Ask a Film Curator for an honest assessment of their archive and most of us would admit to individual ‘treasures’, sparkling brighter in the mind’s eye than others, amid the vast and eclectic collections we hold. Arguably, all footage in IWM’s century-old film and video archive is noteworthy, but as curators we are subjective beings, drawn to a handful of favourites which speak to us more loudly than others, which move us to our core. Interrogating precisely why, reveals the very essence of that film.
One of my favourites sits within the United Nations Television (UNTV) collection, produced during the Yugoslav Wars. The collection contains TV reports on civilian stories and UN peacekeeping in former Yugoslavia and was broadcast in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and the (then) Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Deadline Video Letter* is one of dozens of impactful ‘video letters’, produced by UNTV, which record first-hand testimony, often of civilians sending heartfelt messages to displaced loved ones or speaking candidly about trauma they have experienced.
The title belies its depth. It is a short film of a group of talented teenagers, who perform together in a band called Deadline. Denim-clad and trainer-wearing, they would not have looked out of place hanging out anywhere in 1990s Europe. The film oozes the aesthetics of that decade and transports me back to my adolescence. It is soon apparent, though, that these teenagers live in the embattled city of Tuzla, filmed during the final year of armed conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in July 1995. Western rock music presents them with a chance for escapism; bands like Guns N’ Roses are their ‘idols’. In the rushes, they perform multiple takes of their version of ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’, interspersed with boisterous antics.
They chat to camera about how they pass the time together, in the midst of war. When the band plays, they tell us, they can forget the ‘terrible things’ going on around them. ‘We are going to show you what young people’s lives are like in Tuzla’ they say, ‘that life goes on in spite of the shelling.’ It is obvious from the start that this will be a film of contradictions; infectiously hopeful, whilst impossibly sad. As viewers, we want to find out more about these young people with their defiantly deafening music, sat together in a basement, drowning out bad memories and banishing fear that mortar shells may fall on their streets tomorrow.
Thanks to one of the band members getting in touch - entirely by chance - I have recently been able to learn a good deal more about the individuals in the Deadline video letter. Adnan Ahmetašević was just 16 years old when he was filmed by UNTV and in recent years he decided to search online for that footage, driven by curiosity, hoping it must now be on the internet. Discovering it had been deposited with the IWM archive – something he says he ‘never dreamed’ would happen - he reached out and made contact in spring 2020, as lockdown restrictions swept through Europe. We agreed to have a meeting online and he began to describe to me the altogether different restrictions he had endured growing up amid war.
I have now had a series of fascinating conversations about the UNTV films with Adnan. He has provided information about the video letter, which I would never have gleaned from just the archive documentation and tape labelling. I have been able to interrogate the uniqueness of the situation being filmed, consider the creativity of the UNTV filmmakers, as well as probe the challenges which the contemporaneous, often distressing, content of the collection can present. I was struck by the huge responsibility we have as Film Curators towards those people who appear in the films we hold. Some may value a chance to watch their former selves on screen, whilst others might prefer never to face that footage again.
The film starts with an upbeat feel, carried along to a toe-tapping soundtrack, as the band’s lead guitarist plays his opening chords. We see a group of teenagers striding towards us, some wearing shades, pounding the streets. The stylistic, monochrome visuals, prolonged by slow-motion, add to the building sense of expectation. Everything in the opening seconds of the film feels unusual: the UNTV collection is otherwise often sombre in tone, matching the seriousness of its mission of balancing United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) objectives with a commitment to civilians affected by conflict. This film, though, is deliberately evocative of a makeshift music video. This theme is toyed with later, through fast-cut, playfully angled shots, all fluidly filmed from an additional, hand-held camera, which just creeps into the edge of frame in the rushes.
‘For one day you were some kind of superstar in your neighbourhood’ Adnan recalls of the filming on the street above the basement, ‘Something new came to our life, different from our daily routine’. Yet the band knew virtually nothing about UNTV then – Adnan had never watched their broadcasts. This is hardly surprising, given that he could only watch TV for a couple of hours before dawn, when his part of the city received their allotted daily access to electricity and life whirred briefly into action in his apartment. Adnan believes the idea for the film originally came about because the producer, Richard Bramford (now known as Richard Lyntton), had heard their music when visiting a local TV station near the basement in which they played and came up with the idea to make a documentary about young people going about their lives in Tuzla below ground.
Scrolling text at the start of the film introduces the teenagers, whilst hinting at the filmmakers’ underlying intent; ‘This is their message to young people everywhere’. This desire to give voice to youngsters affected by conflict shows a deliberate attempt, seen elsewhere in the UNTV collection, to capture unheard or overlooked voices. Adnan reflects that they had not intended to say anything especially profound about the impact of war upon their formative years. The conflict was a reality of their daily life, and they were so young. ‘We just enjoyed the time we had’, he remembers.
In the film, Adnan explains; ‘I’m happiest when I’m here with my friends, because this is my life and I would like us to stay together’. Today Adnan recalls how they felt safe in the basement, which his friends had tidied up a couple of years previously, to create a rehearsal space. Given the ever-present threat of shelling, he says, ‘it was the safest place we could get at the time’. ‘You can’t keep young people in their homes 24 hours a day’, Adnan now reflects, and the basement had been somewhere safe where their parents didn’t mind them hanging out. The graffiti on the walls show how the band made the space their own.
From Adnan I learned that the people of Tuzla had often retreated to their basements for safety at the start of the war, but as the conflict dragged on, many risked staying in their apartments, so these shelters lay empty. The group practised together for a couple of hours a day, but they all knew where the key was hidden, so could let themselves in anytime. The film is peppered with shots of pipes protruding from walls and lightbulbs hanging from wires, adding to the subterranean, makeshift atmosphere. The war above feels far away, but details creep in to remind us of the surreal situation these teenagers faced. Metal fragments of weaponry, collected as mementos, lie scattered among their belongings.
That contrast between the ordinary and the extraordinary is present elsewhere in the film. The band are seen swigging soft drinks and eating sweets - rare treats shared by the UNTV crew earlier that day. Adnan told me how tough the previous winter had been, and how food had been scarce for everyone in the city, the band included. It is clear from their expressions, their movement, their youthful silliness and their smiles, that they are nevertheless living in the moment and, however briefly, trying to make the best of things.
‘I know these are not real instruments and this is not the right time to play music because of all the people who have lost their closest family, but that’s what it is like now and we have to go on and hope things will get better’, a young Adnan explains. Some of their instruments were homemade, at a time when non-essential items were scarce. Part of the drum kit was a remnant of an old washing machine, which they’d found in some rubbish. They stretched nylon over it and would tweak the taping to perfect the sound. Another drum part was an old bird seed container. A cymbal was made from part of a grenade. It was easy to source wartime souvenirs-of-sorts and Adnan smiled as he explained to me how someone’s relative (a metal worker) had crafted the detritus of conflict into something musical, almost like the real thing.
Another young band member is filmed saying: ‘Down here we really have a great time. But out there terrible things happen. Friends of ours get slaughtered. Just recently there was a massacre in Tuzla’. The massacre had happened on 25 May 1995, just two months earlier. A single shell, fired from a rocket by the Army of Republika Srpska, had claimed the lives of 71 young people in a part of Tuzla called Kapija. The square had been a popular hangout spot and many among the dead were teenagers - most between seventeen and twenty-five years old. The youngest was an innocent toddler, killed by a piece of shrapnel that struck his heart whilst sitting in his father’s lap. In addition to those who lost their lives, hundreds of people were wounded that night, some with life-changing injuries. The funeral for the victims took place days later at 4am, because of fears of further artillery attacks. Adnan explained to me that in Tuzla, everyone knew each other; the tragedy had touched every corner of the community.
The UNTV crew managed to convey the deep scars felt by those left behind following the massacre. One of the band members explains how he ran to see what had happened, soon after the explosion, and in the original rushes, the emotion prompted by that memory surfaces, as he briefly appears to lose composure; ‘There were many dead and wounded. I helped to evacuate the wounded to Gradina Hospital. There were scalps lying in the street, hands, heads…I was in shock. There were friends in the hospital who had been wounded or killed. Friends of mine were taken there that night and never came back.’ The filmmakers have deliberately juxtaposed light and shade - life and death - and in doing so, have shown (as in so many UNTV video letters) the power of first-person testimony to expose the impact of conflict at a deeply human level.
In peeling away at layers of this film, it becomes apparent just how many layers there are. Although we see a group of young people, playing their favourite song, joking around, and displaying their zest for life - like all teenagers do when hanging out with their friends - when the music stops, the stark reality of their situation is laid bare. At times, their eyes speak louder than their words. They must no longer know how safe they will be on their walk home, when they leave the basement in which they laugh together and lose themselves, for a while.
That sense of impending, ever-present danger, is brought home very starkly towards the end of the film, when the band take to the streets above again to stride towards the camera, summoning their inner rock-star personas. The filming is suddenly interrupted by what sounds like an explosion in the distance, and a siren starts to wail. Everyone in the street instinctively goes towards the ground and runs to shelter. The camera footage is shaky - the crew have also reacted. Adnan explained to me that this unscripted moment was a regular occurrence for them after years of war, just a ‘normal way of life’ they accepted stoically. That resilience - the necessity of survival - appears to flourish, like their friendship, amid the melodies within the film.
When I shared the video letter, and the rushes with Adnan, I was aware that the footage might bring back painful memories, but he reassured me that he wanted to view it. His response afterwards was that it had brought back a fond recollection of how the UNTV crew, true to their word, had supplied each band member with their own VHS copy a few weeks after filming. He remembered huddling together with his family in his apartment to watch it for the first time and feeling ‘so satisfied’ that they had collectively preserved a happier moment from a very difficult time.
Like so many bands, Deadline split up, soon after the war ended. As their individual lives took them off in different directions, the teenagers drifted apart, but re-watching this footage brought it all back to Adnan today. Since he has no photographs from this time, and his original VHS is no longer watchable, the film is even more special. For him, the unpolished rushes (which he’d never seen) had been most powerful, and he had watched and re-watched the footage, as any of us would when confronted with a former version of ourselves and friends from long ago.
We talked about why it is important that documentary footage like this is seen, acknowledging these are not easy stories to watch, nor might they be they easy for everyone involved to revisit. Adnan has shown the film to his family, prompting conversations with them, as well as memories. He has since reconnected with one of the other band members. Ultimately though, the complexity of his response remains a private one. That is something important, which I will carry with me always as a curator, as I walk the careful line between preservation and storytelling, and whenever I hear of the Tuzla massacre.
For those of us far removed from the brutal realities of war, for those of us who weren’t there, relating to what it means to try to live with that kind of pain and to come to terms with that level of loss - on such a scale and of lives so young - is something we may never be able to fully comprehend. Yet anyone who watches the Deadline video diary is offered a hopeful insight, which burns brighter than the undercurrent of sadness, and therein lies its essence. In the wake of tragedy, the ‘Deadline’ teenagers show us that strength emerges from togetherness, and music can feed the soul. As Adnan told me: ‘Music is not only a hobby. Music is a treatment. Music is a healer’. That sentiment sums up the beauty of this bitter-sweet film, showing above all that the human spirit is capable not only of enduring terrible things, but of surviving them, to find a way to go on living.
* (IWM holds various versions of the video letter, including UNT 715, DEADLINE VIDEO LETTER [Main Title] | Imperial War Museums (iwm.org.uk). Stills above are taken from footage within the United Nations Television (UNTV) Collection; specifically from film UNT 818, UNTV PROGRAMME NO 142 [Main Title] | Imperial War Museums (iwm.org.uk) and film UNT 715X, https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1060017328).