Humanity in the Arts

By Benjamin CunninghamJuly 31, 2016

Humanity in the Arts
DANIS TANOVIĆ is a Bosnian filmmaker whose film No Man’s Land won the 2001 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. His latest movie, Death in Sarajevo, is out now. Set in Sarajevo on the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand — an event generally considered the flashpoint for World War I — the story is a multilayered parable of contemporary Europe. It won the Jury Grand Prize at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. American filmgoers may be most familiar with his 2009 English-language film Triage, starring Colin Farrell, which grapples with post-traumatic stress coming from war.

Tanović started out as a filmmaker recording the siege of Sarajevo. At 1,425 days, it is the longest siege in the history of warfare. The uneasy stalemate that ended the Bosnian War, codified in the 1995 Dayton Accords, has politically entrenched an ethnic divide with Bosnia and Herzegovina divided into two main entities: Republika Srpska (composed predominantly of ethnic Serbs) and the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina (a combination of Croats and Bosniak Muslims). There are three presidents of the country, one from each ethnic group. The unemployment rate is about 42 percent.

When I arrived to meet Tanović at Sarajevo’s Cafe Metropolis, he was sitting with Pedja Kojovic, a member of Bosnia’s parliament and head of a political party Tanović co-founded. Death in Sarajevo was opening in Bosnian theaters that very day. With Kojovic off to a parliamentary session, my talk with Tanović began over coffee and cigarettes and ended with a motorcycle ride through the hills surrounding Bosnia’s capital city. In between we talked about film, war, his hometown, and Eastern Europe’s favorite politician: Bernie Sanders.


BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: Why did you set the film on the anniversary of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination?

DANIS TANOVIĆ: First of all, that date is very present in the history of Sarajevo. There is something very weird about this place, about what is the past and now the present, about space-time that I don’t think exists anywhere else in the world. We still talk about things from 20, 70, or even 100 years ago like they are today.

When Serbs talk about Kosovo, for example, they talk like it happened seven days ago. They still feel the rage and still feel that they have to punish somebody. Imagine the French fighting about something that killed somebody’s great-grandfather 500 years ago. It’s irrational, and politicians here push this agenda.

But of all the historical anniversaries you still chose that one for some reason.

The dispute about [assassin] Gavrilo Princip and what he did is so incredible to me, but it is even incredible on Wikipedia. The other day I went to Wikipedia and it says, “Gavrilo Princip, traitor to the Austro-Hungarian Empire,” which is weird. In Serbo-Croat, which is a language that doesn’t actually exist anymore, it called him a “revolutionary and Yugoslav nationalist.” In Bosnian, it said he was a “Serb nationalist.” In Italian, it says, “terrorist.” In French, it says, “student.” Depending on the language you get a different idea and emotion about the same guy.

Literally, in the morning when I drink my coffee I look at the place Gavrilo shot from. That is where I live. I grew up in a socialist country with the idea that Gavrilo Princip was a kind of romantic hero who was fighting for the liberation of the south Slavs — which he was. Bosnia-Herzegovina was annexed by the Austrians; nobody asked.

After World War II, one of our beautiful modern artists — Vojo Dimitrijević — took the shoes, Gavrilo Princip’s shoes, to the place where he shot from and put them in wet concrete to leave a mark. And I loved that. It didn’t say anything. I remember when I was a kid I would stand in his feet, trying to compare them. They looked really big when I was a kid, but when I grew up I realized he was himself a kid. They were small — like a size 37 [6.5 in US sizes] maybe.

Then, in 1992 when the war started, somebody just took them away. I am not sure if somebody just took them home. For many years there was nothing to mark that place. Now they have put a plaque there, but I really loved those footprints. That spot does not only belong to Sarajevo, it belongs to the world. There are certain places in the world that don’t belong to anybody. Auschwitz, for example, belongs to everybody.

But for the narrative of this film specifically, is there any sense for setting it on this date? 

The film is about Sarajevo, but I also try to put a modern story in it. The hotel is actually in the process of being closed and people are trying to survive. It is about survival and how the presence of this history is actually killing new life. Instead of taking care of everyday life, this history overwhelms these really important subjects.

There are many levels in the film. First off you have this interview that takes place up on the roof and they are talking about history. Then you have the middle, where it is people who are coming to visit. Then you have the underworld in the basement, which is the real life.

And what is real life like here now?

Hard to say. It’s like if I were asking what is real life like wherever you live. But there are things that could be better. The economy doesn’t work. These nationalist stories should be taken care of. There is a lot of corruption and so on.

If you want to concentrate yourself on those things, you will find what you are looking for. But if you want to concentrate on the nice things, it is also not really difficult. You have the mountains, you are two hours from the most beautiful place in the world which is the Adriatic Sea, the Croatian side. We have amazing nature. The food is organic, because basically Bosnians don’t have the money to build big farms or for pesticides.

Then, Sarajevo is a small city; everybody knows everybody. I lived in Paris for 10 years; it was a really nice life. But then I came back here and I realized how much time I was losing everyday. I would lose two to three hours per day in traffic, in the car. I am here now, with my motorbike, 10 minutes from anywhere in the city. We have a coffee, then we go to work. We are going to be productive for five or six hours, then we are going home. I have five kids. I pick them up from school, have lunch somewhere, whatever.

You wrote the script for Death in Sarajevo; when you start a project do you consciously tackle Bosnian themes?

Well, there was this play by Bernard-Henri Lévy that it was based on.

But you had to develop that; his play is short.

Yes, totally. There is just one character that recurs.

So when you are writing it, you set out to consciously probe existential issues of contemporary Sarajevo, or it emerges naturally?

You know, somebody asked me, “Are your films personal?” I don’t know how it is possible to make something that is not personal. I am a very lucky guy. I basically do things that I love to do. I never went for being a technical person and directing something just to direct. I always chose to work on things that matter to me. If I have to spend one year of my life working on something, I want it to be meaningful. I don’t want to spend one year doing something I don’t care about. It is almost impossible for me not to include a subject that matters to me, whatever it may be.

Another of your films, Triage, was set in Kurdistan, but even that seemed to have thematic overlap from your own experiences with war here, yes?

Once you have been to war, it is a technicality. I was in the army and the things you see, the things you do, the things you live through, at a personal level they are unfortunately the same.

In fact, you started as a filmmaker by filming the war?

My film school was 100 meters from the place we are drinking coffee now. There was this big demonstration against the war on the night of the 5th of April [1992]. We went there. There were thousands of people and then the snipers started, Serbian snipers. When I was 22 years old, there were basically three choices: you can run away, you can hide, or you can do something about it. I guess I am kind of a guy who wants to do something.

So it was a mess at that time, suddenly shooting, grenades started to fall, everybody was like, “What the hell?” I went to the police station and said, “Look I am here, I can help.” The police were stretched. I was in the army a few years before that, so I had some experience.

Everybody had to serve in the army, correct?

Everybody did, for one year. So basically, for a few days I was keeping guard for the police and then very quickly I realized that nobody was filming what was happening, which was astonishing. When you see a grenade fall in front of you, it makes an impression, you know? The most obvious thought was, “My god somebody should film this.”

So I went to my school. I broke into my school because it was closed. I took two cameras out and started filming. Then, I was doing more and more. That is how I spent two years of my life. When the army was established a few months later — I was already in the army, but they just made it official — I just continued doing it.

Every Bosnian I have spoken to since I arrived has brought up the war unprompted.

As I said, past meets present.

Yes, but how much in this case is because I am a foreigner, and how much is really present?

It’s because you are a foreigner, so they feel obliged to explain what they live through and how they feel. We don’t feel war in that way in everyday life, but if you listen to the politicians and to everyday news and politics they insist on it all the time. We have 14 parliaments, we have 150 ministers; it’s ridiculous. They want to keep it that way because that is how it works for them. They give employment to the people who vote for them. But the system is slowly breaking down because they don’t have any money to fuel it, so it is slowly but surely falling apart.

In fact, you started your own political party didn’t you?

Maybe it is difficult for you, because you are from the United States, but you have to always remember we are talking about 3.5 million people. That is a town in America. We have no place in big world issues. We should just make it work here and we could.

When I came back here in 2006, I couldn’t believe the things I was seeing and hearing. So my idea was I don’t need politics for money, I just want to live in a normal country. So with a few friends, including Pedja who you just met, we just decided to — it’s really more of a movement, we had to make a party, but it’s kind of a movement of “we have had it.” I told them, “Look, it would be wonderful if we would win the election,” but I didn’t think it was going to happen. Still, I think it is important to preserve this voice of people who have seen the world, have traveled the world and seen how it functions, and to keep banging them on the head, saying, “No, what you say is not true.”

You just used a phrase that I run into everywhere I go, “normal country.” What does that mean?

When you go into these so-called transition societies, although I don’t even know what that means — the transition is now 25 years — everything is different. They are discussing who started the war 25 years ago and at the same time there is a water shortage in Sarajevo at night. We live in a city where you can’t dig a hole without water pouring out. It is full of water. Bosnia is just rivers and still we live in a city where from midnight until five o’clock in the morning you don’t have water. It’s not normal. We should have the best water in the world and we should be exporting it. Instead, we are importing water because somebody made a deal. It’s like importing oil into Saudi Arabia. It doesn’t make sense. This is what we should talk about. This is what makes me angry.

People often say war brings out the best and worst in people. Do you think that’s true?

Yes, it is true. I wish you could be a little longer here because Sarajevo is one of these cities that you either hate or love — there is no kind of middle ground. This is a very passionate city; everything is passionate. They always talk about East meets West and this mixture of ideology, religion, culture, the points of views, the races; it keeps it passionate. The Balkans are a very passionate place on their own. Even in peace there is a kind of extreme element, so you can imagine in war. People were so good to each other, they would share their last meal. Tomorrow you don’t have anything to eat, but if somebody comes you share it, because maybe they had a worse day than you.

Everything is much simpler during war. You just have to take care of basic survival. Now there is much more to worry about, your credit and jobs, family. In the midst of this financial crisis — which I think is more of an existential crisis — people just remember these days as some kind of nostalgia.

What do you mean that it’s more of an existential crisis?

This Bernie Sanders is a very interesting thing for me. I don’t know if you know it but Bernie Sanders has a huge following in the eastern part of Europe. We feel him as a warm human being who is worried about things. He is basically reviving Marxist theories, which say basically that it is coming to the endgame. We are living in this new digital revolution where here in your machine [he points to my iPad that is recording the conversation] you have 25 or 30 different machines that people used to use — which they don’t use anymore. You have more and more people who don’t have jobs, or ways to get a job, and we are coming to the core of this question. How are we going to split the value that is made in our societies?

This is the question about where our society is going. Are we going to have an elite — few very rich people who own the world and everybody else is barely surviving — or are we going to have a society in which people understand where we might not be able to create jobs for all these people but we are going to help them live. This is where the world is today. It is a collision between two ideologies.

At the moment I can feel the masses are waking up and starting to understand. Until 1989 we had a communist system which was kind of balancing things, so capitalism had to treat their workers with respect. Since 1989, they don’t. Russia is gone, communism is gone. There is China, but is that communism? So capitalism had this kind of human face, but it’s becoming ugly. It’s becoming every one for themselves: we are all our own personalities; we don’t belong to a society; the links are falling apart.

In Bosnia, because of the war, because of the poverty, the links between families are still there. This is kind of the message from Bernie Sanders that connects, something that is deeply human, that I pray will change the world in a way that it really should. Because if Trump is the message that the United States is going to send to the world, I do not think it will be a peaceful resolution.

So what are you advocating here, a shift back to the 1988 version of capitalism?

No, we can’t turn back the clock — although that is not necessarily true.

One of the reasons I started doing politics was because of a trip I made to Afghanistan. In 2003, with Claude Lelouch, this French director, we decided that we would go to Afghanistan and try to do something. After being in war in Sarajevo, I always have this desire to go to these places and try to do something for people who in the same kind of situation. And then you have the cultural element as well. So we went to Afghanistan and basically we found a cinema, we got private money, and we made an association to create a cinema for the citizens of Kabul.

The biggest shock when I went to Kabul was when I would see some historical stuff and how much freedom — sexual freedom — there was in the 16th century, the 17th century. Then you would see, from the 1970s, pictures of girls in miniskirts, people in suits going to their job, cars. I was thinking, “Oh my god, these people lived like us 30 years ago and now they are back to the stone age.”

So you can turn the clock back. We are always thinking this can’t happen to us. But the more I traveled the more I realized how fragile all systems are. That’s another reason why I wanted to get involved in politics as much as I could.

You just briefly said something about culture. I wonder, amid this larger socioeconomic unease that you were discussing, and something Bernie Sanders is hitting on: What is the role of art?

To me Bernie Sanders, why I feel close to this guy, is that his politics is what I try to bring to art. Entertainment, especially American entertainment, is taking over. They are presenting this to us as art, and it is not. Trump, and to a certain extent Hillary Clinton, is not politics. It doesn’t have to be that way. Fifty Shades of Grey is not art. Bulgakov, Master and Margarita, is art. People don’t even have a way to read Chekhov or Bulgakov. I think the next step is that we are going to see a Bernie Sanders kind of movement in the arts.

You can go to YouTube and you will find each and every one of my films. Each time I have to call YouTube and explain to them it is my film and my name. They never pay any money and they just take it off. This stuff doesn’t happen to the big American studios. Never. How come? I don’t know, but it doesn’t. I do know we don’t have these lawyers. This Avengers shit comes out. It is in every cinema around the world. And you know what, it is impossible to fight this. So we will have to find different ways.

My movie, 10 days after it is out in the cinema, everybody is able to see it. We can’t make any money; it’s unsustainable. An American film comes out the same day from here to China, makes hundred of millions, and it works. They put a bunch of commercials in it and they get their money back. We can’t fight with their means. Our fight will have to be a partisan fight. I think we will find it. We always have. Independent movie-making is learning now what independent music learned 10 years ago. They found a way. They found a way of creating concerts. We will have to find a way to use the internet for our means.

I am not talking about Netflix. These guys are killing us. They are all about making money. When we make a movie, it is not about making money. I am not making movies to make money. If I wanted to make money, I would be a banker. This is why I feel for Bernie. I feel he is trying to push humanity to a certain place.

Look, we are here in Bosnia; it’s a poor country, but we still have a general health care system. It’s ridiculous that you don’t have it there. For me it is abnormal, you have to pay $400 or you could die. It’s ridiculous.

So are you articulating a rejection of globalization?


Or a reconfiguration of what it means?

Look, globalization is beautiful. You don’t have to wait in line and go to the cinema to see the movie. We can communicate about it. I just think we don’t even realize how important a weapon the internet is. We haven’t quite figured out how to use it. Big guys, big corporations have figured it out and are trying to push it one way. This is the big problem we are fighting.

You can’t stop people. They are going to go underground if necessary. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in globalization, I believe in Europe. I think if Bosnia were in the European Union years ago the war wouldn’t have happened. I am not for Europe as it is today — one of Brussels’s bureaucrats. We have to remember why the idea of Europe started in the first place, because of hundreds of years of endless war in which the French would fight Germans, the Germans would fight the Dutch; it was endless killing. We didn’t become powerful because of the economy. We became powerful because of the similarities of ideas about what we wanted to achieve to make life better.

We can’t stop globalization and we shouldn’t. There is something really great about it. Thanks to globalization I have been in Beijing. China has changed in 20 years like it hasn’t changed in five centuries. We should embrace it, we should love it, but we also have to try and understand what it brings.

This is where we have to use creativity. I just saw yesterday the most beautiful thing. This kid found a temple in this Mexican jungle because he figured it out with a constellation, and then he used Google Earth and it was there. Twenty years ago this kid would be a lonely kid somewhere, he wouldn’t be able to figure it out. It was thanks to technology, American technology, that he could. We all benefit from this, but we have to learn how to really benefit and not take the spiritual benefit out of it.

This is why, though I know my movies are not seen by billions of people, I do know that what I am doing is important, because it is talking about subjects that are really important to everyday life. I am not talking about myself as some kind of big master, but when I am reading Hemingway talk about war, it brings something to me. When Michael Cimino made The Deer Hunter it talked to me. I found answers. 

You can really feel The Deer Hunter in your movie Triage.

Of course you can. This is globalization; that is what is beautiful about it. But what is also beautiful about it is that I can very easily see a movie from Azerbaijan. Why not? Growing up in this part of the world, living in this mixture, in this small country, makes you speak different languages — because you have to learn and embrace difference. This is where we should embrace our differences. My wife has a Montessori school. Montessori is an Italian system. She is French, born in Spain, and now she is living in Sarajevo.

One of the reactions to globalization is to pull back though. I mean the same unease that is drawing people to Bernie Sanders is what draws people to Donald Trump. In Europe we see these far right parties capitalizing on the same things.

It’s understandable though. I was watching Jon Stewart the other night, and he is right. Donald Trump says what people need to hear. They see a lot of Mexicans coming and they say, “Let’s build a wall.” He is giving them solutions and nobody is doing that. What Bernie Sanders does is different.

I have lived through war. I know it is human misery in the worst imaginable way and I say to you: anything is better than war. If you don’t believe me, go and ask any American veteran who came back, who really was there, who lost somebody, who didn’t know most of the time why he was shooting, and he will tell you the same thing. Believe us guys with experience who lived through war that hate is not a solution.

Bosnia went through this hyper identity-driven conflict, and this vision you are describing is what people used to say about Sarajevo until the 1990s. So now, 25 years later, has this been a renewal of the melting pot or has there been retrenchment into cultural zones?

First of all, what is wrong with being Muslim? What is wrong with being Catholic? I have no problem with it. I am not religious myself; I think I am spiritual. You just sat with Pedja. Pedja’s father is Orthodox. His mother is Catholic. I am what I am. My wife doesn’t consider herself Catholic but she is coming technically from that direction. I really don’t have issues with it.

Does Bosnia still have issues with it though?

A lot. You have to understand there was no clear winner to the war. A lot of politics in Bosnia today deal with this. At the end of the day, whatever message you are looking for is the one you are going to find. If you watch the main television in Bosnia, you are going to find this guy hates this guy — of course. There is a lot of going back to religion, but if you want to look to find the other message you will find that too.

Bosnia is a melting pot like the United States. It’s older and different, but you can’t stop people from getting together and mixing. That is just the way it is. We always think about roots. When we think about roots most people think only about their fathers. Your parents are one generation; 10 generations ago you had 1,000 direct ancestors and then it gets crazy — you get to millions. So who the hell are you?

Can I say that my ancestors were not Catholic or Jew? What are we talking about here? I don’t think about myself as Bosnian; I am a human being. I happen to be born in a Muslim family with a socialist father and a religious mother who loved each other all their life and made me and still live together — even though my mother still prays five times per day and my father thinks that Marx was the best thing to ever happen to the human race. It’s not that we just coexist. We love each other.

Having differences of opinion is a good thing. Imagine if we were all wearing pants from [the global Spanish clothing retailer] Zara. What the fuck kind of world would that be?

Thanks very much for the time Danis, and good luck with the new film.

No problem. Where you heading now? Do you want a ride?


Benjamin Cunningham is a Prague-based writer and journalist. He regularly contributes to The Economist, The Guardian, Politico, and is a columnist for the Slovak daily SME.

LARB Contributor

Benjamin Cunningham divides his time between Prague and Barcelona. He writes for The Economist, Le Monde Diplomatique, and is an opinion columnist for the Slovak daily SME.


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