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This Man's Land

Filmmaker Danis Tanovic has a vision for his country, and he’s not waiting for anyone else to make it happen. by Amela Bulja and Armela Subasic 15 July 2008 ZENICA, Bosnia and Herzegovina | When Danis Tanovic won an Oscar for his film No Man’s Land in 2001, he stood on the stage, holding the statuette aloft, and proclaimed, “This is for my country, Bosnia.”

Tanovic, 39, reached the pinnacle of film achievement by writing and directing a feature that depicted one fictional episode in the Bosnian war: a wounded soldier, taken for dead, is draped as a booby trap over a land mine that will explode if he is lifted. It’s an indictment of the insanity of the war – “the fratricide,” Tanovic has called it – and the international community’s impotence to stop it.

Those motivating impulses – a love of country and a cynicism about the ability of outsiders to fix things – led Tanovic to co-found a new political party in April.


"War is in some way present in all of my movies," Tanovic says. Photos of the director by Dejan Vekic.

“For me, the international community is nonsense; it’s something that doesn’t really exist. What do exist are French, English, American interests …,” he said at a recent meeting of Our Party. Bosnia’s government has been under international supervision since the Dayton accords ended the war in 1995. “I can't see why would they do a single thing contrary to their interests – everybody works in their own best interest. So that's why we need to start working in our own interest, for our country. I don't think anybody in Bosnia has the right to just wait for things to get better.”

Tanovic and the party’s other founders, theater director Dino Mustafic and Bojan Bajic, say they want to overcome widespread apathy, ethnic division, and social injustice. In a country divided among Croats, Serbs, and Bosnian Muslims, it will be an uphill battle. But it wouldn’t be Tanovic’s first.

HIS WAY

After the meeting Tanovic seemed eager to linger, chatting and laughing with those who had shown up to hear about this new party. In person, he handsome and charismatic, at once friendly and confident about his new venture.

Tanovic was one of six students in the first directing class in 1989-1990 at the University of Sarajevo’s Drama Academy. “When I first enrolled in the academy, I didn’t even know what being a director really was. I realized that only after the war, after my second, third documentary. A director is a person with his own, unique perspective of the world,” he said in a post-meeting interview.

During the four-year siege of Sarajevo by Serbian forces that began in 1992, the university stayed open, although it was the frequent target of snipers. The drama academy held classes in the basement. While continuing as a student there, Tanovic made documentaries and shot video on the front lines for the Bosnian army and supervised the army’s archives.

In 1994, Tanovic made Portrait of the Artist in War, which he calls his most emotional project. “I was making it in very difficult conditions,” he said.

That same year, he left Sarajevo. He went first to the United States, where he did odd jobs, chopping wood, repairing “different sorts of things,” and taking photographs. In 1996, he went to Belgium to continue his studies.

That same year, he followed up Portrait with L’Aube and, in 1999, with Ca Ira, both documentaries. No Man’s Land came two years later.

Zijad Mehic, dean of the drama academy, said, “I remember the period when he was looking for people in Bosnia to read his screenplay for No Man’s Land and couldn’t find anybody.”

Instead, Mehic said, Tanovic happened to meet Bosnian producer Cedomir Kolar at a party in France, and Kolar gave him contacts for other producers. Tanovic’s breakthrough film was made with Slovenian, Belgian, Italian, British, and French money. “He truly is a man who accomplished everything on his own. He dedicated his work to the country that gave him almost nothing. This country didn’t invest any money in the movie that won not just the Oscar but all other global awards,” Mehic said.

For his part, Tanovic offers no false modesty about the movie. "No Man's Land was a very good screenplay. The producers read it and said 'Let's make it.' And that was it, ” he said.

Since winning the Oscar, Tanovic has not had to go hat in hand to get his films produced. The following year, he was among 11 directors asked to contribute to Eleven Minutes, Nine Seconds, One Image: September 11, a compendium of short films from around the world depicting the effects of the 11 September 2001 attacks in New York. He showed the widows of the Srebrenica massacre, continuing to march carrying placards with the names of those killed.


Tanovic's first feature won an armful of international awards, including an Oscar.

Three years later came L'Enfer, a drama about three sisters who share a connection to a violent childhood incident and who reunite to come to terms with their past.

In 2003 and 2004, he traveled to Kabul to help rebuild the Ariana cinema, which had been damaged and shut down by the Taliban.

Tanovic returned to Sarajevo recently from shooting in Ireland and Spain. He is working on an adaptation of war correspondent Scott Anderson’s 1999 novel, Triage. which will star Colin Farrell.

Asked if he was bored with making war films, as he once claimed to be, Tanovic said, “I said that because I was asked to make No Man’s Land 2, and it’s boring to do the same thing all over again. But war is in some way present in all of my movies; I just can’t run away from who I am. That’s simply something that interests me and I’ll keep that interest in my future work.”

‘THEIR INTENTION IS HONEST’

Tanovic is a high-profile figure in Bosnia who never made a career of politics and who has professed his love for his country for all the world to hear. In a nation where politics is plagued by opportunism, petty divisions, and corruption those two facts could put him above suspicion and could lend credibility to Our Party.

“When he raised that little statue and said, ‘This is for my country, Bosnia’ -- people don’t forget that,” said Maja Marjanović, one of the party’s vice presidents. “He didn’t have to do that and that’s what the people don’t forget. He’s actually lending his name and his reputation to the party, and he invokes that initial trust.”

Emir Hadzic, a resident of Zenica, where Tanovic grew up and where the party launch was held, attended the recent meeting and was impressed. “I lost my enthusiasm a long time ago when it comes to political parties in Bosnia. Truth be told, I was skeptical about Our Party, too, when I first heard about it. But then I thought: why would somebody who already accomplished a lot in his life have petty ambitions to rise to some position within the party or governance of the country? I have a feeling that their intention is honest.”

Tanovic is another of the party’s vice presidents, but he said he never intends to run for elected office. “‘I wouldn’t know how to do that kind of job, I’m a film professional.

“If we want to create a better future for ourselves, we have to stop dealing with the same old issues that aren’t the real issues that must be dealt with,” he said. Chief among them, the ethnic divisions that retard the country’s progress. “I always liked diversity. I'm glad to be from a country full of diversity and I have to admit that countries without it are quite boring.”

Marjanovic said the party would focus on social justice. “The situation in Bosnia is such that we’ve taken the worst of capitalism and find it in such a way that it’s exploitation. So we’re going to keep talking about the fact that there are so many unemployed people in this country, that people’s vital interest … is to be able to work in proper conditions and have a good and dignified life that you support with the fruits of that labor -- a proper salary. Your vital national interest is to have a proper health care system, to be able to send your kids to good schools in this country, to buy them books, to feed and clothe them, and to secure them a future. We’re talking about your everyday problems and we’re able to identify at that level with the public in this country.

“The general condition in Bosnia is that many people are apathetic and believe things can’t change. This party is a response to the outcry of the general public. We’re appealing to first-time voters, to absentees, to disappointed Social Democrats, and possibly, somebody from the pool that voted for the nationalist party until now.”

Our Party has collected enough signatures to qualify it to stand in October’s local elections.

TEACHING, LEARNING

Tanovic, his wife, Maelys De Rudder, and their four children last year returned to Sarajevo from France, where they had been living.

“Actually, having my children changed me more that having the Oscar. After I got the Oscar, I stayed the same, my friends stayed the same, only the world’s perspective on me changed,” he said.

In addition to political organizing and filmmaking, he teaches acting, playwriting, and directing in the same academy where he started out.

“I’m not interested in reaching a destination, but to move ahead on the road to it,” Tanovic said. “After No Man’s Land, I can say I got a turbo engine and new tires to progress on that road. I don’t look at my career as if there’s some destination I have to reach. Had I looked at it that way, I wouldn’t have done anything since No Man’s Land – and that’s not the point. The point is that you learn as long as you’re alive.”

Amela Bulja writes for TEME magazine and produces for Television of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BHTV). Armela Subasic works at BHTV as well as the magazine Media Online.
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