Jasmila Zbanic  about ON THE PATH


«I liked the idea of process: ‘being on the path’ means you still haven’t reached your goal, your destination. I wanted the film to be very open, trying out different paths for its characters. Luna and Amar are searching for something and haven’t found their goal yet. In order to go on, they have to search in their past and they will have to search even more in their future». Jasmila Zbanic about her new film On the Path.

On the Path is the story of a couple having problems in conceiving a baby. The question of giving birth to a new human being might also be understood as a metaphor for the difficulties on making a new beginning, starting out a new life in the aftermath of war after so much destruction, after so much pain. Would you agree with this interpretation?

JASMILA ZBANIC: Yes. Through maternity there is so much reflection going on, the very essential decisions of a human being are at stake: a woman has to decide from whom she wants to have a child, under which conditions, in which atmosphere do you want to have your child. There is a tight link to this question in Grbavica – what to do with the child you didn’t want to have, because it was conceived with a person you hate and because it had happened through violence and rape. I consider On the Path also as a film about choices and the freedom of decision. Compared to Esma in Grbavica, Luna has now the freedom of options, she is free to decide.

Can you sense this difficulty of starting a new life in your country, even though the essential question of maternity seems the fundamental theme of your story?

JASMILA ZBANIC: Definitely. The feeling, the atmosphere of being able to go on is pretty much challenging. It is rooted in the trauma, but lives go on, take new forms, there are new steps to make and we have to admit that these possibilities exist.  There are new questions about identity, about new forms in which life takes shape and Luna and Amar have different answers to the same questions.

The classical plot of a love story follows a man and a woman trying to find each other and ends up with the two falling in love. On the Path is a story about a couple which is deeply in love and we observe them losing each other, becoming strangers to each other. Is On the Path in a certain way an inverted love story?

JASMILA ZBANIC: When I was writing the story I became aware of how tough the task was. Describing love means always moving along the edge. You could so easily be trapped by kitsch. People who love each other are less interesting than people who take every opportunity to start fighting. It was very challenging to show those little details that describe the life of loving people without falling into the “standard pictures”. The bathroom scene where Amar says to pooping Luna that she should flush the toilet because of the smell ? that were the pictures I was looking for, they tell something about everyday life, and even these unpleasant situations are pleasant and fine with the two of them. They are frank enough to each other that they could say it. This establishing of love was a difficult task. And then it moves from this harmonious situation to the loss of each other. There a many layers that define that relationship, they have a similar story and a similar path and they are united in that. There are many layers of loving each other and forgiving each other the minor stuff.

In general a classical love story gets problematic as soon as there is an intruder, jealousy and betrayal. In the case of On the Path this is not another man or another woman, it is religion and religious fundamentalism. There is a moment in the camp where Luna seems to be seized by sheer panic as she realizes that she is about to lose Amar. How would you describe this “third” love destructing force?

JASMILA ZBANIC: When “somebody” else enters the relationship ? whether a person or religion or a set of rules ? they sense it as a third party. They should find a way how to be two of themselves together. I have experienced myself that ideological “somebody” else interfering in someone’s life, call it socialism or nationalism or religion, it takes the same forms whatever it is. There is a structure that suddenly shapes you as a person. This is something that I can feel very deeply in my region even if I could talk more globally, I prefer to go back to the territory I know. I am not able to explain, I could only smell it or sense it in my skin. Very often you are confronted to this sets of ideas that people are possessed by and that make people feel better. Of course Amar needs to be accepted, he needs a new identity and these new ideas don’t give him power, but a possibility to find himself, to find more easily a sense of life. He suddenly finds all answers to all his questions in one book, in one set of mind. He starts to change by fitting into it and that is the moment when Luna starts to ask ‘Who is this person in front of me’. A lot of clashes always happened in my country when this “third somebody” came into the relationship. For me it is very obvious and strong that this “third somebody” is not stronger by individual feelings, it’s not like you can see in older ex-Yugoslavian films where the state interfered into relationships and people became victims. I don’t feel it that way. My decision is not only rational. I really believe very deeply that human beings could be stronger than this “third force”. Maybe it is due to my experience of war, I met so many people who were taken by these ideas, who got sick by these ideas, who became somebody else. But I also met so many people who were stronger than this manipulation. They kept themselves the way they wanted. They were stronger than any system, any regime, any religion, any set of rules.

You show Amar and Luna in a very vicious situation – he is trying to get rid of his alcohol problem (what Luna wishes very much), but the prize to pay is to accept him seized by another addiction.

JASMILA ZBANIC: One addiction is replaced by another one, that was very often my experience during research that these urban people – and a have to point out that this story is a story about urban societies; in the villages it would be a different story. For urban people it happened so often that one addiction, or a feeling of being outside society lead people to wahhabism. Most of the people I met were punks or alternative in some way, or addicted to narcotics or alcohol. They had this little crack so that religion could implant itself very easily.

After seeing On the Path and Grbavica one gets the impression that you don’t have to search very far for your stories, as if you were acting like a sensor within your society reflecting the vibes, the pains, the worries of people living around you. Still, you have mentioned that you had done research. Can you tell us something about how you have developed your plot.

JASMILA ZBANIC: My main emotion on the core was there from an early stage. But I do all the research in order to feel secure that I am walking on a save ground, in order to know my subject very well. I read a lot on the wahhabism and the movement in Bosnia, I met a lot of people, talked to authorities, to critics of the movement. I was trying to get a picture what took me a while. For a person who is not religious like me it was quite hard to find a justification for all that. I had to take off my clothes, I had to get completely naked in front of these ideas so that I got rid of my prejudices, so that I didn’t make any judgement in advance regarding my own civil actions that I would take. It was about getting completely naked and get into the story. Of course I started out with a lot of prejudice. Bosnian Muslims are very much against these radicals, many people do not agree with their ideas and think, it is a new style that has never existed in Bosnia before, that they were connected with terrorism, in general there is a very negative attitude towards wahhabism within the Muslim community. It even sounded nearly politically uncorrect to say that Wahhabis were human beings like anybody else, people attacked me for saying it. 

How would you describe the current situation of Muslims in general and the Wahhabi movement in Bosnia.

JASMILA ZBANIC:  I think it is not that strong, it has become weaker after 9/11. It had been supported by Saudi Arabia and other countries. They feel pushed aside which makes them feel isolated, as if they were not a part of the Bosnian society which is not good at all. There are hard tensions among Muslims.

As a title you chose On the Path which evokes of course the path to God, but also many other associations – Luna and Amar might have been on a path to happiness, they eventually walk on different paths and drift apart; as a flight attendant Luna is always on a very precise but every day on a different path? What made you choose this title?

JASMILA ZBANIC: What was important for me, was the idea of not coming to only one solution, to only one definite solution. I liked the idea of process, ‘being on the path’ means you still haven’t reached your goal, your destination. I wanted the film to be very open, trying out different paths for its characters. Both of them are searching for something and haven’t found their goal yet. In order to go on, they have to search in their past and they will have to search even more in their future. And there is that line of finding spirituality, whatever it is, for Amar it might be God, for Luna it might be something else. And the expression “na putu” is used in Bosnian when somebody is expecting a baby. We say “beba je na putu”, it is coming, still uncertain, not delivered, but it’s on the way. For me the title works very well, hopefully it will also work commercially.

The ending is very open. Did you hesitate between a more explicit ending and a completely open one?

JASMILA ZBANIC: I realized while we were editing that it was not good to give a clear answer whether they were separated or still together. I had the feeling that it was more important for the audience to go on thinking and make up their own thing according to their feelings and what they hopefully have discovered through the film. We had some scenes that were into this direction of giving answers and eventually we decided to remove them and leave it more open for the audience. I want the audience to be involved and identify with the characters, I wanted them to stay with the characters even after the film.

Crinka Zvitesic has been selected among the ten Shooting Stars 2010 for her interpretation of Luna. How did you discover her?

JASMILA ZBANIC:  I watched some movies with her and had first invited several actresses for the casting. In the beginning I was not so sure about her, Zrinka is from Croatia, she is a very glamorous girl with long hair, you can see her regularly on magazine covers and I really wasn’t sure if we were made for each other as I am more of an alternative type ? but when she came, it was just so obvious how good she is. Another obstacle for me was the fact that she had already played a couple with Leon Lucev in another film and I didn’t want it to be repeated in my film, I wanted something different, discover new people? I went to Serbia, to Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia and I had to admit to myself that I shouldn’t destroy my film only because my ego was so keen on somebody new. Crinka and Leon were perfect and that was it.
And I was very happy to work again with Mirjana Karanovic, I love her very much. She was very glad about Nadja’s role. She also did some research, talked to covered women, which was a totally new experience for her. She discovered a lot of very interesting women from the city who were wonderfully dressed under the niqab ? university professors, students, teachers. We were both so shocked that contemporary women were able to find their freedom under this niqab.

Did you begin your research with a lot of prejudice?

JASMILA ZBANIC: Yes, it was a lot about breaking prejudice. I always thought that wearing the niqab was a result of repression. Suddenly I met women who did it by their own will, I would say 90%  of them came from secular, atheist families. It was either an expression of protest or a sign of having found their own way. We were totally surprised. It didn’t fit into what we had known before.

Did you ask all your main actors to do this kind of research?

JASMILA ZBANIC:: It was very important for all my actors to meet people like those who they were going to interpret. Leon and Zrinka are from Croatia, they didn’t know Sarajevo. It was very important for us to spend some time in Sarajevo, in total they spent two months there speaking and hanging out with people, with my friends. We worked a lot on the language which is pretty much the same but has a very different accent. I wanted them to really sound like somebody from Sarajevo. I thought it was important for them to get a soul in their character through understanding the rhythm and the structure of the language.

If you compare the situation in Sarajevo during the shooting of and working on Grbavica with that of On the Path, can you feel a difference, is there something like disappointment or resignation resulting out of the difficulty to make a new beginning after war as I put it in my first question?

JASMILA ZBANIC: It’s hard to express it in words, maybe that’s why I try to do it by making films. There is a feeling of unjustice which is now enhanced by the financial crisis, people are in big problems, nothing moves on. It was definitely a psychologically disastrous decision by the EU not give visas to Bosnians, but give them for example to Montenegro. Bosnians do everything to identify as Europeans, but if the EU does everything to show that we are not a part of Europe that raises the question “Who are we then?” We wear niqabs and fit perfectly into the EU-prejudice about Bosnia. Election are coming up next year, it was a disastrous message for Bosnians.
I see the Bosnian society as a really traumatized society that should be healed and not be squashed with boots, what is happening at the moment. I don’t want to sound pessimistic and depressing. I still feel enough creative energy in Sarajevo that only needs a little bit to blossom.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
Berlin, February 2010