(March 10, 2000)
A chronicle of conflict
Locals’ documentary seeks to capture
essence of recent Balkans bloodshed
by Jennifer Jacobson
Leon Gerskovic pushed a videotape into a VCR in his small Gaithersburg apartment. A Serbian woman living in Croatia appeared on the TV screen and said she was afraid of Croats, too afraid of them to walk outside her house.
A Croatian man spoke after her and said he didn’t want her kind to return to his land. A group of smiling Bosnian children pounding drums the way an African U.N. worker had taught them closed the five-minute tape.
Today, the eight-year war in the former Yugoslavia is over. But peace and healing in the Balkans have only just begun.
Gerskovic, a Croat who immigrated to the United States in 1994, and his American coproducers, Rob Shire, 34, of Wheaton, and Erica Ginsberg, 30, of Silver Spring, have captured the stories of those who lived through war in more than 40 hours of footage the young filmmakers are turning into a documentary, “Crucible of War.”
The trio already has received much media attention and hopes to win more at the Thursday public screening of a five-minute video demo trailer in Washington. So far, the producers have raised more than $10,000 for the documentary and hope the D.C. fund-raising event and others like it will add $150,000 to their already-tight budget.
The film, which the producers plan to release in the summer, “puts a human face on the war,” said Gerskovic, 26, who, with Shire, spent two months last summer in the Balkans to tape survivors’ accounts. “We wanted to get human interest stories no matter which ethnicity [people] are a part of.”
There are many.
Between 1991 and 1999, roughly nine major ethnicities – Roman Catholic Slovenians and Croatians, Orthodox Serbs, Macedonians and Montenegrans, Bosnian Muslims, Muslim and Christian Albanians, gypsies, Christian and Protestant Hungarians – virtually tore apart the former Yugoslavia. Hundreds of thousands of them died or fled during the conflicts, but nearly 20 million remained.
“It was a very mixed culture, so many mixed marriages,” said co-producer Ginsberg, a 1988 graduate of Einstein High School in Kensington. “You wonder how this happened. That’s what you see in this documentary. People wondering aloud how could this have happened.”
Jews the world over, particularly those in Europe, asked the same question after the Holocaust, when Adolf Hitler’s Germany exterminated more than 12 million people, at least half of them Jews, during World War II.
A handful of concentration camp survivors inspired Gerskovic and Shire to produce an account of suffering and strength in the Balkans.
Gerskovic and Shire, who graduated from Montgomery College in 1997 and 1992, respectively, attended a showing last spring of “The Last Days,” a documentary of the Holocaust produced by Steven Spielberg. Halfway through, the film broke. To pass the time, Holocaust survivors in the audience recounted their own experiences. Their stories shook the friends to the core.
“It was chilling to be on one side sitting next to Leon and on the other side an actual Holocaust survivor sitting next to me,” said Shire, a 1984 Wheaton High School graduate. “Such a chill up my side.”
And a camera on his shoulder.
Their first night on the border between Croatia and Bosnia, Gerskovic and Shire met a freelance U.S. journalist who told them how much trouble they would have convincing people to talk on camera. She said it had taken her six months to persuade someone to pose for her.
“We got really bummed out,” Gerskovic said with his slight Eastern European accent. “If it took her six months to take a still photo, how long would it take us with a video camera?”
Not long, it turned out.
The first day, they interviewed four people. Gerskovic said it was all in the approach.
“We decided to talk to people first,” he said. “To find out their stories before we decided to shoot them.”
Gerskovic, a Croatian Jew, interviewed mostly Croatians and Bosnians. Three Serbian field producers filmed their fellow Serbs’ survival accounts.
“We tried to make this a collaboration between different people so we could get the most truthful stories of common people,” Gerskovic said.
Now a team of four translators is working on subtitles for the documentary, which the producers hope will have no narrator, no dubbing. Just people. Gerskovic said he thought it his his duty “they be seen and those voices heard.”
Gerskovic, who came with his father, a former diplomat, to this country, had translated those voices in his late teens, when he worked for Worldwide Television News, a British news service.
When war broke out in 1992, he saw much of the conflict as a translator and had one near-fatal experience when the Serb army bombed a bridge from which Gerskovic had fled only minutes before. The event, he said, didn’t scare him. The adrenalin rush was so great he couldn’t feel fear.
“Fear hits 24 hours after the fact,” Gerskovic said as he held his goatee-covered chin in his left hand.
“I realized through conversations with people, whatever your experience in war, it’s so different to the outside world,” he said. “It’s something you deal with every day.”
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