Two friends who have lost touch exchange videotaped letters, catching each other up on what they've done, where they are, how they're feeling. Sounds simple. But not in the former Yugoslavia, where the brutal wars of the 1990s wrenched apart lifelong neighbors, colleagues and friends, who found themselves abruptly separated by ethnic identities that had previously seemed incidental to who they were. Some stayed, some had to escape. No one was unchanged.
Dutch documentarians Eric van den Broek and Katarina Rejger created the Videoletters project to tap into these stories, becoming the initiators of moving reconciliations and spurring a movement.
In each Videoletters installment, two people of different nationalities driven apart by the war record and send each other a video letter, and the documentary team moves back and forth from country to country, delivering the tapes and documenting the progress towards reunions. The stories are heartbreakingly emotional.
The first Videoletter was created five years ago with the story of Emil and Sasa. Once inseparable friends in the Bosnia & Hercegovina city of Pale, Emil -- son of a Muslim father -- had to escape to the Netherlands when the war started; Sasa was forced to join the Serb army. 10 years later, the two friends have not spoken since, partly because rumors have reached Emil that Sasa "did something horrible" during the war. As the men exchange tapes, each wonders if they really knew the other.
It's not clear at the outset whether the rift between two young men can even begin to be mended, but the taped exchanges become a chance for reconciliation that both embrace.
In Vlada and Ivica, we see a Serb family dissolve into tears on their couch as they watch the video from their old Croatian friend: "We are still friends, none of you are guilty, we don't blame all Serbs." In Mujesira & Jovisa, Mujesira, a Muslim woman, asks old neighbors for help finding the bones of her son and daughter, who were killed as the three of them tried to hide in the forested hills near Visegrad. "I live only to bury them," she says. By the end of this installment, connections have been made, but the bones are not yet recovered and nothing is resolved.
Van den Broek and Rejger acheived the seemingly impossible when they got 7 national television stations, across the whole of the former Yugoslavia, to agree to air Videoletters, showing the same episode on the same weeknight. The broadcasts began on April 7, and have become some of the most-watched television in the former Yugoslavia.
The filmmakers have also been touring the countries in in a Videoletters bus, complete with multiethnic crew and a five-piece band, to present local screenings. Returning to places where they were sometimes given a hostile reception, they're now being celebrated -- the screenings, discussions and debates creating spaces for expressions of emotion long held back. There are now 60 sites across the region where people can record their own video letters and try to reconnect with lost friends. The project's extensive web site offers resources for finding a friend, including recording videoletters, and will eventually have all 20 episodes produced by van den Broek and Rejger available to view online.
According to the New York Times, Rejger and van den Broek have been invited to initiate similar projects in Israel and Palestine, Russia and Africa; they say they will happily train and support others to do this work.
Videoletters is showing this week at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York City, in two groups of three episodes each. Go, and be sure to bring tissues.
HRW also makes available a traveling festival for the US and Canada.