Bigger Than Trauma
(Croatia, 90 min.)
Dir. Vedrana Pribačić
Programme: The Changing Face of Europe
When the Croatian War of Independence came to an end in 1995, the bombings ceased and the guns fell silent, but the scars remained and would take a very long time to heal. Bigger Than Trauma looks at the women who were held captive, tortured, and raped during the war, how they were forced into silence for 25 years, and what was being done for them today to find some solace and peace. Directed by Vedrana Pribačić, this is an incredibly moving film, at times difficult to watch, and gives a voice to the women who were ignored and forgotten.
Bigger Than Trauma follows three women, Marija, Katica, and Ana, as they join a program called “I Am Much More Than My Trauma.” The program was started by Marija Slišković, an activist for the rights of civilian victims of war crimes and who lobbied for the creation of a law on wartime sexual violence. Acknowledging the irreparable damage caused by living with untreated trauma for decades, Slišković created the two-year plan using unconventional therapy exercises to focus on the solution rather than looking back to the causes, incorporating psychotherapy and touch therapy in both group and individual environments.
Pribačić takes us into the recovering lives of Marija, Katica, and Ana, each of whom has their own unique set of challenges. Marija is the most reluctant of the group: her trauma weighs so heavily on her heart, as she constantly lives in fear and leads a very isolated life. Katica takes a different approach to reconciling her pain by putting on a tough, brave face to the world, while crying internally. Ana is the only Serb in the group, which causes an inherent tension as the abuse inflicted upon these women was by Serbian soldiers. Ana’s dynamic within the group is different–not only are they wary of her, but she finds herself feeling defensive and ostracized.
Over the course of the program, we see the changes and improvements made to the women’s lives while connections are formed between them. Pribačić is careful not to be invasive or leering. She maintains a respectful distance to the women while still telling a thoughtful and deep story. In particular, the footage taken during the therapy sessions is very intimate but we never feel as if we are intruding; rather, we are welcomed into their sessions. And each of these moments are beautifully accented by a sensitive soundtrack selected by Mirta Puhlovski who uses traditional music that lends a poetic nature to the documentary.
While the film focuses on Marija, Katica, and Ana’s stories, the presence of other civilian victims is never far away. The success of Bigger Than Trauma is in its ability to call out the injustice done to these women by not just their assailants, but also by their own government and justice system. Not only were these women ignored, they were actively suppressed in sharing their stories. Pribačić does well to avoid painstakingly rehash the assaults and abuse, but focus on the aftermath and what can and should be done to help these individuals.
The end cards in the film update us on how Marija, Katica, and Ana are doing, and celebrates the successes of the program for numerous other individuals. However, it also informs us that due to lack of funding, the plan has been unable to continue. Hopefully Bigger Than Trauma will succeed in not only raising awareness of the injustices against these victims, but in encouraging institutions and individuals who are able to support the program to do so.
Throughout history, sexual violence has been used as a weapon of war to destroy populations and inflict physical, emotional, and psychological pain. It is considered to be a war crime and a crime against humanity, and can amount to genocide, as it did in Rwanda. Barbaric and seemingly draconian, these methods are anything but history and there are countless women and men around the world suffering from the trauma and stigmatization of these crimes. Although Bigger Than Trauma is the story of three women who are victims to the Croatian War of Independence, it’s also the voice of many others who have never been able to heal their pain.
Bigger Than Trauma had its international premiere at the 2022 Hot Docs Film Festival.