The Bosnian Oscar winner has offered his services as producer to a Middle Eastern project at the Doha Film Institute’s inaugural Qumra Masters sessions.

Speaking to Screen, Tanovic said he was so impressed by one project he mentored that he wanted help it get made. He declined to name the project until his involvement was confirmed.

“Most of the stories we’ve seen on screen from the Middle East have been made by European or American film-makers…it’s so important for them to develop their industry,” said Tanovic.

“I think the Gulf and the Middle East is a goldmine that hasn’t been investigated yet.”

Tanovic, who served as a mentor at the Qumra event connecting film-makers with industry experts, said he had seen how an event like the Sarajevo Film Festival helped local film-makers in the Balkans, particularly the co-production market CineLink.

“Now that is what this region needs; you’re building something from the ground up.”

But he noted the difference between Qatar and Bosnia. “We are a poor country that is still struggling with the demons of war,” he said. “Qatar feels like a pioneer country… the way they treat science and knowledge should be reproduced around the world.”

Tanovic, who teaches directing at the Academy Of Performing Arts in Sarajevo and whose No Man’s Land won the foreign language Oscar in 2002, has a handful of features in the pipeline but doesn’t know which will shoot first. “I have two in Bosnia, one in England, one in Lebanon and one maybe in the US,” he said.

In an industry masterclass, he mentioned that Kathleen Kennedy had approached him with a TV project, although discussions stopped when she became busy with Star Wars.

He joked that he would love to see “a Bosnian guy doing Star Wars. It would be a social drama in space.”

Early influences from Disney to Italy

In his Qumra industry masterclass, Tanovic remembered the first film he saw – Walt Disney’s 1970 Aristocats. “I was not one of those geniuses who watched art movies when they were four,” he joked.

The film-maker watched Eastern and Western films on TV and shared his father’s love for Italian cinema. “Italian cinema was a big part of my growing up,” he said. “For me the history of cinema is mainly Italian cinema.”

Tanovic spoke of the Bosnian war’s importance in his training as he stole two cameras from his film school to document the tragedy around him in his early 20s.

“People may despise me for it but if you are a film-maker you need a camera! As a member of the defence forces we had total freedom to go and film whatever happened and go wherever we wanted – we were gathering material to give to journalists who couldn’t go to those places.”

Working with non-fiction was important to him. “Life can often be a much better writer than you can be.”

Early Oscar glory

The war came to the forefront in No Man’s Land. “I was never happy with the way war had been presented [on film]. I lived through war. The only lesson I had is that everything is better than war. Nobody wins.”

“I always wanted to tell the story of the absurdity during the war. Humour is a way to survive,” Tanovic added.

He shot the darkly comic Oscar winner in only 26 days, including one shooting day that had 27 set-ups. The lauded film changed his career. “Winning an Oscar helps you get paid much more money for what you do,” he said matter-of-factly. And it also helped the Bosnian industry grow. “Bosnia winning an Oscar was the first big victory.”

For his second feature, 2005’s L’Enfer (Hell), Tanovic wanted to do “something completely different.” He took the late Krzysztof Kieslowski’s original script and “made it more humanist instead of religious,” he remembered.

“I wanted to prove that I can shoot something that is highly stylised.” He added: “this film was really misunderstood in many ways…it was my homage to Kieslowski; I would never compare myself to him.”

Story is key

For Tanovic, story is key in any project. “You rarely see a good film with a bad screenplay,” he advised.

That doesn’t have to mean a highly polished script. For his 2013 Berlin Golden Bear winner An Episode In the Life of An Iron Picker, shot in verité style on a budget of just 17,000 Euros in eight days, he said: “I had no screenplay but I knew I had a good story. I knew I needed to tell this story. I was angry… These people need to become real in our eyes.”

“I made this film against the odds,” he said of the story about s marginalised Roma family living in small-town Bosnia. “But I believe when you have something to say you have to just go and do it. We’d all love to have millions of dollars to make films but that doesn’t always happen.”

For 2010’s Cirkus Columbia, shot in Herzegovina, he said: “I always wanted to say to the generation of my parents, ‘Look at what you’ve destroyed.’” The film showed society on the verge of a “useless, futile war,” the director added.

His latest film Tigers, which premiered in Toronto, looks at a scandal involving babies who died after consuming infant formula in Pakistan. It was a project he had been developing for eight years. “This is a film made for people in Pakistan. I want people in Pakistan to see this. It’s important when making films to make it for your public.”

Tanovic encouraged film-makers at Qumra to explore politics but also to stay safe in doing so. “For any political film-maker, I say stay safe and stay alive.”

“The funny thing about being a film-maker is that we all have different ways of thinking, filming, living. We are each a lone wolf working with our own little tribe and you have to figure out what is right for you.”