Monday, May 21, 2007

Oscar

*[honorable mention, 2007 Mahan Writing Awards]

It’s another July in the Balkans, and it’s hot. Jeremy and I ditch our Bosniak rags and stop trying to pretend we’re not journalists. It was pointless in the first place. An American smile here looks like it belongs in a movie.

We’re hiding in the cellar of the cottage belonging to Emira’s brother, eating dried fruits out of dusty jars and peeking through knots in the wooden door to see what’s happening outside. Emira’s brother crouches facing the entrance. He’s holding an old Nazi rifle that quivers every time a Serbian column passes on the road into town. We know things are bad because Emira has stopped sneaking off to see the Dutch Battalion captain. Still, I feel oddly relaxed, since Jeremy and I are not the ones the Serbs are after, so I’m not sure what makes me feel worse: when a Serb trooper will rattle the cellar door, or a Bosniak refugee. Doesn’t matter who they are; they’ll try the lock, give a futile kick and move on after we stay quiet. Except there was one Bosniak who started to jar the door so much that Emira’s brother shouted from next to me that he would shoot the man if he broke the lock. The Bosniak stopped jiggling the door, and pleaded to be let in—the whimpers that followed felt like they lasted hours, not minutes—but eventually his voice faded away to the growling of a Serbian troop truck.

Still, Emira is smiling. Like always. She has the same smile when she’s happy, nervous, upset—we’d thought maybe she was on drugs when we first met her scuffling around outside the Dutch U.N. compound a few weeks ago. She’d seemed distracted when we interviewed her, always looking over her shoulder towards the Dutchbat housing, but that smile was the Mona Lisa’s of young Bosniak women and something about that was charming. Jeremy liked her English. We gave her work as a translator. She’d at least always look friendly. But sometimes it disturbed me to see her smiling while she was terrified.

At the moment, she’s running her fingers through her nephew’s coarse hair. His mother disappeared sometime during the night. That made her brother distraught, and Emira has been talking just to break up the silence.

“You can buy anything in New York City, correct?”

Of course, I say. I can’t help but smile. Jeremy fiddles with his camera and snaps a shot of her with the kid. It never gets old when people ask me about the States. I love to talk about New York City, and I can tell Emira where exactly to find the best pastrami sandwich in all of Brooklyn. While I tell her about that deli—the one that was a block away from the apartment I once shared with Jeremy—I notice a faded photo of Ronald Reagan nailed to the cellar’s wall, hanging above a half-complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica stacked on the floor.

“I would go for the grocery stores,” Emira says. “Freedom of speech? That can be taken away. But to go to a grocery store? You don’t know how good you have it. I’ve heard I could buy anything in an American grocery store.”

Jeremy sets down his camera. His expression tells me he’s finally out of film. I ran out of paper a few days ago. There was none in the cottage, though the thought crosses my mind to start tearing out sheets from the encyclopedias for later.

“I went to Paris once when I was young,” Emira says, tugging on a lock of her nephew’s hair. We hear more vehicles churning on the road outside. “It would be nice to be married,” she pauses, “and to have that sort of lifestyle.”

I’m not sure what ‘lifestyle’ she is referring to. If she’s talking about Paris, I want to tell her that being a Muslim in France is not all that it’s cracked up to be; if she’s talking about a future with the Dutchbat captain, I want to tell her to brace for heartbreak.

One of those passing rumblings doesn’t fade, and the growl of a diesel engine chokes to a halt.

Voices come from outside. Jeremy cradles his camera in the crook of his elbow.

I learned from a stint in Lebanon that international law mandates military full-metal-jacket 7.62mm rounds used in military-issue AK-47s be designed to limit tissue disruption: to wound, not kill. Jeremy told me that’s why the crazies who shoot up playgrounds with assault rifles never tally big body counts. But knowing that does not stop me from cementing my hands to my head when they kick in the door. The sunlight spills in around the silhouettes of Serbs swarming in. They seize us and take us outside, and to my embarrassment the words that shrill out of my mouth are ‘American! American! Are we safe?’

“Cut!”

Guillermo Rosado pulls off his headset and puts his hands on his hips. A cameraman sighs as the Spanish-born director starts pacing around the extras wearing Serb uniforms while glaring at the ground. I try to ignore the soundmen rolling their eyes at each other, bored twentysomethings in khaki shorts and sweat-stained state-university t-shirts who hoist up boom mics for a living and shift their weight to kill time.

Take eleven, I bet they’re thinking. We saw this coming.

“What the fuck was that?” Guillermo asks me. “You have one line in the whole movie! Don’t make me get an actor.”

I take a deep breath and again try to block out the fact that everyone on the set is watching me, Jeremy especially—he’s been so serious since we’ve started filming. But I also become worried that Guillermo will find a more muscular, better-looking version of myself to play the based-on-a-true-story cameo of “Journalist 1”—that’s me—and that Jeremy would be stumbling out of the mock cottage with someone else, someone who hadn’t been there. For someone who has been there, I sure as hell can’t act like it. With each defective take—of many—Guillermo becomes increasingly agitated, and even sweet-hearted Jenny Orr, who plays Emira, is starting to lose a little of that strapped-on Emira-smile. In between takes she tries to show me the focusing techniques she learned during her collegiate track days. “Focus on your goal,” she says.

In spite of all this altruistic energy I have from making a movie to enlighten people on what happened in Srebrenica, I focus on sleeping with her. It’s a nice thought. She’s attractive. But former-Olympians-turned-star-actresses don’t sleep with skinny journalists-turned-amateur-screenwriters.

Jeremy slugs me on the shoulder just a little too hard for it to be completely friendly. He’s been very serious about the movie. After I finally nail my line, he walks off slowly towards the extras’ canteen without saying a word.

On a knoll just past the set and beyond the director’s trailer, a crowd of Slovaks thrum around a cordon, locals who are just trying to catch a glimpse of what is going on. They had been surprised an American film crew would come to Slovakia. The filming site has become something of a local curiosity. Next to the locals is a smaller contingent, but a more rigid-looking bunch, Bosniaks whom Guillermo has invited to watch the filming. Beyond those groups is a special cordon for the tiny collective of Serbian expatriates who are protesting with chants that the massacre never happened.

I was disappointed to find out later that their stance had become increasingly popular in Europe. It was as if the people hadn’t followed the coverage of their own war.

The spectators had been stationed much closer to the set earlier on in the filming process, having remained quiet and well-mannered until day nineteen, when an old woman standing near the Bosniaks suddenly burst out in the middle of a take that the extras playing the Serb troopers were dressed like Croats. It took Guillermo’s staff three days—three days—to verify that the woman was wrong, and that the appropriate uniforms were being used.

So the cordons were moved back, and filming continued marching on.



We had just gotten back from Mauritania, from doing a puff piece on a Saharan ore train that had been made into an ad hoc mass transit system, when we got an invitation from Guillermo to come visit out in L.A. for a while. He took us into his home and told us that there was buzz about Oscar possibilities. We freaked out, obviously. After we had left, I kept telling Jeremy not to get excited, that we might not get nominated. I just had a nagging doubt, but Jeremy wasn’t going along with it.

“We should get some strippers,” he’d said.

But he fell asleep on the cab ride back to the hotel, and we settled for drinking when we got to our room. Tonight Guillermo had put us up at the same place that we’d spent a month writing the script in, and at the moment we were sitting out on the balcony drinking and watching the traffic on the boulevard below go streaming by.

From the balcony, you could see palm trees rising over the avenue that ran along the moon-dimmed coast, the waves of the Pacific throbbing against a beach that was just out of sight. In the room we’d written the screenplay in, it had been a clear view of the parking lot and the backs of a couple fast-food restaurants, and sometimes I had spent those early mornings before Jeremy woke watching the janitors take out trash to the dumpster below our window while a set of twin-brother busboys split a joint and kept an eye out for the management.

But now it was a pleasant L.A. night and we were bullshitting about award thank-you speeches. If people had a concept of what an Oscar-nominated screenwriting team looked like, it probably wouldn’t be anything resembling the two sloppy drunks who currently sat cross-legged facing the Pacific in some hour just before dawn. Not that I really felt like I could be an Oscar nominee. The screenplay had been reworked by the studio’s script doctors almost beyond recognition.

“I think we’ll win,” Jeremy said. “Did you see Venerable? Please. What a piece of shit movie.”

“Just tell me what you’d say,” I said.

“You know how they have best original screenplay before all the really huge awards, right? Best director, best actress, all that?” Jeremy said. “Well, it goes like this. They announce we win. One of us goes onstage to accept the award. Except when we give our thank-you-Mom speech, we instead say that we decline to accept the award. That the movie and the Oscar would not have been possible if tens of thousands of people hadn’t died. Then we say that we will leave the Oscar onstage to make a statement against genocide everywhere, Darfur, wherever. And then—here’s the kicker—we invite all of the other winners after us to leave their Oscars onstage next to ours if they want to say they’re against genocide. We set down the Oscar and make a big dramatic exit. And then who the hell wants to be the asshole who doesn’t set their award down next to ours and declare that they love themselves more than they hate genocide? They’d have to leave theirs onstage as well. And even if it’s just playing along, that is a huge message on the biggest of national stages, and—well, just imagine, we could be starting an entire movement.”

It was a hell of an idea and I would have been out of breath if I had tried to say all that, but Jeremy had always been a good talker. The first time I’d met him at an internship, he talked so much about the Mets and his ex-girlfriend that I hardly got a word in edgewise. It was only after we’d roomed together for a while that he’d cooled it a little. In those days, before we’d hooked back up with the same bureau, we’d be working ourselves to death just to get our foot in the door on a few lootings and minor crimes here and there. My favorite memories from back then were when we’d get home from work, exhausted, and sometimes we’d sit by the window and talk about all the good we were going to do by reporting the news—you know, that ‘truth-will-set-ye-free’ thing that most young journalists have. We weren’t unique in that respect. Jeremy would bring a joint, and we’d smoke and shoot the shit all night about saving the world from while watching peaceful life in Brooklyn go passing by from fifteen floors up. On nights like those it seemed like I could stay in New York forever.

And now we were thinking about how big names in liberal Hollywood would hate to have a genocide-sized dent in their reputations. I keep wondering how even stranger this is all going to seem when I get older. If Europe can have amnesia about a war, what stops my own history from sounding implausible? “The movie? Jeremy had come up to me one afternoon in Kuwait with a not-quite-plausible-at-the-time idea.” “We were going to change the world at the Oscars.” My life felt like hyperbole right now.

Jeremy rubbed his feet and ran his fingers up and down the neck of his beer bottle. My mind swirled with all sorts of complications with his Oscar plan: what if the conductor cut us off before we had a chance to finish our dramatic speech? What if they cleared the stage for some kind of absurd ballet performance and they had to remove our genocide Oscar? Worst, what if we stuttered a little too much in our acceptance, looked a little too insignificant, and we ended up like those kids in high school who planned the community service volunteer projects that no one went to?

But I didn’t say anything.

We sat there for a few minutes while the breeze drifted past us. Jeremy asked how I was doing, and ran a finger through his long blond hair, which he had grown out sometime before the filming of the movie. He said I’d been acting weird ever since we’d wrapped. I told him that we’d seen a lot of other people die in the course of our careers, and I didn’t know what Emira Arslanovic did to have her story deserve an Oscar.

He shrugged and stared out at the sea. His eyes were dulled over in the moonlight.

I’d been thinking about it a lot lately. Outside of her relationship with the Dutchbat captain, Emira hadn’t had much of a personality—the studio guys had filled one in for her on their re-write—and she hadn’t even been the first translator we’d lost. But one of the reasons she’d stuck out to me, outside of the smile—and now, outside of the movie—was that she’d never sat around talking about the ‘big question.’ Not the meaning-of-life ‘big question’—a lot of people around Bosnia still strutted around as if they already knew the answer to that one—but the other really big question, the one that was on everyone’s minds there:

Who had started the war?

What I had learned in Bosnia was that it felt like the sides had given up trying to compare atrocities to determine who was the most evil, and were instead endlessly debating whose fault the whole shit-storm was. And it was hard to convey that dialogue to the Western readership, because the discussion inevitably involved groups of people that the West hadn’t even known existed—Croats, Serbs, Muslim Bosniaks. It’d sometimes later keep me up at nights knowing that the closest the average American ever got to understanding the Balkan crisis was when President Clinton ordered airstrikes while being impeached: they just thought he was taking out his frustrations on some country that they’d heard of before. They only knew the word “Bosnia” because it was a drone-like hum in the background of their news, just insignificant enough to ignore, yet visible enough to recognize as being the name of a place they never wanted to fucking visit.

Just like everywhere else I worked.

This was my career.

A car driving on the boulevard below gave a long honk, and its pitch sagged as it passed. Jeremy shrugged again, and he said people were ready to hear the truth about what happened in Bosnia.

“The truth is Jenny Orr is four inches taller and thirty pounds lighter than Emira was,” I said. “It’s the Hollywood-izing of a tragedy.”

Jeremy smiled. “Goddamn athletes.”

He wanted to be the one who set the Oscar onstage. I just knew it. Maybe he deserved it. The whole project had been his idea anyway.

He said goodnight, and he went inside to bed to let the booze put him to sleep. I got a quick flash of those old days, though things obviously could never be the same. I sighed. At least I wasn’t abroad. Christ. I missed not knowing how fucked up everything was.

I looked back down upon the Hollywood boulevard below, watching the late-night traffic sweep by in anonymous little increments.



Anonymous little increments, like the Bosniaks who stream past the sides of our troop truck as we pass by. The Serb troopers are taking us to downtown Potočari, where thousands of Bosniak refugees clog the streets. For each block we pass our view is paced by masses of living bodies. Some not living. The stench is overwhelming. Most are moving but not sure where to go. Bosniaks wilt away from the Serbs with rifles who walk unfettered through the crowds. I have seen this sight before—soldiers with guns, unarmed crowds afraid. The uniforms are different, but it seems like the inevitable outcome is universal.

The truck stops near a white house and the Serb captain tells us to get out. He keeps Emira’s brother on the truck with a sharp grunt. A line of Bosniak men stare at the ground at Jeremy and I as we get out with Emira and her nephew. Just past a row of guards we see Serb troopers resting on the lawn. The Bosniak men are herded into the truck. Sweat rolls down their faces under the July sun. We lose sight of Emira’s brother behind the new tangle of arms and torsos in the back of the truck. The Bosniaks in the truck look at us. Their lives end soon.

The Serb driver turns on his radio as he rolls away. I hear Elvis.

We walk past the squat buildings downtown and become a part of the masses we had watched while driving by. As we pass we hear rumors of torture. One story says a Serb cut a boy’s throat in the middle of a crowd. Emira holds her nephew closer.

I notice Jeremy has been talking the entire time. I’m not sure when this started. But he’s not speaking to anyone, just himself. The pitch of his voice gets higher each passing minute, like Hail Marys of increasing desperation. But when I watch Emira’s face his words become like part of the scenery.

Her smile has tightened into a smirk. Her eyes dart across the crowd. Initially I think she is looking for friends and family. But she is looking for blue helmets, the Dutch UN peacekeepers. There are only a hundred or so in Potočari. Every now and then you can catch a flash of their uniforms among the people. The refugees swarm to them, plead for help. But the Dutch are not permitted to intervene. The UN has deemed it so.

We pass by a pair of peacekeepers and Emira does not turn her head. She’s looking for a specific one. The Dutchbat captain. Emira picks up her pace. She seems to know where she is going now, and she moves quickly. We struggle to keep up with her on the stretch of road pocked by months of Serb shelling. She practically drags her nephew behind her. The standing Bosniaks near us weep. Some sit, stone-faced, as if resigned to their fate.

Single gunshots slap somewhere in the distance.

We approach an old home near the Dutch compound. Serbs have already cleared the UN base and are loading Bosniak men into trucks. Trucks heading to warehouses and schools already stained with blood. A Serb trooper watches us pass and smiles. I turn my face away. When we approach the house I see the Dutchbat captain looking on from the yard. He is armed yet his hands are on his hips. He does not smile as he sees Emira approach with her nephew.

Emira is always smiling.

They meet. The Dutchbat touches Emira on the waist, touches her like there is something special about her. This makes me strangely jealous. The Dutchbat looks over his shoulder almost coyly, as if to say: Is love a crime? He then turns and leads Emira and her nephew into the old house. Another peacekeeper smokes on the porch. Watches them enter the house. The door closes.

Jeremy is still speaking. I try to listen to his words. He is still praying. Even though he stands next to me I feel like I am eavesdropping. But then suddenly without pause he changes gears. Describes sights and smells. Commentates with the tone of a field reporter. Runs a finger through his hair. Narrates his experience to himself. He is shaking. A rumbling sound comes from up the road. A column of old buses pass. The Dutch near us watch. The Serbs are separating the men from the women. The women will go on buses to Bosnian-held Kladanj, the men will stay and go on trucks later. Trucks headed for fields with holes. With bulldozers waiting to move earth over the holes.

I don’t belong here.

The porch door opens and Emira appears, alone. She pauses, then steps off the porch. No Dutchbat. No nephew. Alone.

She tells us she has to go now, saying it through a smile of gritted teeth. She begins walking up the street and we follow her. The masses of Bosniak bodies are in motion. Serbs direct the motion. Women go left. Men go right. Jeremy’s words speed up.

Someone shouts at Emira. A Bosniak?

No. The Serb captain from our truck. I don’t understand what he says, but Emira’s expression offers a translation: Where is the boy? Emira remains silent. The Serb captain approaches and repeats while Jeremy and I observe. Jeremy’s voice quiets to a whisper as Serb guards circle Emira. The Serbs have never been this brave in front of Western journalists. Like a kid, I feel like I should close my eyes, or else I’ll have the image of them tearing at her clothing buried somewhere in my memory forever.

Serbs grab, push, grope, punch, kiss, taunt, laugh, grope again. She falls on the ground. A guard pushes her face into a patch of mud. The Serb captain reaches for the fly of his pants while another tries to restrain her. I wish I had a gun, but that’s just wishful thinking. All I do is watch. Watching is my job.

Bosniaks stream by. The July sun pours down on everything.

Emira breaks free. She runs. The men follow. I already know how this story ends.

Except—

Something strange happens.

As she dashes away, I see her legs flash briefly and peer out from the tear in her skirt. And then, again, as they churn and wheel over the mud-caked road towards nowhere.
Something about Emira Arslanovic is not quite human.

It is the way she runs. Almost like a Greek goddess. Like she is immune to gravity. Like she has wings. I look, and I am not entirely sure I see her feet touching the ground. Your imagination can do funny things to you. She’s kicking up little clods of silt, so maybe she is not flying, but something is not right. She is getting away.

Something odd happens to me: the feeling of joy. It is a miracle.

Tears flow down Emira’s face, down past her grin, and she blows by us, defying all logic, each stride seeming twenty feet long compared to the slowing steps of the Serbs behind her. Her legs shine again, pale and strong, their muscles expanding and contracting—

And with the soldiers hopelessly falling behind, Jenny Orr runs out of the frame of the shot, and right out of reality.

Guillermo calls cut.

Jenny trails off and crouches down once her legs stop pumping. No one in the crew moves. The extras playing the Serbs stop running, and they put their hands on their knees and gasp for breath. The air on the set seems to radiate silence.

Except for the faint sound of protesters shouting in the distance. We did not start the war.
Jeremy turns to me and sees my face and asks in a whisper if an Oscar would mean everything was worth it. I don’t reply.

Jenny hasn’t stopped her actress’ tears yet. Behind the camera, Guillermo puts his hand on his face. A twenty-minute continuous take has just been completed. Four months of preparation for the panoptic second-to-last scene. Finished. The next, final scene is planned to be tragic in its simplicity.

We wait for Guillermo’s word. Success or failure. It’s almost like he can’t make up his mind.
But then after what feels like an eternity he stands up—abruptly. Voice hoarse, he calls for makeup and says to make plans for take two. The air is let out of the crew and all the actors in a collective fuck.

But not me. I still can’t accept that those nights watching over Brooklyn are lifetimes away now, and that those chants are my future.

Guillermo Rosado walks over and kneels by the side of Emira Arslanovic, and we all look on as he caresses her mud-streaked hair and whispers in her ear that she has to slow down so the guards can catch up.

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