AO: Your latest film Soske (Why) tells the story of three political refugees now living in The Netherlands. How did you find these people? Are you telling your own story through them?
RS: “Absolutely. I believe that filmmaking is a very personal thing, and by choosing the subject, the approach, the method and the way you edit it and create a soundtrack, everything says something about the filmmaker and also tells the story of the film’s protagonists. Especially in Soske, everybody in the film is my personal friend. Some of them I knew very closely before we started making the film. We only had three days of shooting with each person, and from the first moment, we got along very well. The crew was also small, only a cameraman and a producer who did sound and everything else, and me. None of us is Dutch, so we got close to our heroes easily. We felt as if we suffer from the same disease and understand each other without many words”.
After arriving in The Netherlands in 1993, Rada Sesic felt the necessity of visually expressing what she had experienced in Bosnia. It took time to get funding for her first film Room Without a View, a Dutch production made in 1997, but after the success of this 16mm, personal, experimental documentary, it was a bit easier to find money for her next film. Living in a new country taught her to be more patient and wait longer, and her attitude to filmmaking means that she only makes a film when she feels very strongly about a certain subject.
AO: Have you become more politically oriented? Do you think documentaries and documentary-makers should take a political stand and express political opinions through their art?
RS: “I was never a very politically oriented person, but if your country is in the news every day for four years and if everything that matters in your life depends on the development of the politics in the region and in the world and the solutions that the politicians could offer, then your life, personal and professional as well, becomes part of the politics. So in that sense, I became more politically conscious in my filmmaking as well. I follow current developments in Palestine and Israel, for example, or Gujarat and Kashmir, India, with much more understanding and compassion than I would have before. I feel I have been there too, I feel that I know what they are experiencing, how they must be feeling. And I believe that the filmmaking of people from the affected areas is necessarily political. But I must say I am more fond of watching ’small’, personal, diary films by filmmakers from turbulent areas than some sort of objective, straightforward political reportage-like documentaries. I remember films by directors Azza El-Hassani (Palestine), Dan Katzir (Israel) and Vesna Ljubic (Sarajevo) as good examples of personal films about war”.
AO: Has the fact that you are a refugee living ‘in exile’ changed anything in the way you make films? Are there films you want to make now because of your special status?
RD: “Living away from my home country, far from my own people and family, not using my own language for everyday communication… all these things make me experience life differently. I haven’t consciously changed my filmmaking methods, I have changed as a person. So the way I make films has changed too. I see life and people around me – their problems, desires, pains and joys – in a different light now. For example, before the war broke out I was just finishing my documentary on the human body, on the lost Grecian idea of the beauty of the human body. The film was shot in the gym in Sarajevo, and the idea I treated was in a certain way the relation between muscles and the machines that train them. It was a rather funny documentary. I stopped working on it during the editing process, film rushes were just left on the editing table somewhere at Television Sarajevo. But this idea doesn’t interest me anymore. I have changed so much that I see neither the human body or gyms or beauty as I did before. It’s like having another life and being connected with my previous life in a spiral line – the line hasn’t been cut, but I am at a level further away from what I was, for better or for worse”.
AO: You come from Bosnia. What are the working conditions for an independent documentary filmmaker there? Do any public film institutions support documentaries?
RS: “Before the war, Bosnia was known in former Yugoslavia – and even abroad at festivals like Krakow, Leipzig and Oberhausen – as a place where very interesting, moving and visually original documentaries were made. Some foreign critics referred to the works produced in the 1970s and 1980s as ‘The Documentary School of Sarajevo’, even though Sarajevo didn’t even have a film academy at that time. Filmmakers were known for making powerful documentaries in a minimalist style. They were also known for using very few words. Yet even so, they managed to be very (discreetly) political.
Today, the situation in Bosnia is not an easy one, not only in film, but in life generally. A film foundation was recently established. Apart from not having enough money for production, the promotion of scripts or finished films is the weakest spot in all of Eastern Europe. Older generations have never learned how to communicate with foreign funds or film festivals because in the socialist era that was done via official state institutions. Now things have changed so much, the state doesn’t do anything. Everything is left up to private initiative, but mentalities change very slowly. That’s why some of the very interesting films made during the war have never been widely exposed outside the country. But luckily, the new generation is there, they speak English, understand computers and see the necessity of being present in the world of film not only in the Balkans, but in Western Europe, the US and Canada. Young people who studied film during the war, like Jasmila Zbanic or Faruk Loncarevic, Aida Begic, Elmir Jukic and others, are coming up with interesting ideas, fresh approaches and new views of life in their country, etc. The problem is where to find funding for all these films. The other problem is how to be a professional if you can only make one film every four or five years”.
AO: What about Bosnian TV? Do they co-produce with independent filmmakers?
RS: “They do, but not enough. Also, the leading team of the TV station, where I worked for many years by the way, is replaced every now and then according to the political changes of the country. They keep changing to a different strategy of working and collaborating with people outside the TV team. Nevertheless, they have produced interesting films during and after the war, but definitely did not put enough effort into promoting them abroad”.
AO: Are you working on a new documentary project?
RS: “For a long time now, I have been travelling to India because I am interested in Indian cinema. I teach Indian films here at the University in Amsterdam and have shared my life with many Indian friends over the past decade. I admire their way of thinking about life, their strength and their deep feelings towards certain things, such as arranged marriage. More than half of my Indian friends, filmmakers and film critics who studied in the US or Europe live in arranged marriages. They believe in it and have chosen it. I want to try to understand them and to express that in a poetic documentary”.
Rada Sesic was born in Croatia, lived in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and worked as a film critic for Radio Television Bosnia and Herzegovina and for the film magazine SINEAST. Her first films were made on super 8; later on she was an assistant director on fiction feature films. When the war broke out in her homeland, she moved to The Netherlands. She has been a member of Dutch Film Critics Association since 1994, and reviews film for Skrien, Film Guide of Variety and DOX. She teaches Indian Cinema at the University of Amsterdam, serves as an advisor for the program of Indian films for the International Film Festival Rotterdam and is one of the film programmers at Kerala Film Festival (India). She is a member of the selection committee of the Dutch Film Foundation Jan Vrijman (part of IDFA). She has directed three films in The Netherlands: Room Without a View (1997), Soske (2001) and In Whitest Solitude (2001).
Soske follows three political refugees from Sri Lanka, Burundi and Chechnya who now live in The Netherlands. A split screen allows simultaneous entry into their lives. The refugees had university degrees and good careers in their home countries, but find it difficult to become part of the new society in which they live.