This film’s title ENCLAVE is a rather unpleasant word, full of negative connotations. It’s usually associated with segregation, rights that have been trampled upon, and identities that have been destroyed. It brings to mind invisible barriers, Indian reserves, ethnic cleansing.
The very mention evokes a feeling of claustrophobia. In Kosovo, nobody lives in fear of the Serbs. Rather, it’s the Serbs who live in fear.
This is also how Serbs living in the thin strip of territory just north of the Ibar River on the border between Serbia and Kosovo must feel. After Kosovo declared independence in 2008, ethnic Serbs living in the area are living practically as prisoners. A strange irony given the Serbs reputation for being the strongest, as well as the most hated and feared of the various ethnicities in the former Yugoslavia. Serbs were the largest ethnic group in Tito’s Yugoslavia and still today enjoy special protection from the Great Russia.
The Serbian filmmaker Goran Radovanović gives us a glimpse into the plight of the ethnic Serbs living in this part of Kosovo in his latest film ENCLAVE. The film takes a very pessimistic take on the situation, taking its cue from the rest of cinematography in the Balkans. This jaundice view of reality is so ingrained it pervades the entire film.
The film’s main characters are two children. Namid, who’s Serbian, and Bashkim, who’s Albanian. Namid is a model child, whereas Bashkim’s unkind and mean-spirited. The portrayal of the Serbs in the role of victims smacks of favoritism (given the filmmakers origin) but also is quite courageous as it goes against the tide, according to which the Serbs are often the aggressors.
The film is set within a school classroom in the small Serbian enclave of Vrelo in Kosovo. It’s 30th April 2004. Five years have passed since the end of the Kosovo war, the final act in the slow and violent dismantling of Yugoslavia. It’s also a month after the ‘March Pogrom’ against the local Serbian community. During this blatant act of ethnic cleansing the veterans Kosovo Liberation Army attached the local Serbian population under the noses of the KFOR peacekeepers (under the umbrella of NATO). A thousand or so Serbs were forced to leave their homes. Many Orthodox churches, cemeteries, and monuments were destroyed. Houses and land owned by Serbs was confiscated. The operation aimed to cancel all trace of centuries of the Serbian and Christian Orthodox presence from Kosovo for the sake of creating a Greater Albania.
It seems there’s always something ‘Great’ to build in the Balkans. While the KLA’s ethnic cleaners were doing their hoovering, the West was looking the other way. After all, it would be quite difficult to raise support in the West to run to the aid of the Serbs, who up until recently had been cast in the role of regional bogeyman.
Back to the school in Vrelo. It’s no ordinary school as it only has one pupil: Namid. The children of the same village are jealous of Namid because he doesn’t take the school bus like the rest of them but is escorted to school in a KFOR armored vehicle.
The camera zooms in on the title of an essay written on the board: My best friend.
But Namid doesn’t have any friends. How is he meant to write the essay. He makes something up. He’s a kid after all.
“I don’t have friends in the village, but I play with my grandad Mutalin who is 86 year’s old, and his son Voja, who’s also my father. He’s always drunk and often argues with my granddad, saying things like “Get out of here, go on, go to Belgrade”. I was born here and I’ll die here” my grandad replies when he’s very angry. My aunt escaped to Belgrade, but I don’t remember her… She married a baker… My grandad and I play dominoes, and when I beat him he gives me a sugar cube.”
This is Namid’s world. Alone at home, at school, in the village. His teacher is even about to abandon him to move to Belgrade, thereby putting an end to this education.
It’s obvious that he would love some playmates, even if Albanians. At Vrelo, the children don’t call each other by name but by nationality. They are ‘the Serb’ or ‘the Albanian’ etc.
The Albanian children are portrayed as jealous, hostile, and curious.
“Come on, Namid, let us get in too only for one ride… tell him that we’re Serbs… that my grandmother’s a Serb too”
It’s not enough for Namid to let the Albanian kids have a ride in the armored car to enter into their gang. The unforgiving laws of ethnic superiority also make themselves felt amongst the youngest inhabitants of Kosovo. Adults and children alike make the same mistakes. Above all Bashkim, the ringleader of the gang, who also knows how to handle guns. He hates the Serbs as they killed his father.
Meanwhile, the grandfather Mutalin dies. Namid has to find Father Draza, the Orthodox Priest with whom he sings nursery rhymes every morning inside the armored car.
“Come with us, we need a fourth to play hide-and-seek”
The ruins of the Orthodox Church have lots of hiding places. How to refuse such a long-awaited offer? Namid forgets about the funeral of his grandfather. Unfortunately, ethnic hatred is not so easily forgotten.
The game soon turns serious. From child’s play, it becomes stuff for adults. Bashkim has a gun. A real one, and he fires. He fires against the new bell that Father Drazda has managed to procure after the Church was destroyed. This is just one of the many Orthodox Churches that testify to the century-old presence of Serbs in Kosovo, and one of the 200 that have blown to pieces by the Albanians since 1999.
Baskhim turns the gun against Namid, forcing him to walk backwards, singing.
“You should be scared”
These are the last words that Baskhim manages to say before the bullet-riddled bell falls from the wooden beam, crushing his small Serbian “friend”.
While this is happening, the Kosovan police arrest his father. They have found arms in his house, under the bed of his father, whose corpse is moved by the man in Albanian uniform.
“Your arms represent the past, Mr Voja. Now we’re offering you a future. You can collaborate with the new multi-ethnic police force. Your job will contribute to the survival of the Serbian ethnic minority in this area.”
“No thanks”. Voja turns down the offer. There’s no room for reconciliation. The inability of the two communities to communicate with each other is shocking.
The Serbs regard Kosovo as theirs by right. It’s a promised land that was unjustly stolen from them, firstly by the Ottomans after the battle of Kosovo Polije (1389), and lastly by the Muslim Albanians, thanks to Tito who needed to build up a counterweight against Serbian nationalism. The Albanians (who are the ethnic majority today), on the other hand, believe Kosovo to be their ancient homeland that is theirs to re-conquer after Slobodan Milosevic had revoked its status as an autonomous province back in 1989. A favorable (and short-sighted) policy towards the Albanian majority adopted by the West in 2008 led to the birth of the State of Kosovo.
Bashkim has injured himself while playing the role of ‘Albanian gangster’. Following the natural inclination of children to imitate their elders, he tells his grandfather that a Serb hit him. The never-ending cycle of revenge and vendetta restarts. Namid, meanwhile, sings his favorite nursery rhyme “Ceny, Meeny, Miny” to keep himself company, whilst lying crushed underneath the bell.
Soldiers from the KFOR end up pulling him out from under the bell after they have been alerted by the only person who knew where he had ended up: Bashkim. He saved his life after he had tried to kill him. The first act certainly more deliberate than the second.
Title: My best friend.
The same essay, but this time a different school. Namid’s now in Belgrade, where he now lives with his father. No longer is he the only Serbian student, but now he’s considered by his classmates to be the only Albanian at school. He comes from Kosovo, enough to create another enclave around him.
My best friend: My best friend’s called Bashkim, he’s Albanian and is from Vrelo…