More than two decades after the final shots were fired in the war that gave Croatia independence from the former Yugoslavia, the long shadows of that bitter and divisive conflict stretch across the Balkan nation.

“In Croatia…we cannot get over our history,” says director Nebojsa Slijepcevic. “The whole system…keeps us stuck in the past.”

Slijepcevic explores that somber reality in “Srbenka,” a documentary that looks at the persistent ethnic divide in modern-day Croatia, told in part through the lens of a 12-year-old girl coming to terms with her own identity. The winner of the Doc Alliance Award in Cannes this year, the film will unspool this week at the Ji.hlava Intl. Documentary Film Festival.

Slijepcevic began shooting “Srbenka” in 2014 while filming the preparations for a new play by the provocative theater director Oliver Frljic, about the brutal killing of a 12-year-old ethnic Serbian girl during the war. The legacy of her murder remains bitterly contested in Croatia, and Frljic’s play became a target of the right-wing press.

During rehearsals, though, Slijepcevic found himself drawn to a young girl called Nina Batinic, one of four students from a local drama school who had joined the cast. “From the very first day [she] was distant,” he says. “It was so obvious that there was something bothering her.”

As the rehearsals continued, Batinic confessed she was an ethnic Serb, recalling the unsettling day when she made her discovery. The revelation had filled her with confusion and fear; five years later, Batinic still hid her identity from her classmates.

In a climate of growing xenophobia against Serbs and other ethnic minorities, Slijepcevic noted that “there are still many people [in Croatia] hiding their [ethnicity].” Hate-filled rhetoric against minority groups proliferates in the right-wing press; a petition to curb the rights of ethnic Serbs and other minorities earlier this year gathered nearly 400,000 signatures — roughly 10% of the electorate. Against such a hostile backdrop, says the director, “children are not spared.”

“Srbenka” shows the unsettling ways in which Croatia’s past connects to the present day. Throughout the film, the actors relive painful memories of the war, while Batinic’s classmates reveal how their own prejudices have already begun taking shape at an early age. Yet Slijepcevic still strikes a hopeful note, as Batinic ultimately decides to embrace her identity onstage on opening night. “She wanted to do it in spite of everything. It was like her act of emancipation,” says the director.

Set against a backdrop of hate and xenophobic violence, “Srbenka” feels perfectly in tune with the current global moment. But Slijepcevic admitted he’s been caught off-guard by the emotional responses from viewers at foreign screenings.

“We thought it would be a very local film, but it’s not,” he says. “People recognize this is not only a film about Serbs and Croats. This is a film about everybody who is different.”

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