By Melissa Silverstein | Women and Hollywood October 8, 2013 at 2:00PM
For Those Who Can Tell No Tales written by Jasmila Zbanic and Kym Vercoe and directed by Zbanic is one of those rare films that just stays with you. The film tells the story of Kym Vercoe -- who plays herself in this hybrid feature/documentary -- who took a holiday to the Balkans. She wound up in a town called Visegrad to check out a famous, epic bridge that had to be seen. She booked a night in the Vilina Vlas hotel that was recommended in her guidebook. Her night in the hotel was awful. She couldn't sleep, she felt ill. She had no idea why. After she returned home to Australia, she googled that hotel and learned that it had been a rape camp during the war in the Balkans. She was horrified that she had been in a place like that and its history was hidden. So she decided to go back and confront the town and the hotel which had erased the women who died there.
Women and Hollywood: How did you connect with each other?
Jasmila Zbanic: I wanted to do something which was a remembrance of 20 years since the war because for me living in Sarajevo the war was yesterday. For me, it was to frame my emotions and to do something to connect with 20 years ago. I was looking for something which I could do and I saw a DVD of Kym's theatre show which all of my friends in Sarajevo said I needed to see since she was a guest of the Sarajevo festival. They said it was amazing. And I saw it and it was exactly what I felt about Bosnia today, about the state of mind I am in, about emotions I had, and so I decided to write to Kym and told her I think this could be a movie.
WaH: So it was a performance piece first?
Kym Vercoe: Yes it's a solo theatre show called Seven Kilometers North-East. It's a storytelling performance about my relationship with Bosnia and about my journey which is the story behind the film. I did the theatre performance and took it to Sarajevo which was just incredible. The next day I thought I should retire because it was such an incredible experience to perform there. And then I went home and got this email in my junk email box - I almost missed it. I knew who Jasmila was. I had seen Grbavica and I really thought it was a nice sentiment and I never believed in a million years it would happen and never as quickly as it did. I wrote back and said thank you so much, I am flattered, and we skyped that evening and 2 weeks later I was on the plane.
WaH: It is like a hybrid doc/feature. Did you ever think of having an actress play Kym's part?
JZ: No because it is so connected to her. It's her story so that it wouldn't be possible.
WaH: What was the challenge in adapting a theatre piece to film?
KV: I guess the main challenge was that we started off thinking that we were going to make something that was very documentary-like in style because I was playing myself and we could use other real people. Then we realized that for the film to be the best possible film it could be it would be best if we used all professional actors to play all the roles. We do use a lot of real names in the film and the film is very much based on a true story but we decided to create a more feature style film.
WaH: Did it scare you to make a movie like this?
JZ: I live in Bosnia so for me it is very personal because Visegrad is just one and a half hours from Sarajevo. When we decided to shoot there we were warned that it would be too dangerous for us when people find out what we are investigating and that they would be aggressive. We knew we had to go there so we decided to say that we were making a tourist film about Australian traveling through the Balkans - which is the beginning of the film. We had a Serbian friend who lives in Berlin as part of a team and we were worried about exposing him. He actually said that he was the director. Maybe nothing would have happened but so many people warned us and knowing the political situation there, I think that was the smart decision. Also it was safer for the people helping us there.
WaH: In the beginning Kym is such a happy go lucky tourist and then you are changed. And when you changed, the tone of the film shifted. The colors, the light. I would imagine that was deliberate but Jasmila could you talk about how you did her before and after story?
JZ: Everything goes through Kym and how she observes the city. When she doesn't know anything about what happened we had to portray Visegrad as a town the way she sees it. We had to go with every image colored with her emotions.
KV: The bridge itself is such a spectacular piece of architecture and it is renowned as a piece of architecture for how it changes color. The first time you see it in the film is golden, it's glowing and it's wonderful. And then in winter it changes color, the river is grey and that seasonal change reflects the hot and cold of the film. For me and for the audience you look at it very differently, you see it with completely different eyes and that's really the main reason why I went back because I really felt that I had looked at it with such wrong eyes when I first went. I really was happy go lucky, having a great time and had a very strange disturbed night in the hotel but I had no idea why. I just thought wow I have no idea what's going on, I feel sick and I can't sleep. I felt like I owed it to the women who were killed at Visegrad to go back and have my eyes open and even though I am just walking around it is an acknowledgment that I am seeing it for the first time in reality. And that bridge now is a massive monument to genocide and there is no other way I can see it now.
WaH: Atrocities against women are missing from our history books and what you did was to bring to the fore the stories of these women. How do you think we can get more of these stories told?
JZ: I think it is very hard for the women to talk about. Sexual violence in war and even in peace is such a hard thing. My first film is also about a woman who was raped, so I researched a lot. After this type of violence there is a breakdown of the whole personality, their dignity, their self- respect. Everything is suddenly in ashes. For these women it is hard to talk about first it of all. They were grateful that somebody wanted to talk about it. But more and more women are talking openly about without shame, and it has less of a taboo.
WaH: Do you feel you have marked a place for women in the history of this war?
KV: I certainly hope so. The function of the theatre piece and the film is to be some sort of living memorial. When I found out what I had happened I was so offended by the atrocities but also by the not knowing. The lack of acknowledgment was almost more offensive and it drove me. I felt someone needed to acknowledge what happened to these women and I hope that the film functions as an ongoing memorial to the women because there is still no other acknowledgment.
JZ: In that city it is forbidden. Many families would put a plate on the bridge saying how many people got killed and the authorities would immediately remove it. They don't allow any memorials. When people build something they destroy it.
KV: I have friends who are part of the movement and they did recently put up a memorial in the Muslim cemetery in Visegrad and it contains the word genocide. That memorial has become the hugest controversy. The people were called in by the municipal authorities and they were told they had to pull it down and they said they wouldn't pull it down because it was their land, their cemetery. Then they were told they had to take the word genocide off and they said they wouldn't do that. They told me the other day that this man would do anything - even buy them a car - to get them to remove that word. They ended up saying to him if you tell us where the 80 people who are missing from Visegrad are buried we will take the memorial down. How can you be having these kinds of conversations? That's part of the tragedy of these women and all over Bosnia. So many people are still missing, so many families don't have anywhere to remember their relatives, they don't have a grave, nothing.
WaH: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
JZ: Always for me when I am dealing with subjects related to my country that are very emotional I have to find the right tone and distance because obviously I start with anger asking 'why that happened' and 'why it is still happening.' I work to rise above my personal anger but still stay connected to my emotions. That's a big challenge. I think Kym's character and Kym being a part of the screenwriting process and being there all the time with me helped me to find the right distance.
WaH: How long did it take to write the script?
JZ: It was a crazy process because we realized quickly that if want to shoot we have to get the summer part with this festival (from Kym's first trip.) My production company had a little bit of money so we said let's do this now because we don't want to wait another year. So we went in to shoot and realized immediately that it was not going to be a documentary because we needed to create meetings with other people and conversations. I was trying to find the poetry in this brutal thing. So we shot this first part and then we wrote the script. Then we came back in winter and shot again and then edited. We rewrote and at the same time we were trying to raise funds because we had nothing. The problem in Europe is that if you start shooting you are not eligible to apply to film funds. So all those doors were shut and we had to go to private investors and that was a crazy experience.
KV: The last section we shot was in Sydney and when we wrapped there I realized it was one year to the day from that first email from Jasmila. It was really wild.
WaH: Can you give some advice to other women directors?
JZ: In my country though it is very patriarchal and male dominated the public enjoys women directed movies. Though there are a lot of walls, there is a special female way of approaching financiers that's unexplored territory and we can succeed more than we are doing now.