Saturday, September 20, 2008

TIFF08: Snijeg (Snow)—Q&A With Aida Begić

Aida Begić prefaces the director's notes to her first narrative feature Snijeg (Snow)—winner of the 2008 Cannes Critics' Week Grand Prize—with a quoted proverb: "Snow does not fall to cover the hill, but for every beast to leave its trail." I read that to mean that no matter what has befallen a people, it is their perseverance for survival—and for that survival to be witnessed and heard—that will mark their journey towards healing. Calamity is not meant to silence a people; but, to give their grief and their outrage a voice. The ethnic cleansing that befell Muslims (and Croats) by their Bosnian Serb neighbors remains one of the recent horrors of human history; the traumatic impact of which is still being felt by its widowed and orphaned survivors. That international audiences are willing to face these depressive events has been substantiated by the critical success of Danis Tanović's No Man's Land (winner of the 2001 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film) and Jasmila Žbanić's Grbavica (winner of the Golden Bear at the 2006 Berlinale). Forming a creative triad with her critically-lauded predecessors, Begić offers in Snow a compelling narrative of feminine resilience, domestic fortitude and compensatory magical realism.

At The Greencine Daily, Dave Hudson gathered together the critical response from Cannes08 and Emanuel Levy faithfully transcribed Begić's impassioned directorial statement. Whereas Variety dismissed Snow as a "polished but often tedious outing" that might leave some audiences cold, Howard Feinstein's appreciation for Screen Daily was decidedly more fair and accomodating. "Unobtrusively directed," Feinstein dispatched from Cannes, "this ensemble film successfully captures the special camaraderie among the survivors of such horror and the emotional and psychological toll it takes on the individuals." In his TIFF08 festival coverage for Eye Weekly, Jason Anderson praised Snow as "humanely wrought and sensitively rendered."

At the public screening I attended, Aida Begić was more than willing to unravel Snow's woven symbolism for her appreciative audience. Due to broken English and poor acoustics, this Q&A transcription has been modified for legibility. I was first out of the gate with the first question.

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Could you speak to your creative decision to texture these painful historical events with poetic and magical realism?

When you are in very hard moments of your life, there must be a balance, there must be something that will keep you alive and that will ease your soul. Nowadays, life in my country is like that. We all live with a lot of problems which are connected to the material problems of our lives; but, still, we have spiritual levels that we are trying to keep. The physical aspects of our lives keep us down and force us to remain there in Bosnia and this is a real problem.

In doing research for the film, I spent a lot of time with village women who lost husbands and children. Unfortunately, about 10,000 men were killed in one day. I discovered that—despite this horror—these women are very jovial and strong people. I appreciate their strength, which inspired me. It's very normal and common in Bosnia for these people to live with an awareness of the metaphysical aspects of life.

Why Snow for a title? What is your meaning?

Snow is also connected to my answer to the first question. Snow is one of nature's most beautiful, incredible things. It's physical but also metaphysical.

Domestic life is beautifully represented in this film. What is your connection to the canning of plum preserves and the weaving of carpets?

I come from the city and don't have relatives in the villages so I had to do a lot of serious research to make this film. Likewise, my main actress—though Bosnian—grew up in New York. We both had to do research to make these actions believable. I have some memories of making jam when I was little; but, I didn't like to do it much. I liked eating it but I didn't like making it. But now I know that it's very hard to can preserves. As for the weaving of the carpets, it was amazing to discover that they are made with old things, old shirts, pieces of fabric that are woven into the carpets. I discovered a lot of things doing the research for this film.

Frequently in the film the main character Alma is shown walking down the street, knotting her scarf, similar to scenes of women in Iranian cinema. Were you influenced by Iranian cinema?

I guess yes. Just the beauty of their color and their landscape. Maybe it influenced me subconsciously.

Throughout the film there is strong preponderance of the color blue. Can you comment on that?

Blue is the color of the main character Alma. We developed the characters by helping them find their own colors.

One of the film's stated tragedies is the failure of these women to achieve closure, either not knowing if their husbands and children were dead or—if they knew they were dead—not knowing where their bodies were located. By film's end, it's revealed that the dead bodies of their men have been disposed in "The Blue Cave." Was this a common way to dispose of bodies?

Yes, unfortunately, there are a lot of mass graves in Bosnia. There's a terrible story about that. They first put bodies in so-called primary mass graves but then—when they started to be afraid that these mass graves would be discovered—they dug up the bodies, cut them apart, and re-buried the body parts in secondary mass graves, hoping to confuse anyone who might discover them. They didn't realize that all that's needed is a part of somebody's body to obtain DNA for tests which would help relatives identify, reclaim and properly bury the bodies. Bosnians hid the mass burials. Sometimes you would find them in caves. Sometimes you would find them in somebody's garden.

One of the elements of magical realism in the film is that the young boy's hair grows long overnight if he is frightened. What does this mean?

I had a friend who lived through the beginning of the war. When he was much younger, he had long hair and looked like a girl and that saved his life; but, he saw his father murdered. That inspired me to imagine a witness to murder whose hair would grow long to disguise him as female whenever he was afraid. That's why in the last scene the young boy finally has short hair, because he no longer has to hide.

Since the film is based on real people and real events, have they had to sell their homes and land?

Unfortunately, most of these villagers are not returning to their homelands in eastern Bosnia. The politics are still to keep them out and to keep a "clean" territory. The idea of people returning to their homes has not been completely successful, especially in these eastern territories. In other parts of Bosnia, some nationalities are returning to their homes; but, in the eastern part, it is still a big problem.

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