If you think all immigrant stories are the same, you couldn’t be further from the truth. If you agree that all the stories are different, I’ll calm down. If we lived in a perfect world, how many people would actually immigrate at all? When thousands try to immigrate, it’s usually because of war. Many songs have been written about war, as well as many movies, because we should never forget the sacrifice, the innocent victims lost, the carnage and the stupidity of war. Nobody wins and lives are changed forever. Make love not war, said the late John Lennon. If only it was that easy John.
The Day We Left is a war story and an immigrant story starring Elma Begovic. She also co-wrote and produced, Kaio Kathriner co-wrote and directed. Tony Cerciello and Matt Drake also produced the project. In The Day We Left, the religious conflict of the Bosnian War drives a pregnant mother and her family to flee their village and seek refuge in the land of their enemy. The entire cast is incredibly talented and amazing. Performances by Elma Begovic (Performance Anxiety), Patrick Sabongui (Shameless, Firefly Lane), Thomas Nicholson (The Haunting of Bly Manor, Virgin River) and Petar Gatsby (Arrow) are as good as is gets and they’re all local to Vancouver. Elma lives in LA but still works in films shot in BC and Canada.
This film premieres January 30th – February 6th at the Vancouver Short Film Festival.
Elma Begovic is my very special guest and an astonishing human being. Her personal story of having to flee Bosnia for Germany to live as a refugee for 6 years before travelling back to Bosnia, only to find squatters living in the home they were forced to abandon. They only stayed for 2 years, when her father realized they would never have a future in their homeland. They applied to come to Canada and we welcomed them with open arms. They landed in Edmonton, Alberta and it continues to have a special place in Elma’s heart. She learned to speak English, went to Highschool and university before leaving for Toronto for work in acting. Elma’s story doesn’t end there. She has gone through a life changing event recently that would make most people give up on their dreams and aspirations. She has earned her super powers for surviving it and is still working hard to keep pushing forward. Her tenacity is off the charts and her resilience is nothing less than inspiring. I interviewed her about her outstanding performance in this film, but after I learned of her full story, I gained so much admiration for Elma. Cinema needs her stories, her passion, her thirst for life and her foresight in paying it forward.
She was an outstanding guest and I feel better about the world, knowing she is out there making films like the rest of the great storytellers. Roll the tape!
HNMAG “I had read that your story has some similarities to this film’s story. Was there a reason you didn’t tell your own personal story?”
ELMA “ I was born in Bosnia and my family were asylum seekers in Berlin when I was a child. I had been writing an autobiographical story about my family coming to Canada as Bosnian refugees when the director for this project, Kaio Kathriner – who is a Swiss-Canadian who’s Vancouver based, reached out to me to say that he’d been writing a story based on a friend’s experience, which was a Bosnian woman that he met travelling. He was looking for a female Bosnian director to helm the script for the feature. Instead of continuing with my script by myself, I thought it might be a great window of opportunity to collaborate with a filmmaker that seemed really interested about the story, which is how we linked up. This short film is a compilation of the Hodzic family, sprinkled with some of my family’s experiences leaving Bosnia.”
Elma explains that the main purpose of this film was to tell the story of this young family of farmers living in a small village, that had to uproot their life and live in the land of their enemy, as Serbs for 4 years until they were able to legally escape.
“The family that this story is based on were able to seek asylum in Australia.”
Elma tells me that her family’s story has some similarities but different conclusions. Her family had fled to Germany as asylum seekers and were allowed to stay for 6 years before they were denied the opportunity to work toward citizenship. They had to return to Bosnia as displaced people because their homes had been occupied by squatters. Once Elma’s father realized there was no hope of a future for his family, he began seeking an exit and Canada said, ‘come on in!’ Elma was then able to obtain her citizenship in Canada.
HNMAG “You had mentioned a feature film next. Will that be about your family’s story?”
ELMA “In my writing, I’ll be mixing these two worlds together. The war doesn’t really pick who gets attacked and who doesn’t. A lot of people suffered in this conflict. There are these villagers living a peaceful, simple life and having to uproot their entire world. My family were city folk, we lived in the city and we also had to leave. Our hope is to shine a light on this farmer’s family and how they navigate their way through this religious conflict and ethnic crisis that they went through.”
HNMAG “The location looked a little Bosnian-ish. Where did you shoot this film?”
ELMA “It was a BC production and it was filmed in Abbotsford. Most of it was filmed on a farm there. We tirelessly worked on emulating the Bosnian topography to match the location. We couldn’t film in Bosnia, but the hope and dream is to make the feature a co-production. With this short film, we had such a specific budget but one of mine and Kaio’s goals were to make the film look and feel like it was taking place in rural Bosnia. Abbotsford served the film so well for us. Vancouver is also full of talented set dec crew. They worked so hard on our visuals and the head carpenter that made our set look the way that it did, was truly an artist. There were all these little artists that came together to ensure that every little piece fell into place.”
HNMAG “You did a phenomenal job of making this film look so authentic.”
ELMA “Thank you, I appreciate that! A lot of the costuming did come from Bosnia. A lot of the props as well, such as the headscarf that I wear; the earrings that I wear were my grandmothers and the headscarf was my great grandmothers. Many of my family’s personal heirlooms made it into this film as part of our set decor. If you had told me 6 yr. old me back in Germany growing up in a refugee camp, that I’d someday be using my grandmother’s jewelry in a movie, I probably wouldn’t believe you (laughing). I’m cherishing those little moments and it’s why this project is so much more than just a short film or proof-of-concept. For me, it’s a right of passage to help shed some light on the history of my country, but also to portray what a family’s experience looks like when they have to endure war and discrimination. Given the current times we live in, I think empathy can go a long way. That was the big hope with this film – to have people see what the human condition looks like when you have no control over the circumstances of your life and you have to roll with the punches. It’s what many asylum seekers do – they roll with the punches until they get to safety.”
HNMAG “How long did it take to go from page to camera?”
ELMA “Kaio and I worked on the script for a solid seven months. Our other producers, Tony Cerciello and Matt Drake from Vancouver came on board. The principal photography took 5 days and we shot in August of 2020, so we were still adjusting to Covid regulations. This was financed through a grant and when you’re an indie filmmaker and allotted money to make movies, that’s a win in itself. Having someone say, ‘here’s some money to go make your dreams happen’, we’re like – OH MY GOD, WE’RE RICH! (laughing) With Covid, we had to have all safety regulations in place and when you work with a small budget, much of that is used for safety precautions. We used a full BC cast and we worked really hard to achieve gender parity within our departments, as well as providing opportunities for shadowing and apprenticing to encompass a learning set. Every one of us comes from the indie world and we know what it’s like to have to hustle to get a project rolling. One of the goals for this production was to facilitate anyone, from any of the departments that wanted to learn, so they could get hands-on experience on set. It’s hard to get experience because no one will hire you if you don’t have enough experience, or people will hire you because they know you. This was a great way to allow those that were very green to come in and get some experience.”
I am thoroughly impressed with Elma’s willingness to extend an olive branch to those reaching out. When you foster someone’s passion, you give them the motivation and endurance to keep moving forward, instead of a backseat. It provides agency and assurance that you have support within the film community and how you can pay it forward when you make your own film. Way to pay it forward!
HNMAG “How did you finance this film?”
ELMA “This was a Harold Greenburg and Bell TV grant and produced by Notable Content. We had applied for the Harold Greenburg grant and received word that we had gotten it in February of 2020 and then Covid happened. Once we had everything situated, we started the pre-production in June and by August we were filming. I live in LA and everyone was fully masked and I remember when we came to Vancouver, nobody was wearing masks and there were 0 cases per day. We were able to shoot within that window, where it was safe, there were no Covid breakouts.”
This was also the first time that Elma had returned to a film set since having brain surgery in the summer of 2019, due to a benign tumor. Elma is a warrior and told me there were many emotions intertwined throughout the production. Given the hurdles she faced in her recovery combined with taking on a powerful performance, wearing her producer’s hat and still getting this project finished on time – is truly spectacular and awe inspiring. She credits the production for helping to speed her recovery because the opportunity had lit a fire under her to return to doing what she loved.
“I took a moment every day before we started filming to sit in gratitude. I’m working under different parameters now and work differently on set because I have some limitations. I never thought I’d get this far, so to finally be here and to be healthy, it’s a great space to be in – to be nourishing my dreams.”
HNMAG “Has this film been screened in Bosnia?”
ELMA “Not yet, but we are really gunning to have a European screening soon. So far, we’ve screened at the 35th Edmonton film festival in October, which was a full circle moment for me. My family had immigrated to Edmonton and it’s where I went to Highschool and university before moving to Toronto to start my acting career. Being able to screen this film at a theatre with my parents was a pretty big deal. I took acting classes there, I learned English there, so it’s a very meaningful city to me.”
At the end of the film, it indicates that thousands of families were displaced and impacted by the war. I didn’t know a lot about the Bosnian war but Elma was very gracious in helping me to fill in some of those blanks. She told me there was no warning of pending war and that her father knew it was time to leave when he came home to see bodies being piled up in the local Mosque. She was just a child of a few years when her family fled for their lives, but her story is not unique. She has lived away from Bosnia longer than the time she has spent there but she still considers it home. Around the world Bosnians, Serbs, Croatians, Yugoslavians have had to call other countries home. Like everyone impacted, they never asked for this war but they’ve all had to pick up the pieces and carry on as a result.
“Here we are twenty plus years later and space is being created for us to explore these stories with a lot of support. Last year at the Oscars, a Bosnian film, Quo Vadis, Aida? was nominated for best foreign film. It gave me so much hope, so I called Kaio the director to say that the Academy is starting to recognize these stories and that we’re on the right path.”
Elma loves to tell stories of resilience, overcoming adversities and hardships. There is a human connection to wanting to get out of a dark place and move toward the light.
“As a writer, that’s what I’m enjoying more in my storytelling. I want to leave my audience with a glimmer of hope, that better days lie ahead and that change is possible. I want people to be able to empathize with these families and the next time they’re at a family gathering and someone speaks up about immigrants and refugees coming in and taking their jobs, to look back and think about all the struggles and hardships someone has to go through just to come to Canada and work at McDonalds. It’s a tough journey.”
HNMAG “I read that you have distribution through Bell Media and Crave. Having received some funding through Bell Media, was distribution part of the package?”
ELMA “Yes, once our short film finishes its festival run, it will be playing exclusively on Crave and Bell. It’s a huge win because short films usually don’t get distribution deals. The fact that we have this short film, that we’ve put so much love and energy into, that Canadians can watch in the comfort of their home on a legit platform is amazing for me.”
HNMAG “I like to end the interview with a fun question… so, if you had 50 miles to travel and 3 modes of transportation to choose from – including a hot-air balloon, a speedboat or a motorcycle, which would you pick?”
ELMA “Oh, I’d for sure use the hot-air balloon. That bird’s eye view underneath me would just be amazing… click, click, memories! (Laughter)”
Also writing on a sci-fi show called Synthesis. They shot a sizzle reel and used LED panel technology.
It allows the actor to interact with the environment that they would later add to post if it was shot on green screen. After they wrapped on their sizzle, Netflix came to look at the volume to use for their production. Elma has seen the VR/AR world growing bigger and bigger but she cautions that it’s expensive. However, she says if you can get your hands on the technology, it can allow you to shoot your entire film on one stage.
This film is something everyone should strive to watch; for the story, the history, the empathy and the outstanding performances. Sign up to VSFF!