Film Review: A Good Wife – The Family Life of a War Criminal

Film poster to A Good Wife (Dobra Zena)

 

Film poster to A Good Wife (Dobra Zena)

Film poster to A Good Wife (Dobra Zena)


By Koen Kluessien and Marieke Zoodsma 

 

Perhaps one of the most disturbing (moving) images from the wars in the former Yugoslavia are those shot on the so-called Scorpion Tape. The tape is named after the paramilitary unit that produced the video, Škorpioni – who curiously named themselves after their favorite weapon, the Škorpion vz. 61 machine pistol. The Scorpions, founded in 1991, were a Serbian nationalist paramilitary group consisting of several hundred armed groups who were involved in multiple combat operations during the wars. The full-length 2-hour tape depicts the activities of the unit between 1994 and 1995, with the Trnovo murders in July 1995 as its disturbing climax. It shows how members of the unit transport six Bosniak men who were captured after the fall of Srebrenica, physically and mentally abuse them, and finally execute them. In Serbia, where a culture of denial about (Serbia’s involvement in) the war crimes is widespread, the video caused huge commotion after it was made public in 2005 during the trial of Slobodan Milošević, leading to several arrests of those Scorpion members captured on the tape.


So, one might ask, who kept the tape for all these years? Who knew about its existence and why did that person come forward with it after ten years? A Good Wife (Dobra Zena)
, one of the featured films of the Movies that Matter Film Festival 2016 and now On Tour, questions such as these are cleverly intertwined in the storyline. The film shows the family life of one of the members of the Scorpion unit, several years after the war. It is reminiscent of the ordinary life of a mobster that is told in the HBO series The Sopranos, in which the story focuses on the criminal activity of mafioso Tony Soprano but primarily aims to depict the everyday life of his family. This is also the aim of A Good Wife: instead of outlining the life of Serbian paramilitary Vlado (who even has an uncanny resemblance to Tony Soprano: fat, slightly balding, and with an appearance that breathes authority) it focuses on his wife Milena. The film asks the question what the family members of a paramilitary – or a mobster for that matter – know, and more importantly, want to know.


According to sociologist Stanley Cohen, this paradox of both knowing and not-knowing lies at the heart of the concept of denial (read here Marieke’s article on current day examples of denial and Koen’s article on genocide denial by Serbian politicians). Denial is intrinsically partial as some information is always registered. What is important is what one does with that information. Milena knows her husband was in the military during the war and we see her watching the news about the aftermath of the mass atrocities committed by Serbian units. However, she does not ask him any questions, not even when she sees him getting heavily agitated after watching a human rights activist comment on the war crimes on the television. She has a suspicion but does not have an “enquiring mind”, as Stanley Cohen would call it.


Alienation and demonization are often heard reactions to distance oneself from the cruel actions of perpetrators of mass atrocities. It is easier to see perpetrators of mass violence as intrinsically evil people. They can thereby remain the so-called “Other”; something that stands so far from us that we do not truly have to understand it. A Good Wife excellently depicts the opposite. It provides the audience with a unique insight into the ordinary life of a war criminal, when the violence is over and life turns back to “normal”. Yes, Vlado is easily annoyed, has a bad relationship with his eldest (progressive) daughter, and is still an overt believer of the nationalist Serbian cause – but furthermore comes across as the average husband. We see him buying jewelry for Milena’s birthday, sitting at the head of the dinner table, and going out together with friends. As the film progresses, however, coping techniques cannot hold back his lingering trauma and it starts to affect his family life.


The key scene in the storyline of A Good Wife is the moment when Milena finds a copy of the Scorpion tape in one of her husband’s drawers. Unaware of what the tape actually contains, she turns it on and sees her husband and his comrades commit the above-described crimes. Heavily upset she turns it off. The leading question of the film remains, now that she cannot deny the involvement of her husband in these crimes, what will she do with the evidence?

 

The actual Scorpion tape was found by Nataša Kandić, a human rights activist from Belgrade, who tracked down one of the Scorpion members that was in possession of the tape. There had been twenty copies, but when Slobodan Medić Boca (the commander of the Scorpions) realized that the images could be used against him, he ordered the destruction of the footage. However, one Scorpion who was not present at the executions and did not have good relations with his former comrades made an extra copy and hid it in Bosnia. On the same day, the tape was sent to the Special Prosecutor for War Crimes in Belgrade and to the Office of the Prosecutor at the ICTY. When the video was played in Serbia, it was the first time Serbia was confronted with a crime committed by Serb forces in Bosnia.

 

Serbian politicians later acknowledged the crime. At that point it seemed like the Serbian “state of denial” was about to change and Serbians would be ready to deal with their past. Indeed, many people still give credit to the tape for “sending shockwaves through society”. Unfortunately, the truth is slightly different. Quickly the discourse changed back to usual statements showing the unwillingness to confront the past. The taped killings were relativized by pointing out crimes committed against Serbs that were still unpunished. When asked why the video had not had more effect, Dejan Anastasijević, a journalist for the newspaper Vreme, responded: “Public opinion [has been] cemented by now – it’s been 10 years. All I can say is that the capability of the human mind of refusing to face unpleasant facts keeps on amazing me”.

 

A Good Wife depicts the family life of a war criminal as if they were your neighbors. Hopefully, it will also prove to be not only a thought provoking film filled with well-written symbolism and moving actors but also a step forward in taking down the wall of denial in Serbia.

 

 

The Sudanese circle of violence: exploitation of cultural identities

Photo: Vít Hassan/Flickr  (CC BY-NC)
Photo: Vít Hassan/Flickr  (CC BY-NC)

Photo: Vít Hassan/Flickr (CC BY-NC)

By Iona Mulder -

In 1983, a civil war started in the former Sudan. Two parties, the Northern government in the capital Khartoum and a Southern coalition called the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), fought each other to retain and gain more political authority and control over the natural resources of Sudan. The civil war was extremely violent, with a tremendous amount of civil suffering: an estimated two million civilians died and around four million people were displaced. In January 2005 – after twenty-two years of fighting- a peace agreement made an official end to the war. Included in the peace agreement was the possibility for the South to become independent on the basis of a referendum that would be held in July 2011. Unfortunately, the peace agreement did not end the violence in Sudan. The civil population remained target of plunder and killings. Furthermore, after the South of Sudan became independent in 2011, a new conflict started in this new nation.

How is this possible? Why do the people of Sudan, as well as in many other regions in the world, keep fighting with each other? Why does Sudan face such difficulties in bringing peace and stability? In my view, one of the most important insights to understand war, crimes against humanity, and genocide, is that the process that creates the social environment in which people can hurt and kill each other, starts with the creation of ‘the Other’. In other words, with the social exclusion of one group from a society. In this process, ‘the Other’ is defined as a dangerous enemy and is dehumanized, creating an atmosphere of ‘us’ against ‘them’. To understand this process of creating ‘the Other’ helps to grasp the origin and causes of a conflict.

The civil wars in Sudan and South-Sudan are often explained as conflicts between different cultural identities based on race, religion, ethnicity or region. On that account, the civil war in former Sudan was a clash between people with an African and/ or Christian identity living in the Southern region, Darfur, the Nile area, and the Nuba Mountains – the latter three also have a large Muslim population – on the one side, and the Northern regions, who consider themselves Arabic and Muslims, on the other side. For the civil war in the young nation of South-Sudan it is often believed to be a conflict between the Dinka and Nuer, the two main ethnic groups living there.

It is true that the conflicts took place between groups that are identified by themselves and others as mentioned above. However, the process of creating the atmosphere of ‘us’ against ‘the Other’ in general does not begin as rivalry between cultural identities, but between political – regional, national and international – elites. When a society is in a crisis situation- for example in the case of an underdeveloped state with a weak government as Sudan – political leaders use the patterns of existing cultural identities to create a so-called in-group. They do this to develop a support platform for their power and to generate material gain. To strengthen the in-group, they classify an out-group and define them as the enemy that endangers the in-group. This out-group can be appointed from outside the society, but also from within.  The idea/myth is created that by defeating or annihilating this out-group, the problems of the in-group will be solved. The prospect of a better future will generate support for the political elites. Their tactics to create this division is to facilitate and allow the humiliation, suppression, plundering and killing of the outsiders for the benefits of the insiders.

The motivation of individuals or communities to become part of an in-group are therefore based on opportunism and/or fear. On the one hand, people might be driven by fear to be appointed in their society as ‘the Other’. On the other hand, they can be scared to become a victim of an out-group;  hence the need for protection. The book What is the What of Dave Eggers provides a clear analysis of this process in the situation in Sudan. The book is an autobiographic story of Sudanese Valentino Achak Deng. As a boy he fled from his village and found himself wandering through Sudan with a large group of other minors in search of a safe-heaven. In the following part, one of the elder boys in the group, named Dut, explains the political situation in which the villages of Valentino was raided:

“So General Dahab used a strategy familiar to many governments before this: he armed others to do the work of the army. In this case, he provided tens of thousands of Arab men, the Baggara among them, with automatic weapons. – Why didn’t the government have to pay these men? I asked. – Well, that’s a good question. The Baggara had long fought with the Dinka over grazing pastures and other matters. You probably know this. For many years there has been relative peace between the southern tribes and the Arab tribes, but it was General Dahab’s idea to break this peace, to inspire hatred in the Baggara. When they gave them these weapons, the Baggara knew they had great advantage over the Dinka. This upset the balance we’ve lived with for many years. But how would the government pay all these men. It was simple. They told the horsemen that in exchange for their service, they were authorized to plunder all they want along the way. General Dahd told them to visit upon any Dinka village along the rail lines, and to take what wished – livestock, food, anything from the markets, and even people.”

The fighting in Sudan continues for the reason that political elites on all levels of society exploit the Sudanese cultural diversity for their own goals, not because these cultural identities are unable to live respectfully side by side. Only if a government will be able to gain enough power to create a monopoly of violence and at the same time will respect the cultural diversity of Sudan, the possibility will rise to truly end the violence in Sudan. This is probably not a prospect for the near future, as many – national as well as international – people in power want their share of Sudanese natural resources. Until then the Sudanese people – North and South -have to live in the complex web of hostile cultural identities, that are defined by opportunism and fear. That is what is happing now in Sudan.