Acting for the Dead
Living in a war-torn Bosnian village, actors in the award-winning film "Snow" shed light on the real-life process of recovery.
Picture a Bosnian village in 1997. The men are missing, presumed dead, after being dragged off into the woods. Of the males the only survivors are a pensioner, deemed too old to fight or reproduce, and a boy whose hair was long enough for him to be mistaken as a girl. The surviving women are floating; with no income and no bodies to bury, they do not know what to tell themselves about their future.
This is the setting for Snow (Snijeg), a film which won the International Critics Week Grand Prize in Cannes in 2008. While Slavno is an imagined village, it was shot in a real one whose circumstances are similar.
While nobody could or should claim that acting and reporting are identical activities, the experience of the actors working in that village throws a light on what is involved when journalists and documentarists think themselves into the shoes of survivors in order to reconstruct harrowing events.
Zana Marjanović is Alma, the lead in the film. Earlier this year while in London for the Birds Eye View Film Festival, she talked to the Dart Centre about what it was like to play a grieving widow, in a place where the dead are far from all buried.
To prepare, she lived in a community where a decade before the women had fled into the woods while the men stayed behind.
“When you ask them about their husbands that they have lost,” Marjanović explains, “It is just the silence at first that is so strong and so powerful that you will never ask them about it again, unless they say something themselves. Just a couple of words and that is it … It is in their presence.”
It was this unutterable quality of loss, one that still affects many communities across the former terrain of Yugoslavia, around which the director Aida Begić decided to build a partly improvised screenplay.
The film is not distinguished itself by general silence. Indeed, the women make enough noise. They hatch plans, squabble and joke, as they bustle around looking after their children and pouring their energies into starting up an ill-fated vegetable bottling business. They just lack language to describe their own bereavement.
Sabrina (Jelena Kordić), for example, finds solace in the thumping soundtracks of low-end Eurobeat. It conjures up memories of romance with a now absent Dutch truck-driver she is still half holding out for.
A gentle teasing of her taste in music and even more questionable fashion sense provides an indispensable, lighter counterpoint to the film’s essential scaffolding.
Alma is the coper. A devout and ascetic Muslim, she stifles her own grief and keeps herself ticking with efforts to cajole her largely older neighbours towards some kind of future.
Marjanović’s off-screen experience is very different. She is the image of hip, secular urbanite. The war felt close to her — her father remained in Bosnia during it — but she was educated out of the country, studying acting in a New York high school.
To become Alma, she needed help. "Even in Bosnian films, you see that the actors haven't learned their prayers ... You see by the way that they move their mouth that they are not really used to it. And I really wanted this to be authentic," she says.
She lived in the countryside, visited the mosque and studied the mannerisms of her homestay family. It took some persuading, but eventually they put her to work alongside them.
“It was hard for them to accept me or to give me tasks, but eventually they agreed that if I am sleeping in their house and eating their food I am going to have to work.”
This attention to detail bears fruit on the screen but it also had an unusual effect on relationships with her colleagues.
Through the looking glass
The crew arrived in the location village a week after her. "They kind of held back. I am quite friendly with them, they have known me since I was 18 when I starred in my first film.” But surprisingly, “there were no hugs and kisses; they wouldn’t even shake hands” she recalls.
“You don't really shake hands with women who wear the veil,” she explains. Playing Alma had moved her through to the other side of the looking glass.
“When the shooting started one of them mentioned how they had seen me crossing the bridge, and I said why did you not say hello? And they said, ‘I don't know: you were very strange, we saw you in your own thoughts.’”
Other actresses, too, had the impression that they were being treated as their on-screen personas. The crew would slip into calling them by their character names. They did not do this just between takes or on set during the lunch-break. It also happened after shooting in the evenings at dinner or when passing by in a hotel corridor.
Shooting in a village similar to the one the action takes place — albeit in 2007, a decade later — was tough. One might imagine that in a sense the missing men in the script as the well as the dead of the real locale were looking on.
Most in the team had vowed to spend their Sundays (the only day they had off) in the filming village. On the third weekend, though, they departed en masse for Sarajevo, despite it being a winding three-hour drive, back and forth, over badly serviced roads.
Everybody needed to get out of the village. “Although I wasn’t analysing it at the time,” says Marjanović, speaking of her own reactions, “it affected me more than I thought it would.”
The film ends on an optimistic note. The intervention of two predatory property developers from out of town precipitates a dénouement that allows the women to carve a psychologically habitable space for themselves. New building work begins again; someone even falls in love.
In her director’s statement, Begić, suggests: “If you imagine a completely devastated village filled with beautiful flowers, large fruit and clean water, then you will understand the essence of a poetry which shows that construction is far more powerful than destruction.”
Marjanović wonders whether it was easier to find grounds for optimism in 1997 then it is now. If the film were set in 2007, she suggests “not many things would have changed except the ending. Because it’s been ten years and nothing has changed.”
“We are not constructing anything right now; we are not working on anything. Before we were running in circles and now we are just standing … We are really in a tough position right now."
Although the film has been feted internationally, it is had a more mixed reception in its homeland. It is an art film — and not that likely to attract a big box-office — but it is also one that awakens ghosts.
Many in Bosnian society are not interested in looking squarely at the immediate past. Even some of Marjanović’s friends have questioned why the film needs to explore the aftermath of the war.
Journalists across the Balkans are finding that stories on displaced people and investigations into unresolved killings don't necessarily boost circulation figures.
Marjanović hopes that people will not close themselves off to the issues covered in the film and will show some willingness to imagine themselves in Alma’s shoes. She does not believe that the past can or should be so neatly sealed away.
The arrival of property developers in the village underscores the way that money now serves to displace some of the rural poor.
During a question-and-answer session at the end of one screening, a woman who lost male relatives during the massacre at Srebrenica in July 1995, stood up and said: "Thank you for making us exist, because people forget that we exist."