'Women, War & Peace' on PBS

"I Came to Testify," produced and written by Pamela Hogan and narrated by Matt Damon, is the first of the the 5-part PBS series: "Women, War & Peace".

Reviewed by Barbara Probst Solomon

With the passage of years there has been forgetting and a blurring of the reports of the savage rape of Bosnian women by the Serb military in the 1990s during the civil war in Bosnia. Now, after so many years of silence, the capture of the Serb General Ratko Mladic has reawakened attention to what happened to the Muslim women in Foca, a medium sized town off the beaten track in Bosnia, events not reported on during the civil war. It's now a tourist spot whose rivers, mountains and trees belie its savage past. Pamela Hogan has done a stunning job of weaving the complicated stages in Foca's history. One young man interviewed in "I Came to Testify" seemed still in shock at what had happened to his town. He had been out of Bosnia during the worst of the siege, thus his memory was of a small place where Serbs and Muslims comfortably lived together -- certainly Sarajevo was famous for its brilliant mix of different groups including Jews. All that seemed to come to an end after Marshall Tito's death.

What is so very special, both in the film and in the trial in The Hague's international court of law, is the new level of reportage and law concerning women, and women and their horrific treatment, particularly in times of war. In Foca they were treated as animals. Some had their throats slit, others were forced to walk naked through the town, and others were locked up and raped over and over by the Serb troops. To go back in time, Vittorio de Sica's 1960 film "Two Women" concerns a bourgeois mother (Sophia Loren) escaping the bombardments in the city (I think it was Rome) with her teenage daughter. The film was considered to be the height of realism, yet in the scene where both mother and daughter are raped by soldiers, the actual details of the rape are discrete, muted. Though the Nuremberg Trial was mentioned, it is my recall (I covered the Klaus Barbie trial) that the emphasis in Nuremberg was on perpetrators, not victims. In the 1960s and through the 1980s, films starring Jane Fonda and Barbara Streisand fashionably depicted a sort of jolly prostitution, as though this was one more right of a woman to her own body.

In Foca not only were the women's bodies defamed while their men were dead or in starvation camps, their minds were blown apart with an enduring sense of shame. The Hague trial sets new standards in that the women prosecutors were all women. One of the prosecutors, a German, seemed particularly engaged as she recalled her own country's horrific past. Hogan had the difficult task of persuading the women to speak up, while deftly keeping her promise not to reveal their identities. As the film weaves in and out of many locals, the audience is not made overly aware that we don't actually see the women's faces. Matt Damon deserves high marks for his narration -- during the film we are not aware that a famous actor is talking. By appearing at the trial, the women of Foca seemed able to convert their misplaced shame into heroism and courage. Sadly, when they returned during the making of the film to Foca, to search out memories (in one case the remains of relatives shot in front of their house were still in its yard) the people in the town hurled insults at them.

In October and November on PBS "Pray the Devil Back to Hell," directed by Gini Reticker and produced by Abigail E. Disney, will be shown, followed by "Peace Unveiled" (directed by Gini Reticker, written by Abigail E. Disney and produced by Claudia Rizzi); "The War We Are Living" written by Pamela Hogan and Oriana Zill de Granados, produced by Oriana Zill de Granados; "War Redefined" produced and written by Peter Bull, Co-produced by Nina Chaudry. Narrated by Geena Davis.

This groundbreaking series must be seen.