Ivan Jović’s documentary Legacy is a cinematic memorial to the Serbian victims of the genocide in the Independent State of Croatia (1941-1945). Told through black-and-white tableaux of faces, providing an intimate contrast of expression with exposition, the film provides a voice to the people who never had the opportunity to tell their story and connects contemporary audiences to the survivors’ experience of living through such unimaginable horrors. Monja Jović led the archival and oral history project Legacy, gathering over 450 hours of recorded testimonies of 94 witnesses and it is from this project that the film emerged. A documentary of meticulous precision and poetry, Legacy is the first systematic presentation on the subject told through, and with an aim to preserve, the testimony of survivors and represents a unique account of the Serbian experience of genocide.
The sound of the river can be heard in the darkness before the film opens on the Sava River. In close-up we move down the stream and hear the song of a lady who sings of the river in endearing diminutive, ‘Little Sava’. The film moves to an elderly lady who sits in silence as her hands move over the old family pictures on her table. As the interviewer asks the people to ‘tell us about it’ we see five shots in sequence: the face of an old man, with horn rimmed glasses, who gazes quietly beyond the camera; another lady with glasses responds ‘just a moment’; a third lady begins to share with us what it was like to be a child; a man with a cane acknowledges the ‘reluctancy’ of speaking about the subject; and a lady of a certain age tells us that ‘nothing was easy, children’ and quietly adds ‘really painful’. The name of the film fades in on a dark screen. The opening introduces us to the film’s subject matter and dramaturgy in a most beautiful way: the focus on the faces of the people establishes the visual grammar of the film, creating intimacy through proximity and conveying emotion through unspoken connection. The reflection on being unable to speak reminds of the existentially unspeakable nature of genocide and more implicitly it conveys the film’s preference for conveying exposition through expression. In other words, the film from its inception frames our experience through the personality of each witness.
The film’s connection of different visages, men and women of varying appearance, age background, and health, gives us a microcosmic glimpse into the dramaturgy which will develop throughout the film with stories contrasting, working off, and developing from one another, maintaining the precision of the historical course of the described events while heightening the poetic way in which people are linked through a meeting of natural language and film language. The image of the river is the best visual motif that connects these forms of language, exemplifying the film’s poetic continuity, but in a delicately simple and crucial way pointing to the magnitude of the historical events to which the Sava River was itself ‘a witness’: the bodies of the murdered people would be thrown into the Sava and flow from Croatia to Serbia and the scale of this operation could be seen in the fact that the river was so full that no other object could move through the water because of the number of bodies (which as one witness tells us ‘flowed the whole year round’).
The film then re-opens on a man who tells us the story of the family’s last Slava, the Serbian Orthodox custom of celebrating the family patron Saint, before they were taken. The story is moving and enables us to take a breath of fresh air before we move forward. Then the film proceeds through a range of people to tell us of their experiences during the genocide. The journey started – and often ended – on the doorstep of the home and carried on all the way through to the concentration camps, and a range of places such as fields, forests and, uniquely for this genocide, Churches. The film also reflects on the survivors’ experiences after the war. What is striking about the film is that it takes us through the whole process of genocide and, though it does not show any atrocities, it is more difficult to watch than most feature films which reenact violence. However, what is most impressive and decidedly singular about Legacy is that it gives us hope: it shows the love and faith of people who survived such horrors, including the murder of their whole families, relatives, friends, and entire communities, and who, despite all, had the courage to rebuild their life and to forgive others. Aleksandar Nećak is a fascinating person who brings his testimony as someone who lost his father and paternal family (Serbian) in Jasenovac and his maternal family (Jewish) in Auschwitz, with him and his mother being the survivors. Milanka Solesa is another remarkable witness who tells us what it was like at the age of nine to become the guardian of her five-year-old brother, when told to do so by their mother from whom they were separated. One of the most powerful of all testimonies is to be found with the elderly lady we saw from the beginning of the film. Cvijeta Babić, one hundred years old, was already married in 1941 with three children and as she tells us, she lost over fifty members of her family including her children. A woman of great faith and humility, the film shows us how man resurrects through love.
The dramaturgy of the film is unique in that it works primarily by the representation of faces and visual association. No archival footage is used, nor is there much camera movement: we do not see witnesses travel, revisit the camps or family homes, but we are left with each one of them in the confines of the living space. In this way the film excludes all outer elements and aims to direct our intention inward: to the content and significance of each person’s story. The composition is subtle and comprises elements which are important for the people, including Orthodox icons, heirlooms, and picture frames (such as the one of Belgrade), which in a way become symbolic as anthropological signifiers for Serbs. In our conversation with Ivan and Monja Jović for the Essay Film Festival, the director tells us he was inspired by iconography and the architectural spaces of the Orthodox Church in which the lives of the Saints are painted as eternally alive in God (the victims of the genocide were canonized as Saints by the Serbian Orthodox Church). Such composition enabled him to view the personal stories and experiences of both victims and survivors in a specific way, transforming trauma into strength.
The film represents a milestone in the preservation of the historical memory and culture of remembrance of the genocide of more than 700,000 Serbs, Jews, and Roma murdered in the Independent State of Croatia (see Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center). Legacy is an excellent companion to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) and essential viewing for those wishing to gain a better understanding of genocide and the Holocaust during the Second World War and to build an inclusive and living culture of remembrance through to the present day.