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LETTERS.

NATIONALISM AND THE ZIZEK SYNDROME: MORE BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE

While I mostly agree with Robin Wood's praise of Beautiful People (Jasmin Dizdar, 1999), which I also find to be a very rich and complex, yet oddly refreshing comedy about the horrors of war and other serious matters, his text (CineAction 54) contains a misspelling that may be of some significance. The family name of two Bosnian refugees, Dzemila and Ismet, has been transformed from Hadzibegovic (as it should read) to "Herbigovich."

This may appear as sheer nitpicking, but this distinction is a symptom of some problems that I have with the film, not addressed in Robin Wood's article. The failure to recognize these issues is understandable because one sometimes has to be intimately familiar with the Balkans to read certain cultural codes easily neglected by "outsiders." "Herbigovich" would be a strange sounding name in Bosnia, signifying perhaps someone of Croat descent. Hadzibegovic, on the other hand, is a typical Bosniak (Muslim) name. This takes us straight to my problem with the depiction of ethnicity and identity in Dizdars film. Virtually all other characters are satirized or even outright ridiculed, albeit with a lot of sympathy and understanding for their human faults, but this does not seem to apply equally to the Hadzibegovic family. In fact, the film contains a gallery of characters of various ethnic backgrounds from two hybrid nations, Britain and Bosnia, and their idiosynracies are all subject to humorous dissection, again with the notable exception of people coming from Dizdar's own ethnic group, Bosniaks. [1] The only Bosniaks we see in Beautiful People are the Hadzibegovic and those poor people in the war sequence who -are being shot at, killed or treated in the makeshift field hospital.

Most characters appear comfortable in the screwball comedy setting, but there is nothing funny about the Bosniak family--they are simply victims. Although it has generally been acknowledged that this was indeed the ethnic group that suffered more than any other during the Bosnian conflict, I believe that Dizdar's point about the ridiculousness of fighting and the fundamental insanity of violence would have come across much more fairly had he not exempted his own nationals from the principles of human behaviour which, he implies, are universal. After all, there are currently several Bosniaks charged with war crimes by the International War Grimes Tribunal in The Hague, and the simplistic portrayal of them as victims neglects the paradigm of the oppressed becoming the oppressors, which is at least to some extent valid in the case of Bosnia. Had the victim of rape been a Herbigovich rather than a Hadzibegovic, Beautiful People would have done a better job avoiding the glorification of the writer/director's own ethnic group at the expense of virtually all others.

This is symptomatic of something I like to call The Zizek Syndrome, after Slavoj Zizek, a widely acclaimed Lacanian theorist, who appears a much more contradictory figure in his native Slovenia. Svetlana Slapsak, one of former Yugoslavia's leading feminist scholars, observes: "Slavoj Zizek... is indeed a good reference in this respect: he presents himself to the West as a Marxist, while in his native Slovenia he operates as ideologist, slightly on the right-wing, of the liberal-democratic party; for the outside world he's a poor intellectual emigre, in Slovenia he's an 'ambassador of science for the world;' moral authority when speaking about the Balkans in the West, he thinks he can afford sexist and racist outbursts at home." [2] By no means do I wish to equate Jasmin Dizdar with this description of Zizek's dual identity; what I intend to do, however, is to argue that, unfortunately, Beautiful People may not be totally devoid of nationalist bias. The same is true of some other films emanating from former Y ugoslavia; the Serbian Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (Srdjan Dragojevic, 1996), purportedly balanced in its treatment of the Bosnian conflict, is fairly obviously shot from one perspective, with all non-Serbs appearing as Others. Yugoslav (and perhaps not only Yugoslav) filmmakers, from Aleksandar Petrovic in the sixties, to Emir Kusturica, have repeatedly played the card of "third world exotica" in order to appeal to Western festival and art house audiences.

The saving grace of Dizdar's war comedy is that it treats its characters with benevolent sympathy. It would, therefore, be unfair to accuse the director of narrow-minded nationalism, but it might be prudent to make a point of showing some inconsistencies in his treatment of the Bosnian mayhem, which could easily be missed by viewers less familiar with the situation in Dizdar's native Bosnia. One of the main characters, Pero Guzina, is a good example of the confusing treatment of Bosnia and Bosnians in Beautiful People, and perhaps the most telling sign that this is Dizdar's first feature film. Pero is the film's most incoherent character. His name, Guzina, is a fairly typical Serb name, but it should be noted that it also means "a big ass." Although his English is fairly good, we are led to believe, for metaphoric purposes, that he does not understand the word "life." A street-smart immigrant, who knows exactly what to say to British Immigration officials and who spent some time as a combatant in the war, ac ts extremely naively when he sits down next to a racist gang in a coffee shop and tries to initiate a friendly conversation with them. Anyone coming from the Balkans must find it extremely hard to believe that a character, choosing to play traditional Bosnian music on his walkman (this would be read among urban Balkanites of Pero's generation as a clear sign of rural background), could suddenly turn into a brilliant classical pianist in his in-laws' house. Finally, how likely is it that a person who explicitly wants to put behind the trauma of war and become an integrated member of London society and live a new "life," would keep on the bedroom wall in his council flat a picture of himself in Serb paramilitary uniform, holding a machine gun?

Beautiful People has many qualities to compensate for these problems and inconsistencies: the hilarious, almost surreal, sequence of a warm-hearted English soccer hooligan in Bosnia, the film's uplifting sharp humour which manages to shake off the violent, brutal images of war, and the intricate ways in which immigrants interact with members of virtually all classes of British society are just some of them. One can only hope that Dizdar will eliminate any doubt about his progressive intentions in the future films by including representatives of his own ethnic group in his critique of absurd human behaviour. With all its qualities and deficiencies, I have found Beautiful People to be much more insightful as an immigrant's treatment of Britain than as an insider's commentary of the war in Bosnia.

-Vladislav Mijic

(1.) For those less familiar with the region, "Bosnians" is the word commonly used for all citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and "Bosniaks" denotes Bosnian Slays of Muslim faith.

(2.) Svetlana Slapaak: Zizek's Lads, available online at http://www.nettime.org/nettime.w3archive/199904/msg00383.html
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Publication:CineAction
Date:Mar 22, 2001
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