About once upon a time Yugoslavia

Gautaman Bhaskaran
Filed on October 20, 2010

ABU DHABI — Almost a decade ago, during the Cannes Film Festival, a journalist had asked Bosnian director Danis Tanovic why he was directing movies instead of acting in them. “Maybe I am not good in front of the camera,” he replied. Maybe. But Tanovic is so handsome that he could have easily been on screen.

Now, at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, where his latest work, Cirkus Columbia, is screening, Tanovic sings a different line. Or, at least he does that jocularly. He told me during a recent chat, “Mira Nair promised to call me for a role. But she obviously wants Johnny Depp”, and laughed.

But, after the glory that his debut picture, No Man’s Land, brought him in 2002, he must have pushed all thoughts of becoming a star to the darkest corners of his mind. The movie won the Best Oscar Award in the foreign language category.

A tragic war drama set in Bosnia, No Man’s Land is a parable that underlines the struggle for survival. Three soldiers from different communities find themselves stranded in the no man’s land, and Tanovic’s work conveys their helpless pathos as they try to escape death.

In his Cirkus Columbia, Tanovic goes back to the milieu of his first movie. It is an absurdist tale of a man returning to his native village in Herzegovina. It is 1992, and Bosnia is all ready to witness a bloody civil war. Diviko (Miki Manojlovic) comes back home after 20 years with a vengeful attitude. He is terribly angry that his wife did not follow him to Germany. He evicts the wife and their 20-year-old son from his house, and struts about town with his gorgeously young girlfriend. However, Diviko eventually proves that he is not all such a bad guy.

The script, penned by Tanovic and Ivica Dikic, and based on the latter’s novella, goes all out to remind us, though gently, of an age gone by and an innocence lost. In one scene that is so telling of this, Diviko, watching television footage showing Serbs shelling Dubrovnik, wonders whether they would blow up the old bridge at Mostar after that.

Tanovic says that while all of us think so much about war and after it, very few people actually ponder over what it was before the hostilities began. “These are great moments before war,” he reminisces and adds, “moments when we naively believe that war cannot happen in our land, to our people”.

It is very clear that Tanovic fiercely believes that war never solves problems. “I think that a lot of nationalists who were fighting to split Yugoslavia now profoundly regret what they have done,” the Bosnian helmer rues. “I think that 90 per cent of those who fought to divide our country will today happily go back in time to put Yugoslavia together… I am sure they are all remorseful of what they did. I do not think that anything good came out of this war.”

Tanovic minces no words while holding some of the nationalists squarely guilty of causing enormous loss and grief. “I have a name for them. Ethno-kleptomania. It is stealing in the name of the people. You have these super-rich nationalists who stole everything from the people. We say that every country has its mafia. But in the Balkans, it is the countries themselves who are the mafia.”

Tanovic, the tall and handsome director, has an awful lot of regret in him. It has nothing to do with him, though. As he adds, “I am happy. I have a good career, a lovely family with a wife and five children.” But he seems so sad that his once beautiful country now stands divided, destroyed and disillusioned.

(Gautaman Bhaskaran has been covering major film festivals across continents, and is now in Abu Dhabi)

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