CONVERSATIONS WITH EMERGING BOSNIAN-HERZEGOVINIAN FILMMAKERS: SABINA VAJRACA
By Amra Turalic
30 March 2007
Sabina Vajrača is a promising Bosnian-American filmmaker based in New York. She was born in Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and moved to the United States in 1994 as part of the refugee resettlement program. She first ventured in the world of theatre in 1993, when, with the help of four friends, she founded and edited the first official theatre magazine in Croatia, Teatralije. She has worked professionally in theater for 12 years, as a director, writer and producer. Her first film, “Back to Bosnia” (“Na put kući, u tuđinu”), premiered at Amnesty International Film Festival and has since been shown in over 30 different festivals and special screenings such as the Second Annual Bosnian Herzegovinian Film Festival in 2005, across South Africa, Brazil, Beirut, Germany, The Netherlands, Slovenia, Canada and United States. Sabina is the winner of the Director's Choice Award at the 2006 Crossroads Film Festival and 2003 Ideas Happen Awards for best original idea. In 2004, she and her good friend and long time collaborator Alison Hanson, formed a film and theatre production company, Alternate Plan Productions. Currently, Sabina and Alison are writing a feature-length screenplay based on the true accounts of rape camps in Bosnia during the 1992-96 war.
What have you been up to since "Back to Bosnia" was screened at BHFF almost two years ago?
We proceeded to travel a lot with “Back to Bosnia” all around the world, from South Africa to Europe, United States and Brazil. It has been a really great ride, all of it. We are just now starting to slow down a bit and devote our time to new projects. We are writing an original screenplay and are adapting another one from a book we recently optioned, called “The Illuminator.” It is a fantastic story, set in 14th century England. Additionally, I am developing a play called “The Beauty Project,” which deals with the connection between beauty and violence and how one propagates another.
Tell me a little about your recent trips to the Hague, Zagreb, Rio De Janeiro and Dubrovnik. What was the reaction of the public to "Back to Bosnia" at different festivals? Was there anything in particular that surprised you?
After our official North American premiere at the AFI Festival in Los Angeles, in November 2005, we received many invitations to various festivals around the world, including Rio de Janeiro Film Festival and Dubrovnik Film Festival. Since the film is such a personal story, the festival organizers always insisted on my personal presence at film festivals for Q&A sessions after the screenings, as well as to be a speaker at panels regarding filmmaking and human rights. In Rio, for example, I sat on a panel about the effect film can have on international politics.
The film was really well-received at all the festivals we attended, and got great reviews from the top film critics, and the audiences.
What always surprises me is the reaction of total strangers to something I consider very intimate and personal. People would come up to me after the movie, even days after it screened, and give me a hug, asking me how my parents were doing. It was bizarre at first but also nice to know that my movie could make such an impression.
In addition to festivals, we started getting invited to screen the movie and speak at various universities and other institutions. One such invitation came from a group of individuals who work for ICTY in The Hague. They saw the screening at Amnesty International festival and felt that their colleagues would benefit from seeing it as well. So we flew out to show it there this past February. That screening was really fantastic. It was a great opportunity to show the film to the people who are so closely involved in the future of Bosnia. They had some very specific questions and the conversation following the screening showed me that a movie can be something more than just entertainment, that it can make a difference in the bigger picture of world politics. I don’t think that it will make or break a case, but maybe one of those individuals will think of it next time they meet someone from Banja Luka and will judge accordingly.
The screening of “Back to Bosnia” in Zagreb was my "return home." We organized the official Croatian premiere ourselves. It was like planning a wedding. From invitations, to catering, to picking a dress for the event… And all the stress of the family calling in favors last-minute… But it turned out really great in the end. I spent two years in Zagreb during the war and it was great to see so many of my friends and family in the audience. It was the closest I can get to the hometown screening.
Scene from "Back to Bosnia"
Where else would you like to show "Back to Bosnia" and why?
My hometown, Banja Luka, of course. During the war, Banja Luka and surrounding area were “ethnically cleansed” of its entire Muslim and Croat population. Unlike Sarajevo, Banja Luka was never bombed. The take-over happened very quietly and we never had the chance to fight back. What proceeded was a very systematic and cruel psychological torture, the effects of which are felt to this day. When the war ended, Banja Luka was handed to the Serbs, as part of the peace treaty.
The current Banja Luka is a pure Serb city. There is almost no evidence that anyone other than Serbs ever lived there, even though it is the Serbs who are the newcomers there. Some Muslims are returning, slowly, but the situation is still very tense and very anti-Muslim, so most of us chose to stay away. Of course, there are still people there who are fighting very hard to return Banja Luka to a multi-ethnic city that it used to be before the war, but it is an uphill struggle. I feel that we, who fled during the war, need to remind those who chased us out that we did indeed exist and still do. That just because they are ignoring the crimes committed there, that does not mean there were no crimes at all.
I have this dream of projecting “Back to Bosnia” on the wall of a Serb Orthodox church the new authorities built in downtown Banja Luka. I would put it on a loop and show it for free all day long so that the people can see it and learn from it.
The old citizens, or the Banja Luka Diaspora gets to see “Back to Bosnia” in festivals and private screenings, but the other key players, the people living there now, are yet to see it. I believe that it would be beneficial for them to see it, so they can understand the reasons why we are not returning. I know it is an idealistic thought and that showing it there will only enrage the nationalists even more, but even if there is one person in the audience who starts to question it all, I would feel that I’ve accomplished something. I may not be able to project it like I want to, but I am working hard on arranging a screening this summer, in the main culture hall. Hopefully, it will happen.
What kind of reaction do you seek from your audience?
A few years ago I read this quote by Stephen Gyllenhaal, a movie director and producer. As an advice to his son, he said that the artist's job is to disturb the comforted and comfort the disturbed. That really resonated with me and it has stayed with me over the years, as my own personal motto. I want my audience to be shaken up, woken up a bit, prompted to question the norm and look for answers deep within themselves.
I feel that I have accomplished it with “Back to Bosnia.” Perhaps not for everyone, but a majority of those who have seen it have the reaction I hoped to get. The foreigners are usually shocked and bombard me with questions about Bosnia and my family. One of the most common questions I get is "how could people do this to one another?"
And on the other side, there are Bosnians who can't control their sobs after the movie and write to me much later to tell me the movie opened up something hidden deep down in them and made them talk about their own experiences for the first time since it happened. That it was therapeutic. Those reactions are the most important to me for my motivation behind making the movie was to show to the others that they are not alone in their pain and that there are many of us out there who understand.
Tell me a little about your experience in theatre. How has this helped shape your work in film?
Theatre was my first love. I "discovered" it as a teenager, when I was living in Croatia during the war. I found over the years that I started to distrust the words as the only element of expression and devoted my time in exploring other elements, like body and voice and I slowly graduated from a more realistic, mainstream approach to a more experimental, stylized technique.
I create shows that are somewhat of a mix between theatre and dance. Interestingly enough, the experience in this 'movement theatre' proved to be crucial in editing Back to Bosnia. One thing that theatre helped fine-tune in me is the sense of rhythm and ability to convey much with very little. Transitions and simple, subtle details were most important in my theatre work and I believe that this knowledge helped make “Back to Bosnia” a better, more sophisticated film.
Tell me about your collaboration with Ali Hanson. Are there any other filmmakers that you like collaborating with?
Ali and I met in theatre. We both worked for this company called Holderness, she as an actress and me as an assistant director. It took us some time to actually become friends, and once Holderness fell apart, we started to create theatre on our own. Once the idea for a movie was born, Ali jumped into it, heart and soul, and has not let go after all this time, which is not an easy task, since I can be pretty demanding.
We have since started a production company together, called Alternate Plan Productions, with which we plan to produce our future film and theatre projects. Ali is my second brain, someone whose work ethic compliments mine so perfectly, that I feel for the people who are yet to come into my little world since they have to live up to her. I have not really collaborated with other filmmakers yet, but in theatre, I do have a handful of people I love collaborating with and hope to use in all my projects.
Ali Hanson and Sabina Vajraca
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
To stop talking about doing it and just do it. I find from my own experience that we as artists tend to talk ourselves out of good ideas because the obstacles seem too big. We never have enough money, enough time, enough help to do what we want to do. And if you sit there and think about it, you will never get past it.
For example, “Back to Bosnia” cost us over $75,000. If I had done the budget and saw the sum as we started it, I would have never even attempted to make it. Who has that kind of money? Not me, for sure. But we found out that you don't need it all at once. We kept digging into our credit cards and paying it little by little as we went along. All the time balancing our day jobs, that took most of our time, and having no one other than the two of us to do it all. So if you just start, you will see that the only obstacle in your way is yourself.
What do you think people and filmmakers in general can learn from Bosnian film? What can Bosnian filmmakers learn from the American ones? Do you see yourself bridging between the two cultures?
I think other people see me as a bridge between the two cultures, but I really think that I am very much a European director. I grew up with European sensitivities, and I tend to create art that is more suitable for European audiences. That said, with Ali by my side, I do think we are a bit of a bridge. She is very much an American and reminds me not to get too lost in my own world, to adjust my work for the American audiences as well. It is still more European, but I think having her near helps balance the scale.
Bosnia was always known for its artists, especially when it comes to film. We may not know how to run a country, but we know how to make great movies. What Bosnian films have to offer is a soul, the depth, and scale of emotions rarely seen in American cinema.
And on the other hand, American movies remind us of the need to create more universal art. The American movies are always about the universal 'everyman,' someone that people from many countries can identify with, which makes them more likely to succeed even outside of the United States. I think that is a good lesson to learn for us Bosnians, since we tend to think small and make movies only for ourselves.
What are you currently working on and where do you see yourself in ten years? Will you continue with the theme of Bosnia or are you moving on to more "mainstream" topics?
I am working on a couple of screenplays and a play that I hope to put up this summer. I am still very much interested in Bosnia and one of my screenplays deals with it. However, I find that I am also starting to explore themes that have nothing to do with Bosnia. Even with these themes, I am still definitely interested in the darker side of human psyche. I find myself incapable of doing a straight-forward comedy, to a great disappointment of my commercially-minded producers. I think that even in ten years I will still be digging in the corners that other people prefer to ignore.
On a personal level, do you see yourself staying in New York or moving elsewhere?
I do think that eventually I will end up back in Europe. I am not sure where yet but I miss it too much to spend the rest of my life in United States. United States has its charms, but I don't really feel "at home" here. It is too materialistic and too commercial for me. I find New York to be the closest to Europe, which is ironic, since it is a city run by money. But somehow I fit here at least for now. We'll see what happens next. I am keeping my options open.
Are there any good films or plays or art in general that you recently saw that you recommend seeing?
My favorite movie last year was “The Fountain” by Darren Aronofsky. Most people hated it, but to me it was absolutely stunning. It was art, not entertainment, and it inspired and moved me more than any other movie in the last few years. Also, “Children of Men” was one of the better commercial movies as of late. Its cinematography was fantastic.
As for the plays, I tend to see a lot of theatre but lately have not really been moved by much. I think I have become too harsh of a critic and it takes something quite astonishing to make me stand up and clap. “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” was the last play that did that for me. Martin McDonagh is truly a genius in my book.
What are your favorite bars and restaurants in New York?
I am not a big bar person. I almost never go to bars, unless I have a meeting there for business. That said, I was recently introduced to Les Enfants Terribles in Lower Manhattan and I really loved it. Other than that, I am a fan of small, bistro-like places and coffee shops with laid-back atmosphere and lots of European flare, like Café Lalo on Upper West Side and The Adore in Union Square, where I usually go for lunch.