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Singing songs with Radovan Karadzic

Karadzic the poet? The Bosnian Serb militia as purveyor and preserver of medieval cultures? Paul Pawlikowski’s 1992 film on the role of gusle music, Serbian Epics, presents a very different take on the Balkan conflict, highlighting the inter-relation and mutual trajectories of culture and violence that lie so close to the heart of modern ethnic wars. Presenting his film to the Frontline Club this week, Pawlikowski admits that he doesn’t quite understand what he created, and watching it leaves us no closer to solving the fundamental questions that surround that particular societal collapse. But, inadvertently or not, what emerges is the tragic ridiculousness at the heart of that war – a backwardness and incompetence that we are often loath to recognise in the face of all the suffering that was their consequence. After all, it is discomfiting, feels almost immoral, to see ethnic cleansing as an aspect of the surreal.

Ostensibly, however, Pawlikowski set out to document poetic and musical traditions that date back to medieval Serbia, and which he was surprised to find playing a role in the Bosnian war. Karadzic, it transpires, is something of a gusle music buff, with an ancestor who was central to resurrecting this bizarre mono-tonal sound and an apparent proficiency with the instrument himself.

Such links to the distant past were central to the process of national myth-making that occurred during Yugoslavia’s collapse – the tiny kernels of reality that provided the basis for violent definitions of the volk; definitions that continue to create, legitimise and foment ethnic distinctions. Clinging to these details of historical culture are crucial when trying to justify the apparently arbitrary differences claimed by former neighbours: the more insignificant the differences, the more ferociously each side defends them (I love Michael Ignatieff for his writing on this).

Pawlikowski gives us bizarre scenes of frontline soldiers sat around a gusle player, singing such catchy couplets as:

Who is the liar that said Serbia is small?
She is not small, she is not small.
She went to war three times,
Again and again. 

Lennon and McCartney this ain’t. Interspersed are iconic images from Serbia’s past – strange, jerky, antique footage of King Peter and First World War troops – that reflect the way these songs are more than just propaganda tunes, that they are bridges to the past, constituting and re-constituting myths and ethnic definitions, dredging up past humiliations and grievances, superimposing them on to contemporary situations.

What really stood out in the film for me, however, was a sense of surreal silliness that seemed to pervade life on this frontline. Scenes of Karadzic sitting in a disused cable car trying to get hold of his wife on the phone and failing; or the interview with Prince Tomislav trying to sound educated about paintings and sounding like an inbred moron; or best of all, the war cabinet meeting in which Mladic dismisses any discussion of sensible compromise (you can watch that scene here).

Speaking after the screening, Pawlikowski tells us: “For all the talk of Serbia’s professionalism as an army, and I’m sure there were other militias and regiments that were, the whole operation as I saw it was totally amateurish. They were complete yokels ... I still don’t understand that war in its entirety. I’m fascinated by the film myself – because I can watch it still without any idea what it all means.”

But his approach (as he puts it, “chasing butterflies on the battlefield”) was not only a way to get some of the most personal footage of Karadzic and his men at the time, but proves extremely illuminating about the wider war and way that violence can emanate from self-definitions. Back in 1992, the film (part of a BBC series called Bookmarks) caused an uproar that even reached parliament for its supposedly genial portrayal of war criminals. But as Pawlikowski tells us, the film was designed as an antidote to the “pornographic” obsession with catastrophe being presented nightly on TV news. Constant coverage had stripped emotional meaning from the story. “The evil had become abstract. Victims were just victims. I wanted to add some layers; muddy the waters. My films are always in reaction to journalism. They are a sort of anti-journalism.” Combative words to tell a club of journalists, but few could deny his vital contribution.

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