At Berlin festival, Danis Tanovic film takes story, cast from life

BERLIN -- For his new film, “An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker,” premiering Wednesday at the Berlin Film Festival, Bosnian director Danis Tanovic ripped the story -- and its protagonists -- straight from the headlines.

Tanovic's debut, “No Man’s Land,” won multiple awards, including an Oscar and a Golden Globe in 2002 for foreign language film. The director found his new film when he read a newspaper story about a Roma woman who almost died after being repeatedly denied medical coverage following a miscarriage. Moved and angered by what he read, he went immediately to meet the family.

“I didn’t plan this film. This film happened to me,” Tanovic said. 

Avoiding the wait of budgets and planning, Tanovic asked the family to re-create its experiences while he shot with a volunteer crew of eight, over nine days. The production was funded by a Bosnian film grant of 17,000 euros ($22,809 at current exchange rates).

Tanovic seemed surprised and honored to have been invited to this year’s Berlin festival, saying wryly, “I made movies that cost 10 million and nobody’s seen them, and then I make a film that costs no money, and it’s in Berlin in competition! Is that a sign?”

In the compelling and quickly moving tale, Nazif (Nazif Mujic) and Senada (Senada Alimanovic) and their two young daughters subsist on the small amount of money Nazif makes from collecting scrap metal and cutting up cars to sell for iron.

When pregnant Senada starts feeling ill, Nazif takes her to the hospital, only to learn that the baby she’s carrying has died and that she must go to a specialist clinic for surgery. Since Senada has no state-issued insurance card, the director at the clinic refuses treatment without payment of 980 marks ($672), an impossible sum for this impoverished family.  She's refused at almost every door, and the race is on to find a solution before Senada succumbs to illness.

“An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker” is reminiscent of last year’s Bence Fliegauf film “Just the Wind,” which used amateur actors to take an unflinching look at the hate-murders of Roma in Hungary; the movie took home a Silver Bear from Berlin.

The film has a strong public face, not just in director Tanovic, but also in Mujic, who has since become the head of an education organization that helps Roma children, who often leave school after the third or fourth grade, if they go at all. Mujic said that doctors and other authority figures often discriminate against Roma. “They know who we are. They see it by the color of our skin,” he told journalists in Berlin. “I’m an honest man, I am living my life, I’m not stealing. And I’ve never been ashamed of who I am -- I am a Roma.”  

In the film, Nazif says his life was better during the Bosnian war -- he served as a soldier for four years, and though his life was on the line and he lost a brother, he knew why he was risking everything.  Tanovic agreed that today’s outlook for Bosnia-Herzegovina seemed grim.

“Everyone’s talking about recession, about  the crisis -- my country’s been in crisis for 25 years.”  said Tanovic.   “I tried politics too, it doesn’t work. I think the best way for me to fight these things is to show them, to talk about them.”


What's behind Jafar Panahi's 'Closed Curtain'?

The Pirate Bay doc sets sail at Berlin Film Fest -- and online

Richard Linklater's surprise prize in Berlin for 'Before Midnight'

PHOTOS AND MORE PHOTOS: Faces to watch 2014 | Movies ENVELOPE: The latest awards buzz DOCUMENTARIES: 10 best of 2013, and a new crop in 2014


Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • Artists and filmmakers make surprising leaps in 2014
    Artists and filmmakers make surprising leaps in 2014

    Exhibiting raw promise is one thing, but to exceed those initial flashes is something really special. Throughout this year, many filmmakers and performers were pressing on in remarkable ways, showing that even artists who have already exhibited notable skill, talent and accomplishment still...

  • Mark Olsen's best indie films of 2014
    Mark Olsen's best indie films of 2014

    Throughout the year people you thought you knew showed they were still full of surprises. In 2014, when some would see cinema as a storytelling mode and cultural force as an endangered species, these are vital signs of life. Here is Mark Olsen's top ten list of independent films:

  • Kenneth Turan's best films of 2014
    Kenneth Turan's best films of 2014

    What's the point of doing a 10 best list if you put only 10 films on it?

  • Daring films lifted the artform in 2014
    Daring films lifted the artform in 2014

    Like voices crying in the wilderness — rising above that vast wasteland of movie mediocrity — came the roar of the auteurs in 2014. A rangy group with varying aesthetics, they've left an indelible imprint on cinema despite the 400 or so of the marginal that clogged our theaters...

  • Everyone loses in a December deluge of films
    Everyone loses in a December deluge of films

    I try not to publicly argue with film legends, even those who are no longer alive. But when Mae West famously said that "too much of a good thing can be wonderful," she clearly was not considering a film critic's lot in December.

  • Goodbyes abound in 'Night at the Museum' as trilogy comes to an end
    Goodbyes abound in 'Night at the Museum' as trilogy comes to an end

    "Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb," otherwise known as "Night at the Museum 3," rates as more determinedly heartfelt than the first and not as witty as the second (and best). Also, no Amy Adams as Amelia Earhart in jodhpurs this time around.