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Films, Hearts and Languages

  • By Canan Marasligil
  • 3rd September 2014
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…or: "What a translator feels when she visits an international film festival".

Last week was the 20th edition of the Sarajevo Film Festival, one of the most important international film festivals of Europe. It has an immense impact, especially in the region[1], every year awarding its Hearts to films coming from around the world. I was again very lucky to be there and experience the immense energy of the city, the high quality of the movies and encounters with the filmmakers that were on offer. Now, because I mostly (if not always) look at the world through my translator’s eye, I will be exploring my experience of the festival the same way. So do not expect film reviews (I am not a film critic), but rather a look at the role language and translation play in film making and viewing. 

Being at an international film festival, in a country I do not speak or understand the language of, is already a rich linguistic and cultural experience in itself. The whole trip is experienced through translation: every single movie and every single encounter. Here, I will explore the use of languages through three movies shown at the festival: The Search, Love Island and Song of My Mother.

The Search is a film by Oscar winning director Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist), a remake of the 1948 eponymous film by Fred Zinneman. Starring Bérénice Béjo, Annette Bening, Maksim Emelyanov and Abdul Khalim Mamutsiev, it is set during the Second Chechen War in 1999. The languages spoken in the film move between French, Chechen, Russian and English. Hazanavicius and Béjo were in Sarajevo to present their film and were interviewed in the famous “Coffee with…” session of the festival the next morning. They shared many stories about making the film, one about the role language – or rather the lack of knowledge of it, played when performing with the young boy (and truly magnificent actor) Abdul Khalim Mamutsiev. Just like the characters they played in the film, Béjo and Mamutsiev didn’t understand each other on set, and just like we have seen it happen as the story of their characters unfolded on screen, they learned to build a relationship to be able to work together and offer their very moving performance to the viewers. Béjo explained that in the beginning when filming it was very frustrating not to be able to communicate with the boy, but then she thought “I have kids, I know how to deal with them, let me try the same with him” and they finally managed to communicate without really understanding each other’s languages. She stopped trying to translate words and chose to connect at another level with the boy. The lack of understanding here is not only related to language but also to the life experience of the characters in the film: Béjo plays an NGO-worker trying to get the word out to UN’s foreign affairs committee about the situation in Chechnya, while Mamutsiev plays Hadji, a young orphaned boy who escaped his village after it was destroyed by the Russians. Hajdi does not utter a word until 90 minutes into the film. Carole tried to translate that silence, in vain. Only when they stopped trying to translate each other were they actually able to share, and we were the happy witnesses of a truly beautiful connection that goes beyond the understanding of languages.

Michel Hazanavicius and Berenice Bejo
Michel Hazanavicius and Berenice Bejo. Image: Erinc Salor

Love Island is a film by award wining director Jasmila Žbanić (she received the Golden Bear for Grbavica in 2006), co-written by Žbanić and Alexander Hemon. Many of you will probably know Hemon for his fiction, including The Lazarus Project or more recently his autobiographical The Book of My Lives. Hemon and Žbanić are both from Sarajevo. Hemon has been living in Chicago since 1992 and writes in English. Žbanić lives in Sarajevo and has mostly worked in Bosnian in her previous films. When they started to work (via Skype) on the script of Love Island a few years ago, they were first writing in Bosnian. Life kept interfering with the script, impacting on location, choice of actors and on language. The initially Bosnian and Croatian-speaking cast had become international, to include English, French, Italian and some Swedish in addition to Bosnian and Croatian. The co-authors explained in an interview that they didn’t only change the language of writing to English, but that the plot and the characters had also developed with this shift. Language goes hand in hand with cultural background, which impacts on the story they tried to tell in Love Island. Having the different nationalities play off oneanother, speaking broken English, in the film's setting – a touristic resort – is very entertaining, and totally fits with this comedy. It is really fascinating as an audience to hear the many languages in just one film and even from the mouth of one single character. As a viewer, you read the subtitles in just one language, but the music of the dialogues very much resonates in your head.  And the constant shift does give a certain rhythm to the film that would probably not have been that funny if it were monolingual. 

Last but not least in my list is Song of My Mother (Klama Dayika Min/ Annemin Şarkısı) by Erol Mintaş, filmed in Kurdish and Turkish, telling the story of a Kurdish mother and son forced to leave their village for Istanbul during the displacement of many Kurdish people in Turkey in the 1990s. This background, which is never explained but easily understandable to anyone who knows recent Turkish history (or does a simple Google search on the situation of Kurdish people in Turkey), plays a major role in the story and how we feel about the characters, especially the mother. Displaced once again inside Istanbul because of the fierce gentrification process, and now feeling completely lost in an apartment on the outskirts of the megalopolis, she keeps packing every single day with the aim to go back to her village. We all know that village is no more, which makes the story even more heartbreaking. The dialogue moves from Kurdish to Turkish throughout this film, and it might be difficult to grasp the difference between the two languages for someone who doesn’t know any of them.  But because it is key to know which language is spoken when in the story, the subtitling uses colours to reflect that shift: white subtitles for Kurdish dialogues, and yellow for the Turkish ones – both introduced in parenthesis when they were first uttered. I found this was a clever way to help the audience understand how important that move between languages is without taking them out of the story. On a more personal level, when I left the World Premiere screening at the National Theatre of Sarajevo that morning, I felt the urge to learn Kurdish. I am also very happy to add that Song of My Mother leaves Sarajevo with two hearts: the Heart of Sarajevo for Best Film and the one for Best Actor.

Inside a week, I have heard no less than 10 languages when experiencing the many stories of characters and people in beautiful Sarajevo, a city that has been known throughout history for its cosmopolitanism. The Sarajevo Film Festival is only one window into that world of many cultures and languages. And to me, it will always be a city of Films, Hearts and Languages.

[1] Do read Mirza Redzic’s wonderful essay about the history of the Festival on ECF’s Narratives website.


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