Bosnian director Pjer Žalica recently found himself standing before Sarajevo’s National Theater, which in less troubled times would have hosted the world premiere of his comic drama “Focus, Grandma”—the opening film of the 26th edition of the Sarajevo Film Festival. “In front of the theater, there is this red carpet and nothing else,” Žalica told Variety. “It was a real shock.”
Few would accuse the Sarajevo native of being easily rattled. Born and raised in the Bosnian capital, Žalica lived there throughout the devastating four-year siege that laid waste to Sarajevo, amid the wider conflict that led to the break-up of the former Yugoslavia.
That turbulent period serves as the backdrop to “Focus, Grandma,” which follows a group of family members summoned to Sarajevo to stand vigil by their matriarch’s death bed. As the old woman takes her last breaths—miraculously outliving the doctor’s dire prognosis—the family squabbles over an inheritance centered on their grand Sarajevo home.
Written and directed by Žalica, “Focus, Grandma” was produced by Obala Art Center, the Sarajevo Film Festival, and the Turkish public broadcaster (TRT) as part of the Sarajevo City of Film for Global Screen micro-budget film initiative. This marks the third time that the Bosnian helmer opens the Sarajevo fest, after “Fuse” (2003) and “Days and Hours” (2004).
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Ahead of Friday’s premiere, Žalica spoke to Variety about his Sarajevo youth, the moral weaknesses revealed by extraordinary circumstances, and the challenge of launching his latest film in the midst of a global health crisis. “A festival without an audience—in the conditions of a pandemic,” he said. “I hope that this is the first and the last time.”
“Focus, Grandma” is the story of a family at war in a country that is soon to be at war. What made you want to make this film, particularly now that we’re three decades removed from that era?
I had this story in mind for quite some time. But it was not supposed to be the [next] movie I wanted make. I had almost finished financing and development for the next feature film, which I was supposed to start this summer. But because of COVID, I will start it next year. But then I got an invitation from Turkish TV: “Are you ready to make a movie with a very low budget in a very short time?” I thought it would be really nice to do something fast. It was a challenging idea, to do something very fast and with almost no budget. And then I remembered this story. So I decided to send it to the Sarajevo Film Festival and Turkish TV for my film proposal and they picked it up. So there was no way back.
I started writing the first draft of the script and finished it in one month and a half. I had no time to digest the whole story. On the other hand, it was constant progress. These deadlines are just pushing you ahead. It was really a little bit traumatic, working under pressure. But on the other hand, it was really challenging and exciting. Maybe it would have been a better or different film if I had more time. Or maybe it would have been worse.
Is the film based on events in your life?
The genesis of the story begins in my childhood. The schematics of the family is my family. It’s my grandmother, and she had five kids, and they were living in different parts of Yugoslavia. They had very vivid personalities. But this story about the [inheritance] and the bad blood in the family, it’s fictional. The plot and the characters are new, because I wanted to tell the story about human weaknesses.
The family in your film in some ways represents a microcosm of the former Yugoslavia, representing a range of ethnic identities and political viewpoints. And like the former Yugoslavia in 1992, they’re also a warring clan that seems to be falling apart at the seams. Was that parallel intentional?
Yes, it is. In fact, it’s something that really happened with my family. My family stayed together, but during the war, we were scattered in all of these new countries. It created some kind of disturbances. During the war, we had different opinions about some stuff. So yes, the parallel is intentional. If you spoil your kids, you could expect disaster. And I think that Yugoslavia is really unfortunate because it put itself through something like that. I think the former Yugoslavia republics are like spoiled kids. Each one was caring just about itself. And that selfishness provoked tragedy.
Do you think the family conflict we see in “Focus, Grandma” is a consequence of the place and the time in which the movie is set—what you describe in your director’s statement as “an environment where moral parameters are perverted to an extreme extent”?
I was making some documentary some years ago about a pop band from Yugoslavia. During the shooting of that movie, I met some guy in Slovenia who said something I really remembered well, even today. He said that it’s extremely easy to be evil. It’s so easy to be nationalist. The problem is to come [through] it, to become a better person. That’s the problem. It’s easy to be bad, but it’s not easy to be good. I thought about it constantly. When I was directing theater—I was directing recently “Three Sisters,” of Chekhov, and having that in mind. The fact that they’re trying to be good, all of them. But it’s tough. Every single day is a challenge. I started to write this family story [with that in mind].
When you look at the moral universe of this film, the Sarajevo of 1992, do you see parallels between then and now?
Unfortunately, you can see it everywhere now. Maybe it was the same in the ‘90s, but from my perspective, it looked like that there were some problematic spots where you can find these things. But now it’s the global problem. It’s not news anymore—nationalism, fascism, torture, terror. It’s [the reality] we are living in. And it becomes a kind of normality, which is really bad.
Sarajevo was kind of the beginning—this war in Bosnia, the split-up of the former Yugoslavia. People at the time, just after the war, or even during the war, when I was traveling—I remember in Cannes, at the Cannes Film Festival in ‘95, somebody asked me, “How is it possible that you were not aware that war is coming?” I was aware, and everybody was aware, but we were not ready to admit it. People are not stupid. But people are cowards. It’s obvious that war is coming. You should be blind or extremely stupid not to see it. But it’s difficult to say, “Look, war is coming. We should do something.” It’s much easier to pretend that nothing is happening. To steal money from your brother, to steal money from your mother, to do some stupid, bad things.
You were born and raised in Sarajevo, you lived there during the siege, and you’ve made several movies about that period. How do you think being in Sarajevo through that turbulent time impacted you as a filmmaker?
It was a privilege, in fact. The other [option] was to fight. As a filmmaker it was challenging, but also, it was a kind of opportunity. We were lucky, a group of us who were making films in Sarajevo during the war, that we had no repression. We were free to make films and to say whatever we want. There was no censorship. It was crazy. I could not believe that I could just say [what I wanted]. Maybe we were not important, a bunch of filmmakers. Maybe they did not take us seriously. So we were making films. It was dangerous. And it was extremely exciting. You know, life was boiling. The problem was distance, because we had no distance. We were living in the middle of a volcano and filming it, which is quite complicated. It’s not the regular perspective. But it’s a unique perspective. We had that privilege to be in Sarajevo then. As a filmmaker and human being, I think it formed me.