In 21st century frames of war, where warfare is often waged remotely – via screens that guide unmanned missiles – there is a notable tendency for the perception of such wars to anthropomorphise the landscape itself. Where the people in warzones are absent from view, and their inexplicable suffering unavailable to the outsider’s eye, the disturbed landscape, such as a city in ruins, becomes a living (or rather dying) entity onto itself – as seen in the images and the reporting from the wars in Afghanistan, Syria, and Ukraine alike. The city of Aleppo, for instance, comes to represent not just all the devastation of human lives, but the devastation of the landscape whose own right to autonomy and sovereignty itself is violated. Landscapes become protagonists in the stories of war in their own right. 

When Kumjana Novakova and Guillermo Carreras-Candi’s experimental documentary about the genocide in Srebrenica, Disturbed Earth (2021), recently earned a special jury mention at the MakeDox Film Festival in Macedonia, the jury described it as a “poetic essay about a ‘guilty landscape.’”1 This pointed description also invites a question: how can a landscape be guilty? Rather than charging the landscape itself with unequivocal complicity and guilt, the film explores the processes by which the landscape can be implicated as a witness, a contributing perpetrator, a survivor, a material and elemental participant in its own right. The landscape as such is never fully autonomous from humans, whether they inhabit its surface or lay underground. If the earth is ‘guilty’ of concealing mass graves, it is the manmade interventions and disturbances that made it so. The earth keeps the score in both senses of the word: it remembers and conceals at the same time. It simultaneously refuses to forget and hides material evidence from the naked human eye. 

Disturbed Earth

The title of the film is in part a reference to the abilities of modern screen and surveillance technologies to uncover – via satellite, drone and other screening processes – places and locales where earthly ground might indicate evidence of being significantly tampered with by human actions in a way that the technologically unaided human eye cannot easily detect. The detection of disturbed earth is a sign that something is not as it should be, that a systemic effort has been made to disrupt and then disguise the disruption – that, for instance, what should be alive may no longer be. The essay film engages in a fly-on-the-wall observation of the everyday lives of three survivors of the Srebrenica genocide, the Bosnian war’s worst atrocity that took place in July 1995, during which Bosnian Serb army forces killed more than 8,000 Bosniak boys and men. The depiction of the survivors’ daily lives is interspersed with images of the landscape, and occasional grainy archival video footage and photographs (these materials were exhibits in the trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at the Hague), as well as intertitles that offer poetic commentary. The opening title of Disturbed Earth informs us, in the form of a poem, that: 

Srećko, Mirza and Mejra lived through Srebrenica.

Even if each loss and each sorrow is unbearably personal
With thousands other women and men
They make up our collective pain. 

We all failed Srebrenica.
We all suffered in Srebrenica.

The final two lines of the poem open up a dialectical tension that implicates the collective “we” as both having failed and having suffered in Srebrenica. Who are the “we” that the film thus hails? Bosnians, former Yugoslavs, or the film’s spectators’ writ large? Everyone and, perhaps more importantly, everything in between, including the landscape itself? 

Comprising a mix of original and archival footage, Disturbed Earth’s only non-visual intervention comes in the form of these intertitles that are structured as poems – reflections of the filmmakers’ and sometimes the film’s subjects’ inner thoughts and ruminations. The film opens on the scene of a truck loaded with the coffins of the newly discovered remains of the genocide victims arriving for the burial during the annual commemoration of the atrocity, which takes place each year on 11 July (many of the remains are yet to be found, since the Bosnian Serb forces buried them in a number of undisclosed mass graves). As the coffins are unloaded from the truck, crowded between Novakova and Carreras-Candi’s camera are a number of other photo and video cameras, all vying for a position from which to get a good shot of the process, creating a sensationalist atmosphere for the most solemn of scenes. Perhaps the filmmakers are here acknowledging their own role, however inadvertent, in the creation of a sensationalised spectacle of mass suffering.

The role of the landscape, the earth’s surface, and what lies underneath are all crucially important in the film’s exploration of the continued aftereffects of collective trauma. The changing of the seasons is not a mere law of nature. When the footage shifts from the sweltering July heat during the mass burial to the wintery scenes of Srebrenica covered by snow, the inevitability of the time’s passage is a reminder of a cruel-yet-routine indifference of nature. The snow that is covering Srebrenica and the memorial centre, however, does not conceal its wounded landscape – the gravestones and the physical ruins left behind by the war are still visible, if not even more accentuated by the juxtaposition against the serene sight of the falling snow. 

Disturbed Earth

Disturbed Earth

The earth is disturbed in multiple ways: by the hidden mass graves, by the still non-deactivated minefields, as well as by the unregulated cutting down of the trees – a process of mass deforestation that jeopardises Bosnia’s and the region’s natural ecosystem, as is the case in many poor parts of the world where natural resources are poached and exported to the economically more powerful countries. The ongoing, intertwining disturbances of the war’s aftermath and an environmental disaster driven by capitalist exploitation have important things in common: they are all man-made and they co-opt the landscape into a tool for perpetuating, even deepening the wounds.   

In the snowy, wintertime Srebrenica, everyday life – comprised of daily chores, care for domestic animals, the chopping of wood, and preparing food – offers a counterpoint to the dominant post-war perception of Srebrenica: that of a place whose existence in the collective conscious is defined by death rather than life, and a place that becomes figurative through continued politicising vis-à-vis the role it plays for local ethno-nationalisms. Its actual physical existence is typically acknowledged once a year, on a hot July day, when the sight of the newly dug up gravesites and mourners gathered in pain briefly dominates the news cycle. In fact, the serenity of the wintery scene may appear as a disturbance in and of itself. It is as if the film is asking us to ponder how the site of such a devastating mass atrocity may now appear so serene, peaceful, and, moreover, permeated by the ordinary and mundane tasks of routine-filled lives. If life simply goes on, does the ordinary and the mundane run the risk of diluting the magnitude of the extraordinary trauma and loss that still marks the landscape? Quite the contrary: in the eerie quiet of the essayistic documentary poem that is Disturbed Earth, the juxtaposition between the ordinary, routine everydayness and the mass traumatic disturbance enhances the gravity of the latter, effectively collapsing the past into the present and vice versa. The disturbed earth becomes disturbing earth, impossible to negate or entirely ignore. 

In a recent trend in essayistic documentaries about war trauma in the aftermath of the Yugoslav wars – such as Ognjen Glavonić’s Dubina dva (Depth Two, 2016) or Jelena Maksimović’s Domovine (Homelands, 2020)2 – the spectacle of atrocity is eschewed at the expense of images of typically serene landscapes. The ensuing incommensurability of the underlying, triggering disturbance and the surface calmness makes the traumatic void left in the aftermath of such atrocities arguably even more palpable. Indeed, Disturbed Earth is another example of this newer tendency in documentary filmmaking in the Yugoslav region, a growing body of work which Pavle Levi has called “political landscape films.”3 In them, as Levi observes, the main thing characterising the landscape is absence itself. The most dramatic absence is that of the people themselves, living or dead. In the case of Disturbed Earth, frequently absent is the disturbance itself – it is felt just under the surface, or slightly offscreen, but almost never entirely in view. Nevertheless, the absence is perpetually present. 

Disturbed Earth

Absence, however, should not be all too easily equated with loss. As Dominick LaCapra warns, “to blur the distinction between, or to conflate, absence and loss may itself bear striking witness to the impact of trauma and the post-traumatic, which create a state of disorientation, agitation, or even confusion.”4 When absence remains unarticulated to a concrete historical loss and is instead relativized – through, for example, a refusal of a systematic process of coming to terms with concrete historical war atrocities, or through the Serbian insistence on the genocide’s denial – it becomes a structural trauma, a foundational void that turns into a generating, structuring engine for this post-conflict society. Structural trauma becomes structuring absence. Everything is defined through and with respect to this structuring absence, including landscape itself.   

Disturbed Earth

Disturbed Earth

This is where Disturbed Earth actively aims to tether the disturbance/absence to concrete historical events by inserting archival footage into its frames. Where in the present-day footage there is a landscape permeated by eerie calmness, grainy archival footage shows heavy weaponry encroaching upon and laying siege to the same landscape, entrapping the people who inhabit it. The present-day footage of farmers burning weeds cuts to and is visually matched with archival footage of burning haystacks near the Potočari UN compound in July 1995 (a place that was supposed to guarantee Srebrenica’s status as a safe zone, yet proved anything but). In one archival sequence, a scared puppy is seen lying next to a row of human bodies, presumably its owners. Inexplicably, the individual filming the scene – a member of the perpetrator forces – affectionately talks to the dog to coax him and get a better shot of the tiny pup next to a row of murdered civilians. Expanding on the film’s exploration of the links between wartime devastation and environmental crises, animals are seen throughout the film, mostly as silent, helpless, and unsuspecting witnesses to human atrocities and suffering – and as victims in their own right. 

In juxtaposition to the present-day peacetime life of the three individuals who lived through the Srebrenica genocide, archival footage inserts images of the perpetrators cheerily bantering as they finalise their genocidal plan. The mastermind, general Ratko Mladić, is shown orchestrating the scene to be filmed. Extremely image-conscious, he is acting as a literal film director. As I discussed elsewhere, Jasmila Žbanić’s fictionalised film version of the Srebrenica genocide, Quo Vadis, Aida? (2021), explicitly focuses on Mladić doing the same thing, thereby emphasizing the complicity of the camera eye with the genocidal project.5 In fact, Disturbed Earth and Quo Vadis, Aida? can be seen as mutually complementary companion pieces, each utilizing their own chosen cinematic modes to viscerally convey the magnitude and the ongoing aftereffects of the atrocity. 

Disturbed Earth

The past that looms large over the present and blurs the boundaries between the two does not extend to the war only. In fact, another ghost that inescapably haunts the present-day landscape is Yugoslavia, the country whose antifascist legacy and socialist project of workers’ self-management went up in the flames of war in the 1990s. Yugoslavia’s legacy is imprinted upon the landscape, in the form of dilapidated former factories, now standing as abandoned and overgrown, silent, deteriorating monuments to the prosperous socialist past in the neoliberal, post-conflict, precarious present. One such abandoned compound served as the Potočari UN headquarters during the Bosnian war. As the silent imagery in Disturbed Earth shows, faded on its wall is the popular Yugoslav slogan to the country’s lifetime president: “Comrade Tito we swear you an oath.” The faded letters serve as a poignant reminder that the oath not to stray from the path of “brotherhood and unity” had long been betrayed and abandoned. And not only that – under this very sign a genocide was meticulously carried out.    

Disturbed Earth

Disturbed Earth

Spread out on the walls of the former UN compound are photographs taken on 11 July 1995 of women and children lining up to enter the buses, of Ratko Mladić among the terrified civilians, of a pile of dirt among which one can discern human remains. We also see satellite images identifying ‘disturbed earth’ – places that indicate human tampering and locations of mass graves. Modern technologies of surveillance and screen vision expose that which the naked human eye cannot – or in some cases, actively will not – see. This is kino-eye (to borrow Dziga Vertov’s term) for the times of genocide, an eye of the 21st-century screen technology that exposes what lies underneath, the truth and the scale of mass atrocity.   

Disturbed Earth

These images present a haunting sequence accompanied only by an eerie sound of distant rhythmic banging against a metal object. They return the repressed back onto the surface of the screen. Yet the repressed is still not fully knowable or reachable – it is both present and absent, visible yet mediated by long lens technology. The film’s intertitle states: “They are there. Inside of the landscape. In the roots.” The dead are the disturbed earth. The dead are disturbing the earth, disturbing a present that would seek to ignore, deny, or forget them. 

The final sequence of the film inserts another abrupt juxtaposition and shows a New Year’s Eve party at which attendees exchange well wishes. “Happiness and life!,” exclaims one man, wishing his friends two things utterly incongruous with the montage that came just before, of human remains and of the disturbed earth designating mass graves. Yet the incongruity serves to amplify the fragmented reality of life after genocide, just as the depiction of the everyday chores in the lives of Mejra, Mirza, and Srećko does. The film’s final intertitles inform us that all three make ends meet by working the land: Srećko by cutting wood, Mirza and Mejra by farming. Life after genocide means depending on the very earth that the genocide permanently disturbed, the earth that keeps the score and holds the bodies of the dead. Life after genocide means negotiating the landscape that refuses to let the past remain in the past – after all, the disturbance now becomes the foundation of life, lodged in its very roots. Yet, amidst these intertwining disturbances, one of the film’s poems strikes a hopeful note:

The forest holds us together.
Us with the trees,
And our past deep inside with the roots.

We will grow.


  1. http://makedox.mk/mk/en/festival/the-awards/
  2. Jelena Maksimović was the editor of Disturbed Earth.
  3. Pavle Levi, Minijature: O politici filmske slike (Zagreb: Multimedijalni institut, 2021), p. 29.
  4. Dominick LaCapra, “Trauma, Absence, Loss,” Critical Inquiry, Issue 24(4) (Summer 1999): p. 699.
  5. Dijana Jelača, “Witnessing Women: Quo Vadis, Cinema?,” Studies in World Cinema, Issue 1(2) (Winter 2021): pp. 198-219.

About The Author

Dijana Jelača is a Lecturer in the Film Department at Brooklyn College. She is the author of Dislocated Screen Memory: Narrating Trauma in Post-Yugoslav Cinema (Palgrave, 2016) and co-author of Film Feminisms: A Global Introduction (Routledge, 2019, with Kristin Lené Hole). Jelača’s research interests include South Slavic film cultures, post-conflict cinema and trauma, feminist film studies, and socialist women’s cinema.

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