Croatian director Antun Vrdoljak finds himself in a bind.
His current project, called The General, deals with Croatia's recent past; it is meant to be a blockbuster about the exploits of Croatian wartime commander Ante Gotovina. Vrdoljak and his crew are currently shooting the film in the vicinity of the Croatian coastal city Split, recreating the final battle of the Croatian war of independence in 1995.
But he is having trouble finding actors willing to play "the enemy."
Vrdoljak's dilemma is that even in the filmmaker's world of make-believe, Croatian actors refuse to put on the uniform of "Chetniks" -- as rebel Serb fighters were dubbed to evoke the nationalist Serbian units that collaborated with the Nazis during World War II -- while Serbs refuse to take part in a Croatian movie about General Gotovina.
There are efforts afoot in Serbia to rehabilitate the Chetniks as part of a nationalist-inspired movement for historical revisionism, but their specter is still enough to inspire revulsion and fear in neighboring Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. (Chetniks' Croatian counterparts are "Ustashe," by the way, similarly a reference to World War II-era fascists.)
In a grim reminder of the fragility of peace in the Balkans and the freshness of wartime wounds for many, a commentator on the Banja Luka-based web portal Buka deadpanned that if live ammunition were provided for the filming of The General, the feature could easily become a documentary.
Vrdoljak contacted a private agency in Belgrade to help him cast his movie and, to sweeten the deal, he is offering 1,000 euros ($1,050) per day of shooting, according to B92.
Even though that's around 10 times what actors usually get when they're hired locally, it is unclear whether any Serbian actors are prepared to take Vrdoljak up on his offer. In the Croatian narrative of the 1991-95 war, Gotovina is a hero; but among Serbs, he is a war criminal.
Mihailo Laptosevic, a Serbian actor who was cast for a minor role in the movie, was quoted as saying in a reference to the pay for five days of filming: "Five thousand euros is not a lot of money if tomorrow you cannot look at yourself in the mirror."
Antun Vrdoljak is also producing a documentary series on Gotovina.
For Vrdoljak, this is a minor setback, as there is otherwise considerable support for his project in Croatia.
Vrdoljak's son-in-law, Goran Visnjic, plays the title role in The General. Visnjic is a talented actor who is currently among Croatia's most prominent actors, and has made a name for himself in Hollywood.
But he also has some direct experience with the events being portrayed. He was performing his military service in the Yugoslav Peple's Army on the eve of the war in Croatia (1991), and on his return home joined the Croatian Army.
Apart from the movie, Vrdoljak is also producing an eight-part miniseries about Gotovina that should be completed in 2018.
Gotovina's life has certainly taken many twists and turns.
He served in the French Foreign Legion before war broke out in Croatia. He was charged by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague for his role in the final Croatian offensive that ended the war, code-named Operation Storm (Oluja). During that operation, in addition to many hundreds of civilian deaths, some 200,000 Serbs were forced to flee their homes in what was described as the war's largest exodus of Serbs.
After spending five years in hiding, Gotovina was eventually apprehended in the Canary Islands and handed over to the ICTY. At the time, his arrest and trial opened the way for Croatia to become a full member of the European Union. Gotovina was sentenced to 24 years in prison "for participating in a joint criminal enterprise to expel Croatian Serbs from the Krajina during the 1995 Operation Storm."
Yet on appeal, Gotovina was acquitted of all charges. When he came home a free man, supporters in Croatia organized a spectacular welcome reception at Zagreb's main square, expecting the general to take up the Croatian nationalist banner.
They were to be disappointed. Instead of the warmongering rhetoric that his audience expected, Gotovina addressed the crowd with a short message: "The war is behind us; let us turn to the future."
In an interview with the Serbian tabloid Kurir in November 2012, Gotovina struck a conciliatory tone and invited Croatian Serbs to return to Croatia. "Croatia is no more my home than it is theirs," he said.
Such a statement coming from a man celebrated as a war hero by one side and reviled as a criminal by the other was widely thought to have been made up -- until the audio recording of the interview surfaced.
Nationalists on both sides cling to misimpressions of Gotovina, and the same can arguably be said of narratives of the war on both sides.
And while it might be hard-pressed for actors, there's no shortage of materiel; the Croatian and Bosnian armed forces have each agreed to provide tanks and other weapons for the filming.
* This blog has been edited to remove a description of Gotovina's reception in Zagreb being organized by "anti-European and pro-Ustashe circles."
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