Filmmaker Ado Hasanovic revisits the Balkan War through his father’s archival video and diary footage

My Father's Diaries

Source: Visions du Reel

‘My Father’s Diaries’

Dir. Ado Hasanovic. Italy/France. 2024. 93mins

The Hasanovic family is from Glogova, a village in Bosnia and Herzegovina which was burned down by Serbian forces in May 1992. In My Father’s Diaries, Bosnian documentarist Ado Hasanovic pieces together the Balkan conflict as recorded in videos made by his father Bekir at the time. The result is a compelling, highly personal investigation in which the director nevertheless takes a back seat to his father’s story and footage. Three subsequent decades of turmoil worldwide might mean that this particular phase of European history has been forgotten by many, but that is all the more reason why Hasanovic’s modest but urgent testament deserves attention. 

A tangible visual interpretation of the ideas of memory that cannot be erased

The Bosnian experience of the war was documented on VHS by a trio of young men who dubbed themselves ‘Boys, Ben and John’ – Bekir Hasanovic (‘John’), Izet Beganovic (‘Ben’) and Nedzad Ahmetovic (‘Boys’) – and the footage comes to provide a substantial part of My Father’s Diaries. Their material is sometimes purely documentary, with the filmmakers often in front of the camera, but also contains sequences in which key incidents are reconstructed with the aid of Bosnian soldiers and other participants. Beganovic, often visible in the 90s footage, was killed during the war; Ahmetovic survived, but refused Ado Hasanovic’s requests to be interviewed.

In voice-over – presumably read by Ado – we also hear Bekir’s diary of events up to 1995, the year of the Serbian bombing and occupation of the city of Srebrenica. Cementing together these strands is Ado’s own footage, shot over the last decade up to Bekir’s death in 2020, of Bekir and his wife Fatima at home on their farm. 

This contemporary footage gives a particular charge to a film that feels all the more intensely personal because Ado downplays his own directorial presence, although he is sometimes seen with his parents. As with any work in which a filmmaker contemplates their parents in youth and in later years, the changes brought by age are unavoidably poignant – but that is especially true when one has to factor in the trauma suffered by a generation, and the effect on individuals who survived when so many did not. (The extent of the Bosnian death toll is clear in shots of Fatima brushing snow off the vast roster of names at the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial.) 

Part of the film’s power comes from the discrepancy between images of the young Bekir – bullish in front of the camera, but open about his despair and vulnerability in his diary – and the gruff, reserved patriarch who seems reluctant to reminisce. But Ado captures some fascinating family dynamics between Fatima, who coaxes her husband into collaborating with their son, and Bekir, who, while he grumbles at Ado for filming him, nevertheless seems to want him to tell the family’s story. 

My Father’s Diaries touches on wounds not easily healed, and the film is clear-headed in not aiming for facile reconciliation and catharsis. A particularly delicate topic raised but not pursued very far was the fact that, during his time in besieged Srebrenica, Bekir was involved with another woman while Fatima and their children, including Ado, were living elsewhere.

The film also draws on different resources to convey the horror of the war, including archive TV material and some grim footage shot by a Serbian paramilitary unit recording the execution of prisoners (with a cameraman heard in the background calmly complaining about his camera’s battery charge). Bekir’s diaries also record his tribulations on a vivid level; for example, his account of the hallucinogenic effects of a gas grenade. 

Hasanovic does not over-explain the events of that period, and jumps in chronology can be disorienting. And it comes as a revelation to discover how quickly events were memorialised as they happened, with the 90s footage showing adult musicians and child singers performing folk songs about incidents that had only just taken place. While the footage by ‘Boys, Ben and John’ has undergone digital restoration, the glitching, sometimes distorted textures of 90s VHS tape – possibly accentuated at points for artistic effect – brings a tangible visual interpretation of the ideas of memory that cannot be erased, and of that familiar idea ‘the fog of war’ – the fog, and the distress.

Production company: Palomar 

International sales: Mediawan Rights, Kilian Kiefel

Producers: Carlo Degli Esposti, Nicola Serra

Screenplay: Armando Maria Trotta, Anna Zagaglia, Ado Hasanovic

Cinematography: Ado Hasanovic 

Editing: Esmeralda Calabria, Elisabetta Abrami, Desideria Rayner 

Music: Iosonouncane