At the Berlin Film Festival, Danis TanoviÄ‡'s competition entry, An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker, was not the hot ticket. In fact, the film's droll Bosnian writer-director was clearly surprised that his micro-budget film had made it to such a hallowed event. He was also in Berlin to arrange the financing of a much bigger undisclosed film, so that he was clearly chuffed when he hit the winner's stage to accept the festival's jury prize, basically second place for his film, while non-actor Nazif MujiÄ‡ took out the award for best actor for incredibly re-creating events from his life with his own wife and daughter. The story revolves around an impoverished scrap metal forager, a Roman man, who struggles to get treatment for his pregnant wife.
They are great, loving people
“This movie's there to give a voice to those who are invisible in our society,” explains TanoviÄ‡. “I went to this village and I really fell in love with the Roma people. They're trying to make the best of what they have.”
When I sat down with the garrulous, handsome 44-year-old, whose directing debut, No Man's Land (2001), had won a slew of awards –including the Oscar for foreign language film and the screenwriting awards in Cannes and at the European Film Awards – I couldn't help recall our last meeting. That was for his little-seen gem Triage (2009), featuring Colin Farrell as a war photographer on a dangerous assignment during the 1988 Anfal Genocide against the Kurdish people. The film was based on Scott Anderson's book and boasted one of the Irish actor's best performances ever.
Audiences had more likely seen TanoviÄ‡'s second feature, the French film Hell (2005), written by Krzysztof Kieslowski and inspired by Dante Alighieri's Inferno and starring Emmanuelle Béart. TanoviÄ‡ has been greatly influenced by Kieslowski's work and nowhere is this more evident than with An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker. TanoviÄ‡ mostly scores his own movies and plays several musical instruments.
In 2008, he helped create a new political party in Bosnia and Herzegovina called Our Party. A natural spokesman, he explained the party's creation at its founding, describing its goal “to alter the widespread belief that nothing can be done and that we're doomed to this kind of life.
“The way things are now, we have two choices: neatly pack our bags and leave with our families, and treat homesickness with occasional visits, or try to change something.”
Does it matter to you if your films only go to film festivals? Do you think it's the right target?
I made An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker with €30,000, I shot with a DSLR camera and it's in the Berinale and that's as good at it gets. I'm happy, very happy. This is definitely not stuff for cinema, maybe some arthouse. I don't know even how to categorise this type of film.
Yeah, re-enact guerrilla. Somebody will come up with something.
Do you think it's a problem that your brand of social cinema, which covers important issues, isn't widely seen?
I rarely watch these kinds of films myself unless I'm at a festival. You see them on Arte and channels like the BBC or SBS or maybe on DVD. This is the way it is.
You made the film with little artifice.
No light, no make up, no costume, not even catering. They were hungry during filming. (Chuckles) It's a no-no film.
It's interesting that you had the real people portraying their own experiences, so they have to relive all the pain and humiliation they suffered.
Relived is a big word. They played it well, I think.
How do you look back on the experience?
For me, making movies is an instinctive kind of thing. When I think I'm getting something, that's it. I don't have any other weapon to use. So I just rush, I just run through it. Most of the scenes were real life. Nazif was really cutting things; he was going to pick up the items. We just followed him with the camera.
Obviously, they refused to recreate the two difficult scenes and I couldn't go to the real doctor who did it. I didn't even want to try, so I asked my friend who is a doctor to do it. When he tells the mum, “Sorry I can't help you,” he looks like a really bad guy. But actually he is the sweetest guy around; he is really, like, the best doctor in Bosnia. He has this look that I wanted.
The craziest scene was actually when I brought them to the hospital where I needed the kids to go crazy because that's how it happened. I told Nazif he was going to sit there for two hours but the kids didn't know. So after one hour the kids became mad and that's when we shot the scene where their daughter is going up and down and jumping. Nazif actually fell asleep cause he was tired of waiting. So the scene looks great but you would never get this if I had a big crew and cameras.
So you had to develop a different approach.
I learned to be streetwise; you use different tricks. I have five kids of my own so that helped.
Where do you live now?
Was the film financed out of Bosnia?
Yeah, it received €17,000. It's really big finance. (The remainder came from France, Slovenia and Italy)
How is the situation for filmmaking in Bosnia?
It's bad. There are only four million people in the country. It's nothing. There are Indian villages bigger than our whole country, so that's it, no money, no economy. There's a recession everywhere in the world but we don't have a recession because we never went anywhere from zero.
Still, Bosnian filmmaking has a world presence.
It's astonishing, we make one film a year and it goes to big festivals. It's happening now because we are improvising.
Why do you still live there? Wouldn't it be easier to live somewhere with more money?
I lived in Paris for 10 years. When my mum became ill with cancer five years ago and I was there and saw her, I called my wife and we packed and we left our life in Paris. In two weeks we were living in Bosnia and we still we are. Bosnia is my home. I love Sarajevo; it's a beautiful city. The nature in Bosnia is like wow, we have water you can still drink; there's green everywhere. There are beautiful mountains, sea, lakes. From that we manage to make our life.
After six months in Bosnia, my wife (Belgian Maelys de Rudder) said “There is no school that I like”. So she opened a Montessori school, the first Montessori school. First it was a kindergarten now it's a school. Next she wants to open a secondary school – I just hope she doesn't open a university because then I have to go to Hollywood to finance it!
Sounds like she is quite demonstrative.
My wife, wow! She is something; let me tell you. She was here yesterday. She brought my parents and she left. Some people say I'm blessed and I really am.
Would you consider going to Hollywood if it was for a good cause and you could make a good film?
Like a million or two is a good cause!
Emir Kusturica depicts the Roma people as happy and musical, whereas in your film they are sad and marginalised.
Here is the sad fact of the life. I don't think they were discriminated against because they were Romas; they were discriminated against because they were poor. This could have happened to anybody. I didn't make this film because they were Romas; I made this film because I was pissed off about what happened to these people. To me, they were human beings; they were guys I met and fell in love with, and what I fell in love with is that they fight. They have dignity and all this power and this is why I loved them; this is why I made a film about. There is no pathos in this film; they are not pathetic people. They are great, loving people.
I was ashamed in a way because until I went to their house, the only occasion I had to meet with Roma is when they washed my windshield at the red light or when they ask me for money on the street. The fact that they were Roma was not important to me at all. The fact is, this is a woman who was refused medical treatment and she almost bled to death. I was so pissed off because I am a father and I was thinking if I had my wife lying in front of my eyes with my kids, I was going to kill somebody. Nazif just continued finding ways, trying, trying, trying until he found a solution and I respect him for this, he is a great guy. Yesterday [at the premiere] he was so happy, he was waving to everybody. If Brad Pitt was next to him, we wouldn't see him because he was waving larger than life.
Do you see Bosnian society rebelling?
At this moment, no. No money.
Are they desperate?
Here's the thing. We have daily tactics of surviving. There is no strategy of vision. Without that we are doomed. The question is just how long we can use these tactics. But I am fed up of these tactics. I wish someone had a vision and would say, “Okay, we should do this and go this way”. Actually, it's not a problem of Bosnia; it's a problem of Europe.
Were you trained in politics?
Listen, I'm not a politician, I am a film director who feels responsible and tries to give a good example to people around him, that's all. But yes, I am in politics. My party managed to vote in a law, which gives everybody – not just Bosnians, Croatians and Serbians – the right to be a member of parliament and President of parliament.
It's a small country, people need to get up and do things. I thought that a few of us would have this international experience, of seeing world, so we can bring some new perspective. I don't know if it's going to work. It's going to take us years.
An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker screens at the 2013 Sydney Film Festival. Click here to see our full coverage.