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

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

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 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 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.

After three seconds, Esma’s eyes suddenly open abruptly. She raises them slightly to gaze straight at the camera for a second before the scene fades to the opening title. Esma’s gaze here poses a challenge for spectators. For Koebel, this shot lays the foundation for the chief challenge of the film: “to elicit empathy with…Esma from a distance that does not flatten the character into a single-dimensional victim.” Esma’s actions seem to embody this tension. Her eyes and body language evoke contradictory responses, both being decidedly confrontational while also seeming to beg for the viewer’s empathy. The complexity of her countenance also reinforces the tension between the need to communicate her trauma and the pressure of silence (Culbertson 172).

We further see how Esma’s memories are linked to physical sensations after she engages in a pillow fight with her daughter Sara. When the scene begins, the shot pattern is rapid and loose. The light sound of laughter accompanying the quick editing implies that the pillow fight is a joyous activity joining mother and daughter. It is interesting here that mother and daughter show their love through physical situations—this further binds Esma’s capacity for emotion with tactility, making the physical manifestation of her trauma even stronger for the viewer.

As Esma and Sara move into Sara’s room, the pace of the camera changes. Instead of following the characters, it becomes stagnant. When Sara pins her mother down and pushes her arms back, the shot is suddenly positioned at a low angle that shows Sara alone with the back of Esma’s head in the lower right corner of the foreground. The position calls to mind a woman being forced into nonconsensual sex. The camera moves to a medium closeup of Esma’s face, making Sara (who represents the perpetrator) a faceless body. By adopting this perspective, it becomes clear to the viewer that Esma’s anxious, serious demeanor has a deeper root than this moment with her daughter. When she finally pushes Sara off of her and sits up, we see her back, putting Esma in a vulnerable position with respect to the spectator. She is suddenly hunched over and heaving; the physical position of Sara relative to her elicited a physical memory akin to the reverberating present to which Culbertson refers.

In addition to exploring the idea of an embodied memory, Zbanic also examines the consequences that this has on the recovery of raped women. Defeating the notion of traditional therapy, Grbavica shows that traumatic experiences rooted in physical violation require alternative strategies in order to fully heal from the trauma.

The second scene at the women’s center begins with a close up on a woman smiling. She quickly covers her face as if crying, but the sound of light laughter overtakes the soundtrack. The film cuts to a woman speaking to the camera. Her facial expression is solemn, as are those of the group of women behind her. It is immediately difficult for the viewer to reconcile the first woman’s expression with both the locale and the surrounding group. As the woman speaks, she begins discussing a dream in which she seemingly relived the memory of Serbian soldiers. Her words are labored as she tries to put a nonnarrative pattern of images into speech. The resulting dialogue is disjunctive and illogical. As the woman speaks, her words are intercut with the first woman’s bursts of laughter. Her laughter is accompanied by physical shaking and rocking.

It is tempting to write the whole scene off as an absurd critique of the bureaucratic effort to help these women cope with their circumstances—and there are certainly critical elements within the whole sequence. However Culbertson’s notion of embodied memory opens this sequence up to an interpretation that is more consistent with the film´s examination of memory and trauma.

According to Culbertson, “[w]ounding produces in the body particular neurological responses…retained as the memory of the event. …Such a memory is generally full of fleeting images, the percussion of blows, sounds, and movements of the body” (174). If the body stores the memory of physical violation as unlinked images, the second woman’s illogical narrative can is clearly an attempted verbalization of this memory. Furthermore, Culbertson adds that “memories do persist, like the materials of dreams inaccessible to the normal waking space” (176). This woman’s seemingly nonsensical dream is the only possibly manifestation of her memory, something she reinforces when she confesses she cannot remember her son’s face when she is awake.

Even in light of this interpretation, however, it is clear that the woman is failing to explain herself adequately. Her verbal expression seems empty and unsubstantive. It is the absurdity of trying to translate this embodied memory into the logic of speech that evokes laughter from the first woman. As Thomas Elsaesser mentions, the effort to “represent the unrepresentable” is largely impossible (195). Culbertson agrees, saying that narrative makes “the truth of body recall appear unintelligible and false, because [the resulting narrative is] too disjointed and without context” (190).

As the sequence continues, Zbanic questions the limits of speech in expressing the trauma associated with rape and physical violence. As the therapist (notably seated in the front of the room at a higher position than the girls on the floor to suggest her separation from the group of victims) asks the second woman how she feels, Mirha, a younger woman than either of the two speaking, interjects and tells her to “cut the crap.” Mirha disdainfully asks the therapist to tell the women if the center has money or jobs available, striking down the therapist’s methods of helping women handle their tragedies. As the therapist explains that “some women need to share their feelings”, she is shot at a low angle from the floor. This distance from the other women’s suffering makes her seem out of touch with the reality of trauma, and the laughter of the first woman during this speech further reinforces the absurdity of asking women to express these grotesque memories verbally. At the end of her speech, Mirha angrily tells the therapist that “she’s taken care of.” In essence, because the therapist has not been affected by the same violation as the women at the center, Mirha recognizes that she cannot fully comprehend the “memory-knowledge” that plagues them. As Mirha storms out, the room bursts into laughter to suggest how absurd it is that they could verbalize something that exists so deep below the level of language.

If Zbanic supports neither state-sponsored therapy nor verbal language as optimal methods for tackling traumatic “memory-knowledge,” the question rises of what she sees as the means for victims to tackle their pasts and move forward with their futures. Jasmila Husanovic provides an alternative perspective to Culbertson that helps answer this question. Husanovic suggests that the only path that allows Bosnian women to recover from a traumatic past is through art.

Husanovic sees Zbanic’s films (including Grbavica) as part of a “collective endeavor that renders art into a transformative model of communication and engages the subject in dialogue and reflection on the traumatic contents of Bosnian realities” (106). She believes that women’s art imbues female victims with a power of speech that allows for the formation of a community of victims. This community develops a “new symbolic framework for the negotiation between silence and speech” that reduces marginalization at the hands of the metanarrative (Husanovic 109).

If we consider Zbanic’s film to exist as part of a larger women’s art with this goal, it becomes clear that in Grbavica, art has the ultimate power to promote recovery from a traumatic past. Zbanic hints at this solution in the final sequence at the woman’s center, which takes place following Esma’s revelation to Sara.

The scene opens with a medium close-up of a woman singing. Accompanying her song is the loud patter of rain. After thirty seconds, the camera begins a slow motion reminiscent of the film’s opening sequence. This time, however, the camera focuses on individuals from the beginning of its motion rather than providing a sweeping view of the group. In fact, because of the camera’s pauses on individual women, the scene’s length here is tripled from the initial scene (Koebel). Yet precisely because of this excruciatingly slow motion, it becomes clear that despite any superficial differences in their appearance, all of the women are unified by their meditative reactions to the singer’s melody. They have the same meditative (and somewhat distant) gaze and have similar posture and body language. This stands in stark contrast to the second scene at the women’s center, where the women’s gazes are distant and dejected.

At this point in the film (as opposed to the opening scene), the viewers now fully understand what brings the women to the center and can better intuit how music seems to affect these women on a more primitive level, helping them deal with their pasts. As the camera gets closer to Esma, the song’s lyrics reveal hope for the future: “When our tears melt away/Even the desert can bloom/In a vision of paradise…”. This promise of recovery (and to some extent, redemption) is only accessible through art and song, as both this scene and the opening scene make evident.

When the camera finally lands on Esma, she is once again distinctly separate from the other women. Rather than gazing directly at the camera, Esma now averts her gaze as she cries. Following a cut to an extended scene with Sara, the camera cuts back to Esma. It is clear that the song has elicited a response from her, as she now attempts to tell her story.

Koelber sees Esma’s verbalization of her personal horror as her way of seizing some agency and becoming a “speaking subject.” This reading ignores, however, that it was only through both a physical struggle with Sara and the power of the music at the beginning of the scene that Esma could access her tragedy in such a way that it could be verbalized. This reading also ignores the extent to which Esma can adequately communicate her tragedy. Her words in this scene are about the birth of her daughter and how it proved to be a crucial step away from an intense depression. She does not, however, confront her memories of the rapes in any way except to briefly mention them as they connect to Sara. Additionally, while Esma’s words are far more comprehensible than those of the women in the second women’s center sequence, they still lack the clear narrative pattern expected when “memory-knowledge” is transformed into “memory.” To a certain extent, Esma is still troubled by her memories and cannot fully take agency through her speech.

The ultimate redemptive moment in the film comes at its end. As Sara boards the bus for her school field trip, we see mother and daughter separated by physical distance. As the bus travels away, the class begins to sing “Sarajevo, my love.” Sara is pictured in the rear window of the school bus when she raises a hand to her mother and presses it against the window. The song has taken her away from the trauma brought about by hearing the truth about her father. The music has reunited mother and daughter as women in “Bosnia, my wounded homeland, land of my ancestors.

According to Tanya Horeck, the way rape is represented has larger suggestions “about the relationship between film and audience, and reality and representation” (105). By choosing not to use flashbacks, Grbavica creates a distance between the viewer and the film that ensures the spectator is actively interpreting the cinematic events. This focus on the present effectively demonstrates the lasting impact that trauma has on a subject without sensationalizing rape. The result is a meditation on the singular nature of embodied memory that reinforces the failure of language to effectively represent trauma.

Culbertson, Roberta. “Embodied Memory, Transcendence, and Telling: Recounting Trauma, Re-Establishing the Self.” New Literary History 26.1 (1995): 169-195.

Elsaesser, Thomas. “Postmodernism as mourning work.” Screen 42.2 (2001): 193-201.

Grbavica. Written and directed by Jasmila Zbanic. 2005. Film.

Horeck, Tanya. Public Rape: Representing Violation in Fiction and Film. London: Routledge, 2004.

Husanovic, Jasmina. “The of Gender, Witnessing, Postcoloniality and Trauma: Bosnian Feminist Trajectories.” Feminist Theory 10.1 (2009): 99-120.

Koebel, Caroline. “Torture, maternity, and truth in Jasmila Zbanic’s Grbavica: Land of My Dreams.” Jump Cut 51 (2009): n. pag. Web. 13 Dec. 2009. .

Turim, Maureen. “The trauma of history: flashbacks upon flashbacks.” Screen 42.2 (2001): 205-210. Print.

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