Born in Sarajevo in 1974, Jasmila Žbanić feature debut “Grbavica” won the 2006 Berlinale Golden Bear, the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, the AFI Fest Grand Jury Prize and was sold to over forty territories. “On the Path,” her second film, premiered in Competition at the 2010 Berlinale and won numerous awards. Jasmila’s third film, “For Those Who Can Tell No Tales,” made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and won the inaugural Femme de Cinéma Award at the 2013 Les Arcs Film Festival. Her latest film, “Love Island,” premiered at the Locarno Film Festival in 2014. Jasmila’s films and video works have been displayed at dozens of art exhibitions worldwide. She is also the recipient of the 2014 KAIROS Prize.
Tara Karajica caught up with her at the 2018 Les Arcs Film Festival, where she was a member of the Feature Film Jury.
Why did you go into directing?
Jasmila Žbanić: When I was a kid, I would always tell other kids to do something like, for instance, put on a sort of performance, and I would tell them what to do, which songs to sing and which dialogues to say… I would sell tickets to neighbors and we would have this big opening day and then we would all go for an ice-cream with this money. I was looking forward to the holidays so that I would have time to do this with my friends. I was never the kid who wanted to become an actor, a singer or a model. I was always dreaming of this putting on this performance. I was nine when my uncle bought a camera and he would film all the family gatherings and weddings just for us and I would always ask him to give me this camera so that I could make a little story and I would engage my cousins, my grandpa and everybody and I would give them a role while they would sit at the dinner table at our place and I would make something that for me was a little film.
Telling something to the audience was really my passion from the beginning. And then, I wrote a lot of stories and writing was the thing I enjoyed the most. Very early on I thought: “OK, I am going to be a director” and somehow I learnt what it meant to be a director: it meant what I had been doing all along as a child. That is how I understood it. Then, my parents who had nothing to do with Art, told me: “But we can’t help you, we don’t know anything about this. How would you survive?” But I didn’t care. For me, the most important thing was to go to the University and I did it. However, our circumstances changed because at that time, when I was seventeen, the war broke in Bosnia. I had to go to University, which was absolutely crazy! There was no electricity, no food, under constant shelling, and we were still learning about filmmaking. But I think for my colleagues, my professors and myself, this pretending that it was a normal life was really helpful to survive.
Can you talk about Deblokada that you set up when you came back from the U.S.?
J.Ž.: Yes. I was in the States with the Bread and Puppet Theater and we did a lot of shows and, at the time, the war was still going on in Bosnia, and we also did shows about the situation there. Then, I decided to go back and establish Deblokada with my colleagues. Deblokada means “breaking the siege” because Sarajevo was under siege during the war, so I thought that even if the physical siege didn’t exist anymore and we were finally free to go out of town, we still had a mental siege; a lot of sieges actually… In the heart and in the brain… And people still couldn’t communicate in a proper way. I liked this name and we chose it for this group that started out as an artists’ association that did short films and documentaries at the beginning, growing slowly and understanding how to work. The generation before us made films the socialist way and, suddenly, this didn’t exist anymore and we had to invent another way to do it. There was nobody to show us how to do it, so we had to really suck in all the knowledge from books or friends that we met along the way. That’s how we managed to produce films.
Can you talk about Grbavica, your breakthrough film?
J.Ž.: It’s a film we’ve been preparing for many years. For me, it is a very emotional story about rapes. I had to do a lot of research, talk to many women and it was very hard for me to find a way to transpose it into a fiction film. I remember that for one of the first versions of the script, I was so angry with what happened and I had written a very angry script and was not good at all! It took me a lot of time to understand how to make it into something that can communicate with people, but also how to make my character a human being and not a mere messenger. This was a long process and financing it was also quite tough because it was my first film; there were no funds from Bosnia and we had to do a European co-production. But then, we thought: “OK, we want this film to be seen by as many people as possible” and we wrote to the Berlinale…
That is the story of the letter to Dieter Kosslick!
J.Ž.: Yes! When I talked to the Berlinale selector who was in Sarajevo watching films, she said: “You know, you’re a first-time director, this film is not in English, there are no stars, so I will not give it to the selection committee to see it. It can maybe be seen by some small sidebar programs” and I was so angry I didn’t have a chance for the selection committee to see it because somebody already had a preconceived idea that if you come from Bosnia, you can’t expect much. These kinds of things were so unjust to me and I don’t like injustice, so I wrote a letter to say that this wasn’t fair, and asked them to, at least, see the film, and of course, if they didn’t like it, they could reject it. There was something in the letter that made them decide to see it and the next day, I got an invitation, which was really, really great! It is a film that I love and I fought like a lioness for it.
And you won the Golden Bear!
J.Ž.: The festival really accepted it, which was beautiful! And with awards, it’s all about constellations. Our constellation was good at that moment because we had a woman President of the Jury [Charlotte Rampling] who was very sensitive to the subject. If it had been another director or actor who was President of the Jury, maybe they would have looked for something else. Sometimes, the jury says: “We are interested in a new cinematic language, new techniques…” but what I read even before about this jury was that they would go about their decisions with emotions and I thought: “Ah! This is good for me!” If it had been a jury who was looking for new techniques in filmmaking, they wouldn’t have appreciated my film.
Your films are with people from Bosnia and are very character-driven. Your characters are developed and are never black or white. They are very human with all their complexities…Can you talk about that?
J.Ž.: When I write, I put myself in the position of the character in the first versions and then I learn what is different from me and then I conquer a new territory in order to find out what is different. I try not to know what will happen to the character at the end. For example, with Grbavica, I said: “I know she will have a child from the rape and she, of course, cannot say this to a child, but there must be a moment where you have to say it and I want to transform this destruction into something constructive in this relationship.” So that’s the only thing that I knew I wanted to try to do, but I didn’t know “this will be this or this” because then you sometimes push your characters in certain directions which are not natural for them, so I try to let it flow.
You also use Film to explore problems and issues relating to life and especially in the situation in Bosnia. You also give a very big place to rape in your films like for instance Grbavica and For Those Who Can Tell No Tales.
J.Ž.: Yes, of course. Certain subjects are very, very painful for me, so they are things I want to talk about. For Those Who Can Tell No Tales is a very different film for me; it’s more about how to remember, what to do once you find out about certain things. This was sort of another subject for me although it does mention rapes in Bosnia, but I was really interested in it from a totally other perspective: the character is a foreigner and it’s also a different way to see and observe things – not from inside but rather from outside. For me, this was also an important and interesting journey.
At last year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, you talked about this collaborative way of filmmaking. Can you explore this statement a bit more?
J.Ž.: I definitely think filmmaking is a collective work. I like auteur Cinema as an idea, but I think it is never one person who does it. For me, this is a very patriarchal way of looking at Cinema; there is the author who is God, who is always a man and he is always a genius, and the rest of crew are just slaves to this idea. This is not filmmaking how I see it. But I really think that every author who is involved in the process of creating a film, be it a producer, an actor, etc. brings something of their own and we together make something. I offer a vision but, in this vision, everybody brings a chair, food, etc. and then it’s not only my vision; it’s something that we share and create together. In this process that is very organized, the director has to lead in order for everything to be effective and go smoothly, but I also never see myself as an authority who does it; I see myself as the most responsible person, but every suggestion is welcome and people know they can tell me anything, especially if they think something is not functioning, which is very important. This relationship based on honesty and trust in each other is very important.
What do you think of the way Cinema is evolving today?
J.Ž.: In general, I am questioning the fact of what is Cinema today and what it will be tomorrow because in a way, I think we are living something that is already over, but I don’t know what new has yet to come. I think Internet platforms are good because they share things, but the experience in the cinema where people sit and go through something together is really crucial for society. I don’t know how we can transform this experience so that it can fit the contemporary world, but we should never abandon this idea of watching films in a community. During this festival, the jury watched a film, sitting in the same line and on my right side was one member and on my left side was another, and we started crying at the same moment because the film was so touching. And my emotions were doubled because of these two people and their emotions were doubled as well because of this. We went through something so special together – we met only a few ago and because of Cinema we know each other so deeply now! That is incredible because of these collective feelings that we shared. I am afraid that if we just watch certain things at home, in our bed, with our laptop, this kind of communal exchange and knowing each other will disappear and will weaken society and of course, us. So I know we live in a time where old-fashioned Cinema is over and I don’t know what will come yet, but we have to keep this idea of working and watching films together.
You are a big figure in European Cinema today and your films are all co-productions. Where do you see European Cinema going and how do co-productions help create its European characteristics? Does the fact that a film is being made by three or four countries make it a truly European film?
J.Ž.: I think European collaborations are really important and to be very clear, without European collaborations, I wouldn’t have been able to make any film. If I only depended on Bosnian film funds, I would probably be a housewife because it wouldn’t be possible to make films. All my films have been finished thanks to European collaborations.
Do you think these co-productions and collaborations are what makes a film truly European because it embodies the values of the European Union just by the mere fact of being a co-production?
J.Ž.: Yes, because if I send my script to the Austrian co-producer, he/she will find value in it, which is also something their audience will appreciate. It means that it tells a universal story. It tells something that is important for Austria. Then, the same goes for France or Germany; we are making something that is important for all of us, something that is there and that we all want to say through this particular script or some other script.
You say that your films start with huge emotions and then they have to find their own way. Can you explain that statement?
J.Ž.: There are lot of ideas that come to my mind, but they come and go and I try to research some and I forget some. But only those that come with huge emotions stay with me. It’s the first emotion and then I go into research and I make a form later. But this fire at the beginning has to warm me up, otherwise I think I would not be able to sustain this process due to the way I have to make films because I come from Bosnia. It takes years to make a film! And only films I think are really worth making would give me enough energy for all this time.
There is a lot of talk about women in film today. What is your opinion on that? And where do you position yourself in this discussion, debate? How is the situation in Bosnia?
J.Ž.: I come from a patriarchal society where, when I started working, there were almost no women who were making fiction films. It was very awkward to be with a film crew that think women are not equal and are not able to do what men are. I felt this from the very moment I entered University. There, we never had a single lecture about women filmmakers; for four years, professors would only talk about men. So you grow up thinking that you are totally weird, you feel isolated and that you are maybe a strange person because you want to do this job. But, for me, it was very clear. I can do it as well as a man, but you felt this energy all the time. After my first film, this energy was gone and nobody ever questioned it and even in the language itself, when I started working, everybody called our profession “reditelj” which is a male form like “doctor.” But, for example, there is a female form for doctor in Bosnian, which is “dokotorica” and it is normal for our language. But absolutely nobody used “rediteljica” and when I insisted people call me this way, they would say: “No, it’s weird, I’m breaking my tongue” and now, not a single newspaper, TV station or person says for me that I am a “reditelj.” Everybody says I’m a “rediteljica.” Everybody. It takes some time, but people get used to it and people have to accept it.
I definitely know that many decisions are made by men in this industry, which does not go in favor of women. There is a kind of boys club that is ruling the industry in the production stages, at film festivals, in the distribution and world sales and I am very happy with these discussions about women and the statistics that women are producing which show how much inequality there is, not to mention that we are paid less than men for every job. A friend of mine, director Sabine Derflinger, always calls her male colleagues to ask: “How much do you get paid? Tell me.” And they say: “But I can’t tell you how much I get paid” and she says: “Tell me because I am accepting this job and if I’m paid less, you will suffer later. Tell me how much it is. We have to maintain equality.” And I think this is the right way to do it. Of course, every time she talked to her colleagues, we all realized we were offered much less. It has always been like this. So the problem’s real and we have to fight it in a real way. I think many organizations and individuals are doing great things. 50/50 by 2020 is also a wonderful thing. I think women have to share stories and mention them publicly.
I have a husband who is a really wonderful person, but when we watch certain films, I end up being really angry with the treatment of female characters. I am so angry with the film and I cannot stand it and my husband doesn’t even notice it. So I don’t think somebody’s doing purposely a selection based on the fact they lack sensibility towards women’s subjects, but I think that there absolutely need to be women in the selection committees of festivals. Women also have to be directors of festivals, funds and institutions that are making decisions…
What would you say to a young woman who is starting out as a director and who would come to you for advice?
J.Ž.: For young filmmakers, like in every profession, passion is the most important. You have to really love what you do and then, nothing will stop you. All these obstacles, injustice and the way the industry is built are just a phase. They should understand that things change so quickly and each of their films, their actions or their interviews will move things in the right direction. And I’d tell them to believe in this change!
Is there are a female filmmaker who inspires you? And a favorite film by a female filmmaker?
J.Ž.: One of the first women I discovered and it was not at University, was Vera Chytilová from Czechoslovakia and her film Daisies. For me, this was so incredible and something completely new. Then, I think the next one was Lina Wertmüller from Italy with Mimi Metallurgico. She was so great, funny, political and the way she made films was incredible. Then, Agnès Varda; I really appreciate her films, especially her documentaries that really inspire me. Then there is Jane Campion…
Do you have any favorites among your films?
J.Ž.: Grbavica made the most effect because we also managed to change our society with the film. We managed to bring a law about raped women that didn’t exist before and we helped them, so this was a very special package. It was a film, a social change and my first film so it is very special to me. I think that every film is a part of the next phase of my life, which I had to accept, analyze, go through and make a stamp about this particular phase. The last fiction film I did was Love Island, which is a comedy and I had to do all this and that was a very important experience for me.
Can you talk about your next project that received support from Eurimages?
J.Ž.: The Eurimages support really gave us the possibility to shoot in the spring. The story is called “Quo vadis Aida?” This is a working title and the film is about a woman who is in 1995 in Srebrenica. She is a UN translator at the moment when Srebrenica is taken by Serbian troops. She has her family there and because she is a UN translator, she believes she is in the position to rescue her family. The story is told from her perspective and shows how the military bureaucracy structure functions in situations of crisis and how we, as human beings, have empathy towards each other – or not. For me, it’s an important story not only because I am from Bosnia, but because I think I see a lot of resemblance with what is happening today in Europe with the refugees. I see a lot of similarities between this and Srebrenica and how we are not able to handle the otherness of victims. These are questions I would like to explore in this film.
This interview was conducted at the 2018 Les Arcs Film Festival.