Redemption found in loss of innocence
by Nick Thorpe
Samir Mehanovic escaped Bosnia to find sanctuary in Scotland. He has now won a Bafta for a short film in which he revisits a painful history
Samir Mehanovic was saved by art. Not in the poetic sense, but practically and arbitrarily: one spring evening in 1995 the young Bosnian director left Tuzla’s central square for a theatre rehearsal only minutes before a bomb fell there, killing many of his friends.
Ten years later, his eyes fill with tears at the memory of 72 young cafe-goers slaughtered by a Serbian shell in one of the defining moments of the Balkan war. Arriving at the Edinburgh Fringe a few months later, the boom of the one o’clock castle gun caused Mehanovic to throw himself to the pavement in terror. Unable to face going home, he claimed asylum and used the dramatic arts to explore his motherland’s rupture from afar.
He took menial jobs to survive and sent money back to his family. Not the most promising start, perhaps, yet a decade on he has spent the week being wooed by film producers and has won his first Scottish Bafta.
‘It’s been a long journey,’ says the 36-year-old graduate of Edinburgh College of Art, proudly displaying his statuette on the table in Edinburgh’s Elephant House cafe. ‘This means very much to me psychologically. It feels like a long drink of water after a marathon.’
The Way We Played, a 13-minute short that won him the prize for best first-time director, is both self-exploration and great cinema. Filmed entirely on location in Bosnia, it tells the story of two young boys, a Muslim and a Serb, playing together on the eve of a war that will make their friendship impossible.
Beautifully shot beneath brooding skies against the canvas of a ruined 14th-century castle, it electrified the jury at the Glasgow awards ceremony earlier this month. ‘It was a very mature piece, with a lot of the director’s heart in it,’ says the juror Stephen Bennett. ‘First-time directors are often so excited about making a film that they forget why they were doing it in the first place. But he kept his vision. It really stood out for that reason.’
Richard Demarco, the arts impresario responsible for bringing Mehanovic to Edinburgh in the first place, fully expects his protégé to win future awards for full-length features. ‘There’s nobody quite like Samir,’ he says. ‘He’s got the energy and soul, the passion and the creative ability that makes most of us look half alive. It’s a magnificent film and I’m very proud of him.’
Guns and ideology intrude
Born into a mining family near Tuzla, Mehanovic was the youngest of five sons. ‘We were poor, but I didn’t miss much,’ he says. ‘It was beautiful where I lived. I had lots of space to dream. My family gave me the basic thing that families should give, which was character. I’m very thankful to them.’
The happiness of his childhood made the intrusion of guns and ideology all the more brutal. ‘My best friend Aleksandar was an Orthodox Christian and I was a Muslim, but it never mattered until the war. Then one day, when we were 22, he just left without saying goodbye, joined the Serb paramilitaries and started shelling our city from the hills.’
There is no anger in his face as he says this, only puzzlement. It is evident that this betrayal, perhaps as much as the Tuzla massacre, remains the central conundrum of his life. ‘If only he could explain it to me, how politics can be more important than friendship. I have heard all the stories of neighbour killing neighbour. It could even have been my friend who sent that bomb in. If he had come to the door with his soldier friends, I don’t know if he would have saved me.’ He sighs and shrugs again. ‘I guess that’s just what ideology does to people. That’s why I’m scared of nationalism.’
Ten years of new friendships and eventual citizenship in a more peaceful small nation have helped, but it’s been a long, slow road. Back in 1995, he found himself briefly on the streets before applying for asylum and getting a temporary council flat in Edinburgh’s bleak Niddrie housing scheme. Undaunted, he oriented his life around the festival, earning money where he could while preparing plays on his favourite themes of redemption and childhood innocence, violence and forgiveness. ‘It doesn’t make you less of an artist if you have to earn money some other way. I’ve been a dishwasher, support worker, waiter, joiner — you can’t drive the car without petrol.’
By 2003, with permanent UK residency and a little flat in Stockbridge, he got a place on the prestigious film masters course at Edinburgh College of Art, later winning the student prize for his year. It was here that he met many of the collaborators who would help him transfer his themes to the big screen: Demarco continued to be an important mentor — ‘My artistic father, really’ — while the film writer Mark Cousins and others helped fashion the script that eventually won £40,000 of lottery and private funding.
The shoot itself proved a healing experience: a cinematic pilgrimage back to the motherland, with a collection of Edinburgh friends and colleagues in tow. ‘It was great bringing a Scottish crew to Bosnia, 20 of us including friends,’ says Mehanovic, who took them all to meet his family. The producer, Susan Nickalls, the director of photography, Scott Ward, and the composer, Nigel Osborne, formed a Scottish contingent alongside an Argentinian- Brazilian sound op, a Spanish focus-puller, a Finnish camera operator and a Bosnian cast.
There were a few hiccups — it proved easier to find guns than a movie camera in the still war- ravaged country, and they had to rent one from Serbia while borrowing sidearms from security guards. But more importantly for its director, the film offered an opportunity to recast his own betrayed friendship in the more innocent days of childhood. ‘I suppose I gave my friend the benefit of the doubt. I made him a hero who tries to save his best friend in spite of everything.’
He has no plans to return to Bosnia on a permanent basis, enjoying his dual citizenship and life in Edinburgh. ‘Scotland is my homeland, while Bosnia is my motherland,’ he explains. The Bafta itself felt like a welcome. ‘It was wonderful to be nominated. It shows Scotland is trying to accept people for themselves. I wore a kilt to the award ceremony — a black one because I have no tartan. But I wore nothing under it, which made me feel more Scottish.’
Other facets of British life are more worrying to him, not least what he sees as a growing prejudice against Muslims in the wake of 9/11 and this year’s London bombings. Only last week, his visiting brother was held for questioning for seven hours at Edinburgh airport by immigration officials.
‘I respect this society a lot for what it has given me, that I can be who I am without persecution,’ he says carefully. ‘But we must be careful this climate of fear does not make us throw those freedoms away.’
This week producers keen to sign up the hot new rookie seized on two ideas: one is a Balkan epic involving a young man’s search for the man who raped his mother; the other a family saga set in the west of Scotland. Both are about forgiveness, which, in the case of his old friend Aleksandar, still in the Serbian army, seems the only solution that has brought Mehanovic any peace.
‘There’s no hatred towards him,’ he says. ‘I think I have moved on. I just want to understand.’
This article appeared in The Sunday Times - Scotland, 27 November 2005