I was hosting a lecture and film at a university when I realized how much I like film director Emir Kapetanovic. A polite-but-confused audience member noted that she was surprised to discover Emir’s Muslim identity, and when he inquired, she noted that he didn’t look the part. Such moments, in the hands of some, become predictable moments to lecture people about their cultural simplicity, their prejudice or worse. Kapetanovic shrugged the comment off with a grin, inviting the guest to join us for a beer afterwards to discuss.
Emir’s film, Children of Peace, equally avoids the same types of lectures and pitfalls. Through the voices of kids – irreverent, painfully self-conscious, hopeful, beautiful in their honesty and sadly melancholic – Emir’s team takes us on a tour of a small piece of what was once Yugoslavia. They tell their often hilarious stories with little nuggets of honesty throughout. “You listen to that band? You know they’re Muslim?”
What emerges on this trip is visually Disney-esque, but otherwise set in the midst of a region-wide PTSD. In the voices of children we hear of a place that has not yet come to grips with its scars, not seeking revenge, but almost nostalgically lost in asking itself what just happened and how they got there. I’ve noticed the same thing in places like Rwanda and Guatemala: a personal sense of shame, as if the world played no part in the horrors that had just taken place. Nothing could be further from the truth, though the kindness in these voices suggests they haven’t yet been exposed to the roles we played.
The landscapes look as if they’ve been created on the cover of an Ursula Le Guin utopia: forests of fir trees taper down into valleys, and picturesque villages seem organically connected to the rivers and lakes they surround. To see it without someone to bear witness, it looks like Walden or the backdrop to Little House on the Prairie. Kapetanovic is aware that that is what you are seeing and thinking. He gives you little narrative preparation. In long moments, the car passes through forests and occasional verdant pasture – then, around the way, the charred skeleton of a structure sits alone in stark contrast to all that beauty.
“There are no jobs, their towns are boring, only old people are left, everyone is leaving and there is little to do.” So it is that the children of Sarajevo sound oddly like the children of Fort Worth, or Miles City, Montana or San Jose. Kapetanovic captures this angst with invisible nets, constructs a script around it, then invites local writers and artists, as well as these children born in peacetime, to reflect on the concepts they’ve identified. The result is unifying – between the sheer lunacy of the genocide, the solidarity of inheriting the emotional and economic baggage of a previous generation, and a certain agreed-upon hope that perhaps somewhere else is a better place, Children of Peace is an anthem to youthful resilience.
You are not promised something Kapetanovic knows he can’t deliver. Peace is not certain tomorrow, and the buses that bring tourists in the morning are taking away kids in droves in the afternoon. But as a famous Chilean poet once noted, there is beauty in a word like “melancholy,” and as Children of Peace draws to a close, there is a sense that what these children share – regardless of what side of the conflict their parents were on – makes it likely that their hope, their forgiveness, and their ability to look across the horizon are the only important things.
John Singleton is writing a book about international film, to be published by Blue Ear Books.