Troubadors: Stacy Peralta Travels with Bones Brigade to Bosnia and Herzegovina

Stacy Peralta, Director, Bones Brigade: An Autobiography

Stacy Peralta, the director of Bones Brigade: An Autobiography, shares about his experience with FILM FORWARD in Bosnia and Herzegovina where he screened his film and engaged in dialogue with local audiences.

There is no way to be in Bosnia and Herzegovina without feeling the aftermath of the war.  It is not an oppressive feeling nor is it depressing to hear the local people talk about it even though the experience was clearly a tragedy. The narrative of the war is woven into their lives and it is infused with certainty and clarity and, strangely, humor, albeit often a dark humor.   There is no tone of self-pity or victimhood whatsoever.  They speak about the war with an understated dignity.  We were all impressed by this candor and strength. Even though as an American I heard news of the Balkan War daily, mostly on NPR, I had absolutely no idea what it meant to live in a city under siege.   People here told me about living for four years in dank basements, without electricity, having to travel each day to get water, literally dodging sniper fire as if there was a target on each of their heads.  The personal, intimate life and death risk they faced each and every day is overwhelming to hear about.  It’s nearly impossible to conjure that these folks with whom I am drinking wine around a celebratory dinner went through these experiences – it was all they knew, there was no getting away from it. The only place to get purified water was from a spring that came up directly under the beer brewery in Sarajevo. It was a secret the people were able to keep.  If they ran out of candles they burned shoelaces which added to basement toxicity.  Women figured out how to wash their hair and bodies with a cup of water.  One of their acts of defiance was to do their hair and make-up, and then dress-up to go out into the streets – every day.  Teachers traveled to basements to teach school to gatherings of children.  University students dodged bullets to attend classes.  Filmmakers kept the film festival up and running powered by generators.   These are stories you hear frequently from residents of Sarajevo and again they are not told in a depressing way or even with melancholy but with certain grit and survivor’s strength that is palpable.

Another Bosnian strength I notice immediately is the women and how strong their voices are and how hungry the young women (some born during or at the end of the siege) are to learn and make their mark. At each of the screenings of Bones Brigade many of the women dominated the question and answer period – many of them identified with being outsiders, having dreams of their own and being passionate about doing whatever it takes to manifest those dreams.  One young woman, Aldina, I learn, wants to start an “intellectual revolution” in her country.  And one of the greatest forces of them all is our filmmaker host Jasmila Zbanic.  Everyone knows her in Bosnia and Herzegovina and her creative energy and personal openness surges through Sarajevo and the rest of the country and now around the world.  
One of the most compelling screenings I attended was at a juvenile correction facility of teenage boys and girls in Sarajevo.  Walking into the place was like walking into a room full of lit fuses.  One could sense that these teenagers were at a crossroads. With their pent up energy they would either blow-out and crash or given some direction and mentorship they could propel forward into a productive future.  How and why they arrived there was for various reasons: family problems, learning disabilities, myriad small juvenile crimes, etc.  All of them were friendly, most made eye contact, and some were actually hilarious.  Like everyone we meet along the way, they are looking to make sense of the world, though in their cases through a lens of confusion and chaos that began early.  During the Q&A their questions reflected how much they identified with the six characters in the film who fulfilled their dreams only by dealing with and overcoming the obstacles they were confronted with. These kids in the juvenile center showed a keen interest in learning that a kid like Tony Hawk, now the most recognizable alternative athlete in the world, didn’t just sail to the top of his chosen field but had to fight his way through quite a bit of adversity; being misunderstood and disliked by many of his early peers, repeated physical injuries and not being gifted with an athlete’s natural body.   Their questions reflected their craving for and connection with a road map to overcoming obstacles and the possibility that it can be done by kids just like them. 
The next day we travel to Zenica, an industrial town over an hour outside Sarajevo.  There are no eight-lane super highways like we’re used to back home.  Here the highways are primarily two-lane roads cutting and zig-zagging through country-side and small towns.  We’re arrive at the local Cineplex in Zenica to show Bones Brigade to an audience of high school students from different schools in the surrounding areas.  It’s a packed house, something close to 200.  When we walk into the theater to intro the film the students erupt in a shower of hoots and applause.  They are an excited and rowdy bunch and seem primed for the film.  After a quick intro, I ask how many of them speak English and about 95% raise their hands.  I’m  impressed.  These kids are learning to speak and write in multiple languages in their school system while we in America barely learn to speak and write correctly in one.  In the event that there are a few in the audience that do not speak English the Film Forward people have provided all of our films with subtitles and with an extraordinary translator, Daniela Valenta.  Even though I speak no Bosnian, I can tell that she picks up all the nuances and humor of what she is translating whether from English to Bosnian or vice versa.  Daniela is one of the people we met whom we all now consider a friend.  We turn the lights down, turn the film on and dart out for a quick lunch with both our hosts from Sarajevo and the US Embassy.  Again, it is the Bosnian women with whom we have lunch, Lejla and Daniela, who share with us richly detailed stories and descriptions that make the country and its history really come alive.
After the Q&A at the theater one of the students in the audience asks me if I’d like to see their skate park.  I ask him where it is, he says about a mile away.  So about fifty-plus of us pile out of the Cineplex and walk parade style through the town of Zenica to the skate park.  The layout of the park turns out to be a handful of portable curbs and jump ramps, metal and wood in a parking lot that somehow was provided to them by the Turkish government.  I have no idea how and why the Turkish government provided these skate ramps. We hang out there for about an hour and it gives me some quality time to watch the local skaters and assess their abilities.  I’m quite impressed. It’s not so easy for them to find state-of-the-art equipment, but with Internet, they are current with many of today’s popular street moves.  Many of the young skaters show real ability with more technical stuff: board flips, ollie flips and whatnot.  I look at these young devoted skateboarders and I’m touched by my genetic connection to them.  I could be looking at skaters in New York, Jakarta, Osaka or Venice, California, where I’m from.  These kids are part of the skateboarding tribe, an international tribe that spontaneously burst out of surfing years back, but is now spread around the world regardless of ethnicity, political boundaries or religious differences.  The excitement on their faces after pulling a great move says it all and it’s an excitement that keeps whirling around the globe from city to city and country to country.  This is the kind of energetic connections that FILM FORWARD nurtures and once again I’m grateful to be part of it.
We screen the film next in the town of Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina at a school library.  The power goes out thirty minutes into the film.  Everything shuts down.  In America this would probably have been a “deal-breaker” but many in the audience wait patiently.  We hung out with the audience and asked them a lot of questions about themselves; what they’re studying, what languages they speak, where they have traveled, what their dreams and ambitions are. About forty minutes later the power is back up, they continue watching the film and the Q&A goes on as usual – though a bit rushed because some of the people have a bus to catch. 
One of the many perks of the FILM FORWARD program for me personally is getting to know Musa Syeed, the other filmmaker I am fortunate to travel with.  He and I end up having many discussions about the filmmaking.  He tells me about his process and his creative journey as a filmmaker.  After one of Musa’s screenings, I sit and listen to his Q&A.  Hearing his dialogue with the audience helps me to better understand my own film and deepens my sense of what it means to make films and be able to personally present them to audiences around the world.  Musa’s film Valley of Saints takes place in Kashmir, his parents’ birthplace.  While I knew a cursory history of the war in Kashmir through a book titled “War At The Top Of The World,” talking with Musa about how he deepened his personal connection to his family’s homeland made the history from the book breathe.  During his Q&As the Bosnian audiences deeply related to the intimate story of the film set against the backdrop of a country suffering internal conflict and military aggression just like their country had only decades before.  This was another example of how vital this exchange is for everyone who participates.
With FILM FORWARD, we filmmakers are like troubadours from past centuries who wheel into town in our painted wagons to entertain, to enlighten, to share.  And in contrast to the digital world most of us are mired in, on this journey we step away from our devices to shake hands, make eye contact, exchange ideas and challenge each other with questions and insights, generously exchanging our points-of-view.  We learn as much about our films as our audiences learns from our films.  Many along the way thank us profusely for coming to their town, for making what they see as an effort to connect and share. For me though, this is a heartfelt example of what you give, you get back ten-fold.  I am the richer for being part of FILM FORWARD.

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