One-on-one | BiH

Elma Tataragić: The ongoing crisis is a return to core values

By - 02.09.2020

The Sarajevo Film Festival’s main competition selector talks about the film industry during a pandemic.

The year 2019 saw many dreams come true for Elma Tataragić, a screenwriter from Sarajevo. Two films she worked on — “God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunija,” a collaboration with Macedonian director Teona Mitevska, and “Stitches,” directed by Serbian filmmaker Miroslav Terzić — found great international success. 

She started working on new films, but the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to everything.

Tataragić belongs to the generation of Bosnian-Herzegovinian film professionals who grew up alongside the Sarajevo Film Festival. For more than a decade, she has been one of the festival’s programmers in charge of selecting entries for its main competition; the main award for this year’s edition went to “Exile,” a feature film by Kosovar-German director Visar Morina. 

In 2016, she successfully tried her hand with short films as the writer and director of “I Remember,” that was screened in a number of international festivals.

Both for her and numerous other film professionals around the world, this year has been much slower, but it has also provided her with a new and significant experience of organizing an online festival amid a pandemic.

K2.0 sat down with Tataragić to discuss this experience, the impact of the pandemic on the regional film industry and the position of women in filmmaking.

The Berlin Film Festival red carpet with the “God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunija” film crew. Courtesy: Elma Tataragić.

K2.0: What are your experiences with the 26th Sarajevo Film Festival? To what extent have the circumstances surrounding the pandemic, the festival’s online format and the lack of the usual festival atmosphere in the city affected this year’s edition?

Elma Tataragić: It’s been a tough year, actually. Ever since March, when we went under lockdown and the situation began getting worse across Europe, we knew for sure that we’d be organizing the festival nevertheless. Of course, we weren’t sure about the setup.

We were working on several options side by side. Each of them included an on-demand platform, which turned out to be the most realistic alternative given the current state of affairs. We had other options, so besides our on-demand catalog, we knew that we’d be able to hold quite a few screenings at cinemas and other open-air venues that we usually use. The reason was the fact that, at one point, everything seemed back to normal. The borders were opening, our guests were confirming their attendance and people began taking interest in the festival.

However, in late June, the situation got worse again, only to reach a critical point in late July. By then, our decision was already clear.

I have to admit that we were ready for an online edition because we were developing the concept since March, while the implementation started in May. We collaborated with a number of partners, including the platform Shift72 who hosted our films. 

So, ten days before the Festival, we had the luxury — that we had ensured over the previous months — of making such a radical decision, the decision not only to make the festival happen, but to move it to the virtual space in its entirety. That is, we decided not to have visitors come to Sarajevo and not to present movies to a live audience.

Unlike some other film festivals, canceling or postponing was not an option for you?

We didn’t want that, for various reasons. Essentially speaking, there’s no point in putting a festival on hold.

We can see that the pandemic doesn’t peter out overnight, or that it’s going to disappear overnight either. If you push a festival back, you trespass on another festival’s space, and that’s an issue concerning the whole industry. There’s a calendar in place. It’s hard to push a festival back without putting your colleagues at risk.


There's been a huge gap in the film industry.

Another notable argument is that the industry needs the festival at the moment. The industry, faced with a major crisis, needs every festival at the moment. This is why we felt the urge to be there, to give the opportunity to regional filmmakers to at least market the films they had been preparing for years and working on for quite some time.

If you take a brief look at the developments in the film industry since the Berlin Film Festival that was held in February, you’ll see there’s been a huge gap, with film promotions brought to a standstill. I’m not referring to regional films only, but world cinema in general. Now that multiplexes are reopened in the UK, their managers are struggling because they don’t have anything to show, because Hollywood has completely barred the release, distribution and marketing of new films. The entire industry is just standing there waiting. We didn’t want to do that. We wanted to try and make something different, something new.

Elma Tataragić. Photo: Admir Dervisevic, courtesy of Sarajevo Film Festival.

Several other festivals decided to do a similar thing to what we did. One of them is CPH:DOX, an excellent Copenhagen-based festival of hybrid documentaries held in March. However, they didn’t have time to think through what they could do with other events in the festival, so they were limited to an online movie-watching platform. We had that comparative advantage, a certain amount of time to get better prepared.

Regrettably, it turned out that none of the big players, like Cannes, Karlovy Vary and some others, did anything at all, so no one really lit the way for us. Be that as it may, we decided to be brave and tried to do something on our own. The comments we are still getting show that we did a good job and that people, at least those from the film industry, gathered around their PCs and home cinemas for a few days. They saw movies, followed our discussions, took part in various workshops. The bottom line is that all events were available on our web-platform.

I think we’ve managed to open a new era for the Sarajevo Film Festival. After this, it’s never going to be the same.

I’m under the impression that film was of enormous significance during the lockdown. A medium that people regularly engaged with to fill their days.

The pandemic brought to light something very important and even more flattering for our profession: In spite of the crisis, the audience inevitably finds a will and a way to engage with audiovisual media.

For some big, global online platforms, the crisis doesn’t seem to be financial. Their revenues are going up primarily because the interest has grown during the pandemic. Owing to technology, we don’t necessarily have to go out to see a movie or series. There are numerous options, numerous possibilities.

It’s only starting next year that the real extent of the audiovisual industry crisis is going to become clear, because film production has been scarce lately, especially in the region.

These hard and challenging times have demonstrated that humans need to watch some stories, to stay tuned into whatever content. It’s a primal thing in humans. It’s indispensable to them. Just like in ancient times when people would gather around fire to tell stories, this is storytelling as well, albeit expressed in a different way.

It’s superb for all of us in the business. However, we have some other issues at hand. Marketing a product and having a good channel for doing so is one thing, but now the question is how to film a product. It’s only starting next year that the real extent of the audiovisual industry crisis is going to become clear, because film production has been scarce lately, especially in the region.

Let’s go back to SFF for a moment. This time, we saw that films themselves could garner attention, or rather that there was more to the festival beyond popular entertainment in the streets of Sarajevo.

For those of us organizing the festival and making preparations throughout the year, our principal focus has always been the films. What happens in the streets of Sarajevo is an additional feature of sorts, which has nothing to do with us, but that’s how the city has embraced the festival.

However, the ongoing crisis is certainly a return to core values, so to speak. It’s a rearrangement of strengths and priorities, whether individual or private. In a sense, it’s a period when we really need to work out what’s important to us, what we deem essential, under very specific circumstances.

Elma Tataragić. Photo courtesy of Sarajevo Film Festival.

Still, the festival isn’t only movies, it’s also people who are associated with movies, who spend years producing them. We’re close with these individuals; CineLink Industry Days allows us to stay in touch with developments in the region, so we felt a genuine need to bring our region together, bring together films, even if virtually, to talk about them, to reassure those people that they aren’t alone. That’s what’s crucial in a situation like this. 

To sum up, your online experience shows that it’s still possible to organize the festival in this way? Do you think this experience will be applicable in the future as well, in the sense that you might keep your online channel even when the festival is back to its normal format?

It’s impossible to go back. This was something we planned and implemented on the fly, in line with the circumstances at hand. It’s only now, or from mid-September to mid-December actually, after we get some rest, that we’ll be having big meetings to discuss what the Sarajevo Film Festival will look like in the next decade.

Personally, I consider the experience simply impossible to brush aside. Even if next year everything ends up being identical to what we were used to before the pandemic, we can’t forget what this year has brought us. And regardless of all the difficulties, it’s brought us some interesting things indeed.

One of the interesting things on the professional front is certainly the opportunity to be virtually present somewhere, which sometimes can make it possible for us to have guests that we wouldn’t be able to host otherwise.

On top of that, it allows us to act environmentally friendly and responsibly, so we don’t travel by plane all the time. We won’t be able to travel the way we’re used to from this year onward. Of course, people’s need to meet up face-to-face won’t go away, but with all this in mind, online platforms are going to be all the more relevant.

You’ve mentioned regional filmmaking. Do you have any insight into how your colleagues are dealing with these circumstances and in what way the pandemic has impacted overall film production?

A lot of filming has been called off, while the films that were due to be finished are being finalized with some delays. Such discontinuations generate great costs for any production crew. Every delay beyond what’s planned is a financial disaster in itself, especially in a situation where funds for this sector are being cut.

Simply put, there’s been a general six-month hiatus that led to a production hiatus, and it’s a domino effect.

Now, in the region, although it isn’t sunshine and rainbows anywhere in this part of the world, the situation varies from country to country. Virtually all planned calls for bids are being followed up on. Some budgets have remained the same, others haven’t. Bosnia and Herzegovina was about to adopt a budget that was supposed to give momentum, give rise to a new wave of creative efforts, but it reverted back to the previous budgets and — I can safely say — it’s a lousy amount of money as in the years before.

Film shoots have been cancelled and little has been filmed since March. New shoots are only just beginning in Serbia and Croatia, but we’ll follow suit soon enough. Simply put, there’s been a general six-month hiatus that led to a production hiatus, and it’s a domino effect. Freelancers — and most people in film are freelancers — have been effectively left without their only source of income. Those people have no guaranteed salaries and now no security in our communities.

Numerous film crews have been unable to do anything for months, or earn anything by the same token. These are hundreds of professionals, now pushed to the brink of poverty. So, we can safely say that the whole film industry in the region is currently under threat.

However, the crisis is still not a long-standing one. It’s been going on for six months and it won’t be that bad, if we start with production and filming soon. On the other hand, the real consequences will only be felt next year. I think the pool of entries for the 27th Sarajevo Film Festival won’t be as big as it was this year, because little has been filmed and it’s bound to have an effect. There has been a small halt to film production, too, or rather to funding. 

Most regional film production relies on co-production, and this hasn’t been working the way it should’ve in the past months.

In this year’s edition of SFF, a considerable number of films shown in the categories you’ve been programming, features and shorts, were directed by women filmmakers. Do you have the impression that women filmmakers have had a bigger presence in the past 10 to 15 years and that more space has been won in that respect?

The fact of the matter is that women filmmakers, who’ve always had a voice, are finally given space. The fact that this is discussed in the film industry is a big deal indeed, that the stats are constantly being collected, that women who make it are extremely vocal and that they’re ambassadors of change.

This issue is still present in the film industry; women are simply perceived differently in film.

The fact that, in the past five to seven years, the talk has been that the seven percent or ten percent of women’s access to film production and filmmaking, produced quite good results. And this illustrates how crucial it is in fact to communicate about problems, to be a voice for those who are neglected.

Women have been neglected for thousands of years and that’s no news at all. The very fact that we still discuss these matters means that these issues are still present. And this issue is still present in the film industry; women are simply perceived differently in film. It’s important to have an open discussion, with arguments.

If someone makes a tally and says that only two out of 100 films produced in Bosnia and Herzegovina until 1992 were directed by women, that’s a fact. It’s impossible that there aren’t any women who have something to say. A fairly good indicator is that the number of women who get into film schools in Europe is now almost on par with that of men. However, the number of women who make their first movies is considerably lower, so the question is what happens between graduation and their first movies? There’s an obvious problem on that front.

To what degree have women-related topics been opened up in regional film production in the first place? You’ve written the screenplay for “Stitches” and “God Exists, Her Name is Petrunija,” the films funneled precisely in that direction: Portraying strong female characters ready to overcome limitations imposed by a patriarchal system.

Male filmmakers have been exploring that [theme] a lot, and they have been doing so to an increasing degree. Take “Stitches” for example. I wrote the screenplay for the film, but it was directed by Miroslav Terzić.

The number of women’s stories has been growing. Women as characters are more and more present in regional film production. There are many interesting and bold breakthroughs in that respect, enticing characters unprecedented in film, completely different topics. And there’s going to be more of that coming our way.

What’s interesting is that young and up-and-coming film producers, and here I’m referring to male filmmakers, are more willing to talk about women, to employ female characters. They see things differently, because they grew up in a world where these issues are openly discussed. It’d be terrific if we didn’t wait 3000 years to start discussing each issue, but better late than never. I hope it’ll be a lesson for some other things that are now becoming increasingly problematic.

For you as a screenwriter, what’s the most important aspect to a story?

To begin with, I don’t know if I can provide an answer to that question. Working on my first screenplay, “Snow,” with Aida Begić, the two of us had no idea how the film would turn out. We got together as two young people at the time, fresh out of the Academy, and it was perhaps a logical step to take up feature-length films at that moment. But the situation was somehow difficult, precarious for film.

What we were asking ourselves at first, which helped us envision a narrative framework for our film, was why did we live here? It’s a question I ask myself quite often to this day. It’s a question that led us to the story of an imaginary village with women.

“Stitches” was about something else. I couldn’t believe something like that was happening in the contemporary world I lived in. It offended me on so many levels. It offended me as a person, as a woman, that someone’s child could be sold, that someone would make money off them, that there are levers of power who had never solved those cases. The powerlessness and anger that I felt then were my driving forces in the story.

“Petrunija,” on the other hand, is a sort of defiance. And that defiance is clearly visible in the film. There are no off-the-peg recipes. Screenplays come to life depending on the moment and context we’re in.K

Feature image: Sanela Zukić. Courtesy of SFF.