images on screen. It as if the music, which accompanies the camera through the entire scene, transcends above the realm of language into the realm of silence and the subconscious. The camera’s slow pan, which moves with the melody of the song, is unmotivated, seemingly bringing the scene further into the surreal. Disembodied hands and legs slowly enter the frame, splayed across the rug (and the frame) somewhat haphazardly.

As the pan continues, the camera passes over woman prostrate on the ground with their eyes closed. The distance from the camera to the women reinforces their isolation from an outside presence during this collective introspection. The stillness of the bodies and the way in which they are clustered together recalls the image of mass graves. This parallel further reinforces the fantastic nature of the scene. The camera continues to weave between the women moving from sole hands and arms to arms resting on knees and chests, and then finally showing hands holding faces. The women are now sitting up with their bodies supporting each other. The physical contact of the woman appears to be redemptive here, giving them a certain peace of mind that will not be echoed in the rest of the film. Physical sensations would seem to be the only mechanism adequate to help cope with the embodied trauma that plagues these women.

After about 30 seconds, this distance begins to erode as the camera moves to focus on a face. The presence of faceless bodies in the background reinforces the existence of the individual woman within a larger group of trauma survivors. As the camera slowly moves across individual faces, it becomes clear that the women are of varying ages. Their varied styles of dress indicate that they come from different backgrounds, further suggesting that the trauma they have experienced pervades all levels of society. Furthermore, the women’s clothes recall the colors in the carpet. Much like the complex, intricate pattern of the rug, the women are intertwined and physically connected in a random textile of their own where the whole turns out to be far more powerful than the individual parts.

The camera slows down as it lingers on an older woman in a red and black jacket, who is rocking back and forth with the music. Zbanic shows here the emotive power of art: language has not reached this woman’s emotions as powerfully as the melancholy song. It is worth noting, however, that the woman’s cathartic reaction is manifesting itself through the movement of the body. Rather than a purely emotional struggle, her experiences clearly possess a physical dimension.

 The shot then pans slowly to Esma, who is sitting a notable distance away from the group. The camera helps to create this distinction as it moves into a higher position, portraying Esma from an unusual high angle. As the camera steadily zooms in on Esma, it isolates her even further from the group, showing her alienation from the collective perspective. Esma’s lack of physical contact with the other woman also demonstrates her difficulty in coping with her rape.

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