Posts Tagged ‘ Religion ’

Sarajevo Film Festival Review

Without wishing to sound redundant of the film descriptions on the website, I would like to point out a few regional films that I saw last week at the 2010 Sarajevo Film Festival. As previously mentioned, the festival holds a large international appeal, with visitors and films from all around the world.  The festival was well organized, and tickets ranged from 2.5-7 euros.  Based on my interests, I mainly watched films from Southeast Europe.

Na Putu

In my opinion, the idea for the plot of Na Putu (On the Path; Bosnia and Herzegovina, Austria, Germany and Croatia, 2010) was extremely interesting.  The film portrayed a young couple Luna and Amar, very much in love,  living in Sarajevo and trying to have a baby.  Although from Muslim background, they do not attend mosque or practice their religion.  After getting fired from his job, Amar accepts a well-paid job at a Wahhabi commune.  The viewers watch as this fundamentalist Muslim community influences Amar’s personal beliefs, and inevitably, his relationship with his wife Luna.  I found the character development to be very weak in this film, and it is hard to believe Amar’s drastic transition.  However, the film is valuable in that it teaches something about the Wahhabi community in Bosnia, and how they clash with the moderate Muslims in the country.  Although I am not very familiar with this group, the film prompted me to do a little investigation.

The fundamentalist Wahhabi movement is a radical group which preaches a ‘pure Islam.’ It originated in Saudi Arabia in the early 18th century and preaches religious intolerance towards other religious groups, including moderate Muslims.  Wahhabi Muslims first came to Bosnia during the war to fight on the side of the Muslims, and many have remained in the country since.  They preach about a traditional Islam, have some schools around Bosnia, and even have operated a terrorist training camp in Southern Serbia.  According to one article, there is a growing number of Al Qaida sympathizers in Bosnia.  According to another article, Islamic studies experts consider this group a threat, and that most of their support comes from Saudi Arabia.  The article also states that according to intelligence sources, Five of the ‘9/11’ attackers had served as Wahhabi sponsored fighters in Bosnia.   Although I cannot comment on the accuracy of the portrayal of this community in Na Putu, I felt that the film provided a fascinating insight into the lives of Wahhabi Muslims in Bosnia.

Zajedno (Together), a documentary from Croatia (2009), featured other underrepresented communities in the region.  The film seemed rather low-budget, and it mainly consisted of interviews about the relationships of different people and couples.  For example, a lesbian couple is followed, and one can see how they act differently in Zagreb than in a smaller town in Croatia.  Many people are not accepting of their relationship.  The film also centers around members of the handicapped community in Croatia, and their limitations in society.  This film was not my favorite, but was valuable and even funny at times as various couples commented about love and relationships.

A Scene from Sevdah za Karima

I found Sevdah za Karima (Sevdah for Karim, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Croatia 2010) to be a gem of the festival.  The cinematography was artistic and interesting, and the character development believable and subtle.  Viewers witness the feeling of despair that young adults had in Bosnia immediately after the war.  The film centers around Karim, a Muslim man from Sarajevo.  He seems to be in his twenties right after the war finishes.  He is a failed philosophy student, trying to provide for his sister.  Despite the fact that his parents were killed by a mine during the war, and that Karim himself lost a leg from a mine, he took a job clearing mines in the mountains of Bosnia.  Obviously, this was not an easy film to watch.  The whole audience held their breath as Karim and his colleagues cleared mine fields.  They were not always successful at this highly dangerous job.  Karim had many friends who got mixed up in drugs and violence after the war.  Also, many of his friends from work decided to take jobs with the US military deployment in Iraq.  As a young person currently in my twenties, I thought about what I would do if I were in the position of the characters in this film.  Sevdah za Karima shows how the war continued long after the peace agreements were signed.

A novel by Slavenka Drakulic

Lastly, the best film that I saw from the region last week was Kao da me nema (As If I am not There, Ireland 2010).  The film was based on a book by my favorite author, Slavenka Drakulic.  She is a journalist and author from Croatia and has written many books and articles about the region.  I respect her ability to include just enough personal information into her writing about life in the former-Yugoslavia.  Her books are extremely insightful and well-researched, but they are enjoyable and read like novels.  This film was based on the book As If I am not There, which is called “S” on the English translation.  S. is the initial of the main character of the book… a young teacher in her 20s from Sarajevo, who accepts a job in a mountain village school in Bosnia.  One morning she wakes up and is told to board a bus and leave her home.  Women listen as the men in the village are killed, and they are forced to board buses and live for many months in a camp run by Serbian soldiers.  The film follows this school teacher, as she was selected for the “Women’s Room” in the camp, subjected to constant rape and violence.  The story shows how she survives this horrible part of her life, and how she deals with the emotional aftermath.  The novel and film both begin with this aftermath – S. is in a hospital in a foreign country, trying to deal with her newborn, unwanted child, that only instigates horrible memories.

I felt privileged to watch this film at the festival.  Many of the actors were present, and my idol Slavenka Drakulic herself.  It was actually the first time she herself saw this film based on her book.  Sitting in the theatre, I have never in my life felt so affected by a film.  I felt completely paralyzed in my chair, unable to turn away from the horrible actions taking place on the big screen in front of me.  In fact, a noticeable amount of people actually left the theatre, unable to watch.  Despite the difficulty of this film, it was perhaps the most powerful film I have ever seen and I would recommend both the book and the film to anyone interested in the wars surrounding breakup of Yugoslavia.  Usually I like books better than the films based on books, but I felt that in this case, both the film and the novel had something different to offer.  In the book, readers witness more character development as they read the most intimate thoughts of the main character.  A film cannot provide such detailed thoughts.  However, the visual aspect of the film forced the viewers to watch the events taking place.  Although the book described the same horrible events, I was able to keep some distance while reading that I was unable to maintain while watching the film.

All in all, I immensely enjoyed the film festival, and I hope to attend next year.  Films from this region are not so accessible in the United States, and this was a great opportunity for me to watch some of the best films from Southeast Europe with English subtitles.

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Krakow’s 2010 March of “Tolerance”

Police and participants

This past Saturday I participated in the sixth annual March of Tolerance in Krakow, which is a march to raise awareness for sexual minorities.  The event received very little media attention as far as I can see, but according to Radio ZET, there were around 500 participants that marched from Plac Wolnica in Kazimierz (the Jewish District) to the Market Square in the center of the old city.  Krakow police reported that this year’s march was very calm and that there were no serious incidents.

Inside the crowd of particpants

From a Polish perspective the march may have seemed calm but it was an interesting experience for me as an American.  In the past, I attended and participated in the Gay Pride Parade in Philadelphia, as well as other events organized by the GLBT community in my city.  Certainly it is not fair to compare a liberal city in the United States with a smaller city in former-communist, Catholic Poland.  However I am used to events in Philadelphia and the march in Poland seemed anything tolerant.

Praying for parade participants

First I noticed a group of priests holding a cross on the grass outside of Wawel Castle.  Policemen encircled the group, each with a German shepherd on a leash, lazily watching the priests pray for the parade participants.  People watched as the parade walked towards the center, carrying signs, rainbow flags, and holding balloons.  Some stood on balconies gawking out of their windows as the people walked past.  Just before the market, nationalists threw eggs at the parade.  Some shouted (according to the article, because I couldn’t understand all of the Polish yelling) “Boy, girl – a normal family!” and “We do not give you Krakow!”  As the parade participants released the balloons at the end of the march, I watched a man who was standing with a priest that seemed to be his friend spit at one of the demonstrators holding a sign.  However the most interesting thing for me to see was the sheer number of policemen that worked the event.  The policemen, some holding large plastic shields or with tanks of gas on their back ready to control an unruly crowd, formed a tight wall between the marchers and the public.  They intimidated me, dressed in all black like members of a SWAT team.

Looking at Poland’s homophobia in the past decade, one can understand why the police reported this year’s march was calm, despite the eggs and shouting.  A decade ago, there were no politics of sexuality in Poland, and no one openly discussed any of these issues.  The first “Equality Parade” in Poland took place in Warsaw in 2001, but received very little media coverage.  As the community became more visible, the country reacted more strongly against it.  In 2003, there was the “Let Them See Us” Campaign, which was an exhibit of thirty photographs that opened in five galleries around the country.  The photographs featured same-sex couples in their everyday lives, holding hands, etc.  The more controversial subjects such as marriage or adoption were avoided.  Nevertheless, within days most of the photographs were destroyed, ripped, or painted over.

In 2004, violence erupted at the Krakow and Poznan equality marches.  The extremely nationalist group All-Polish Youth and their supporters attacked the demonstrators by throwing rocks and punches, and even beating some with clubs.  They chanted sayings like “labor camps for lesbians” or “faggots to the gas.”  The police were unable to control the violence.  In 2005, the “gay parade” and its legality was a huge topic during the presidential elections.  Recently deceased Lech Kaczynski (elected president in October 2005) banned the 2004 and 2005 marches when he was mayor of the city of Warsaw.  This decision strengthened his political career.  The 2005 Equality March in Warsaw was held despite the ban, which ended up adding to the event’s popularity.  Around 3,000 people participated, which was the largest march in the history of the movement. Later that year, the march in Poznan was also banned by the city’s major, but it was less peaceful.  Again the All-Polish Youth group organized the attack, and they threw eggs, horse manure and slurs.  As the crowd got out of control, the police ended up attacking the demonstrators rather than the attackers.  A participant reported seeing a boy dragged by police with his head hitting the pavement, another person was dragged away from TV cameras when he was talking about police brutality, and many people were arrested without explanation.  This time the media did cover the event, mostly criticizing the police brutality.

In January 2006, the EU Parliament passed a resolution against homophobia in Europe, which explicitly named Poland as a country where homophobia exists.  Poland perceived this as an attack against the country’s religious and moral beliefs.  Right-wing Polish members of the EU Parliament unanimously opposed this resolution, but it was passed anyway.  In June 2006, the EU Parliament adopted a resolution in response to homophobic and racist violence in Europe, and again specifically named Poland mentioning groups like the All-Polish Youth. A survey from 2005 found 89% of the population stating that they considered homosexuality an “unnatural” activity.  A Eurobarometer poll in 2006 found that 74% of Poles were opposed to same-sex marriage and 89% opposed to adoption by gay couples.  Only Latvia and Greece had higher levels of opposition.

Some of the police leading the parade

So in comparison to past events in Poland, this year’s Tolerance March in Krakow was relatively peaceful.  Participating in the demonstration provided me with a valuable insight into the culture and mentality of the country.  It is only an excuse to say that Poland is homophobic because it is Catholic.  Now that it is a member of the European Union, it needs to catch up to the level of tolerance of the majority of the Member States. I was shocked by what I saw on Saturday.  Some of my friends with me felt that the strength of police presence shows that the country is willing to protect these minority groups but I am not totally convinced this is the case.  I could not help but feeling that the number of police was overkill, and that they were also meant to intimidate the participators themselves.  Maybe next year the city of Krakow will send less police, judging from this year’s calm result.  Eventually, I hope that Poland not only becomes tolerant for its Tolerance Marches.  I hope that Poland learns to be accepting and embracing of all minority groups in the country.

A wall of policemen walking with the parade

Source  for Historic Information: Graff, Agnieszka. We Are (Not All) Homophobes: A Report from Poland. Feminist Studies, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Summer, 2006), pp. 434-449

Teaching Nationalism

The resurgence of nationalist rhetoric among the leading politicians in Bosnia and Herzegovina is alarming. The Bosnian government, partitioned by the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement, systematically strengthens nationalism in the country as they seek votes from largely mono-ethnic territories. As a result, the three main ethnic groups- Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs- all feel uneasy as the minority in various parts of the country.

Furthermore, the country is so focused on the relationships among these three main ethnic groups that the Jewish and Roma populations (labeled “Other” by the Dayton Agreement) are marginalized. Last week, European courts stated that Bosnia’s constitution discriminates against Jews and Roma because it does not allow them to run for parliament or president. Internationally mediated talks to change the constitution and give the country a chance to join the European Union are ongoing, but progress has stalled due to the inefficiency of Bosnia’s government. Bosnia’s constitution was hastily written in Dayton, Ohio in 1995 in a hurry to stop war, but it was only a temporary fix. Now fifteen years later, Bosnia is completely stuck in a mess of nationalism and the Jewish and Roma populations are long forgotten.

These last two entries on minorities in Bosnia are the result of homework and a pet-research project, but I am obviously still in the brainstorming phases. Next week in sociology seminar class, it is my turn to lead the discussion on the topic of religious minorities in Europe, and I would like to use Bosnia as a case study. Also, the brainstorming led me to a topic that currently has me completely engrossed: school segregation in Bosnia.

I began thinking about primary and secondary schools in the Balkans this summer after my trip to Kosovo. A friend living in the Serbian enclave of Gračanica explained the troubles the Serbian schools face because they are so overcrowded as a result of ethnic migration. Children go to schools in four shifts from 6 am – 6 pm; learning is compromised in their formative years because the Serbian minority in Kosovo (I believe now less than 10%) wants to live together. Even more troubling is the fact that the history taught in the Serbian schools is completely different from the history taught in the neighboring Albanian schools, with each group spoon-feeding their nationalist rhetoric to future generations. NGOs are working to encourage the use of alternative textbooks from multi-ethnic perspectives, but it seems like an upward battle.

Now I am revisiting the topic of education as I study Bosnia, because I think this subject has the potential to blossom into a long-term project for me. Almost fifteen years after the Dayton Accords, the children of today’s Bosnia are growing up much more isolated than former generations. The three largest ethnic groups, Bosniaks (Muslims), Croats (Catholics), and Serbs (Orthodox) each view the past differently, with nationalism and grudges clouding their perspectives. For example, in Mostar, Bosnia which is divided between Bosniaks and Croats, there is only one Gymnasium that accepts students from both ethnic groups but it is not completely integrated. There are two separate curricula for Croatian and Muslim students. Only sports, school activities and a few classes, such as technology, are combined. Although this is not the only integrated public school in Bosnia, and there are a few multi-ethnic private schools available, the reality is that most schools in Bosnia are segregated.

In Stolac (located in the Southern part of Herzegovina), Croat students use the high school building for the first shift of the day and they learn the capital of their country is Zagreb. The second afternoon shift (the Muslim students) learns that the capital of their country is Sarajevo. The Stolac school is an example of Bosnia’s postwar emphasis on “two schools under one roof.” Each ethnic group learns different curricula and do not mix. The Muslim students cannot enter the building earlier than their designated time in the afternoon, even if it is raining. Sometimes they turn the heat off for the second shift of students. Many schools currently operate like this in Bosnia, and often parents send their kids to schools far away just so that they can learn with their own ethnicity.

In the early stages of researching school segregation in Bosnia, I realize this post lacks statistics. However, as I sort through countless articles about the current education system in Bosnia, I feel alarmed by the long-term damage that is obviously taking place. Before the wars, students of all backgrounds attended the local schools without problems. Today, almost fifteen years after the war, the young people of Bosnia are more isolated than ever before. Nationalism and stereotypes prevail, and the children completely lack skills and opportunities to intermingle. Although nongovernmental organizations and the international community are trying to help Bosnia reform their education system, Bosnia’s inefficient political system makes change difficult. I fear that the current situation of segregation in Bosnia’s schools and the way it promotes nationalism and hatred will destroy this country in the future.

Ethnic divisions in Bosnia (2006)- Bosniaks (green), Serbs (blue), Croats (Orange)

Click on the map (and zoom in) to view ethnic groups in Bosnia.

No Place for Muslims in Europe

A Mosque in Bosnia

Perhaps at this point, the Swiss ban on minarets is old news for most people.  Despite the fact that Switzerland has 400,000 Muslims, voters approved a ban on minarets by 57.5% in the last days of November.  Many of the Muslims living in Switzerland today are Bosniaks and Albanian Kosovar refugees who fled genocide in the former-Yugoslavia in the 1990s.  In their homeland, mosques and minarets were burnt down or blown up, so they sought safety and religious freedom elsewhere.  How horribly ironic- after starting a new life in “civilized” and “democratic” Switzerland, they face the same racism.

Europe is increasingly Islamphobic, especially in the aftermath of September 11th.  Although Muslims in Western Europe will eternally be “The Other,” at least they have some functioning institutions for protecting their rights.  In my opinion however, the intolerance is worse in Eastern Europe, especially in partitioned Bosnia.  Just after the outrageous Swiss ban on minarets, 1,200 Serbian residents of Bijeljina, Bosnia, signed a petition calling for the reduction of volume of the ezan (call to prayer) on the basis of noise violation.  Of course no one is bothered by the ringing of church bells.  This town in northeast Bosnia in the Republika Srpska is one of the many places that Serb troops slaughtered Muslims in the war from 1992-1995.  Bijeljina was “successfully ethnically cleansed” during the war, and the Muslims who returned to their former homes after the war are still terrorized.

When will the war be over in the Balkans?  After twenty years, prejudices and intolerance still reign.  The partitioning of Bosnia adds more tension to the situation, and the Muslims are once again the minority, with increased pressure from Republika Srpska.  Most people stopped talking about the Swiss ban on minarets a few weeks ago, without considering the implications the ban has on other places like Bijeljina.  What is worse- that Muslims are still terrorized by Serbs in their home country two decades after the war… or that refugee Muslims in Western Europe face the same prejudices abroad?

Catholic Poland in Question

Portraits of Karol Wojtyla pop up everywhere in Poland, usually when I am least expecting to see him. When I shop for produce in the large open-air market, I see his face peering at me from small plaques on tables otherwise filled with kitchen and cleaning supplies. Bookshops prominently display books about the former pope in store windows to lure in customers. Of course likenesses of Pope John Paul II are included in most of the religious sites I visited in the past few months. Still, my favorite sighting was at the Niedzice Castle in the Polish Tatra Mountains. The photograph seemed out of place on the stone castle walls built in the 14th century, especially after a tour that included many anecdotes about the aristocratic owners’ odd sexual behavior, and I truly doubt the place has any connection to the former pope. In Poland this does not seem to matter.

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Courtyard of 14th Century Niedzica Castle


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PJP in the Castle

Obviously Poles are extremely proud of Pope John Paul II, and rightly so. In a country reported to be over 90% Catholic this comes as no surprise. Many businesses are closed on Sundays, and I see families walking to church wearing their Sunday finest. However, I wonder how many Poles who self-identify as Catholics are actual believers. In a country where the Church has such a large influence on politics and lifestyle, I would guess that many Poles claim to be Catholic just to be part of a community. This past October, Krakow held a “Freethinkers March” where atheists and agnostics gathered in what the Krakow Post claims to be the first march of its kind not only in Poland, but in Europe as a whole. The group walked through the center of the city with surprisingly little counter-protest. The organizer of the protest Ewelina Podsiad explained to the reporter that there are no reliable statistics on how many nontheists actually live in Poland. “Ms. Podsiad explained that in Poland, ‘many people are afraid to admit that they are nonbelievers,’ and cited scores of letters she has received from those who ‘came out’ to their families or co-workers and were ostracized afterwards.” Funny the phrase “came out,” usually heard in the context of homosexuals identifying their sexual orientation to their family and friends, is used here to describe religion.

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Marchers in Krakow with a sign reading "Thank God I'm an Atheist"

The article continues to explain that although religion classes are not mandatory in Polish schools, families that opt out of these classes often face ridicule, especially in the villages. In hospitals, if a patient declines a visit from clergy, they could face discrimination by the hospital staff or other patients. Reading the article about the first “Freethinkers” demonstration in Poland, I wonder what the Catholic Church really means for Poles today. Surely there is more religious diversity than what appears in statistics. Also, I doubt surveys ask little more from participants than to check a box describing their religion and a box to explain their average church attendance. I would like to see a survey that asks people to define their beliefs further…are you a religious Catholic or a cultural Catholic? Do you go to church to pray or so that your fellow parish members note your attendance? Of course this issue is not unique, but interesting in a country claiming to be 90% Catholic, and in an EU member state with as much voting right as Poland. Maybe the freethinkers march will become an annual event with an even bigger participation next year.

Quotes from Krakowpost.com.

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