Ena Sendijarevic on Migration, Identity and the Question of Belonging

Bosnian filmmaker Ena Sendijarević had an auspicious debut with “Import,” a short film which world premiered in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight in 2016. Drawing on her own family’s personal history, the Amsterdam-based director crafted an idiosyncratic tale about a family of Bosnian refugees trying to make a new home in the Netherlands.

With her feature debut, “Take Me Somewhere Nice,” Sendijarević again probes at questions of migration, identity and belonging in a quirky coming-of-age story about a teen raised in Holland who returns to Bosnia to visit her ailing father. The movie premiered at the Rotterdam Intl. Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Award for exceptional artistic achievement, and was selected for Cannes’ ACID sidebar. This week at the Sarajevo Film Festival, it screened for Bosnian audiences for the first time.

Born in Bosnia, Sendijarević fled with her family during the war, and has spent the past 25 years living in the Netherlands. The director spoke with Variety about her first feature, the in-betweenness of being a child of two cultures, and the question of who has the right to tell whose stories.

Like Alma, the protagonist of “Take Me Somewhere Nice,” you have Bosnian roots but were raised in the Netherlands. But unlike Alma, you were born in Bosnia, and your family was forced to flee because of the war. What did you learn while making this movie about your own connection to Bosnia—or even to the Netherlands?

Making this film was partly me wanting to explore this relationship that I have to Bosnia, because to me, it was also this big question mark: what is this relationship about? I’m living in the Netherlands for so many years, but I still have this Bosnian [identity]. This is also how people see me in the Netherlands. But at the same time, when I’m in Bosnia, people see me as the Dutch girl. Through these questions that I had for myself, regarding my own life, I really wanted to dive deeper into this relationship between the migrant and the home country. Especially when migration in the Netherlands is high on the political agenda. I wanted to show more the complexity of it, and ask these questions of belonging and how much do you still have the right to be part of the world that you voluntarily or involuntarily left behind. A country can [be in your] blood, on the one hand; but on the other hand, when you have the papers of another country, how much do you still have the right to be part of it?

During the [production] process, I could also feel this. There is this question, and I think it’s an important question we are asking ourselves more and more—who has the right to tell which stories? I think it’s a good question, because the relationship between the person behind the camera and the person before the camera is a power relationship. And this is what we are starting to discover, because more and more people have access to the camera. It didn’t used to be like that. So who is telling whose story? This became a very important question for me during the making of the film, because when we were shooting in Bosnia, sometimes I became scared of touching upon certain problems in Bosnian society. Because I would question myself as a foreigner. Am I foreigner here or not? Do I have a right to be here or not?

When you were asking these questions of yourself, did anything surprise you in terms of your relationship to these different aspects of your identity?

I think the film is trying to go against the victimizing aesthetic. This is how I would call it. When you’re making a film that is critical, or a very stylized film that is through humor trying to criticize both societies—Dutch, Bosnian, but also the way we deal with East-West, questions of femininity, masculinity, all those things. Being critical about them, in the end, I found out that people are much more eager to embrace victimizing stories, where people who are struggling are either the heroes, or…

Noble victims? They’re the victims, but their value to the audience is that they suffer for us on screen.

Exactly. Exactly. The suffering. The suffering victim. Exactly. And who benefits from these stories? This is a big question for me. Why do we want to see these social-realist stories about victims? Is there another kind of aesthetic that I can use to tell these stories, to touch upon these subjects? This was my biggest field of research. How can I find a different form of touching upon these subjects? Trying to find the form to talk about these topics without falling into this victimizing way of storytelling. And this gray, dark blue, handheld, social-realist [aesthetic]. We’ve seen it already, and I don’t know what it adds anymore. Because people don’t feel represented by it, and it almost feels like some kind of colonial—it almost feels like it’s serving the privileged, Western eye, so that [the audience] can feel better, and they can be reassured they are suffering, and they can come out of the cinema with this reassurance. “I spent time with the suffering, so I’m a good person.” [Laughs.]

But people who are suffering, who are represented by this, they don’t get anything from it. So I wanted to see how I could empower them, and also myself. How can I make a film where I can laugh about my own situation? Because I think humor gives empowerment. So this is what I tried: to take my own problems and make fun of them, in a way, and liberate myself from this victimizing view. I don’t want to be victimized as the poor refugee coming to Netherlands. No. Life is bigger than that.

It has to be generational as well, especially when you think of social-realism in the context of this region. There are echoes of the war in “Take Me Somewhere Nice,” but the characters were all born long after it ended. Is that important to you, and also to the younger generation of Bosnian filmmakers—not to be hostage to history? It’s like a different kind of colonization—colonization by your own past.

Yes, yes. This is why personally I’m a big fan of someone like [the teenage Swedish climate-change activist] Greta Thunberg. She’s a very big inspiration, in the sense that young people are standing up and saying, “Hey, grown-ups, the way that you left the world to us—we’re not happy with it. And we want to change something.” And I think this optimism of the younger generation, this belief in change, it’s crucial. If we don’t have that, then it’s over. And especially here in Bosnia, you can feel it as well. The only hope for Bosnian society is the young generation. All the older generations are stuck in certain patterns that are dysfunctional. Also, because there’s a lot of trauma—not only in the older generation of people living in Bosnia, but also in the older generation of people that moved to other countries, in the diaspora.

We had a very long process of casting, so I met a lot of the young Bosnian actors. They would be used to auditioning for films about the war—and it’s not even their war! This really infuriated me. They are literally reenacting a war that is not theirs. So I really tried to avoid the war in the film, and to present a reflection of the world as it is right now. Let’s look at what do we have right now, and where can we go from there? I really hope that young people will be encouraged also by the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, because that’s also part of being young. You don’t have to be ashamed of that. And that they will be liberated, not only young Bosnian people, but everywhere. Just to experiment and express themselves.

Was it liberating for you, too?

For me, it also became at a certain point a little voice in my head, when I was making decisions: “Do I dare to do it? Do I dare to say it? Do I dare to touch upon teen sexuality in this kind of way?” But there would also be this voice that says, “Yes, you have to do the things that you’re scared of. This is what liberating cinema is about.” I really felt pressure to tell this “good girl” story—this sentimental, girl goes back to the country of her roots and walks around in her grandmother’s garden, picking flowers…

External pressure or internal pressure?

This I don’t know. I think it’s external, but this means it could be internal. [Laughs.] It’s hard for me to say. There is still this pressure of the older generations, also in the Bosnian diaspora in the Netherlands. I don’t think the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll vibe hits the older generations of the Bosnian diaspora, or the older generations of filmmakers here in Bosnia. Here, I haven’t seen many of those kinds of films yet. Mostly they are more the other kind of filmmaking.

Your film premiered in the Netherlands, at the Rotterdam film festival, and this week you screened it for the first time in Bosnia. What have the reactions been like in the two countries?

They have really been above expectations, in the sense that I really feel the film is embraced by the young generation. I get hugs on the streets here. I really feel that people embrace the film because of this liberating aspect of it. I feel that the “good” people are embracing it—the people that I made this film for. People who are looking for different ways of expression. At the same time, the film is criticized as well by people who are more brainwashed by this so-called social-realist or maybe classical way of storytelling, who are only focused on the plot, the narrative. The plot is the least important aspect of the film. And then they are confused, like, “Where’s the story?” This film is about feeling, because I feel that cinema is about feeling something. It’s about communicating a certain emotion through the art of cinema. Through the form. Not as much by just telling a story that you can also tell in words. I do feel that young people, like myself, have embraced the film. And this is a huge relief for me. Because of course this was a question mark: how are they going to respond?

You’ve got a second feature in development. Can you tell us a bit more about it?

It’s about the feminine side of the colonial oppression of Indonesia by the Dutch—the female experience, so to say. It will be quite a surreal, fantastical, absurdist horror comedy. [Laughs.] It feels like a follow-up to [“Take Me Somewhere Nice”]. I really dived into this Bosnian side of me, these so-called roots. Now I have the chance to dive into the history of my home country for the last 25 years. Again, now that I’m diving into the colonial history, which is also a very touchy subject, of course the question is: do you have the right to tell this story? It’s the question of belonging, and it’s the question of when are you accepted into a society? What do you have to do in order to finally be part of a nation? I am diving into the same themes, so these tensions – masculinity, femininity – are also the biggest themes in my next film, but it’s set in the 19th century in Indonesia. I’m going to go a step further or so with this tone that I touched upon in “Take Me Somewhere Nice.” I’m going to push that a little further. Having had people like Fassbinder or Buñuel or Tsai Ming-liang as inspiration, and their recklessness, I want to step further toward that.

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