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Vol 3
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29 Sept

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Denijal Hasanovic's List (The Letter, 2001)    Printer-friendly version of this article
Denijal Hasanovic's List (The Letter, 2001) POLAND/BOSNIA
Denijal Hasanović's List
(The Letter, 2001) and the child as a symbol of hope

Just as a "rubble films" existed for countries like Germany after the Second World War, Bosnia now has its version. Steven Yates looks at how List, like other films in this mould before it, symbolically uses the child.

The Bosnian war tore apart Denijal Hasanović's homeland, and it also interrupted his film education at the National Film School in Sarajevo, just one year into his studies. He wasn't able to resume his schooling until 1995, when he enroled in Poland's Łódź Film School. After winning a prize for his short Zapach deszczu (The Scent of Rain) in 2000, he was able to get funding for his diploma film, List (The Letter), for Polish Television. Set and filmed in Bosnia, the film takes a symbolic look at the difficult post-war reconstruction the country is undergoing, taking a child's perspective of the difficult circumstances.

Although a svelte 48 minutes long, List has had plenty of exposure of festivals and won eight prizes, including the Grand Prix at the Poznań Film Festival. List has doubtless been buoyed along by universal media exposure of the Bosnian war raising awareness of the country and the issues it has faced and is still facing. But it also employs a classic device of the "cinema of ruins" (as films set in among the post-World War II rubble became known), using a child as a symbol of hope.

Wasted journeys with good intentions

Aldin Stupar (Aldin Bakal), an optimistic ten-year-old, lives with his mother and younger sister in a refugee camp in the north-western Bosnia, living off UN aid. The camp is mixed with people from all backgrounds pulling together for survival. Aldin has lived here for two-thirds of his life, and all he has known is war and the its aftermath. Aldin's friend Enes (Alsin Mrso) is an overweight young boy who has lost his leg from stepping on one of the land mines that are littered all over the country.

Enes's plight is made worse when his crutches get broken in an argument with other children in the camp over a football match. So Aldin and Enes decide to write a letter to the seemingly infinitely benevolent UN to get new ones. However, Aldin misses the UN van on its visit and the postman has broken his leg, meaning that he will have to take the letter, addressed simply "UN, Tuzla," to a postbox by himself.

However, in a war-ravaged country, nothing is that simple, and Aldin's journey brings him into contact with a number of characters who view his quest with varying degrees of contempt or apathy until it is cut short when his mother catches him with him and beats him for not looking after his sister. However, a man on a horse and cart agrees to help by taking him into the nearest town. The trip is futile, though, because by the time they reach the post office, it has closed, and, to make matters worse, Aldin drops the letter in a water barrel.

An epilogue sequence leads us to believe at first that there is a happy ending to this story. Enes gets his crutches and other characters Aldin has met are seen with their dreams fulfilled. However, in voice-over, Aldin informs us that the Enes never did get his crutches and of his, Aldin's, deep shame at never being able to deliver the letter.

After the guns fall silent

There's plenty of opportunity in List for viewers to dwell on the horrors of war. Aldin's trip takes place at a sedate pace through a bombed-out rural landscape, in which he encounters a funeral for someone killed by a landmine and hears the cart-driver tell of his wife's death from a grenade. The wounds of the present are also very much present in Enes's condition. Yet the real punch comes in the task of trying to post a letter—here a Herculean test of emotional endurance—that comes to nothing.

As Hasanović himself puts it:

I did not intend to make either a war picture or a political-minded film. What I was interested in was an insight into the devastation of the souls and hearts of those whom the war had savaged. I was trying to render the emotional collapse that lingers on once the guns fall silent, and the politics, the local and the big, focuses on other problems of the world.[1]

Aldin, because of his age, his innocence and his great potential in life which we see has been drained away by the effects of the war, might make for a rather bleak and tragic figure in the story, particularly since his rather simple quest is frustrated. Yet, while the story may not illustrate the rebuilding of Bosnia or even the overcoming of a dysfunctional postal service, it does show the endurance of human goodness—that human souls can be rebuilt after war. Indeed, Aldin's shame at being unable to deliver the letter that pleads on behalf of his Muslim friend is more evidence that his basic humanity remains intact, and perhaps has even been strengthened by, the war. What will this simple failure drive Aldin to achieve in later life with this raging compassion of his?

In this, Aldin's age is all-important. An older Aldin may have been too depressed and demoralised to help someone else, even a friend, as he would have been wallowing in his own adolescent solipsism. He may even have vented his frustration by taking a more partisan stance against Enes's ethnicity.

The symbol of hope

With Aldin having such a central role, both dramatically and emotionally in the film, it was clearly a matter of priority to get the casting right. As Hasanović recounts:

The shoot took 18 days on location in Bosnia in the summer of 2000. The postproduction was finished in April 2001. The largest part of my preparations for the shoot was spent on finding the boy that would play the lead. I knew that the eventual success of my feature depended to a considerable degree on casting the right boy to fill the bill...
I finally cast the ten-year-old Aldin Bakal. Although an absolute beginner, with no previous experience whatsoever on camera or in the theater, he proved to be an excellent actor, and my work with him on the set was pure undiluted pleasure. It is because of his presence that the film took on the emotional impact I had been dreaming to achieve." [2]

Of course, Hasanović is not the first person to use the winning combination of childhood and the Bosnian war. Director Ademir Kenović had already used the device successfully in Savršeni krug (The Perfect Circle, 1997), as did Michael Winterbottom in Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), although in both cases the children's viewpoint is filtered through that of older men.

Even before that children were a prominent feature of the "rubble films"—the realist European films that were shot in the reconstruction years immediately after the Second World War and depicted the emotional and physical rubble of everyday life in graphic detail. Vittoria De Sica's Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thieves, Italy, 1947) and Roberto Rossellini's Germania anno zero (Germany Year Zero, France/Italy, 1947) both focus on the child as central to the story subject, and it's interesting that both are films that, like List, use non-actors. The now rarely seen Valahol Európában (Somewhere in Europe, Hungary, 1947) by Géza von Radványi depicts a band of wild, lawless children who are made homeless and amoral by the war and shows the attempts to assimilate them back into society. Aleksander Ford's Piątka z ulicy Barskiej (The Barska Street Five, Poland, 1954) takes up a similar theme. In their way, they are all tackling the issues that List later was to use and all using children as symbols that civilisation can prevail.

Steven Yates

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Also of interest
About the author

Steven Yates graduated from Kent University in 1995 after reading Film Studies and English and then took an MA in Film and TV Studies at Westminster University. He is now a freelance journalist and FIPRESCI member. He also makes short films and biographical documentaries.

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1. Denijal Hasanović, website, accessed 28 September 2003.return to text

2. Ibid.return to text

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