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Croatian film Halima's Path, a revalation at LA SouthEast Fest





By Alex Deleon


The Southeast European Film Festival of Los Angeles, now in its eight year, was founded by Vera Mijojic a go-getting Serbian lady from Sarajevo, Bosnia, with a strong cinema background in ex-Yugoslavia as an international production assistant and critic. She left Yugoslavia as it was descending into civil war in 1992 and resettled in Los Angeles where she had family connections. Her purpose in creating this niche festival was to bring attention here in the film capital to the films of a neglected corner of Europe, her home region which she knows so well. There are almost countless ethnic film festivals of one kind of another in Los Angeles but SEEFEST is unusual in that it focuses on an entire region rather than just one country or nationality -- a region where a great variety of films are produced but rarely if ever seen here.

During a six day run features, documentaries and shorts from every corner of the Balkans were shown, several of which were eye openers, such as AGON, an Albanian Greek co-production about the Albanian criminal underworld in Thessaloniki, but the big discovery of the week was a film from Croatia entitled "Halima's Path", a minor key masterpiece that deals with post war trauma after the Bosnian civil war in two intertwined peasant families -- one Muslim, the other Christian.

What makes this film so special apart from the gripping subject matter, is the overall esthetic conception, the brilliant cinematography, the authenticity of the settings (Satyajit Ray would have loved it) -- the absolute world class acting, and the direction, which, as one viewer remarked in the post screening Q and A, "puts Hollywood to shame". Films from Romania, Serbia, Turkey, and even tiny Albania, have circulated in various festivals but Croatia hasn't had very much to offer until the emergence of Zagreb based director Arsen Anton Ostovic, who learned the trade at the NYU film school and made two other remarkable features before.

Halima's Path (on the way to identify the remains of her husband and son exhumed from mass graves) is extremely tortuous and heart rending as presented by actress Alma Prica in a towering performance that is almost too authentic to bear. This is a heavy drama with an intricate plot, many characters in complex kinship relations, and multiple interwoven flashbacks that are sometimes hard to sort out, but the direction is so skillful that the viewer is simply swept up and drawn along in one perfectly constructed scene after another to the shocking conclusion and a deftly touching cemetery coda. Every character is perfectly drawn and portrayed by an amazing ensemble cast, some Croatian, some Serbian, some Bosnian Muslim, and at least one Slovenian. The overall effect is transfixing even if slightly confusing at times, at least to outside viewers not so familiar with similar sounding names and reading the film through English subtitles.. "Halima's Path" is a stunner and jaw dropper, but it may take a second viewing to sort out all the details.

Basically, the story is this: --

The film opens with a prequel to the main story in 1977. A title tells us this is western Bosnia where the population is mixed Moslem and Christian (Vlah). On a stormy night with flashes of lightning in the sky a pretty young Moslem woman, Safiya, comes running through the fields to the house of her aunt, Halima, to tell her she is two months late --pregnant - of course unmarried, and afraid her father will kill her if he finds out that the father-to-be is a Christian-- Moreover, she loves the guy! We'll think of something, says Halima. Next we see Safiya jumping off a ladder on the family farm trying to induce an abortion. Ineffective. Her father starts beating her to within an inch of her life with a whip when Slavomir, her handsome Serbian boyfriend shows up. He pole axes the enraged father, Avdo, with a stick but has to flee when a son pulls a shotgun on him.. Jafiya, badly battered, is kicked out and comes back to Halima, her aunt, Avdo's sister, for refuge. The stage is now set for the big secret that will be the fulcrum of the tale. We will later find out that after Safiya secretly gave birth, Halima who was barren, secretly adopted her niece's child, Mirza, and raised him as her own. Slavomir who has been away in Germany for two years to make money returns in a fancy car to retrieve Safiya. When he asks about their baby Safiya lies and tells him it was stillborn, then runs off with him to raise a new family as a Christian wife in an all Serbian town.

Flash forward 23 years -- it is now the year 2000, five years after the end of the Bosnian war. In a series of momentary flashbacks we learn that both Halima's husband and son were carried off by Serbian soldiers and shot in an ethnic cleansing massacre. We can also see that one of the soldiers was young Slavo -- Under UN supervision mass graves have been exhumed, the bones carefully laid out in a warehouse mortuary and DNA or blood samples from surviving relatives are needed to identify the bones so they can be reburied properly according to Moslem custom. Salko, Halima's husband, Salko, has been identified but, since she was not the biological mother of Mirza her blood sample won't help. She has to find Safiya who ran off 22 years earlier and hasn't been heard from since....Avdo's wife, Nevzeta, who never agreed to Safiya's expulsion from the family, has heard some things on the grapevine ...

Cut to Safiya, now "Sophia", and her family of three daughters somewhere on the Serbian side. Slavomir, who was once so clean cut, has been traumatized by his war experiences in the Serbian military, has become an alcoholic, has grown long hair and a beard, is constantly depressed and looks like Jesus ... Halima now a forlorn pathetic figure who knits sweaters for the dead to keep from going mad, is determined to find Safiya --- . .

She will be assisted reluctantly by brother-in-law Mustafa (Brother of her deceased husband) who once despised her for her barrenness but has softened with age.

What will happen when she does find Safiya/Sophia...?


Among technical difficulties that had to be surmounted was the aging --both up and down --of the actors. Halima has to range from ages 33 to 56 --she is actually 49, and Olga Pakalovic, who plays Safiya -- marvelously -- has to cover an age range in the film from 18 to 42. I was particularly impressed by Pakalovic whose secondary role is nearly as important as the central Halima role and is in some ways more difficult because she goes through more changes in the film. Mustafa Nadarevic, the Bosnian actor who plays Safiya's unforgiving father is unforgettable as Avdo, and Miraj Grbic as Mustafa is a powerful and somewhat amusing presence in every scene he's in. Mr Grbic just moved to California where he has already been in several Hollywood films, notably "Mission Impossible" opposite Tom Cruise. An actor to watch for.

When director Ostojic remarked that Alma Prica is regarded as the best actress in Croatia and has been for a long time, I asked him what American actress he would compare her to and the answer was immediate, Meryl Streep. In any case this is a fantastic ensemble cast all around without a single glitch as far as the acting is concerned. "Halima's Path" is a Croatian Bosnian Slovenian co-production and a pristine example of cross border cooperation in a region that was so recently torn to pieces by a horrendous series of wars.

Despite the fact that this film has won eleven prizes in seven festivals and has been hailed as a masterpiece in many reviews director Ostojic, who speaks perfect English, says the big problem is finding a distributor. The problem is that Croatia is unknown, the superb actors are unknown, and this is not light entertainment or full of sex and action. It is not a war film either, but "a film about two mothers who share one son". Wherever it has been shown so far audiences have been wowed. If it is accepted as the Croatian foreign language entry in the next Oscar derby, in 2014, it will hopefully receive the recognition it justly deserves and maybe get the distribution it needs.


Ama Prica, Halima's Path

Behind her to the left Safiya, on the right Slavomir

Vera Mijojic, Festival Founder



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