Have you ever told stories of your childhood and how tough you had it? Maybe you did have it rough and maybe you had to fight to survive, as a young teen – being thrown to the wolves. It’s still a dog-eat-dog world in some countries and your ethnic background, political views/relations can spell your demise or it can bring great privilege. In a post war Bosnia, young teens are pitted against the adults to work, to eat and to survive. If you’re not privileged, then you’re working and possibly finding a life of crime an easier route to money and security. In a harsh environment, you’re forced to think on your feet, outside the box and you better be smart. Looking out for number one isn’t taken for granted, when you have to earn it the hard way.
THE WHITE FORTRESS follows Faruk, an orphan in a rundown Sarajevo suburb of Alipasino Polje who spends his days foraging for scrap metal and dabbling in petty crime. One day he meets Mona, a timid teen from a politically powerful and affluent family. As Mona dreams of escaping the overbearing toxicity of her home life, she seeks refuge with Faruk, a boy from a world completely different than her own.
THE WHITE FORTRESS (Tabija), had its world premiere at Berlinale and screened at VIFF this year on October 9 & 11 in addition to digital. The film is also now screening as part of FNC Montreal This outstanding and touching film was directed by the Vancouver based, award-winning Igor Drljača. He wanted to make a film that reflected today’s post-war Sarajevo, where he spent half his childhood, before immigrating to Canada. This film is a snapshot of a fragile environment in peril, a no man’s land with a purgatory future. A story to shine a light on a race against time to save a generation of youth – certain to succumb to a wrath of poverty and crime, if their cries for help continue to fall on deaf ears.
Igor Drljača loves his country and he wants to foster communication and attention to the dire situation to help find solutions. Film is a unique platform capable of reaching the 4 corners of the world to evoke change. I certainly do see this film encouraging others to pick up the torch for the youth of Sarajevo, to let them know that someone still cares and is trying to help.
Igor is best known for producing and directing films, The Waiting Room, The Archivists, Krivina and has garnered 2 Wins and 12 nominations for his incredible contributions to film. He was my very special guest and we had a tremendous talk about The White Fortress. Roll the tape!
HNMAG “Amazing film, I understand that this is your personal story from your childhood in Sarajevo?”
IGOR “It’s set in the city that I’m familiar with – Sarajevo, post-war Bosnia. I’m somewhat interested in tackling this post-war reality. It’s a reimagining of what my childhood could’ve been like, if I’d stayed in that location. I left when I was 10, during the war in 1993 and I always felt that I might go back someday… but when I did, I found a place divided by class rather than ethnic rivalries, that had caused the war. In some ways, it was me trying to understand this new Bosnia/this new young generation that is ignored and abandoned; left to their own devices.”
HNMAG “Where did the rest of this story come from?”
IGOR “There was a film that I did in 2009 called, Woman in Purple. It was also shot in Alipasino and dealt with a young drug runner without many opportunities. During my research for the film and talking to people, I realized that the younger generation will turn to darker urges out of desperation. This is a divided country with the young peoples’ desires and dreams going ignored. I wanted to answer the question; what happens in that environment? Having already made Woman in Purple, this film allowed me to continue that story of the boy, who is now 17-18 years old. Can he survive in a place without a set of values, where you are judged on your ethnic background, your affiliation with the local political party – they want to know what party your parents are part of, or other people you may know. These things are trivial in the Western context but over there, they carry much weight. I explore this in the film – how the adults are keeping the youth from thriving and having opportunities. There have been mass emigrations on the scale of 75,000-100,000 people leaving Bosnia every year. By 2050, they predict the population will shrink to 2 million. It’s currently at 3.3 million and it’s a bad situation that I wanted to better explore in the film. By exploring these topics, I had hoped it would connect with young people in similar situations.”
HNMAG “Have you screened the film in Sarajevo?”
IGOR “I did go to the premiere in Sarajevo and they had Covid protocol, with reduced capacity. The response has been positive; however, the reality is raw and it hit a nerve with younger people. This is their environment and these are the kinds of conversations that happen there. I had people in the theatre approach me after the screening to tell me they knew people that were in the same predicament as Minela, the young abused girl in the film. There’re many issues in that country and young peoples’ problems are largely ignored. There are ever present ethnic tensions that exist and that country is torn between two entities with two different structures; where one is trying to destroy the idea of a functional state and the other is trying to destroy the boundary between the other entity. It’s a strange place to be as a young person and in turn, they attempt to find a happier space but it’s very difficult to do, in that environment.”
HNMAG “Would you like to continue making films on the youth situation in Sarajevo?”
IGOR “Maybe eventually, but I’m currently making a film on Vancouver Island. It’s a relationship drama with some elements of science fiction. In many ways, my earlier work has been an attempt at dealing with my own traumas and they’ve had a therapeutic effect. Being able to share stories about emigrants and people left behind has been very cathartic. I don’t think I’d like to focus primarily on films abut Sarajevo but it will always remain an important place in my life.”
HNMAG “You really have some outstanding camera shots in the film. Shooting in the tunnels, beside the scooter, on the scooter, in the car. Was it difficult to get permits?”
IGOR “The system is pretty similar to shooting here. We had to have a police escort and they had to remain hidden in the background in order to pull off those shots.”
HNMAG “How did you finance the film?”
IGOR “That part was interesting, because we were trying to make it a European production with Canada as a minority partner. However, Canada had joined the Eurimages (European Cinema Support Fund) in 2017. With Canada joining, we suddenly had the ability to have Canada and every country in Europe to create dynamic and interesting co-productions. To my knowledge, this is the first Canada/Bosnia co-production. It was financed through Telefilm Canada, The Bosnian Fund – at a city level and continent level, the Eurimages, as well as Ontario Creates. I was living in Toronto when I started the project.”
HNMAG “It’s terrific to discover resources like that. Where did you hear of the Eurimages?”
IGOR “These resources are all readily available on the Telefilm website. There’s been many films that have come from these types of arrangements. They usually have 4-6 Canadian co-funded projects on every funding cycle. I’ve tried to co-produce in Spain, Italy, Romania, Bulgaria, and many different countries.”
HNMAG “Did it take a long time for pre-production and to find the funding?”
IGOR “In total, from script to shooting was more than 7 years. For a long time, I didn’t think I could get this film made. It was only possible because Canada had joined the Eurimages. It wasn’t until 2018, that we found out we had the funding to go. This is from funders that initially rejected us multiple times. We had to negotiate with them, ensuring we had funding from other sources. It became a situation of who we could get the funding from first. The logistics of the project was tricky. We had to determine how to have Canadian partners and Bosnian partners with the majority of the film being Canadian. I’m Canadian, some of the actors are Canadian, the crew members and post-production were all Canadian. It was a balancing act, to have enough spending in Canada and in Bosnia. The odd thing about the Canada-Bosnia treaty, is that they’re using the old Yugoslavia co-production treaty from 1988. The treaty can vary from country to country depending on the writing and how that’s interpreted. For example, our lead character Faruk (Pavle Cemerikic) was from Serbia, so we were only allowed to cast 1 actor outside of Canada or Bosnia.”
HNMAG “He was a terrific actor and did a phenomenal job of carrying the weight of this story. How far in advance of shooting would you have cast the lead for Faruk?”
IGOR “Initially I wanted to work with him but after we secured the funding, I contacted him 2-3 months before we started shooting. He was available to shoot and he liked the script. It went pretty quickly once we got the funding and we had an open call for the rest of the cast, which was slightly complicated.”
HNMAG “Where did you find the rest of the cast?”
IGOR “We had some self-tapes sent in but most of them were in person. I had blocked off a week for auditions. We created a workshop and set up scenarios to mimic – picking somebody up, flirting, stealing something from someone without them noticing. We had to get them comfortable because they weren’t all trained actors. In the case of Sumeja Dardagan, she was a girl that just showed up for the audition because her aunt had heard one of our radio ads and told her about it. She was one of the finalists that we tried pairing with Pavle to see if there was chemistry. She had a natural presence and I think it’s amazing when you come across someone like that.
HNMAG “When did you shoot the film and how long did it take to shoot it?”
IGOR “We shot in the early fall of 2019, Sept.-Oct. and it took 26 days.”
HNMAG “Would you have hired a crew once you were down in Bosnia?”
IGOR “We used both. Our DP and Production Designer were from there but the sound team, camera operators and other members came up from Canada. My editor, Ajla Odobasic was in Toronto and I was sending her tapes daily and she was sending me assemblies remotely. We didn’t have too many issues, it was a pretty smooth production. We only had a couple of shots that we had to remedy. In terms of post-production… that’s when Covid hit. It was far more interesting in terms of navigating and having people do the editing remotely without being able to come to the studio.”
HNMAG “I really enjoyed the character of the grandmother, she was so natural. Is she a well-known actor in Bosnia?”
IGOR “Yes, she’s an established actor, as well as most of the elderly actors. They have an extensive film and theatre background. We had all the older actors come in to read for us. The open call was just for the younger actors, with the exception of the leads.”
HNMAG “We like to end many interviews with a fun question. If you could spend the day with anyone in the world, who would it be?”
IGOR “That’s an interesting one. I don’t want it to be a film person (laughing). Perhaps somebody that can take the edge off the current environment. Maybe the Dalai Lama – to show us how to find peace and how to slow down the world, while also being present to address important topics. He would have a spiritual dimension helping him in his work as he never loses focus on our material needs that we all have. I think someone in that realm. I know he’s getting older, so it would be amazing to learn from someone like him, while they’re still around – would be amazing!”
Another amazing guest with a film that needs to be seen. Not just for a window to another world, but to bring attention to real life situations and cries for help that have gone ignored for far too long. This film was a gut punch and awoke my consciousness to stay better informed, in the event I can help to spread awareness on this important and dire situation. This film deserves satellite success!
Thank you Igor Drljača.