We are not victims; we are fools who allowed another war to happen

Photo: www.dnevnikdianebudisavljevic

Director Dana Budisavljević, on human kindness, crimes, the female perspective and common country, on the occasion of the Belgrade premiere of her film “Dnevnik Diane Budisavljević” (Diary of Diana Budisavljević).

The screening of the film, opening in Belgrade as part of the festival “Slobodna Zona”, is sold out. Another screening is scheduled, and attracting a lot of interest. The screening for journalists a couple of weeks before the premiere mostly left the audience speechless and with tears in their eyes. The premiere last summer and the award in Pula is spoken about as a kind of special occasion which prompted a standing ovation during the end credits.

The director Dana Budisavljević, a feature film debutant, took a bold step, it would seem, to tackle a topic which has been avoided for decades – about the humanitarian, Austrian native, Catholic, Diana Budisavljević who was the only one who, with a group of associates, saved ten thousand Orthodox Christian, Serbian children, from the concentration camps run by Ustasha forces.

Is it possible to remain indifferent or relativize the events shown in your film after watching it?

There are those who can, but usually people cannot stay indifferent to this film. It is our natural instinct to want to protect children, regardless of who’s they are, because they must not be exposed to such suffering.

However, this is a film about kindness. I often say that it wasn’t the Ustasha crimes that kept me working on the film for 10 years, but Diana’s goodness and strength, and the idea that an individual can set something so great in motion, that something so big can come from an honest intention.

These days there is another film attracting the attention of the public, but from an entirely different angle – “The Joker” – awarded in Venice. It raises the question whether the root of human evil is in pathology or in society. What do you think about that?

Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to see any other film since the premiere of “Diana” at the Pula festival. I’ve been hoping to catch Tarantino, and then “The Joker” all summer, but with no success. I’ve never had more obligations in my life, because, apart from being the film director, the company Hulahop which I co-own and which produced the film, also became the distributor for the film, because it was the only way for us to reach theatres. Four distributors in Croatia turned us down, claiming it was more of an art film for festivals. They wouldn’t give us a chance in theatres. Now I am glad that they turned us all down because it gave me a new experience and knowledge, to stay in touch with the public and the film and its theatre lifespan.

Your film is about human kindness. Is it only up to the individual or is it a question of the society which nurtures empathy, care for others, respecting differences?

Everything is always a combination of factors, because the world is complicated. Several simple elements create infinite combinations. People like Diana simply shine, that’s what a colleague of mine said after watching the film. Yes, I believe that Diana simply had no other choice, she had to do it. She felt this urge which at first didn’t seem dangerous, it just seemed right. Once she realized what concentration camps were, there was no turning back. It’s the scene in the film when Julie begs Diana to stand with the Action, but she cannot. This is nicely described in the Diary with a sentence in which Diana says that she was, of course, disturbed after the search of her apartment, but she didn’t consider her life more valuable than the lives of innocent children, and that in this sense she must accept events as they come. Most people usually heed examples from their surroundings, they can be good or bad, which is why it is really important that society chooses good practices, gives good examples, elects good leaders and governments.

One character in the film says that they (Orthodox Christians) are for them (Ustashas) the same as “Jews and Gypsies”. There is always someone lower on the scale of suffering. Does that mean that neither pain nor suffering, nor death, can make people feel and be regarded as equals?

I understand what you want to say, but that wasn’t the idea. What was necessary was a simple sentence to explain to the part of the audience which doesn’t know that part of history, what it meant to be a Serb, an Orthodox Christian, at the time. Not many people, apart from our neighbors, know that Croats are Catholic and Serbs Orthodox Christian. I think that perhaps I didn’t explain it well enough, so foreigners may have a hard time understanding who’s who in the film, or why they are being persecuted. I keep thinking that I should add several written sentences at the beginning of the film, to give a political and historical context.

There are still “our” and “their” victims in this region, and the numbers which never even remotely match. Do you think that perhaps the solution is to first count our own criminals and crimes?

I think we should stop abusing the role of the victim. We keep competing with each other who will be the greater victim and count more of the other side’s crimes. Perpetual insisting on the position of the victim is catastrophic for society, because it means that we keep our past identity in which we were the victims and we don’t live in the present, but we have trouble seeing the future as well. It’s imposed on us, we are not victims, we are fools who allowed another war, which impoverished us both spiritually and materially, to happen.

In the context of the previous question, do you agree that processing these topics in art should take place in the same framework, because a different approach means constantly pointing the finger at others and removing the blame from ourselves, denying our own crimes?

I am not a theorist of post-war or post-transitional societies, I really don’t know what is theoretically preferable.

A woman was needed to make a film about another woman, denied for decades on both sides, as well as her endeavor and her bravery. What do you think, why has nobody taken this story on, it can be imagined as a template for all Balkan Spielbergs and their potential “Schindler’s Lists”?

I really don’t know. It was here the whole time, under our noses. The diary was published in 2003. Not only was there no film, but nobody wrote about it, the book didn’t attract a lot of attention from the public. So, not a single historian, who saw the book long before me, found it important and worthy of showing to the public. One other woman, the historian Nataša Matausić wrote her PhD thesis on the Action. The book should come out soon. A woman actually gave me the Diary, Nataša Jovičić who was the director of Jasenovac. Miljenka Čogelja was the producer who equally fought for the project as me. Olinka Vištica, with whom I founded the production company 13 years ago, gave us the thumbs up to begin such a project. And finally, Alma Prica. She is an amazing person, who gave us so much support and patience. Not to mention Diana’s granddaughter Silvija Szabo, who put so much trust in us.

The female perspective, women as protagonists and authors are crucial for this story. A monodrama about Diana Budisavljević “Pu spas za sve nas” (Touch Base for a Safe Space) starring Jelena Puzić who performs in your film as well. How did the two of you meet?

Mirjana Karanović introduced us, Jelena was her student. Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to see the play, my visits to Belgrade never match the performance schedule. But I certainly will.

What does, and what did Yugoslavia mean to you?

A carefree and lovely childhood. The war started when I was 15. I would like to include Yugoslavia as a topic in my work, because I find its values like multiculturalism, multiconfessionalism, the possibility of a supranational identity, public good, limited private property, self-government… very interesting and unique in the global social practice. I meet a lot of people who still declare themselves as Yugoslavs and I respect that. I often wonder if all those who left during the 90s because of the war, and because they no longer belonged anywhere because of their mixed identities, will become some new Yugoslav diaspora dreaming of a renewal of Yugoslavia.

Dealing with the topic of your film, have you or some other author, come to the conclusion that it was a wrong project choice, or on the contrary, a part of this region’s history with the greatest emancipatory potential?

I didn’t deal with the topic of Yugoslavia in this film, but I did give a lot of attention to NDH (Independent State of Croatia) because that’s where four years of Diana’s actions take place. The film shows that the war ended and that Diana falls into oblivion instead of being awarded. I don’t even mention the regime, because it is irrelevant for the film. Some people have criticized me for it, and foreigners ask who came to power after the war and why they removed the files. So obviously I didn’t explain it very well. The series “Slumbering Concrete” (Betonski spavači) which we produced, and directed by Saša Ban, and with Maroje Mrduljaš taking the audience through irreplaceable examples of glorious architecture of socialist modernism.

The wars of the 90s, and the reality which we are living now are all part of the answer to those questions. At the Belgrade Book Fair, albeit unofficially, visitors were met with a sign – “The betrayal of Cyrillic by Croatian Latin in Serbian spelling”. However, there are still many of us who think that we speak the same language, and use two versions of the same alphabet. Why is language, in your opinion, such an important tool in post-Yugoslav cultural and political conflicts?

There are many, many people smarter than me who are experts for language and its impact on society. I am glad and it is a relief that we can understand each other and I have to practice Cyrillic because it doesn’t come quite easily to me. I see an excellent opportunity for exchange, dare I say a market 🙂

To return to the structure and the language of your film. Does it impose with its topic the documentary elements – the video recordings and testimonies of real people, or have you intended from the beginning to fuse them through the storytelling?

At first, I thought it would be a documentary, because that is something I am familiar with. Also, a feature film required a huge budget and production expertise which neither Miljenka nor I had at the time. However, through research and development it became clear that the story needed those elements as well, because it was the only way to bring Diana and her diary to life. We were too late for the documentary Diana, unfortunately. That’s why I was so happy when I found footage in the archive where she can be seen for several seconds.

The casting is also impressive, from the amazing Alma Prica in the leading role, to all the other protagonists. How did you communicate with the actors about your film, and was there someone you wanted to cast, who refused for some reason?

In 1941 Diana turned 50, and all her compatriots were over 40, so I needed to find a bit older actor, meaning that they are mostly famous if they are any good. I chose Alma in 2014, when I was 50. She has read all versions of the scenario, and she was a great support for me in my work. It wasn’t difficult for her to go with me to a workshop in Poland, where I learned to work on a film set and did rehearsal scenes. Sometimes I think that they were all so good because of her, because they really are excellent, and I had almost no experience working with actors.

Finally, the film is black and white (what effect did you want to achieve?), with eerie music – the sound recordings, especially poignant in the documentary sequences, there is an impressive list of people in the end credits who worked on the research for your film – how did you fit it all together and who are the people behind this and other segments of your film?

Everything turned out really great in the end. There were days when I thought we wouldn’t succeed, that it was all too much for us. And there were days when I thought we would go bankrupt. I’m giving a lot of interviews and statements now, but there was so much effort put into that film, so much work, esthetic, emotion, opinions of at least six people whose contribution was crucial – Miljenka Čogelja, producer, went through all the phases with me, up to the promotion and distribution because she is on maternity leave, Silvestar Mileta, a young historian on whose research everything was based, but he also knows a great deal about film theory and literature. Jasenko Rasol is a cameraman with whom I explored the visual language and we went through everything from classic TV interviews, stumbling through the city seeking out the atmosphere of WWII Zagreb, until today’s high esthetic. Marko Ferković, editor who felt with the utmost precision how that film ought to look and couldn’t be swayed even when we were all letting our fears get to us and wanted to try this and that, but he never gave in. Martina Franić, costume designer. Alma Prica, irreplaceable. Olinka Vištica who watched over us the entire time and let us work, trusting that we will succeed. The Sinkauz brothers who arrived at the end but fit in perfectly and completed everything with music. I can’t leave out the post-production crew for video and sound – Emil Svetlik, Zoran Mihailović and Julije Zornik and set designer Duško Milavac. And I would especially like to thank Mirjana Karanović who is the only actress in the region, in my opinion, who deserves the title of movie star and who spoke so nicely and truthfully about this film, and I am deeply touched. And of course none of this would have been possible without Diana first of all, and her granddaughter Silvija, who found and published the Diary and was of infinite help during our research, and gave us permission to use us Diana’s legacy in the film.

Ivana Matijević

Journalist and editor of the cultural section of the Belgrade daily newspaper Danas. She graduated from the Faculty of Phylology in Belgrade, department of Serbian language and literature. She worked as a journalist for the magazine Elle, and published several articles in literary (“Pekićevi anali“, “Kovine“) and theatre periodicals (magazine for theatre “Ludus”). She participated in the work of journalist juries for several domestic film festivals.