Tuzla-born, but relocated to the UK since 1995, Bosnian Samir Mehanović is one of the most exciting documentary and short film directors to emerge from Western Balkans in the last 2 decades. Initially a theatre director, he turned to cinema on 2001. With his short film The way that we played (you can watch it on http://www.movingimageeducation.org/resources/films/the-way-we-played), based on his own war experiences, he won the Best First Time Director BAFTA Scotland award in 2005. We discuss with him ahead of the world premiere of his latest documentary The fog of Srebrenica, which will be screened during the course of the forthcoming 21th Sarajevo Film Festival on the 17th of August.
You initially got involved with theatre. Tell me about those early efforts of yours, the establishment of your own theatrical company, your collaboration with the actors first. Since 2002, however, you seem to have been given up directing theatrical plays. How come did you decide to turn to cinema?
I wanted to study directing before the start of the war in 1992. I remember going to the peace protests with Greek tragedies in my pocket reading them on the bus. Later, they fired shots on us in front of the Parliament building in Sarajevo. I thought: “Fuck, this is real!”. However, I did not give up my dreams. I was in Tuzla and, instead of the guns, I continued my studies in the library and set up small theatre company, working mostly with young people and learning directing through the creation of original plays. That was our world, not the war. When we were invited to attend Edinburgh Festival in August 1995, I decided to stay, as I had enough of war. Who would blame me? Edinburgh is a great city and I continued doing theatre and, once I created the first short film, I moved into doing more films. Why? Perhaps I prefer to record actors and watch them on DVD, instead of looking after them in real life. I’m joking, of course. Perhaps in a very small and poor theatre one feels restricted in exploring ideas on a low budget. Film gives you more freedom, especially with the digital revolution. Nowadays, you can film with inexpensive cameras and edit in your living room. That is so liberating.
The Fog of Srebrenica, your latest documentary, is not your first film to be inspired by the Yugoslav wars, the other being the awarded short The way that we played, which is based on your war recollections. Would you like to elaborate on those recollections? To what extent have they shaped you both as a human being and an artist?
I really always tried to stop the war changing my destiny. I tried to use art as a healing process, not only for me or the actors, but also for the audience. I think that war is unacceptable to the human beings and we need to warn others and new generations about that: not to repeat the same mistakes. When I was creating the film, I had deep open wounds and emotions that were hidden within me. It took me a lot of strength to complete this documentary. Sometimes, the amount of pain, when listening to the stories of the survivors, was unbearable. Perhaps that’s what creates a good film. Perhaps it is that inner conflict that leads us to accept unbearable through art and to create art.
Returning to the Fog of Srebrenica, does the “fog” reference have literal or metaphorical connotations?
It has both. The Fog of Srebrenica is a metaphor as a title, but I also have decided to film through the fog, and pretty much every exterior is filmed in the fog. Somebody asked me if the fog portrays sadness, but I disagreed. I believed that it has deep spiritual essence and the ability to comprehend the pain and the suffering, as we are trying to get to some third dimension through the entire movie.
20 years on, the massacre of Srebrenica is still an open wound, shrouded, however, by a “veil” of hypocrisy especially by the West. How willing were the survivors that you approached to share their painful personal stories? And how diverse is their stance towards the massacre itself and the attribution of responsibility to its perpetrators?
Perhaps there is a reason that the events of July 1995 are called genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. It was a sad event for the modern European and world history. Actually, how many humans can be killed within one week? Would anyone be able to sleep peacefully after that? Can we just imagine cutting over 8.000 trees without purpose- what a loss would that be? What about HUMAN LIFE? What surprises me is that my characters, who lost most of the close members of their families and some of them over 200 members of extended family, show neither hatred, nor will to revenge. They ask for justice. One thing that does bring a big question is denial. To be able to move on in our region of Western Balkans, we need to bring those responsible before justice.
How would you describe and assess the current political and social condition in Bosnia & Herzegovina?
I am an artist, not the politician. Living over 20 years in UK has taught me what proper democracy means and we do not have it. In Bosnia, unlike in the UK, politics equals mafia and corruption. It is sad that some of the characters in my film live in social housing abandoned by politicians, who have secured a great life for their children, but also great-grandchildren. It makes me sick! I hope that my film can change the life conditions of my characters.
Upon leaving former Yugoslavia, you applied for asylum in the UK, where you’ve been living and working ever since. How hard was it for you to adjust to a new reality? Have you managed to successfully “marry” the Bosnian and the British dimension of your identity?
Thinking back, I can say that I have become a citizen of the world. I love Bosnia and that part of the world, especially homemade food and nature, but I also love British society’s principle of politeness, in the same way that, when I filmed in India and Lebanon border with Syria, I also felt that the world belonged to me. We are truly one world, one humanity, therefore I will continue making movies that matter to this world. My next projects are related to Greece, Sri Lanka, Kenya and I will see which comes first.
I owe a lot to my family and my country Bosnia, but I love also Serbia, Croatia and the rest of the world.
So far you’ve directed documentaries and short films. Do you intend to shoot a fiction film at some point?
Yes, for sure. Fiction is my background, but, sadly, the complexity of making fiction films and the amount of money required are very often preventing film makers, while documentaries give you some kind of freedom and possibility to work on a low budget.
The fog of Srebrenica will be screened at the forthcoming 21th Sarajevo Film Festival on the 17th of August as a world premiere. More info on http://www.sff.ba/en
The film’s official website is http://www.srebrenicasurvivorsfilm.com/
Samir Mehanović’s page on vimeo is https://vimeo.com/user14521686