Interview: Ena Sendijarevic, Import Director

Import tells the story of a young Bosnian refugee family ending up in a small village in the Netherlands after getting a residence permit in 1994. Absurd situations arise as they are trying to make this new world their home. We spoke with the director, Ena Sendijarevic, to find out more about her motivations in making the film. 

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As a Dutch-Bosnian filmmaker who came to the Netherlands when you were seven, how autobiographical is the film?

The film has an autobiographical starting point. Indeed, I came with my sister and parents to the Netherlands because of the Bosnian war and we ended up in a small village. The strangeness of this period inspired me to write something about it. But at the same time, I would rather call this a personal film than an autobiographical film, because as a filmmaker I am much more interested in fiction than in reality. While writing the screenplay, I was looking for scenes that would add up to a certain feeling, staying true to the actual events that had happened during that period was not a priority.

You’ve said previously that the film focuses on “the absurdity of the life of a refugee” and you draw on the humanity of the family. The young girls deliver very natural and endearing performances. How did you go about casting for the film and directing their performances?

I was quite anxious whether we would find the right girls, as the requirements for the girls were pretty specific: they had to be from Bosnian origin, living in the Netherlands, 5-8 years old. My producers found some Bosnian language schools and by the time we did our first casting round, I was amazed to find that there were so many interesting girls who signed up. Perhaps me being from Bosnian origin made it easier for the parents to trust the production. 

This wasn’t my first experience with directing children, so I knew the biggest challenge with children is that they have a limited attention span. My solution is to talk them through everything. I more or less become their inner voice and it is fascinating and maybe even a bit scary to find out how they turn themselves over to me and my voice. It’s a lot of extra work for the sound designer, but it’s definitely worth it. What is also essential, is that I first earn their trust and respect, otherwise they will not let my voice guide them. Having a good team around me and focusing on building a serious but relaxed atmosphere is also important for them to feel the right amount of pressure and comfort at the same time to deliver.

Recently there have been international debates about refugee aid and support. Do you see filmmakers as having an important role to use this as a focus in their art to educate and generate discussion?

I definitely think filmmakers should be conscious about their role in the world and how they communicate with the world through their films. Or rather, what the effect is of their work in the world is. This for me is key in making a film; filmmaking is hard work, I need to know what I am adding and why. I don’t think filmmakers should necessarily do something with topics that are in the news at this moment, but if one can add something interesting to the discussion, why not? If the film doesn’t come from an opportunistic place, it’s fine. I found that the films that survive, always have this element of timelessness in them, whether they are set in the here and now or in the past/future, so it is best to focus on that element. I think art should make us think about and question the world around us and the filmmaker can take any subject they think is suitable to make this happen.

The film questions the difficulties and issues refugees face when integrating into a society. What are some of the biggest challenges you think refugees face?

They have to redefine who they are. Contrary to what we hear in the media, most refugees try to assimilate in a country as soon as possible. I have a lot of examples of people who have abandoned their past, starting from scratch. Most of them lose their educational degrees, so they not only have to get to know the rules of the new society asap, they also have to think about how their lives can be useful, how they can use their intellect and experience to contribute something. I think this is the hardest part and I know a lot of people who never get to this point of being able to use their abilities to contribute, with the effect that they lose their self-confidence.

Besides all this, they have been confronted with the most disgusting side of humanity, they have witnessed the ability of people to murder, slaughter and torture other human beings. We all know this is happening in our world, but most of us never witness it so it can stay like an abstract thing that we learn from history books and the news. I think there is something very abstract about how war is presented in history books. More like a thrilling story, than like something that is in all of us. My mother once said to me: I found out that war is not this mysterious, misty thing that you can not get a hold on, war is very simple: people killing people. It takes time to come to terms with this and trying to find beauty and love in life again is a challenge every refugee has to face.

Import premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and has been elected for screening at more than 60 international film festivals. Why do you think this film resonates with so many audiences?

What a lot of people have written me, is that they like the fact that the film is not trying to give simple answers. There is this feeling of ambiguity; the film is acknowledging the complexity of the matter. Also, people have liked the humour, the compositions and, something that is important to me as well, the element of love.

Import is part of the International Competition 1: Tribal Instincts programme.

Interview by Amelia Seely