Describing its world premiere on the opening night of the Sarajevo Film Festival as “magic,” Oscar-winning Bosnian director Danis Tanović (“No Man’s Land”) called his latest feature “a love letter to our city,” offering it as a beacon of hope in troubled times to the people of Sarajevo.
Speaking to Variety the day after the premiere, Tanović described an emotional night as his feel-good film “Not So Friendly Neighborhood Affair” opened the festival’s 27th edition.
“For me, the Sarajevo Film Festival is my home. Sarajevo is my home,” he said. “Last night was beautiful, because…we are getting out of this dire situation in which we were in a bad place for quite some time. We still are – we didn’t get out of this mess yet. So to put a bit of humor and a funny look on everything we’ve gone through helps. Last night was beautiful because everybody came out happy.”
Seated outside the Sarajevo National Theater, a lively hub of activity throughout the festival where he was interrupted by friends and well-wishers, Tanović also teased details of his next feature film, “The Panther Queen,” which is based on the real-life story of the Pink Panthers, an international network of jewel thieves with roots in the Balkan region.
“It’s a complicated story,” he said. “They call them the Pink Panthers, but they were never an organization. It’s more like a spider web, where they know each other and they use different people” to commit their crimes. Across decades of daring heists, the group is alleged to have stolen up to $1 billion worth of jewels.
“If you go and steal diamonds, they give you two years. But if it’s organized [crime], then you get 20 years,” the director continued. “So the police and Interpol invented this thing, the Pink Panthers, which doesn’t really exist in order to put them in prison for much longer time.”
“Not So Friendly Neighborhood Affair” tells the story of restaurant rivals who become embroiled in a competition over who makes Sarajevo’s best ćevapi, a grilled minced meat dish beloved in Bosnia and Herzegovina and throughout the Balkans. Shot in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic on a shoestring budget of €250,000 ($295,000), the film is a testament to the enduring ties that bind the people of Sarajevo, with the director describing it as a movie “made in friendship and love.”
To pull it off, Tanović enlisted a number of long-time collaborators. “I called all the people that I usually work with. I said, ‘Look, this is the story. We have a small budget. We need to shoot in 20 days.’ And we shot it,” he said. “Everything was finished – the shooting, the post-production – in three months.”
Much of the cast and crew gave up their summer holidays to shepherd the film to the finish line, and even then, just by a whisker: Tanović only arrived in Sarajevo with the final cut on Thursday, after wrapping up the sound mix in Slovenia.
The coronavirus pandemic also posed its own challenges. “It was tough,” said the director. “One month prior to the shoot, we didn’t know if we were going to even be able to go into the street, because we were in lockdown.” As coronavirus case numbers in Bosnia plateaued and then began to taper off this spring, the director and his crew took to the streets of Sarajevo to shoot – even as they remained vigilant of the looming threat of the pandemic, which figures heavily in the movie’s script.
Born in the city of Zenica, Tanović was raised in Sarajevo, where he attended the Academy of Performing Arts. His studies were cut short by the outbreak of war in 1992, and for two years he and his colleague Dino Mustafić led a film crew that followed the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, producing footage that would subsequently appear in news reports and films about the war and the siege of Sarajevo. In 1994, he left the country to continue his studies in Belgium, returning several years later to make his directorial debut with “No Man’s Land.”
It would prove to be a turning point for local cinema. Before the Bosnian War, Sarajevo was the capital of a thriving film industry, producing filmmakers such as Emir Kusturica, who won the Palme d’Or in Cannes in 1985 for “When Father Was Away on Business,” and the festival’s best director prize four years later for “Time of the Gypsies.” But the war – and the near four-year siege of the city – destroyed everything from film studios and equipment to archive materials and legal documents. Many natives fled, taking a good part of the city’s cultural legacy with them.
The 2002 Oscar win for “No Man’s Land,” a darkly comic parable about the Bosnian War, played a key role in reshaping the industry’s fortunes. After winning the award, Tanović said he lobbied the government to provide more support for local filmmakers, just as a new generation was emerging from the ashes of the war. That cinematic revival would lead to films such as Jasmila Žbanić’s 2006 Berlin Golden Bear winner “Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams,” proving that the small Bosnian film industry could punch above its weight.
Yet today, public support for cinema has slowed to a trickle, far outpaced by funding in neighboring countries. Last year, the Bosnian Film Fund issued just €630,000 ($743,000) in grants for the development and production of films. “What can you make with that money? You can’t really shoot films like that,” said Tanović. “There’s much more of a cultural heritage and energy here than there is money. It’s an ongoing battle here with politicians, trying to make them understand.
“And still Bosnian cinematography manages to exist,” he added, pointing to the success of Žbanić’s latest feature, “Quo Vadis, Aida?,” which bowed in Venice last year before earning an Academy Award nomination for best international film. “It’s unbelievable when you think that we make one film per year and still manage to make it work.”
Tanović has in recent years been increasingly drawn to television, “where you can go deeper in the subject, and you have time to deal with characters, with themes, with things that you want to say,” he said. “It’s a different way of thinking and working. And I like it. So why not? Directing is like a muscle. If you don’t practice, you lose it.”
Since cutting his teeth on the six-part drama “Success,” the first series to launch on the short-lived HBO Adria label, Tanović has been tapped to direct the Serbian-Hungarian comedy-drama “Frust,” as well as an upcoming crime drama backed by a recently launched €9 million ($10.6 million) TV fund from Bosnia’s BH Telecom.
“I’m working on a few things at the same time. Whichever comes first, we do it,” he said. “I used to wait for years to make a film. And it just doesn’t make sense anymore…. As soon as one is ready, I go and shoot it.
“There are no rules,” he added. “We are inventing rules by the day. Whatever worked on the last film doesn’t work on the next one. The world is changing so fast.”