Originally a song sang by those leaving Spain, "Adio kerida" is used by Ljubić as a symbol of Sarajevo saying farewell to its Sephardic Jewish culture. Gordana P Crnković looks at this poignant enacted documentary.
"This is a quiet movie," says Sarajevan Vesna Ljubić about her documentary Adio kerida (2001); "I wanted to avoid all the big gestures and loud words." Indeed, this is a discreet, subtle film, and it takes some time for a viewer to realize that it depicts the disappearance and the last representatives of a unique culture—that of the Sephardic Jews of Sarajevo—from the place where it had been for centuries.
As Ljubić explains, the Sephardic Jews left Spain five centuries ago and resettled in the Bosnia of the Ottoman Empire. They constituted a great majority of Sarajevo's Jewish population which also included some Ashkenazi and which numbered some 12,000 before the Second World War. Over 10,000 of them perished in the Holocaust.
Now, after the war in the Balkans in the 1990s, the Jewish population in all of Bosnia and Herzegovina is estimated at about 800 to 1000. The film Adio kerida focuses on a small group of elderly Sarajevan Jews who constitute the last generation of people who still know and practice Sephardic traditions and customs, and who are indeed dying out: during the editing of this film four of them passed away.
Returning to a theme
A philosophy graduate of the Sarajevo University, Vesna Ljubić studied film directing at the Experimental Center and RAI in Rome, where she also worked as an assistant to Federico Fellini. Her filmography to date numbers over a dozen feature and documentary films made in Italy, former Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and India. Ljubić's movies include a 1971 TV feature film Simha based on the story by Isak Samokovlija, one of the most well-known Bosnian Jewish writers, and depicting the life of Jewish population in Sarajevo. Her feature films Prkosna delta (Defiant Delta, 1980) and Posljednji skretničar uzanog kolosijeka (The Last Switchman of the Narrow Gauge Railway, 1987) won awards for the best Bosnian and Herzegovinian screen-plays (written by Ljubić) in those years, and her 1991 short feature Iluzionisti (Illusionists) won the Best Director award at Belgrade's Festival of Documentary Films.
Ljubić is probably best-known internationally for her 1994 documentary Evo čovjeka: ecce homo (Ecce Homo: Behold the Man), an outstandingly creative and poignant record of the siege of Sarajevo (April 1992-November 1995) during the war in the Balkans. Ecce homo won a series of awards (including Berlin 1994, Amsterdam 1994, Cretey (Paris) 1995), and opened the World Peace Conference in Washington, DC in 1994. Ljubić's latest film, Palani (2002), is a documentary made in India.
The films of Vesna Ljubić commonly mix the elements of feature and documentary genres, and are often discussed with reference to magic realism given the reappearance of fantastic element in both her features and documentaries. However, her opus is quite diverse both thematically and stylistically, and escapes simple encapsulations. Her Adio kerida thematically belongs to the wider body of cinematic work dealing with the Sarajevo's Jewish culture and authored by directors such as Emir Kusturica, Haris Pasović and Ian Beran among others, and it also presents Ljubić's own return to this theme which she had worked on in her 1971 film Simha.
A song with resonance
Even though this one-hour-long film was shot immediately after the recent war in Bosnia, the Sephardic Jews who appear rarely mention the violence they had recently experienced; instead, they focus on talking about their lives and customs, their now vanishing community and culture. The recent hardship—which seems to have dealt the final blow to the Sephardic culture in this area—is discernible mostly from their faces which show, without any words, the traces of three-and-a-half years of shelling, fear, cold and hunger. And even though much of the film touches on the Holocaust which decimated this community earlier in the century, Ljubić, in her words, "wanted to avoid the usual visuals connected with it, piles of dead emaciated bodies, the bulldozing of corpses."
What this "quiet" film presents instead is, for example, footage of an old man going through a Tuzla street which used to be inhabited by Jewish people before the Second World War, stopping in front of one house and saying: "This is where the family Gaon lived, eighteen of them left, only one returned," and then repeating this little phrase in front of the other houses, changing only the family names and numbers of people who perished. Or else Sonja Elazar, an elderly woman whose father made an invaluable collection of Sephardic songs brought from Andalusia, shows a pre-World War II photograph of her family and then swipes all of its unique faces with the back of her hand and says: "They were all taken, no one returned."
"Adio kerida" is a phonetic transcription (used in the Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian language) of the Spanish phrase "Adio querida," or "farewell, my loved one," which is the title of a song that was very popular among Sarajevo's Sephardic Jews, many of whom had up to one or two generations ago kept the Spanish Ladino dialect as their mother-tongue, even though they used the Bosnian language outside of their homes. The "loved one" whom one is parting from refers to Spain, to the people whom one was saying good-bye when being taken to the concentration camps, and eventually to Sarajevo and the whole unique existence which these people had in this city for centuries.
The phonetic transcription of Spanish words points at both preservation and metamorphosis which transplanted the Ladino Jewish culture from Spain to its new Bosnian environment. Here, the Ladino language co-existed with, mixed and was only recently replaced by Bosnian, and the Sephardic people sang Andaluzian canzonas (themselves changed in the centuries of interaction with the non-Spanish environment), but also traditional Sarajevan sevdalinka songs.
The song "Adio kerida" is also one of the structural axes of Ljubić's movie: she repeatedly films the performance of that song in various contexts, giving a glimpse of the everyday life of the people who sang it.
An enacted search for a lost past
The film revolves around a narrative of discovery and a search for identity: a young man from Seattle, Peter Lippman, is trying to unearth any information he can get about his great-uncle, one of Sarajevo's Jews, who disappeared at some point in the past, apparently loved the song Adio kerida, and left behind only his photograph and a series of personal myths that filtered down the family story-line to Peter. The man whom Lippman is searching for was actually an Ashkenazi, not a Sephardim, but he was apparently fully at home with the Sephardic culture, married a Sephardic woman, was embraced by the Sephardic community, and so on.
It is important to note that while both Peter Lippman of Seattle and the man whose traces he is searching for in Sarajevo are factual people, the connection between them, that of the older man being Peter's long-lost great-uncle, is a fictional one. According to Ljubić, the film uses this fictional connection as a stylistic device which allows a more personable quest for this allusive "great-uncle": instead of having questions about him being asked by an invisible voice behind the camera, they are posed by a likeable young American who happens to speak a fluent Bosnian language.
The interviewed people knew that Lippman was not a great-nephew of the man they reminisced about. However, the film itself presents this connection as a real one, and this rhetorical presentation of a fictional reality as a documentary one, without any signals that what we are watching is at least partially a "mock documentary," raises some questions about the film's attitude towards its subject and its audience. Ljubić herself talks about the inclusion of feature film elements in her documentaries as the "playing out (or acting out) of a documentary."
The special gift
This great-uncle was supposedly an expert in medicinal herbs, probably a photographer by profession, and apparently had an amazing way with animals. Starting with a photo and scraps of an elusive story, Peter goes from one Sephardic Jew to another in search of more information. Despite an over-emphasis on Mr Lippman himself as opposed to the people he meets and the place he is beginning to know, his search is a functional and smart vehicle for the film, structuring around itself the encounters with the last Sephardic Jews who are still familiar with the traditional Sephardic ways or speak Ladino, and creating a suspenseful and appropriate story.
Peter finds nothing at the beginning, but gradually bits and pieces of elders' memories emerge to form a picture of a unique man who had his special mitzva—a Jewish concept meaning to give a gift to the world, to do something without any material interest, something that will help someone one day, to do, as Ljubić puts it, "good deeds without expecting gratitude or return of any kind." This great-uncle's mitzva, as it turns out, was that whenever he found a wild fruit tree he would graft cultivated branches on, so that it might one day bear a fruit which might refresh a passer-by.
He also made some of the first photographs of Sarajevo's fairs and people, creating a unique document of their existence, and he was famous in pharmaceutical circles on account of his knowledge of medicinal herbs. This great-uncle slowly appears as a mirage created by the film's quest, a man who we now hear truly had his special way with animals and who was taken into the camps, and even from here the story of his magic continues: the Germans' fierce Doberman Pincers, trained to attack prisoners, came to him and licked his hand. "The animals adored him, but the people were the problem, and so his ashes went down one of those rivers…," says the last person Peter talks to, ending one man's story made of the echoes of memory of the last members of his people.
The Sarajevan Sephardic Jews Peter Lippman encounters do not, of course, talk to him only about his uncle, but reveal a lot about their ways of life, their culture and community which are now all disappearing. They invite Peter and the film to their celebrations, homes and memories; they share stories about their now lost members and past times, and they sing and play Adio kerida many times.
A magical graveyard
The film itself is mesmerized by one place most connected with the Jewish community in Sarajevo: the Jewish graveyard dating back from the beginning of the 17th century and considered one of the most beautiful in Europe, which departed from the traditional Jewish architecture under the influence of Bosnian stecki and is famous on account of its unique aesthetics. Both Peter's search and the film begin with Peter's walking into this cemetery and circumnavigating the graves and their gravestones in the snow.
The image of this place recurs repeatedly throughout the film, showing different parts of the cemetery in different seasons of the year and times of the day and from different perspectives, revealing ever-more of its spectral beauty of the white grave stones. "I wanted to clean up this beautiful place from the terrible associations that it accrued in the last war, when the gunmen targeting the city chose it as one of the prime places from which to deploy their snipers given that the cemetery is on the hill above the city, and that they could protect themselves by the gravestones from any possible fire from the city," says Ljubić. "The graveyard was still full of mines when we filmed there, right after the war; de-mining had just only begun."
Adio kerida is a film of respect for and gratitude to a people who gave so much to Sarajevo with their own unique culture, arts, and way of life, and who are now dying out. "I was not saying good-bye to this or that individual, I wanted to say farewell to the whole people and their culture that gave so much to me, my own sense of life, the place I lived in," says Ljubić. "I felt it was my moral duty to make this film. I am very grateful to these people who came from Spain and brought us another, different culture which made us what we are."
Given the theme of the film, it is commendable that it manages to escape the overall bleak atmosphere and dark tone. There are laughs in the film, humor and jokes: young smiling girls in their dancing costumes whirl around and pose for Lippman's camera, an old man makes a joke of Peter's Ashkenazi great-uncle singing a Sephardic song, herds of goats repeatedly trample the hallowed grounds of a graveyard. There is an overall affirmation of life, despite it all, in the strong and poignant faces of the people captured in this film, in their wise and generous words, in the images of stunning beauty from the Sarajevan Jewish cemetery.
The fantastic ending of the film brings to mind the magic realism Ljubić uses in some of her other films. Dead people become alive again and sing their beloved song (in historical costumes and in a graveyard vibrant with sunshine and shadows in motion). It's an effective close, shifting the emphasis from their deaths to their lives, and from the loss of a community and culture to the fact of their existence and its lasting effects on its place. A poignant record of a world that is disappearing and a living memory of it, Adio kerida is a generous film well worth seeing.
Gordana P Crnković
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