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Depth of Field: An Interview with Filmmaker Danijela Majstorovic

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Wednesday, Sep 20, 2006


More than ten years after a civil war that ravaged its country, Bosnia finds itself in a delicate condition. Like much of the Balkans, recovering from the wrath of Slobodan Milosevic’s reign of ethnic cleansing, Bosnia is hedged between strict cultural and economic limitations that particularly impair the prospects and desires for self-actualization of the nation’s women. Emerging Bosnian filmmaker Danijela Majstorovic addresses this crisis of women’s lives—and the troubling lack of choices—in two films which premiered at the Bosnia and Herzegovina Film Festival in New York City.


Counterpoint for Her (2004) is a short documentary that powerfully acknowledges the tragedy of sex slavery in Bosnia.  In 2003, a US House committee discovered Bosnia to be the first depot for trafficked women across Southeastern Europe, and a highly publicized investigation proved UN Peacekeepers were regular clients, committing torture and rape on girls below the age of fifteen, even purchasing women and selling them outright. The film follows the story a woman who was tricked into slavery after pursuing a job offer from a duplicitous family friend, and emphasizes how trafficking women is a seven billion dollar industry in Europe alone.  Counterpoint for Her explains the difference between prostitution and sex slavery, in which the women have no rights and make absolutely no money while being repeatedly sold to new owners at bars and brothels across Eastern and Western Europe.


In the priceless feature-length documentary A Dream Job (2005), Majstorovic approaches the world of Balkan pop-stardom with a raised eye and a tongue-in-cheek. The film pays particular attention to turbofolk music, the wildly popular musical revolution that emerged during the Milosevic ‘90s, which relies upon using women as objects, but presents a vague economic opportunity in its search for starlets.  Turbofolk, as opposed to novocomp or sevdah (also explored), revels in hypersexual aesthetics and elevates “the fast life” of wealth and conspicuous consumption. The film follows a rather un-fazed young woman from Republika Srpska as she becomes a scantily clad, lip-synching background musician in order to achieve financial freedom from her impoverished family.  A Dream Job features honest testimony from superstars Lepa Brena and Hanka Paldum, plus other luminaries and unknowns of the Balkan entertainment industry.


Bosnian documentary film has emerged as a tool to challenge and deconstruct the recent past––as well as the present and future.  At this year’s third annual Bosnia and Herzegovina Film Festival, documentaries are in no shortage, ranging from sad to sadder, and sometimes funny, such as Majstrorovic’s A Dream Job. I am thankful for the opportunity to speak with the tenacious director, whose influences include Fred Wiseman, Dusan Makavejev, Trin T. Minha-ha, about Bosnian filmmaking, her passion, and her work.


Where were you trained, or, where did you learn filmmaking?
A former English major, I got an MA in telecommunications (2001/2003) and took film classes at Ohio University. I also worked for Channel 13 PBS WNET in New York and MTV, I audited some directing classes with Milcho Manchevski, a well-known Macedonian film director, in 2002.  I also did some smaller stuff like Spinners: A San Francisco Drum ‘n’ Bass Story and some commercial video.


In your opinion, has Bosnian film developed its own aesthetic? Where is it going?
I think Bosnian filmmaking was really progressive during the early Kusturica period. [Emir Kusturica is a celebrated director of Bosnian independent cinema, b. 1954. –ed.] Now after the war, you can help it but having it all postwar-esque. Meaning, there are many stereotypes concerning the way stories are told and marketed abroad. I think it’s because foreign audience digests such stories more easily.


I am more into the society and culture, power relations that are not so visible at first, and not about finger-pointing and saying “oh my tragedy was bigger than yours.”  What I try to make is a socio-cultural critical documentary that talks about subtleties, small stories, because you can’t do grand narratives at this day and age. So, the stuff that I make is not very polished, maybe it is even more TV-like than I would want. As for now, there are many good stories that deserve to be told and that’s enough, well that’s been enough for me at the beginning.

If you want your stuff to look real good that’s going to cost you a little bit more than you can normally hope for in Bosnia, unless you are established and mainstream. Talking about a developed aesthetic would be far-fetched. I don’t really like most new Bosnian blockbusters that are now trendy. There are a lot of stereotypes in these new films and a lot of politics. Deliberate politics, and not politics in the sense that “personal is political” as I’d prefer.  But it is good that filmmaking is developing in Bosnia, and Sarajevo Film Festival is a great thing. A lot of it is in Sarajevo, and not in Mostar or Banja Luka, so the voices coming from Sarajevo are ideologically very similar because of the great tragedy that happened there. Other voices, more minor voices are not given a chance and there are many tragedies that deserve to be made into films, and you can find them on all sides. It’s a bit complicated here in the Balkans. I don’t think you can go on exploiting tragedy forever, but it seems to be working in the West.


Did you meet resistance making (or financing) Counterpoint for Her?
Financing came through a State department grant as I am a Ron Brown alumnus, a fellowship given to scholars and professionals from Central and Eastern Europe, but this ended this year.  I applied for it together with 3 other people.  We started shooting in November 2003 and finished it in April 2004.  It was difficult to find the woman who was trafficked, but after extensive search, we did it.

My initial idea was to shoot it as an ethnographic film, I wanted to cook or clean for a shelter and then meet trafficked women through getting real close to them, but at the moment there were none of them at any of the shelters I had access to. The very idea came as I went to have my hair cut some time in 1997 and the hairdresser refused to cut hair of two women who were clearly from the former SSSR because she thought they were prostitutes.  I developed the idea when I was an intern in NY, but the final outcome differed a lot from what I wanted to get. But that’s always like that. People told me I shouldn’t get more deeply involved and I am a paranoid person, but I guess that’s how you combat your own paranoia; and if such filmmaking makes you feel like you are going to change a tiny bit of the society for the better, then there you are. You keep doing it.


A Dream Job really reflects the universality of pop culture and entertainment industries.  In the film you express that a place such as Bosnia may hunger for pop and entertainment more than other places. It’s almost a morale booster. Can you comment on this?
I would not say it’s a pop starvation in the sense that it is in the West. I see it as a lack of other options especially for women. Ilinka says she could either work in a grocery store, betshop or a bar. It’s not only stars like Brena, who you have seen that are now filthy rich. It’s more like getting shitty jobs for $150 a month, and no real gratification to sing or dance, but just to hold the guitar and be a part of the decor. You just have to expose your body pretty much, and nothing else is expected from you. That’s common in Bosnia, the lack of opportunities. And the owner of the TV station in the documentary is not violating any laws.  There is no public criticism in Bosnia so it almost hurts. I mean you can say it’s all very postmodern, but it tragic. It’s where your minds are at.  I thought it would be good to explore the pop culture because it’s where you can really see the patriarchy, and corruption and women almost desperate to make the most in such a deviant society. You have seen the scene with the wings and the pacifier, when he talks about the “new night show for which the script is being worked on.”  I don’t know how well the translation worked but there are so many subtleties just in the language that’s used in Dream Job.


Both films show how easily women can be oppressed by a mix of opportunism, ignorance, malice and sometimes even good intentions. You definitely create both a local, individualized human picture and a larger global one; both films tie economics and geopolitics to self-realization.
Thanks for such an observation; you’ve summed it up here pretty much. I see that what all these women have in common is to express themselves, to be somebody, to have money and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s just the more global relations that make it a risky endeavor, and if resorting to hooking or singing or fake singing are the only options, and that nobody gives a damn about it, then, wow, where do you start mending this society?


I recall the moment in Counterpoint for Her when an older woman basically states, “Some women want to be prostitutes. If it makes them happy, that’s their business and it’s up to them.”  It’s very hands-off. Is there still a lack of understanding about sex slavery in Bosnian communities?
Sex slavery supposedly finished in 2003 when [bar owner and kingpin Milorad] Milakovic and some of the bigger bosses were arrested. It’s still going on but it’s less visible, I guess; it’s more underground than it used to be. In the film, I tried to stress the difference between prostitution and sex slavery, and yet now I can see it’s a thin line. I mean how can a woman just decide one day she wants to be a prostitute? I don’t think she does, ever, it is the circumstances, and from there, it’s very, very easy to become a sex slave.


Criminal structures are closely tied with the political ones in Bosnia. You cannot really tell who is corrupted and who is not. But the public is soooo lethargic, and public opinion doesn’t exist. The most politically active group in Bosnia is the pensioners, and it’s because they have nothing to lose. They are true grassroot activists. A lot of brain drain happened, a lot of people left for whatever reason, I don’t know. I teach at University and it’s impossible that my students are more conservative than me. It’s just not possible because you would expect them to be rebellious, well read, well-traveled, progressive, and to fight for their rights. None of this happens on a larger scale because everyone is so poor and screwed by the system.


Do you plan to continue exploring women’s issues through your films?
It happened so with these two but any topic that fits into the “philosophy” of the Center for Social and Cultural Repair (and hammer is our logo) that I have established with a couple of friends is worth exploring and developing. We want to make docs for the marginalized groups and we want to at least provoke the society. Next time it can be Roma or even corrupt politicians, or gays and lesbians who are still unacceptable in Bosnia and God knows what would happen, if two guys kissed on the street.


How have your films been received in Bosnia?
I am a minor director in Bosnia, alternative if you want.  Several festivals and TV broadcasts and that’s it.


Ms. Majstorovic is currently based in the city of Banja Luka of Republika Srpska, Bosnia.


Filmography

SPINNERS: A SAN FRANCISCO DRUM ‘N’ BASS STORY (2002)
KONTRAPUNKT ZA NJU / Counterpoint for Her (2004)
POSAO SNOVA / The Dream Job (2005-work in progress)

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