Film: A Bosnian prodigy in London
After winning every prize going in his native Yugoslavia, Jasmin Dizdar has made his first British feature. Matthew Sweet met him
Sunday 12 September 1999
We see a Tory patrician hiding behind his broadsheet at the breakfast table, while his wife exclaims things like, "Antonia Fraser is so bloody Catholic!" Then we cut to another set of characters, and watch a middle- class marriage collapse in Metroland. Then we jump to a scene in which two Bosnian refugees - one Serb and one Croat - are smacking each other about on board a London bus. ("He burnt my village!" "He burnt my sheep!") This is an England exoticised by a newcomer's camera.
Dizdar is a Bosnian emigre now resident in Brockley, south London. His movie exhibits a similar cultural mix. On the Anglo side, it has the features of both Loach-ish lo-fi realism and the bourgeois romantic comedy of the Richard Curtis school. On the Slav side, its belting melodrama and knockabout satire are descended from the work of Emir Kusturica.
Dizdar was born in Zenica, Yugoslavia, in 1961. Not, as the press release for Beautiful People suggests, in 1971. When his film swiped the "Un Certain Regard" prize at Cannes this summer, reporters congratulated this Bosnian prodigy who - according to their notes - had made his first film at the age of seven. Rather cheekily, Dizdar chose not to correct that impression.
But the real version of the Jasmin Dizdar story goes like this: on the advice of a schoolteacher, he joined his local film club, which at that time had only two members. Undaunted, he made his first film in his bedroom, aged 17 - an animated short about an alcoholic who dreams that Yugoslavia is torn apart by civil war. ("People said later that I must have been telepathic.") It won first prize in a student film competition. Pleased with its reception, he made another short and entered the same competition the following year. He won again. The authorities began to shower the Zenica film club with new equipment. Dizdar made 13 more shorts, and went on to win prizes at several international festivals. His career crystallised around him. He didn't, he says, become a film-maker because he had a profound sense of calling, but because every time he made a short, he was handed a certificate, and invited to tea with the mayor. Success also secured preferential treatment for his family: Zenica's cinematic whizz-kid found it easier than most to wheedle foreign travel visas from the authorities.
He was also granted the privilege of a place at the FAMU film school in Prague, alma mater of Milos Forman and Agnieszka Holland. Zenica had possessed no repertory cinema. So when Dizdar arrived in Czechoslovakia at the age of 24, he was able to see for the first time the movies that he'd spent his teenage years just reading about. "I only had books of photographs and analysis, so I'd made these films in my head. That feeling of not knowing but being certain that you know can actually be more inspiring than seeing the film itself. I knew every shot and every debate about every shot in Eisenstein's October, for instance. But when I watched it, there wasn't time to think about all these things. I couldn't believe how quickly it went by. In my mind, the film was five hours long.
"Anyone who wants to make a film should learn their craft through the Russian silent classics, through Dovzhenko, Pudovkin and Eisenstein. Forget all the American stuff. Forget D W Griffith. It's all f---ed up. This is where you look. This is where you learn how to capture ambience and lyricism. Where you learn how to construct a film at the cutting table and make a film out of nothing."
This, he thinks, is something that many young British directors would do well to remember. "All they aspire to is to earn their director's chair. They don't want to create or construct something in a humble way. A real director is someone who knows what it is like to hold up a length of footage and recognise the emulsion from the blind side, and how that moves through the camera. That's different from knowing all the latest gossip."
Dizdar came to England in 1989, months before war broke out in his home country. He took a job lecturing in East European cinema at Warwick University, and was naturalised in 1993. "I experienced the war in Bosnia just as you did; through television and the papers. The only difference was that I knew these people." But that doesn't mean to say he has no theory about what happened there. "Socialism claimed there were no nations, no religions, only the ideology of Marxist-Leninism," he says. "Now all of that has collapsed, they're obsessed with questions of national identity. Suddenly people looked at their family trees and discovered they were Croat, not Serb. It changed their lives. Now people are talking about purifying the Bosnian language, yet when we swear, we all use the same words. The question of what grammarians decided in 1408 now clouds people's present preoccupations in life. They're forgetting that if you go anywhere else in the world, people don't care about such things. They don't even know about them."
In Beautiful People, ideas about national identity are used as the subject of murky farce. Rather than being sufficient reason to garrotte each other, Dizdar's film suggests, cultural difference is something both ludicrous and uplifting. This is certainly how it seems to him: "I think there's a Balkan mentality," he observes. "We're a bit more impulsive and temperamental. Lots of Serbs, for instance, are very generous. They'd give you their last piece of bread, and then they'll turn to their neighbours and slaughter them. There's a split personality in Balkan people, and it's important to me because I carry those genes myself. There are moments when I could say things that would make people feel very uncomfortable. I don't know why I do, it just happens.
"People from the Balkans don't have any manners. I'm very rude myself. Like Italians find it easier to shout when they speak, we find it easier to be rude rather than polite. Or at least that's how it's seen in civilised countries like France and Britain ..." I must be looking offended. "Sorry!" he exclaims. "I'm being rude again. Countries who regard themselves as more civilised." Maybe I still look put out. "You know," he says. "The British are at their most British when they're in a position of shock and confusion. But I'm a foreigner. I'm not supposed to give lectures."
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