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.”


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