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In a Land of Contradiction, 20 Feet From Stardom Shares an Inspiring Message

Old Town Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina.

Caitrin Rogers, producer, 20 Feet From Stardom

A week ago, after 17 hours of travel, we landed as the sun was setting over Sarajevo, where vast mountains were silhouetted against a yellow sky. Not knowing what to expect, I would quickly realize that Bosnia & Herzegovina is a land of contradiction: beautiful Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman architecture riddled with bullet holes, sweeping green landscapes littered with hidden landmines, stunning cathedrals around the corner from impressive mosques, optimistic youth in disagreement with war-weathered adults. I was excited that Film Forward had given me the chance to screen 20 Feet From Stardom in such a unique and complicated place, but I was entirely unsure what the response to a film about backup singers would be.

On our first day in Sarajevo, through blurry eyes, we were introduced to the amazing team from the U.S. Embassy, and after a brief orientation and several stiff cappuccinos we were on our way. Our first screenings were an hour and a half outside of town and the pace on the highway was similar to the pace of the trip: fast and furious.

The most memorable screenings we did throughout Bosnia & Herzegovina were always for young people. We were informed that it wasn’t customary for students to ask questions, so it would be better if we could find a way to provoke conversation. At the beginning of each discussion I began by asking what the audience thought the film was about. The response was always hopeful and inspiring, inciting conversation about the meaning of success, perseverance and the pursuit of dreams. I spent two years making a film that I thought was about backup singing, but seeing it through the eyes of the youth of Bosnia & Herzegovina I now realize it is about so much more.

At a reception following a screening in Banja Luka, a northern town in Bosnia & Herzegovina, a girl in her early teens approached me. She said she didn’t know that there had been so much racism in America. The image of America that had been presented to her was one of pristine perfection. It was encouraging to her to know that we too had conflict in our country’s past (and present). She’s now more hopeful that her country will be able to work through their issues of the recent past and move on to a brighter future.

It’s now 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday. I’m lying in bed at home in Santa Monica with the sunlight pouring in, trying to decide if I might be able to force myself back to sleep. The jet-lag has been a bit of a struggle; it’s hard to believe that two days ago we were in Belgrade. It was raining there then and it’s raining there now. It’s been devastating to read about the flooding in Bosnia & Herzegovina and Serbia. Many towns that we visited are now in a state of emergency and many of the remarkable people we just met are stranded with no way out. War, poverty and now rain has ravaged Bosnia & Herzegovina. How is it that one place can suffer so much?

Admitting sleep defeat, and with not much else to do at 6:30am, I pull out my computer and check Facebook. I have a message from someone I don’t know named Ana Pekez. She’s thanking me for bringing 20 Feet From Stardom to Brčko, a town in northern Bosnia & Herzegovina: 

“Thank you for making something that is going to inspire many people all around the world, and at the beginning, you were right. It really is something that’s around us every day.”

I quickly type a response and she replies immediately. She says that the weather is horrible and that they’re stranded, no one can move out of the city until the river calms, but it doesn’t matter to her because she will find a way to watch 20 Feet From Stardom every day and be inspired.

With that one message Ana reconfirms exactly why I make documentaries. If we are able to inspire even one person then we have succeeded. I was sad when the trip ended, but I left feeling energized by all of the incredibly optimistic young people I met. My trip to Bosnia & Herzegovina and Serbia will remain one of my most rewarding 20 Feet From Stardom experiences. Film Forward is an invaluable program that is being run by amazing people. I feel incredibly honored to have been involved and am very much looking forward to future trips.

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A man in a beige shirt and with medium-length dark hair kneels in the dirt and looks over his right shoulder at the camera

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