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Leon Gerskovic grew up in the former Yugoslavia and, while still a teenager, worked as a translator for foreign journalists covering the 1991-1992 war in Croatia. But after moving from the front lines to the Washington suburbs six years ago, he came to see how distant the conflict could seem to people with no direct ties to the region.

Watching the carnage on TV news, he realized that “it always seems so far away. You are never connected. I felt people needed to be told the story in a different way, so that people could feel a real connection between their lives and the lives of the people there.”

And so in June, Gerskovic and a Montgomery College classmate, Rob Shire, went to the Balkans to film personal testimonies for a film they’ve titled Crucible of War. “We didn’t interview any politicians, any spokespersons. We were not interested in that,” says Gerskovic.

Because Gerskovic is a Croat, he worked only in areas of the country where his presence would not be controversial. He and Shire sent two collaborators of contrasting backgrounds into other regions. “We wanted to tell the story of the people in Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, and Montenegro,” Gerskovic explains. “All the people who filmed this material were from the same ethnicity or the same background [as the people they filmed]—people they would be comfortable with— so they would be able to get the most truthful story.

“We never thought we would get as many stories as we did,” he adds. “We decided we would just go there and see what we could get. And that was the best approach that we could take.”

This tactic was inspired by a documentary about another European cataclysm—the Holocaust. At Montgomery College, Gerskovic and Shire saw The Last Days, a film about five survivors of the Nazis’ hurried attempt to exterminate all the Jews in Hungary before the Allies could win World War II. Gerskovic was struck by the evocativeness of small details from the survivors’ lives. “Those little things make you shiver,” he says. “Rather than statistics. That doesn’t click as much as those personal stories.”

Now they and third collaborator, co-producer Erica Ginsberg, have 40 hours of digital-video footage and no money to finish the editing process. The filmmakers are optimistic, however, that they can resume work soon. They have a fundraiser scheduled next month, and in the meantime have staked out a presence on the Web (www.crucibleofwar.com).

The site includes an extensive timeline and other aids to understanding the Balkans’ complex and sometimes murky history. But the filmmakers have heard from people who see parallels between Bosnia and Kosovo and such far-flung areas as East Timor. “I think the project has a universal message,” says Shire, “about how conflicts are taken on a personal level.”—Mark Jenkins