“Geographies of Survival”: Kumjana Novakova Discusses Her Sarajevo Film Festival Human Rights Award-Winning ‘Silence of Reason’
Described as “performative research into the court archive of the Kunarac et al. case known as the ‘Foca Rape Camp Trial’” before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Kumjana Novakova’s Silence of Reason took this critic’s prize for the most powerful nonfiction film at the 29th Sarajevo Film Festival (August 11–18). Silence of Reason, which runs a swift 63 minutes, follows Novakova’s prior feature, the Oscar-shortlisted Disturbed Earth (2021), co-directed with Guillermo Carreras-Candi. Along with eerie images of rural stillness and an ambient sound design, in which nature is heard loud and clear, the breathtakingly cinematic, archive-based essay pairs a poetic voiceover with the scrolling testimonies of anonymized women, whose voices are necessarily distorted. These are the survivors of rape and sexual enslavement during the war that shattered the Balkans—and birthed the Sarajevo Film Festival—and for whom these pastoral locations can only evoke memories of unbearable unseen pain.
Just prior to the closing night ceremony, where Silence of Reason walked away with the Human Rights Award, Documentary reached out to the Macedonia-born Novakova, a busy multihyphenate who is also an international teacher and curator, and even a co-founder of her own Sarajevo-based fest. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DOCUMENTARY: How long have you actually been working on this sprawling project—and how did it come about? Do you see Silence of Reason as an extension of your prior film, 2021’s Srebrenica-centered Disturbed Earth?
KUMJANA NOVAKOVA: Silence of Reason is a project that had been growing for many years on its own in a way, almost without me noticing. During the floods in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2014, I went on a trip with a friend—we were both part of an informal feminist platform supporting women across the country—and we ended up visiting an association in Tuzla [composed] of female survivors of wartime rapes. Tragically, due to the floods, many of them had now lost their homes once again.
That was my first direct encounter with women survivors of sexual torture and rape. All of the association members were refugees from eastern Bosnia who never returned to their hometowns after the war. They shared with us the experiences of the women who still live where they were violated: they encounter their rapists nearly daily, as these men were either never prosecuted or were set free after only a few years of imprisonment.
Meeting these women was such a painful and powerful experience. Although we were working on Disturbed Earth, I found myself thinking very often about it. Within this very intimate internal process, I realized that rape was also used as a strategy of torture and humiliation during the expulsions of Slavic populations from Greece around 1948, which my mother’s family was subjected to. And before that, in WWII, across the territory of Yugoslavia. And before and before.
The realization that history normalizes the practice of rape and that we have the trauma inscribed in our bodies was so intense for me. I somehow felt the need and urge to find a way to approach the topic as a woman who descends from generations of women who have been abused, and to try to transform the position of victim into a position of survivor.
The archive research for Disturbed Earth probably paved the way for this idea of working with forensic archives (i.e., the prosecution’s audio from the trial) as well. So, in that sense, besides the constant dialogue between the two films in terms of the geographies of survival, there is also the direct relationship through the forensic image.
D: In addition to being a filmmaker and video artist, you’re also an author and professor, not to mention the co-founder—and chief curator and director—of Sarajevo’s Pravo Ljudski Film Festival. I heard that you also headed the film department of the Museum of Contemporary Arts in Skopje for a number of years. How do these various professional roles intersect for you—and influence your research-based filmmaking?
KN: Everything I do is actually very closely interconnected, creating a complex learning process that is one of the work's most rewarding aspects. Both in curating and in teaching, as in my filmmaking, my strategies are research-based: I start from an open question that I like to share through different subjectivities and to imagine as a reason for us to get closer to each other. In general, I think it is impossible to find meaning in this broken world unless we feel that there are ways to create new collectivities and better—more open, more sensitive—ways of meaning-making. So, I may share the process from different angles and with different collaborators, but it is one and the same process.
Also, I do not want to sound romantic about creatives being overworked and doing so many things simultaneously. In truth, we do not have the luxury to be focused on one project, let alone a single occupation. It is impossible to survive, especially if you are a woman in film. We are still very much underpaid and undervalued. Thus, we are often imaginative out of necessity, and we find common spaces for the different processes we are a part of. I like to think of this as a possibility and a power that we have, even though it undoubtedly comes as a result of economic (and political) oppression.
D: I read in an interview you did with Pamela Cohn for DAE that you agreed with Serbian filmmaker Mila Turajlić’s assertion that there are certain “dangers” inherent in relying on archives from the Balkan region. Is this because history has been overly written and rewritten, so to speak, in this particular part of the world? Is that why you focused exclusively on “vetted” ICTY testimonies for what you call a work of “performative research”?
KN: I share the opinion that every archive is a political project and has power relations inscribed in it, thus the dangers. Starting from where an archive is based, who has established it, and how it is organized to who can access it and how, are all political aspects we have to reflect on. In geographies in which massive violations have taken place, archives pose an even higher danger: they can be misinterpreted within nationalist and chauvinist discourses and once again violate someone or retraumatize survivors.
My reasons for using the ICTY archives are manifold. For one thing, this is a major forensic archive for our region—and it has been set up in a northern European country, in a logic derived from complex legal procedures. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, our collective process of facing the crimes has been taken from us. Our collective memory is governed, stored, and managed far, far away.
Thus, there is always this urge for me to reclaim the archive, to activate it from inside our geographies. Another very important aspect is that the archive stands for something much larger than the legal cases themselves: the use of rape as a weapon of war and the testimonies of the survivors. The women who testified changed international law. This act of breaking the silence despite the consequences cannot be misinterpreted; it can only be silenced once again if it is locked in an archive that no one looks into.
This led directly to the urge to open it and perform it cinematically. The women from Bosnia and Herzegovina survived mass rapes and also rose against the normalization of rape as part of every war. This evidence belongs to all of us, and if we find ways to speak along with the survivors rather than about the survivors, as one of my favorite filmmakers and theoreticians, Trinh T. Minh-ha, would advise, the dangers are minimal while the possibilities are enormous.
D: Have any of these anonymous women or their relatives viewed Silence of Reason—and would you even know? How exactly do you go about crafting a doc made up of unidentified voices without potentially accidentally retraumatizing survivors?
KN: These are questions and nightmares that, again, are connected to the process of what Trinh T. Minh-ha would identify as “situating the place from which the film speaks.” Silence of Reason is not a film that is about the mass rapes committed on the territory of Foca; it is a film that speaks with female witnesses who survived sexual violence and torture on the territory of Foca and its surroundings in 1992 and 1993. Thus, the decision to use only forensic evidence from the prosecution and the testimonies of the survivors. This leaves no room for anyone to give voice to or take from someone else—a problematic strategy in documentary filmmaking, which creates new hierarchies.
In addition, throughout the process, I was constantly in dialogue with women who work with female survivors and who know much more than I do. Most of them came to the premiere in Sarajevo. I like to imagine that some of them can and will share the film, or at least the info that there is a film, with the women who testified in the Hague. Silence of Reason is a tiny cinematic memorial to both their courage and their selfless contribution to a more just society.
D: During this year’s Sarajevo Film Festival, you participated in a hastily put together panel, “Femicide in Film, Television, and New Media,” that was conceived in response to a horrific murder-suicide that occurred in a city a few hours from the capital, which involved a bodybuilder killing his ex-wife and son while also injuring others and was disgustingly live-streamed. It was part of a nationwide “day of mourning” on August 16, so I just assumed this was an annual remembrance. It ultimately caused the cancellation of all events and screenings. Only later did I learn that the incident had actually just happened the week prior.
KN: Let me just say that I am fond of the idea of an annual remembrance for the female survivors of sexual violence. If we have war veterans’ days across the globe, maybe the way to oppose violent militaristic politics and policies is to start paying respect to survivors who oppose war.
D: I agree. But honestly, as tragic as that entire episode was, I also have to admit that as an American who is embarrassingly desensitized to our normalized gun violence, I found it baffling that some local crime would even merit a nationwide shutdown. Does this collective outrage have something to do with your country’s history of war atrocities? Is there a whiff of political posturing—perhaps aimed at the EU? I noticed the fest’s subsequent Telekom Srbija controversy/apology likewise seemed to have a government-involved veneer. I mean, is there really such intolerance for gender-based inequity and outright femicide in the Balkans—or was the panel more a convening of aspirational hope?
KN: Look, gender-based violence is normalized; it is a constitutive element of capitalist patriarchy. After the wars of the ’90s, our social realities got very complex—in the Balkans, but also wider. On one side, there is the neoliberalization of public space, which normalizes the objectification of women through the sexualized image. The socially desired woman is no longer the worker who contributes to society—as the socialist Yugoslav ideal was expecting from us until 1989—but a woman at best is a decoration that follows toxic beauty standards while she keeps her key role of social reproduction.
Capitalism and neoliberalism marked a return to patriarchal family values in the Balkans due to their activation of family values in their most primordial meaning. This patriarchal shift certainly comes on top of the nationalist military strategies of the ’90s, in which the female body was treated as a battlefield: women were males’ territory that could be conquered, thus the use of mass rape as a military strategy.
This kind of complex post-war retraditionalization, aided by institutional incapacity, brought with it a rise in gender-based violence and a high number of femicides across former Yugoslavia. (Though here, I would also like to note that gender-based violence is a global concern.)
Keeping in mind these social dynamics as a background, it was especially important for such a wide and important cultural platform as the Sarajevo Film Festival to support the struggle of the feminist and gender-equality movement. The problem, though, is that the weaker the institutions, the more they hide behind the independent sector; they do nothing or not much in systemic terms. They rely on the cultural and social-society sector to make up for the lack of systemic measures in education, social policies, cultural policies—which allows them to ignore implementing any legal or economic reforms. In terms of this, I hope the panel showed that culture and arts can be the space for discussion, but the hard work in front of us is within the institutions; we, as cultural workers, have less and less patience. So, we will be very agile in voicing our concerns and requesting sound intersectional approaches to promoting gender equality and preventing all forms of gender violence.
Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She also writes regularly for Modern Times Review (the European Documentary Magazine) and has served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival.