‘I Know Your Soul’

Source: La Biennale di Venezia

‘I Know Your Soul’

Parents don’t know their children nearly as well as they think they do. That is one of the key insights in new Bosnian drama series I Know Your Soul, the first two episodes of which are screening this week out of competition in Venice.

Showrunner Jasmila Žbanić, the Oscar and Bafta-nominated director of 2020’s Quo Vadis, Aida?, wrote the story as a feature script several years ago but it was rejected by the Bosnian Film Fund. She never heard why. The script therefore “lay on my computer,” as she puts it. However, when Bosnian broadcaster BH Telecom announced bold plans to invest in TV drama, she saw a chance to revive it. This was the Covid period and so she had time to re-think the feature script as a six-part series.

“Suddenly a new door opened because I thought I could explore more things and I could go deeper into society from different angles,” Žbanić recalls.

This is a very Bosnian story. The main character is Sarajevo prosecutor and single mother Nevena, played by Jasna Đuričić, who gave a searing performance as the interpreter caught up in the Srebrenica massacre in Quo Vadis, Aida?. The story starts with a teenage boy committing suicide. Nevena’s adolescent rapper son Dino (Lazar Dragojevic) is at school with the boy but claims falsely not to know him. To add to the complications, Nevena is going through a divorce from Dino’s father.

Žbanić was showrunner alongside Damir Ibrahimović, with Alen Drjević and Nermin Hamzagić directing. The series was produced by Deblokada and BH Content Lab for Telecom Bosnia and Herzegovina. Beta Film has international distribution rights.

Žbanić had directed an episode of hit US HBO series The Last Of Us working under “wonderful showrunner” Craig Mazin. Inspired by his example, she decided she would take the same role on I Know Your Soul - but struggled to curb her desire to call the shots.

“[Showrunning] was a great experience but, on the other hand, it’s the last one I will do as a showrunner because as a director, I was constantly tempted to do my thing. Even if Martin Scorsese was sitting next to me, I would have said how he should do it!”

Žbanić believes that I Know Your Soul is richer and more layered as a TV drama than it would have been as a one-off movie. “I thought the original script gained a lot because I was able to explore the main subject which is parenthood and how much we know our kids.”

Jasmila Zbanic

Source: Deblokada / Imrana Kapetanovic

Jasmila Zbanic

Four of the episodes featured material that wasn’t part of the original film script. “It gave me the possibility with the six episodes to put lights from six different angles. That I really like about doing TV shows.”

Also different from film was the speed at which the episodes were shot. “Sometimes, I had the feeling we were coming to the edge of ourselves,” she says of the breakneck schedule.

Bosnia remains a deeply patriarchal society and children tend to stay at home for a long time, with the story was sparked by conversations Žbanić had with her own teenage daughter. “I always thought as a kid that my parents know me very well but once I had my own child, I was thinking, my god, they [our children] are completely different entities and we have no idea what is going on in their heads.”

Žbanić had little hesitation about casting Đuričić in the lead role, who she has known for years. “We are coming from the same world of theatre and film… she is questioning everything during the script readings. She changes scripts and we do a lot of rehearsals. And once she is ready [to shoot], she gives everything.”

It was trickier finding a young unknown to play Nevena’s son, Dino. “We knew that if this relationship didn’t work, then the whole show wouldn’t work. We tried for so long to find non-actors and young actors all over the region. Finally, we found Lazar in Montenegro. When we had them together, it was a huge relief. It was like we now finally had a show because without these two nothing would be possible.”

It helped that Lazar wasn’t just a talented actor. He could play music too. He was able to take on the rap songs and refused to allow the filmmakers to dub his voice when the producers fretted early on about his Montenegrin accent. “He didn’t allow anybody to replace him. He did it really, really well.”

Fault lines

I Know Your Soul also looks at fault lines within Bosnian society as a whole.

“Our society after the war was a mess, of course. All the institutions were falling apart and a lot of corruption was happening. One of the very fragile and important institutions was the judicial system which wasn’t functioning well,” Žbanić recalls. “People lost trust in institutions. This trust is something that interests me a lot and is part of the script, not only trust in institutions but between people. Society is broken when trust is gone. That is a very actual topic for Bosnian society. The thing is that if we believe that everybody is bad, then we are lost. That’s why I wanted to have this prosecutor who is not corrupt but is believed to be totally corrupt… it is very hard for her to go on knowing that nobody trusts her.” 

Žbanić believes this topic will have a deep resonance for Bosnian audiences. She was 17 when the war started in Bosnia in the 1990s, living in central Sarajevo close to the front line where the Serbian army was massing, “trying to get into the city.”

“The war is something that we still didn’t digest. One of the reasons is that we waited for so long to have justice,” she points out. It has taken a long time for war criminals to be prosecuted. Partly as a result, a whole generation grew up with a distorted view of history.

Politicians continue to milk the conflict to inflame passions and win votes. “Sometimes I have the feeling we are still in the same war [but] with ideas, not with weapons.”

When war broke out in Ukraine last year, Serbian politicians again began talking about seizing part of Bosnia. “Again, after 30 years, we are talking about the same shit,” Žbanić sighs. “We still didn’t work on our trauma…the trauma doesn’t disappear.”

The director makes no apologies for focusing so intently on stories about Bosnian politics and identity. Even working on a post-apocalyptic show like The Last Of Us, she saw parallels with what she and others had endured in Sarajevo under the siege. “I was putting a lot of my experience in that show which had nothing to do with Sarajevo and Bosnia.”

Žbanić is now collaborating with US producers on what she describes as “a completely entertaining” new project. “But I still feel I am able to add my own experience as a person who was in a war, who was in a most extreme human conflict, and to integrate it in a narrative that can put a light on human characters in a different way than maybe somebody who didn’t go through the same experience would do,” she concludes.