Portrait: Damir Avdagic

Making Films as Psychoanalysis, Artist Reinterprets the Bosnian “War Film”

Photo: Damir Avdagic, photographed at his studio in Bushwick, is an artist and filmmaker who focuses on the intergenerational and psychological effects of the Yugoslav Civil War. Credit: Kyle S. Mackie
Twenty years after the end of the Yugoslav Civil War, artist Damir Avdagic brought together three other twenty-somethings in Los Angeles to talk. They represented each of the ethnic groups involved in the conflict that killed more than 100,000 people and displaced two million, including Avdagic’s own family.

He asked the participants to read and react to transcripts from the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, the United Nations court dealing with war crimes committed in the Balkans in the 1990s. Captured on camera, the resulting conversations inspired Avdagic’s current documentary project, which will feature Bosnians in their 50s and 60s reflecting on the younger generation’s words.

The only problem is finding his subjects.

“It’s a lot harder to find people to participate in the documentary with older Bosnians,” Avdagic, 29, explained. One man he tried to convince told him that he still wakes up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat, plagued by dreams about the war.

Avdagic’s artwork, produced mainly through videos, focuses on the intergenerational and psychological effects of the Yugoslav Civil War. That’s not a popular subject for many Bosnians, who prefer to move forward.

The older generation Avdagic is trying to reach is not alone when it comes to re-examining the nationalism-fueled war and ethnic cleansing of the 1990s. Plenty of young Bosnians are fatigued by “war films,” too. But Avdagic maintains that there’s something to be learned about transgenerational trauma through his process-based work that blurs the lines between art, psychology and historical investigation.

“I see it more as offering spaces where these questions can be worked through, if you’re willing to spend time with it,” said Avdagic. He describes his style of work as “an archaeology into history, but into a history that is stored in people.”

Avdagic was born to a Bosnian Muslim, or Bosniak, father and Croatian Catholic mother in 1987, the same year Slobodan Milosevic told a crowd of ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo, “No one should dare to beat you.” Milosevic was then the leader of the Serbian Communist Party. Two years later he became president of Serbia, and fifteen years later, his trial on war crimes began. But when Avdagic was born, Milosevic was fueling a pan-Serbian nationalism, and ethnic divisions intensified between Bosniaks and Croats, traditionally Roman Catholics, and Serbs, primarily Eastern Orthodox.

In 1993, Avdagic’s family was forced to flee Bosnia and Herzegovina. He was six. The family was resettled in Norway, where Avdagic lived until moving to Copenhagen in 2008 to attend the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Today, Avdagic is an artist in residence in New York City as part of the International Studio & Curatorial Program.

“I’ve been so detached from it [the war] for such a long time,” Avdagic said over drinks at a coffee-shop-by-day-bar-by-night in Williamsburg. “I think also that is the reason why I can approach the subject matter in the way that I do.”

Other Bosnians of Avdagic’s generation who were slightly older during the war see the content he works with from a different vantage point.

Dragica Mikavica, 33, was 10 years old when her ethnically Serb family fled their home in northwest Bosnia, near the Croatian border, in June 1995. The Mikavicas spent four years in Serbia before a successful visa application allowed them to emigrate to the U.S. in 1999. They settled in Ithaca, New York, joining a relative who had moved there in the 1980s.

“It’s overdone and it’s tiring,” Mikavica said of war films. “Initially I felt that this is really great as a means to work through some of the old wounds and discuss and not run away from the subject, but it’s been 23 years since we left. I feel like now it’s just a regurgitation.”

Adriana Miladinovic, 35, came to the U.S. as an au pair 10 years ago. She’s from Tuzla, a city in the northeast, which along with Srebrenica was designated as one of six United Nations “safe areas” during the war. Miladinovic explained that Tuzla maintained its ethnic plurality, for the most part, throughout the duration of the conflict. It also absorbed thousands of survivors of the Srebrenica massacre, in which Bosnian Serb forces killed an estimated 8,000 Muslim men and boys in just a few days.

Miladinovic isn’t interested in new war films, “unless you offer me some completely new angle. I expect the same old story.”

The co-founder of the upcoming Bosnian-Herzegovinian Film Festival (BHFF), Damir Pozderac, 42, is familiar with the opinions expressed by Mikavica and Miladinovic – two New Yorkers who represent his target audience for the 14th running of the annual event, which will take place April 12-15 at the SVA Theatre in Chelsea.

“Whenever people talk to me and ask me, ‘What kind of films are you going to show?’ they always tell me ‘Please don’t pick films that are war films,’” said Pozderac. And his response is always the same: “It’s not me.”

Of the 50 films submitted for entry to BHFF 2017, a mix of 13 features, documentaries and narrative shorts made the cut. Pozderac was glad to describe one as a “fun, nice, easy-going movie,” but films of that nature will be on limited offer. The majority of the material submitted for consideration dealt directly with the war or post-conflict themes.

“People are trying to get away from something that they should really talk about and address and deal with,” he said. “Films – this medium – is maybe one way to do it.”

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