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A First-ever Fest Shines Light on Bosnian Culture 

State of the Arts

The Bosnian film Ovo Malo Duse (A Little Soul) opens with a grumpy grandfather explaining that women aren't to be trusted. As he and his companions take strong swigs of sljivovica, he tells the story of Adam and Eve. When he gets to the punchline - where Eve ruins everything, in his opinion - a drinking buddy pours another glass and gives his two cents: "Bitch."

A simple case of Mediterranean machismo? Maybe not, when you consider the universality of the Bible - and of violence against women.

The First Bosnian Vermont Film Festival addressed the latter problem head-on last weekend with an event that aimed to both raise awareness of domestic violence and celebrate cultural diversity. Thanks to local sponsors, help from the Bosnian community and a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, Burlington-based Women Helping Battered Women and the Women's Rape Crisis Center helped launch a two-day extravaganza of Bosnian film, poetry, dance, food and music at the Waterfront Theatre.

The Bosansko Vermontski Filmski Festival, as it was billed, also premiered two public-service videos produced by WHBW about domestic violence. The Bosnian-language short films, subtitled in English, are intended to reach women who face language and culture barriers and need help. In one, the dialogue includes culture-specific issues such as family honor, a reluctance to contact the police, and a close-knit community's aversion to scandal.

Adna Karabegoviç, who plays one of the main roles in the film, explains, "It's hard for Bosnian women in these situations, because tradition and family honor is very important. And as soon as anything bad happens, the media always point out the fact that it was a Bosnian-American who committed the crime."

Karabegoviç is one of the film festival's main organizers and hosted its events. As she made announcements at Waterfront Theatre in an elegant black dress, her confidence and poise belied her age: She's a senior at Burlington High School and will study French and international relations at the University of Vermont next year.

"There are over 27 languages spoken in Burlington, and Bosnians make up Burlington's biggest immigrant community," City Councilor Clarence Davis proclaimed to applause at Saturday's opening ceremony. "There are over 3000 Bosnian Vermonters."

After the kick-off, the Bosnian Lilies Dancing Group got the audience clapping again as they weaved and whirled to traditional Bosnian music. Their ages ranging from preschool to high school, the boys stood proudly in black slacks and white Oxfords while the girls danced in colorful, loose-fitting silk outfits.

The festival's afternoon screenings were Ovo Malo Duse (1990) by Adamir Kenovic and Danis Tanovic's No Man's Land (2001). Kenovic's film is a tale of innocence that harks back to a traditional Bosnia about to be changed forever by war. No Man's Land, which appeared in local theaters several years back, is a modern fable set during the Yugoslav wars. Stuck in the same trench together, a Serb soldier and his Bosnian counterpart realize they have more in common with each other than with the U.N. peacekeeping soldiers. Still, they manage to kill each other in the end.

After this sobering footage, festival-goers took a break with food, painting and poetry.

The exhibit featured works by Elma Skopijak, 29, who received her Bachelor's in Studio Art and English last year at UVM. After she arrived in the U.S. seven years ago, making art eased her language-barrier frustrations. Each of her powerful, surreal compositions incorporates self-portrait and images of tombstones and steçak, a traditional Bosnian door-knocker. "When I returned to Bosnia two years ago," Skopijak said, "I just noticed these objects that are so typically Bosnian. And I thought about myself moving between two cultures, and how doorways symbolize transformation and discovery."

Most of the festival's poetry readings were delivered by young readers, who declaimed energetically while the older generations nodded and smiled. Sabina Gosto, 18, read "Îasto tone Venecija?" ("Why Is Venice Sinking?"), by Abdullah Sidran. "Sidran uses Venice as a metaphor for the way things were falling apart in Bosnia," she explained.

The festival's final screening was Grbavica (2006), by Jasmila Îbaniç. The film tells the story of a single mother and her daughter struggling to get by in postwar Sarajevo. The mother tells the daughter that her father died a shaheed, or martyr, but she eventually discovers he was actually a chetnik (pejorative for Serb) who raped her mother.

The First Bosnian Vermont Film Festival achieved a daunting double task. It prevailed on men and women to respect one another despite their differences, even as it celebrated the cultural differences Bosnians have brought to a new land.

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