VIFF 2021: Bosnia and Herzegovina's contradictions resonate in Igor Drljača's The White Fortress

The UBC prof's film showcases the challenges faced by dispossessed youths in the country where he was born

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      Alipašino polje is one of the most populated neighbourhoods of Sarajevo, with clusters of beige apartment blocks.

      Igor Drljača, a UBC assistant professor of theatre and film, told the Straight in a phone interview that he chose this location for his newest film, The White Fortress, for a few reasons.

      First off, he knows it well because it was close to where he grew up before he and his family moved to Canada as refugees to escape the Bosnian civil war in the early 1990s. Secondly, he met many young people in Alipašino polje a decade ago while filming a short film there, “Woman in Purple”.

      “It was one of the last major sort of Communist-era infrastructure projects in this city,” Drljača explained. “It has this kind of concrete and greenery that intermingle in this very kind of fascinating way, but there are also remnants from the war.”

      In many ways, this neighbourhood reflects the reality of modern-day Bosnia and Herzegovina, with a growing class divide, and high unemployment among the young. And an elite political class continues to benefit from the 1995 Dayton Accords that preserved Bosnia as a single state.

      This is the lens through which Drljača’s coming-of-age story unfolds in The White Fortress. The film takes its name from an old fort overlooking the city.

      The movie begins with a teenage orphan, Faruk (Pavle Čemerikić), working with his uncle as a scrap collector before he falls for a teenage girl from the political class, Mona (Sumeja Dardagan). Drljača said that he met a lot of dispossessed young people like Faruk, the son of a deceased concert pianist, in the neighbourhood 10 years ago.

      “Not much has changed,” he said. “If anything, there’s less hope that they can function in that state.”

      Drljača was one of the lucky ones. He was able to escape to Canada.

      UBC prof Igor Drljača went back to Sarajevo, where he was raised, to film The White Fortress.

      He noted that many other young people in Sarajevo can try to do the same, with all the difficulty and trauma that this can create, or gamble on their future within the country.

      He emphasized that the framework of the Dayton Accords is still intact, which means that politicians in the capitals of neighbouring European Union member Croatia and Russian ally Serbia are still controlling the narrative. And they’re suspicious of the Muslim Bosniaks, who form a bare majority over the Serbs and Croats.

      “The country isn’t being allowed to create its own path,” Drljača said.

      It doesn’t help that there’s a very active criminal class, which is also depicted in compelling ways in The White Fortress. But the film also shows the beauty of parts of Bosnia, as well as the longing among some young people for a better life. This is reinforced by a sensitive musical score, making effective use of classical piano pieces.

      Drljača said that there has been a persistent dream since the war of Bosnia becoming the next Switzerland, with three ethnic groups that somehow find a way to get along. But he believes that the current political structure, embedded in the Dayton Accords, makes that impossible because it enables Bosnia and Herzegovina to be controlled by outside forces.

      “It’s almost like the country was set up to fail,” Drljača declared. “The international community—they got their headlines. They left.”

      Video: Watch the trailer for The White Fortress.
      As part of the Vancouver International Film Festival, The White Fortress will be screened at 9 p.m. on Saturday (October 9) at the Vancity Theatre and at 3:30 p.m. on Monday (October 11) at the Hollywood Theatre. It’s also available online until October 11. For more information, visit