Confronting years of denial, Bosnian helmer Jasmila Zbanic’s brave drama “For Those Who Can Tell No Tales” commemorates the more than 3,000 Bosniaks murdered during ethnic cleansing in the Visegrad area in the 1990s, especially the women tortured in rape encampments. Making a substantial impression despite a short running time, the film, structured like a mystery, centers on an Australian tourist’s dawning awareness that something terrible and unacknowledged took place at the hotel she patronizes while visiting the birthplace of Nobel Prize-winning author Ivo Andric. Expect niche arthouse play and ample ancillary for this poignant memorial.
Coincidentally, both Zbanic and Bosnia’s other top filmmaker, Danis Tanovic (“An Episode in the Life of An Iron Picker”) this year take on stories about human-rights violations by loosely fictionalizing documentary incidents and casting the people involved as themselves. “Tales” is inspired by the theater piece “Seven Kilometers North-East,” written by protagonist, actress and co-scribe Kym Vercoe.
In July 2011, lively performance artist Vercoe leaves Sydney for a Balkan holiday, bringing along a video camera to record a daily diary and a stack of guidebooks. After playing tourist in Sarajevo, she decides to visit the famous bridge over the Drina in eastern Bosnia (now part of Republika Srpska) that inspired author Andric’s best-known novel. Tim Clancy’s Bosnia and Herzegovina travel guide recommends the spa hotel Vilina Vlas on the outskirts of Visegrad for its “pleasant natural surroundings” and as “a perfect spot for a romantic evening.” She books in.
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But after hanging her wash out on the balcony, Vercoe spends a restless night there, overcome with anxiety and illness. It’s only after returning to Sydney that she discovers that not only did a terrible massacre occur in the town, but the hotel served as one of the area’s main detention facilities where Bosniak civilians were beaten, raped, tortured and killed. Apparently, 200 women were held captive there, some jumping to their deaths from the balcony to avoid further sexual abuse.
Obsessed with the fate of these women and their lack of a public memorial, Vercoe returns to Visegrad in December but can’t find any locals who will admit to knowing anything about a rape camp. Everyone, from the suspicious local police chief (Boris Isakovic) to the man (Leon Lucev) who accosts her in a bar, denies that any such thing happened at the hotel, or that any ethnic cleansing took place in the town.
Alternating between Vercoe’s direct-to-camera diary entries and following her as she goes about her travels, Zbanic combines the intimacy of the one-woman show with a you-are-there look at a landscape that has witnessed untold bloodshed over hundreds of years. Although some viewers may wonder why the sometimes precious-seeming Vercoe doesn’t concern herself with white Australia’s treatment of the Aborigines rather than war crimes in a land thousands of miles away, her outrage on behalf of those who can tell no tales appears sincere, and her artistic attempt to acknowledge them is meaningful.
Widescreen lensing by Christine A. Maier, who also shot Zbanic’s “Grbavica” and “On the Path,” imbues the pic with a properly cinematic feel and also takes advantage of the opposing seasons to stress how the same places can look completely different when colored by an ugly truth. Other tech credits are tops, although the uncredited jaunty music under the Sydney scenes and the first glimpses of Sarajevo seems as if it were borrowed from a Woody Allen film.
Zbanic took on the taboo subject of the rape of Muslim women during wartime in her Berlin Golden Bear winner, “Grbavica”; that film and her efforts led to government legislation to provide financial assistance to rape survivors. So far, the production of “Tales” has led Clancy to revise the Visegrad entry in his guidebook; it has the potential to do much more.