Jasmila Zbanic talks about her two new films, Bosnia today, Emir Kusturica’s controversial Andricgrad project and future work.
Jasmila Zbanic announced herself to the film world with startling debut Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams, which won the Berlin Golden Bear in 2006.
Zbanic returns to the fallout of the Bosnian War with her first English language film For Those Who Can Tell No Tales, about an Australian tourist who discovers the silent legacy of wartime atrocities when she arrives in a seemingly idyllic small town on the border between Bosnia and Serbia.
The film stars Australian performance artist Kym Vercoe, who was herself inspired to write performance piece Seven Kilometres North-East after a 2008 visit to Visegrad and the Vilina Vlas hotel, both sites of atrocities during the conflict.
Zbanic’s latest takes a lead from the director’s own experience growing up in Bosnia during the war and from Vercoe’s performance piece.
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Why did you want to tell this story?
I had been preparing comedy Love Island for some time. But when funding for that slowed up, I thought I would make something smaller.
It is twenty years since the Bosnian war and I had been wanting to make something to mark it. The war was a long time ago but for me, it feels like only yesterday.
By chance I saw a DVD of Kym Vercoe’s Seven Kilometres North-East. I was amazed by her story and performance. I thought it was a perfect - because it showed all I felt after 20 years since the war started. People often say my films are about war but I’ve never made a war film as such. My films are actually about today, about contemporary society, and the lasting impact of war on now.
So I contacted Kim who was in Australia and said: ‘I love your show, I think it could be a movie, shall we do something?’ and she said: ‘I’m coming’. I didn’t have any money to make the film at the time. However, my production company Deblokada had just finished doing some production services work on the Sergio Castellito, Penelope Cruz film Twice Born, which shot here. So we put our salaries towards make a film with Kym.
We initially thought we’d make an experimental documentary but when Kim came here and we started writing we realised it had to be a narrative feature.
Who were the financiers?
We financed the film the wrong way round, really. For various reasons we were only able to approach financiers after we had started shoot. That meant we missed out on some soft money and had to be innovative in how we financed the film, going to a lot of private financiers and foundations [backers include the Doha Film Institute]. It was a steep learning curve for us, learning about things like financial water falls.
The backers were mostly private. Some of them were a great help. But they largely wanted to stay anonymous because the film deals with serious, real crimes. It is a sensitive subject matter. The Serbian authorities who govern the Bosnian municipality of Visegrad wouldn’t let us shoot in the Vilina Vlas Hotel, for example, where many Bosnian women were raped.
That hotel, which plays such an important part of the story, is now a tourist location, right?
They’re trying to make it one but it smells of crime. At the moment, in Visegrad, the same Serbian authorities who are denying the genocide are investing €12m in Emir Kusturica’s new “art city” Andricgrad. But that’s just political bullshit - a political decision to cover genocide. You wouldn’t build a cinema and art academy in Auschwitz, would you?
In the city of Visegrad, in the first two months of the war, 1,785 people were slaughtered. Many were killed or raped on bridges in plain daylight. They were slaughtered like chickens and dumped in the river Drina.
Ed Vulliamy of The Guardian wrote that in 1992 a director of a hydroelectric plant had complained to the authorities about the flow of corpses down the river. Before the war a large number of Bosnian muslims lived there. Now there is nobody. The town was completely ethnically cleansed and today people are not even allowed to put up a memorial for their killed families.
But you managed to shoot the exterior of the hotel?
Yes. I had to pretend that a Serbian friend of mine was directing a tourist film. Since my film Grbavica, and when I talked at the Berlinale that year about war criminals living freely in today’s Europe, I am persona non-grata in that area.
The film addresses the concept of wilful amnesia?
Yes. Denial and silence. People saw what happened but no-one is talking about it. The city and the local apparatus refuses to talk about it. But healthy air can only come from people putting everything on the table.
Do you think local Bosnians want to be reminded of it?
No. Everyone is saying ‘ugh, another film about the war, why don’t you make a comedy?’, but I think it’s important. It reveals something about this area but also about the human condition.
Are those tensions from 20 years ago still evident in Bosnian society today?
In general, the powers from the war are still integrated into the government. That creates tension. Those powers make millions of euros from transforming public property into private property and they are spreading fear to keep their economic power. It is not about national or religious hatred. It’s all about money.
Being your first English-language film, did you approach the process differently?
It was Kym’s story so it was a logical conclusion to do the film in English. Kym could always check the language on set. I still don’t know where to put an ‘a’ or ‘the’ but I can tell what is good acting.
When will the film screen in Sarajevo?
After San Sebastian.
And in Visegrad?
I’m trying but it will be very difficult. Maybe Emir will invite the film to his art city. That would be progressive. But I doubt his sponsors would allow that.
Is the war evident in your other new film Love Island?
It’s a family battle this time. It’s a romantic comedy shot at the seaside in Croatia. There is a different kind of politics in this film – the politics of the family.
There was some controversy about that film’s funding?
We were denied funding from the Bosnian Culture Ministry’s Cinema Fund because the head of the jury, who is also the head of the Bosnian Film Academy, awarded his company 80% of that year’s film funding. The story at the time was that the film was rejected for funding because of homosexual and pedophilic content. But that wasn’t the reason. It was because of corruption.
The Bosnian Association of Filmmakers didn’t say a word. Only a few individuals protested, like Danis Tanovic. I was really mad. That pushed me towards funding from Croatia. But in the end, it turned out to be a liberating experience as we received funding from a number of other sources.
The film is multi-lingual?
Yes. I co-wrote it with the Bosnian novelist Aleksandar Hemon. It stars Ariane Lebed [Attenberg] Ada Condeescu [Loverboy), Franco Nero, and Leon Lučev, who also co-produces the film.
The story follows a pregnant French woman who lives in Sarajevo with her Bosnian husband and their daughter. They go for a vacation at a Croatian island, where things get complicated when they all become attracted to a beautiful woman.
The film is a co-production between Croatia’s Produkcija Živa, Germany’s Komplizen Film, Switzerland’s Okofilm Productions and my Deblokada.
It sounds great. By the way, I was talking to Sarajevo Film Festival head Miro Purivatra recently about the incredible birth of the festival. I was surprised to hear there hadn’t been a film made about that extraordinary story…
Yes, it’s true. There are also happy stories from the war. People don’t expect that. I lived here during the war. Beside all the horrible things there was also love and fun. As a human being you need to maintain your dignity. You wash. You wear nice clothes, You try and go out as much as possible. For example, I fell in love during the war. There aren’t enough films like that.
Would you mind it if was told by a non-Bosnian?
Not at all. Maybe it would be even better if it wasn’t so there could be some positive distance between director and subject. Many examples for that: David Lean made Dr Zhivago and Russians speak English, but story is universal.
I have a few things in mind. One is a bigger production dealing with Srebrenica and the role of Dutch UN soldiers. It will be English-language since most of the film takes place at a UN base. I bought the rights for the book Under the UN Flag by Hasan Nuhanovic who was a translator for UN. His whole family was killed among 8,000 other Bosnians. It would be quite a big production so will need time. I will direct and likely co-write it. I would like to keep busy, though, so I might make a smaller film in the meantime.