ANTALYA, Turkey — Aida Begic spent months working with aid groups and displaced Syrian families and orphans in preparing her portrait of the refugee crisis, as seen from the eyes of children in “Never Leave Me.” The subject is well-known to the Bosnian survivor of the Balkan War, whose films often focus on the youngest victims and their remarkable buoyancy. Variety chatted to Begic as “Never Leave Me” opened the 54th Antalya Festival.
How did your own experience lead you to making such incisive portraits of children as survivors?
I was 16 when our war happened. I’m always very sensitive to this problem and I always will be to the suffering of innocents. I know that there are many dimensions and kids they have to stay kids even in the worst circumstances. So to talk about what’s happening with children and their dreams and their emotions, it’s probably something that will give us a different perspective to the politics, which are burdened with some wider context that I didn’t want to treat.
Your characters seem to have developed from the lives of your child actors in many cases. So they were co-authors of the script in a way?
I always work a lot with kids and with real people as part of my research. But this was the first time that I had real people to act almost their real story. The emotions are real. There are situations where I brought the characters closer to their real personalities actually. That was this point when this line between life and cinema came so close together – it was really an amazing experience.
Their life was so much harder than cinema and on one level cinema was so much larger than their life because it was kind of a healing process for the kids as well.
But you struggled for quite a while to get your main character, Isa, to open up, right?
Isa, the main character, for example, through the process became very self-confident and open – I saw him dancing and laughing and so on. I asked myself why I was doing this: How can cinema change anything? I know cinema cannot change the world, but when I see these changes in the world of people, I remember that, O.K., art has sense. Cinema has some sense.
How did you conceive of a way to tell a story that hasn’t yet been heard in the midst of such massive global coverage of the crisis?
The thing is, kids and refugees and orphans, it’s not so sexy. I mean with PR…but when you know kids, I didn’t want to tell a story to define them. I don’t want to define the situation. I try to find it with them. And I think that there are more dimensions.
My personal belief as a director is, I don’t believe I can make films sitting on my couch in my comfortable apartment. So I always challenge myself with reality, real people’s stories. And in this case, I went further.
You manage to find so many moments of levity – girls pushing the boys around and taking their money, a boy enjoying fresh, stolen bread. Was this important for your vision?
I know that you don’t stop being a child and you don’t stop your childhood when you are a refugee or you are an orphan or you are in the middle of a siege like I was in Sarajevo. It’s interrupted, it’s cut – but you don’t stop being a child. In these kinds of situations you improvise and try to survive. And you find a lot of creativity in young kids.
Working with children is one of the most challenging things for filmmakers even in peaceful Western countries – how did you manage this in the borderlands of the refugee crisis?
I filmed a few hundred kids. Until I’m confident I can rely on kids and they’re really motivated and talented. And in that case, I can rely more on kids than on adults. Most of my crew were really terrified – like, ‘Oh, we’re working with kids?’
But I spent a long time searching for the right kids but once I found them, there was a lot of trust between us. Really this process is amazing. I never choose kid actors – I don’t like to work with kids that somebody’s already coached. I like to search for myself and to construct human relations between kids and grown-ups. This way, we didn’t have a single problem during the process.
Having your subjects reenact traumatic events that they’ve lived through had to be difficult for everyone.
That’s how you check whether they will be able to work hard or give up. Because they have take a deeply emotional path that may hurt them. I was careful not to push too far and it was a big responsibility. That’s why the story is based on their lives but it’s slightly changed.
For example, Isa’s father really was killed by the same bomb that hurt him and his sister. But it was in Aleppo and in front of his father’s store. So I changed the situation to a bomb that fell on a car. That was the hardest scene for him to do. Because his father was missing since 2011 – he never heard anything about him.
Another child had this feeling, thinking that he saw his father, hugging him. It’s something that these kids really want to see and want to experience. Fragile moments. But the kids were really strong. And mature enough to handle it.