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Last Updated: Monday, 21 March, 2005, 08:30 GMT
Autism film tells a nation's story
Geoff Adams-Spink
BBC News website disability affairs correspondent

A film about post-conflict Serbia - with a young, autistic actress in one of the lead roles - is being shown in London as part of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival.

Photo of Jovana Mitic
Jovana Mitic gives a strong performance in a powerful drama
A Midwinter Night's Dream is a dark piece by Serb director Goran Paskaljevic which focuses on a man still haunted by his wartime memories.

When Lazar (Lazar Ristovski) comes home to reclaim his mother's house in a desolate town outside Belgrade, he finds Jasna (Jasna Zalica) and her 12-year-old autistic daughter, Jovana (Jovana Mitic), squatting there.

It emerges that he had deserted from the Serbian army, sickened by the atrocities his unit was ordered to commit against civilians.

He turns to alcohol and accidentally kills his best friend in a drunken fight.

His return home is after a ten year jail sentence.

Although his initial inclination is to throw Jasna and Jovana out of the house, a tentative friendship soon emerges.

Paskaljevic says Jovana's autism is a sort of political metaphor for the behaviour of Serbia during the conflict.

"I think my country somehow became autistic - people were forgetting everything and I had a feeling that we were living in a world that was completely closed," he told the BBC News website.

Authenticity essential

He is adamant that he would not have achieved the same dramatic results had he not used a disabled actress.

He met Mitic at an institution for people with learning difficulties.

He spent six months gaining her trust before he shot a single frame.

"You can't control her at all, she is like she is," he said.

"You shoot lots of footage and hope you get what you want - that's why I used a digital camera."

He said it was essential that Jovana's autism was genuine in order to convey the truth.

As the film progresses, Lazar and Jovana become very close - he even tells his family that she is his daughter.

Photo of Lazar and Jovana at a family party
Lazar and Jovana form a close bond as the film progresses
But he has difficulty accepting that her condition is permanent and even tries to "exorcise her demons" with the aid of a priest.

Jasna is horrified when she finds out about Lazar's efforts to "cure" her daughter.

"This is her! This is her life," she yells.

After a tragic turn of events Lazar finds himself trapped by images of war, atrocities and the senseless crime that led to the death of his best friend.

"I think towards the end of the film Lazar himself becomes autistic," said Paskaljevic.

Audience outrage

When A Midwinter Night's Dream was released in Serbia audiences were shocked at the film's candour about Serbian complicity in war crimes.

One cinema phoned to say that people were coming out shouting "traitor!".

I think this film has hopefully made people less awkward about disability
Goran Paskaljevic, director

"They asked me, if they stopped showing the film, whether I would be angry," he said.

"Unfortunately in Serbia we're still not mature enough to accept this kind of truth - the film's a little bit ahead of its time."

Mitic is still a regular visitor at the Paskaljevic household - he felt it would be too great a shock to end contact abruptly when the shoot was finished.

But he did worry that her new-found fame would bring unwelcome attention.

Her real mother told him not to worry, that it would help to educate the public about conditions like autism.

"I think this film has hopefully made people less awkward about disability," said Paskaljevic.

A Midwinter Night's Dream will be shown at the Ritzy Cinema in London on Tuesday.

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