Interview with Filmmaker Samir Mehanović
8 September, 2016
BAFTA award winning filmmaker Samir Mehanović returns to his homeland in his powerful new documentary The Fog of Srebrenica. The film explores the human stories of one of the darkest chapters of recent European history, the genocide of 8000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys by the Serbian military. I sat down with Samir in the Millennium Hotel to discuss the documentary, the ongoing significance of the Bosnian conflict twenty one years on, and the filmmaking process in general.
CM – So what was it that made you want to tell this story?
SM – I wanted to make the film to continue fighting for the cause. I work with Remembering Srebrenica in Scotland, who are joining me at the screenings so they can help people who want to know more, or visit like Nicola Sturgeon did ten days ago, she visited Srebrenica. I felt that we needed to tell the honest story from the people. So many died and the video archive is disappearing. Still, it is also about filmmaking and storytelling. I’m sorry if I made a very heavy film to watch.
CM – The subject matter is overwhelming, but the film carries that through well. I think dividing the story into chapters really helped with that. What was the thinking behind that choice?
SM – I had a rough cut of the film, but I needed to make it work for cinema. I was thinking about how I could steer people through the weight of the film without drowning them in information, so I spoke with my editor and said that I was thinking about Von Trier’s use of chapters in Breaking the Waves, which I thought would work well for our film. Then we decided to use plain simple information on the cards, which I think is important for the visual breaks, to give the audience breathing space.
Then of course there’s the music by my good friend Nigel Osborne who I’ve worked with on many films, including The Way We Played, which won the BAFTA. Nigel speaks fluent Bosnian and works in the country regularly. He’s an activist as well, so we have a similar approach to film. I think a film should tell you something about the world, especially in documentaries which are so underfunded with limited releases. I read that only 1% of the UK Box office comes from documentaries, so it’s good to get the word out since the budget for advertising just doesn’t compare to feature films. That’s a big danger for small film producing nations like Scotland, and I am considering myself a Scottish filmmaker.
CM – Scotland has been important to the growth of your career hasn’t it?
SM – Yes definitely. I did my Masters degree at Edinburgh College of Art, and everything I’ve achieved artistically has been while living and growing up here.
CM – I understand it was Creative Scotland that helped get the project off the ground, is that right?
SM – Well actually, it was the other way round. I had wanted to make a film about Srebrenica, and the twentieth anniversary was coming. I started by making a short trailer that I sent to the BBC, Channel 4, BBC 4, but they said it had been done before. So I just began making the film, cutting it in my living room, with help from friends with the financing. I was able to make a shorter version that we sent to BBC World and was shown on Newsnight last year, which led to some help from Bosnian television with the archive footage, and the film being accepted to the Sarajevo Film Festival. After that, Creative Scotland saw the potential for a cinematic version and generously gave £10,000. I finished the film in Glasgow, and it went on to be accepted for many festivals and has won awards. So it really had a reverse journey than perhaps you as an aspirational filmmaker, or as someone who loves film would expect. It wasn’t ‘wait for the money and then make the film’, it was ‘start making the film and the money will follow.’
CM – Did you find the financial limitations on the production forced you to be more creative?
SM – Absolutely. I shot the film in three weeks, and I was lucky to have the fog. I knew from the forecast that I wanted all the exteriors to set the tone, while on sunnier days we were filming the interviews, or getting hammered. Then there was about two months in editing, which was quite a luxury compared to working with the BBC which puts more pressure on creativity. That’s why there’s so many similar programs, and why I wanted to go away from the usual choices, like using a voiceover.
CM – I did note the lack of voiceover, and how the film was never in English. I thought that was a nice touch since most documentaries cave in and add a Western translation or narrator.
SM - It would be so easy to spoil the story with a voiceover instead of the direct approach we used with testimony. These are tough decisions, but I decided I didn’t give a shit, which is helpful if you’re not funded. That’s what was so great about Creative Scotland once they came on board, they never put pressure on me and they believed in the project.
CM - Was it difficult to convince the subjects of the film to talk to you on camera?
SM – I have a nose for a good fixer, like my friend of thirty years who is an Aid Worker and knew many of these people through his work. So he was able to reduce my number of interviews. Some didn’t want to talk because they were scared, some were ready to speak out, and others have been vocal for years and have appeared in other documentaries. Convincing people to talk is one of the key skills of making documentaries. It’s important to really listen to them, to show you understand, and to make your motivations clear. Because what they’re talking about is huge. Many filmmakers would shy away from using this much direct talking to the camera, but I think if people have a story to tell, they should be the one to tell it.
It’s all about storytelling, not what camera you’re using. It’s about subject matter. We had one woman representing the 50,000 who were raped, I insisted she be part of the story. You may have noticed she appears in the first part of the film, then she disappears before coming back at the end. What she had to say was so important, because that’s how the war started and she needed to portray that male domination, that war is made by men but the price is paid by women and children. Halfway through our interview she decided she wanted her face hidden, so we tried to make the image as foggy as possible, which has several meanings and also makes what she’s saying even more powerful. You have to tell that story, because until recently rape wasn’t seen as a war crime, it was just a “Tool of War” that soldiers could freely use, and it was only after Bosnia and Rwanda that legal definitions were changed.
CM – It’s sad to see the condition some of the survivors are living in today.
SM – Yes, as you saw in the film the government in Bosnia has given up on many of them. We send Aid but most of it doesn’t get in the hands of the people who need it, it just disappears in the pockets of the privileged. You’ll have seen how many are living in social housing without any social help. So we are quite blessed in this country. I found that when I was living in Niddrie, even though conditions weren’t great, I was grateful for that flat after being homeless when I first came here. It was better than the street.
It might be because of that experience that I feel challenged to do more in my life. I managed to pay for my own flat in Stockbridge and the Masters degree on my own. But this is not the immigrant story we usually hear, or that newspapers want you to read about. Society is so polarized now. I had a guy ask me recently “Are you a Muslim?” I said “I’m just a cunt.” You know, nobody asks here “Are you a Christian?” You shouldn’t care. But the idea of the Muslim is so stereotyped. I met a guy from Dundee, a police chief who went to Bosnia to deliver aid during the war, and he said that when he came to Tuzla, where I come from, he met a man sitting down who said “Welcome to Bosnia, my name is Ahmed, and we don’t have camels!”
CM – The role of religion, particularly Orthodox Christianity, in the genocide is something you’ve highlighted before on your website. Could you speak a little about that today?
SM – It’s very interesting. There’s a tape of Serb soldiers shooting boys that we used parts of in the film. That was very difficult for me to watch over and over. Really all of the archive was, but this tape runs for one hour and on it you see an Orthodox Priest blessing the paramilitaries before they go to pick up their victims. You hear them say they’ll release two out of the six boys and kill the other four, which you saw in the film. You don’t want to torture the audience with this, but they have to see it to understand.
At the end you hear the cameraman say the tape’s running out. That’s how much he had recorded of killing that day, but he tells the others to keep shooting. They use the two boys to move the bodies of the four, then shoot them as well. After the war was over, that tape was in a video library in a small Serbian town where people could rent it along with Rambo, to watch for self-gratification, and to educate the next generation of Fascists. Thankfully, a human rights lawyer in Belgrade got hold of the tape and brought it to The Hague, and only last year the shooters were prosecuted. But how many were never recorded?
So, to go back to the religion question, there has never been any apology from the church for the crimes of Christian extremists. I’ve never heard that term. But if we are demanding apologies from everyday Muslim’s for the crimes of ISIS, then by that logic they should acknowledge what happened. Serbia still denies it, twisting the facts and trying to block even the mention of genocide. They say they saved the women and children. They didn’t save them, they threw them out. I still have the unbearable memory of seeing them arrive in Tuzla, without their husbands and sons. That’s why I was driven to tackle this subject, and to tell their stories. So how do we move on? We do it by accepting, apologising, and moving on. But even though the documentary has been shown all through Europe, The Serbian Film Festival never got back to me.
CM – Do you think there’s any future for the film as an educational tool, in schools perhaps?
SM – Yes, I was actually talking to Remembering Srebrenica about that. I think when the film has done its commercial run, since I’m still responsible for paying off investors, I’ll give the film to them and they can take it to schools. Then the kids can have a discussion about what they’ve seen, and we can help build a world without intolerance and hate, with an understanding of late modern Europe. Because what happened took place two hours flight from here. If you don’t give people the education they need they’ll be easy pray for extremism. They say Islam needs reform, and to an extent that’s true, but not all Islam is the same. There are Kosovan Muslims, Bosnian Muslims, and people need to be taught that these are mostly normal secular European people. Bring education not bombs. I still believe in a better world, but it will take lots of effort and time.
People ask me what I want to do with the film. I want people to look at it in two hundred years and say “Wow, humanity was a disaster then, but look at us now. Could this be possible? Or was Srebrenica a dark fairy-tale where animals committed genocide? Humans don’t treat each other like that anymore.”
CM – Do you have any thoughts on the current state of independent filmmaking in Scotland?
SM – When you want to make a film they always ask you “Where is your audience? Who’s going to watch it? If I’d stayed with that proposal I’d understand why channel 4 and the others didn’t want it, it’s grey and dark, but it finds its own audience. So for anything else, I’m just comparing from personal experience, but if you have good motivation you should go and do it. If you want to make something, go and do it. If you want to write about something, go and do it. Because it’s not about them wanting you to make something for them, it’s about you having something to say. If you have a good story to tell you’re a winner.
I don’t ever feel like a foreigner here. If people think I am then I don’t care. I guarantee if people moved around more they’d learn about the world. Most artistic people I meet want more integration, not the corporate way, it needs to be genuine. That’s how I see the future of Scotland. I think it would survive best by linking with Europe, not separating. Look at what this small nation has produced just in the world of inventions and thought. It needs to protect that potential. In filmmaking I’d love to see more resources, and a wider variety of subject matter. Everybody wants to make Trainspotting, or a Ken Loach style film, or Zombies. There are other, happier genres. Look at Bill Forsyth; he had comedy, romance, and other aspects of Scottishness that could be explored.
There’s a lot in common between Bosnian and Scottish humour. I heard there was a Bosnian football player living here while there was bombing in Sarajevo. He phoned his mum and she asked how he was. He said “I’m great, I’m playing for Hearts, the Scottish are very friendly, I even managed to buy a house in Niddrie. His mother said “Come back to Sarajevo!” So there’s a similar dry humour.
There’s a great potential in Scotland, but it’s being suppressed, so people just leave.
CM – Thank you very much Samir that was an absolute pleasure.
SM – Thank you. You’re asking very refreshing questions.
CM – I’m glad. I’m sure you’ve spoken a lot about the politics so it’s good to hear about the filmmaking process as well. Thanks again.
The Fog of Srebrenica is screening at The Glad Café Glasgow Saturday 1st October 3pm
Q and A with Samir Mehanović following the film.