SARAJEVO, BOSNIA–For Jasmila Zbanic, getting to school was a literal battle. As a film student in Sarajevo in the early 1990s, Zbanic had to traverse across the dangerous streets of a city under siege from Bosnian Serb army forces who took potshots of citizens as they tried to cross major thoroughfares like Ulica Zmaja od Bosne, which became infamously known as Sniper’s Alley. But Zbanic –desperate to study film—had no other choice. “It was completely crazy, we were studying films with no equipment and no electricity to watch films,” Zbanic recalls. “We were completely cold, with seven of us sitting next to each other like sardines, trying to warm ourselves up and listen to our teachers. But even during these times when the city was surrounded, we still believed that art had meaning. We could still imagine that one day we were going to make movies. That was the good thing about the academy—that you were doing something important and not just waiting to be a victim, to be killed.”
Since those harrowing days, things have changed considerably not only for Sarajevo—now a thriving city which plays host from 22-30 July to the Sarajevo Film Festival—but for the 36 year-old Zbanic as well. She has become one of the Bosnia’s most esteemed film directors, having won numerous prizes for her films “Grbavica” (which won the Golden Bear at the 2006 Berlin Film Festival) and “On the Path”— a movie about a young Bosnian Muslin couple who move to an isolated Wahabis community— which won the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) award at the 2010 Golden Apricot Film Festival in Yereven, Armenia. Zbanic’s Sarajevo-based production company, Deblokada— which she co-runs with her producer Damir Ibrahimovic— has not only produced several award-winning short feature films and documentaries but also serves as a consultancy of sorts for filmmakers who want to shoot in Bosnia. (Deblokada are currently coordinating with Italian director Sergio Castellitto on his film “Venuto al Mondo,” which will star Penelope Cruz and Emile Hirsch.) The script for “Love Island’, Zbanic’s latest production which will start shooting in Croatia next spring, has been written by acclaimed Sarajevo-born and Chicago-based writer Aleksander Hemon. “She is helping put Bosnia on the map in terms of filmmaking,” says Nikolaj Nikitin, the Berlin Film Festival’s delegate for central and eastern European countries. “She is able to reflect what is going on around her and she is very dedicated to showing contemporary issues.”
I first met Zbanic back in 2006, right after “Grbavica” (which takes its name from a neighborhood in Sarajevo) won in Berlin. The movie tells the tale of Sara, a Bosnian teenager, who learns she was conceived when her mother was raped during the war. I was scheduled to interview her about the impact the film was having across the region however I had yet to see the movie so she invited me to the Deblokada offices—up one of Sarajevo’s steep hills— for a viewing. I remember sitting in a darkened editing suite and being blown away by the movie, not only because the subject matter was upsetting but also because I was watching the film in a city which had also been a victim of war; it’s heavily pockmarked buildings are a constant reminder of what Sarajevo went through in the 1990s. The next day I met the bespeckled director at the Holiday Inn (a building which sustained heavy attacks during the siege) and we talked about the film and its impact both in Bosnia and across the Balkan region. She had just come back from Belgrade, where the film was shown to what she feared would be a rather hostile audience. In the end, she told me it went better than expected and audiences across the Balkans kept turning out to see the film, which in turn helped open up discussions on what had been such a taboo subject. “’Grbavica’ showed what an amazing impact a film can have on society,” says Nikitin. “The Berlinale is looking [for] films that are really telling a lot about a country, where they come from, but also at the same time they must be understandable to an international audience. And in a way, everyone could relate to ‘Grbavica.’”
Thanks to the international attention the film received, campaigners were able to successfully lobby the Bosnian government to change the status of rape victims. “We managed to do a campaign for victims—“For the Dignity of Survivors”—and collected 50,000 signatures,” Zbanic tells me. “We then went to parliament and we changed the law for rape victims. Before that, they did not have any status, they were not recognized as war victims. Soldiers, the wounded, children of dead soldiers—they all got money from the state— but raped women, well they did not. And those women were never strong to push it because there is a big feeling of shame, they are not so outspoken. So we used the film as a voice, and within three months the law was changed, so it had a big impact on society. We as citizens have an obligation to react.”
That desire to react and make change has been a constant thread throughout Zbanic’s career. During the war she came into contact with Peter Schumann, the founder of Bread and Puppet Theatre, a Vermont-based company that focuses on politically charged theatre. “He has said that bread and art are equal and that is something I experienced during the war,” she tells me. “When you are hungry, you have to get food but there is also a huge hunger for art if you are human being. So these were big lectures on life that I took.” She went to Vermont to work with the theatre company where she says she learned a lot in terms of how independent artists worked and got funding. Returning to Sarajevo in the end of the 1990s, Zbanic and Ibrahimovic set up Deblokada, running the production company from her apartment. They also ran highly profitable video store; proceeds from the shop allowed them to produce short films while also applying for grants and looking for co-producers. “We had to invent new ways to do stuff,” she says. “We were completely sure that looking for money in Bosnia or the region did not work, we had to be more European oriented and we also used our contacts in the US. So thanks to personal contacts we could make films. If we were limited just to Bosnian [funds] we would be dead.”
I ask Zbanic if Bosnian filmmaking is becoming something of a brand these days, thanks to her success as well as that of others like Danis Tanovic (who won a 2001 Best Foreign Film Oscar for “No Man’s Land”) and the Sarajevo-born Belgrade-based director, actor and musician Emir Kustrica. She pauses, then gives credit to the Sarajevo Film Festival for helping to promote Bosnian—and Balkan—films. “I think in the countries of ex-Yugoslavia, Bosnia has the most powerful films and it is almost like a brand to be Bosnian and be a filmmaker,” she says. “But I think in the wider context, we do not have enough films yet to prove [this as a brand]. Thanks in large part to Zbanic, it may only be a matter of time.
Photos courtesy Deblokada (1st by Dzenat Drekovic, 2nd “Grbavica” still, 3rd “On the Path” still)