A longtime Netherlands resident by way of Sarajevo, Rada Sesic’s activities across the continent's documentary world are vast and diverse. For twenty years, she was on the IFFR programming team, and is currently involved with programming at IDFA, Sarajevo Film Festival (also co-heading the festival's Docu Rough Cut Boutique), leads Last Stop Trieste in Italy, and is founder and artistic director of the Eastern Neighbors FF in The Hague. As an industry professional, her activities also have involved film lecturer at the prestigious University of Amsterdam as well as mentoring at the Dutch film Academy and at various accelerators and workshops across the world. With a background in cinema journalism and as an accomplished documentary director, Rada Sesic's work has been screened, installed, and displayed at over 60 international festivals, including MoMa in New York that archived her work.
Going back to your work in journalism, what was your initial interest in the field? How did that interest ultimately evolve into your activities with cinema and documentary?
Actually, cinema was first. In Yugoslavia, where I grew up, we had this fantastic possibility of engaging as children in different activities, and everything was free. When I compare today, here in the Netherlands, where parents have to pay for every single activity for their kids, I see a huge difference. There was the Cinema Club, where we had small cameras and a small editing set, and projector. We worked with 8mm films. I made my first film when I was 10. My sister Nena who is 3 years older, was already in the same club. It is interesting that our teacher also didn't know much on how to make films. We were learning everything together. So we would write a story, we acted ourselves and there would be somebody who would pretend to be the director. Then we would all edit the film. And then we would go to some of the big kid’s film festivals in Yugoslavia. It was the same as a big festival; with awards, presentations of films, Q and A. It was actually all an imitation of what professionals do. I didn't know about the professional film world at all. I grew up in a small town of 20,000. For me, this was the whole world. But I was dreaming all the time about some other worlds where I would go and make films. I was also working at home, and I would go with the cows outside to the field. And I was dreaming about going to London or going to New York and making films. In this small town, there was no university, so we had to go to another city. My oldest sister went to study to be a dentist in Sarajevo. After that, I studied there as well. My second sister also was there. There was no choice for me to go to some other city. I planned to go to Zagreb Film Academy, but that wasn't an option for our parents.
In Sarajevo, I went to the radio and television when they were looking for volunteers. I started to be a journalist. My field was cinema and visual arts. Very soon I engaged in quite known Academic cinema club there. It was a city where we could work with more advanced equipment. Again, though, it was a club of non-professionals, it was very exciting. Many talented film directors who became big later on and contributed greatly to cinema history, were our colleagues there. We would be making films for the big screen and I started to assist to professional directors. At that time, cinema production was very progressive. When we talk today about new formats like hybrid cinema and different new ways of telling stories, when I look at the history of Eastern European cinema, you could find all of that in the 60s and 70s. People were already making hybrid films. They were already trying to present non-linear narrative styles, combining documentary textures and fictional parts. Film directors at the time were remarkably political but also lucid enough to use the expression of the so called “language of flowers”, a symbolic way of conveying a “subversive” message, with which they would avoid being censored and find ways to screen their films everywhere. So the time required a lot of intelligence to go around impossibilities.
Later on, I was writing for Sineast, one of the leading film magazines in Yugoslavia at the time and was hosting a TV show on documentary cinema. I went to the film festivals and started to travel abroad. I then was assistant director of fiction feature films to Vesna Ljubic, the first woman film director in Bosnia, who sadly passed away last year. We became very close friends. Later, after having been assistant director to her on several films, I also directed several documentaries in Sarajevo. Then, with the same director, I went to India for the first time. Accidentally, there was a big film festival there in Chennai in 1990 and I watched dozens and dozens of art house Indian films and fell in love with Indian cinema.
Can you remember what the film you made at ten years old was about?
I can! We made one fiction film shot in the yard of the school. It was called Our Story.
We made another, which was a more ambitious film with my sister. It was animation. There was a doll called Tiki, which was the film's title. This doll was moving through stop motion. The doll had a horse, and it went to market. It sold the horse at the market and had made some money, which he then brought to a bank. We created the story and the objects like the road and bank. We also learned where to position the camera. When I think about today, it's easy because you can immediately see what you're doing on a digital camera. But we didn't because you had to send the film to Germany to develop. We were so excited, waiting two, three weeks for the postman to come with this small envelope that we opened and go to the projector to see what happened. Then we would cut and make sequences. We were learning by doing, which was so nice. It enabled us to be involved in all aspects of filmmaking. The joy in understanding the technical part and the language of cinema is exactly the same. I was just interested in observing what makes you excited about cinema. What makes your heart tick when you see something in cinema.
You mentioned the cinematic language of the time could be considered quite progressive. Can you give a couple of seminal examples of this kind of cinema?
Yugoslavia had great authors at the time. People like Dušan Makavejev. He was also somebody who grew up in a cinema club in Belgrade. He was a visionary who brough passion, playfulness and – in a way – a taboo shattering mode in the film making of Yugoslavia but of the World as well. He shifted the film landscape at the time. The other person is Želimir Žilnik, who also started as a non-professional maker and from the very beginning was not bound to any formalities of the film making. He was also not bound to any form of artistic expression, inventing whatever was suitable for his idea to narrate within cinema. He was politically sharp and sometimes direct, and brave. At the same time humour was his best collaborator, every of his films is funny, charming, somewhat hilarious or seemingly looking naïve. He recently had a special screening at IDFA 2021. He won the main Berlinale prize in '69 for his film Early Works and after that hundreds of other awards, his work entered Cinematheques at prestigious cities like Berlin, Vienna, and New York.
Funnily, he was my inspiration since I was a child, he was serving military in my town and we film kids from the school had organized an encounter with the film director. In his films back then, he regularly used non-professional actors, following unpretentiously the everyday life but at the end, his overall reflection on the topic was politically sharp. He, as well as many others like Karpo Godina, Franci Slak, both from Slovenia, Petar Ljubojev, who made many films in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bato Cengic from Sarajevo and above all the early deceased film maker from Bosnia Ivica Matic, were all making a hybrid, rather non-linear narrative type of cinema. At the time this style was not having any name, just Cinema with a capital C. Some of those films I have selected for my program EX YU cinema at Dok Leipzig in 2014 and the audiences were flabbergasted. They enjoyed this engaging film structure of old films. Nowadays, some festivals, like IFFR, CPH:DOX, or even Visions du Réel, are known for this kind of cinema that I was lucky to watch already in my formative years.
I wanted to also talk a little about your interest in Southeast Asian cinema. You mentioned that your introduction to that region was fairly early in your career. Still, it was profound enough to become a central interest of yours to the point that you were teaching the region's cinema at the University of Amsterdam. What was it that drew you in?
We went to make a film about Sathya Sai Baba in '89 and '90, with a small crew from Sarajevo, 4 people only. Sathya Sai Baba was a guru known in Yugoslavia and had followers there. We found a producer interested in financing the film, and we went there totally unprepared. We didn't have a clue how life was in India or where we were going. But somehow, everything that I encountered on the way, suited me. I was not shocked by anything there. In India, everything was for me, quite somehow close to my heart: the people, the food, the heat, the crowds, everything. So we went immediately to the Karnataka state in the south. After having been there more than fifty times and having lived there, while teaching at the Srishti art school in Bangalore in 2008 and 2010, I find the south, and the people from the south, closer to my heart.
We went also to Chennai in the neighbouring state Tamil Nadu and worked with local film 16 mm equipment. One day, camera broke down. While having a long break waiting for a new camera, I found out that in this 6 million people megapolis the most important Indian film festival IFFI was taking place. I had the opportunity to go to cinema every night and watch two, three films, meet Indian film buffs, and local film critics. Suddenly, I just entered a totally different type of cinematic expression—a different understanding of narrating a story, positioning words, poetry, dance in cinema, actors’movements, silence. Who wouldn’t be flabbergasted by this enormous passion for cinema of the Indian people? Cinema is the 6th industry in the country and several hundreds of TV and Radio channels broadcast 24/7 only music sequences from films, common men re-enact all dialogues from popular films, and artists are worshipped like deities.
We stayed for four months, although we came just for one. The following year I came back, and then the war started. I returned from India to Sarajevo in March 1992 with the last civil flight, not understanding that the war is about to start. Being caught in the middle of the war and the siege, it took me several months to find a way to go out. I arrived to the Netherlands as a refugee who left everything behind. It took several years before I got permission to stay there and work. After a year of working and earning some money, I went back to India. And ever since, I went almost every year 2 or 3 times, researching Indian cinema and watching films, reading books, and talking to people. I also studied for a while Indian old scriptures, the Vedas, where in Natya Veda, and in particular in Natyashastra, we can understand the first treatise on dramaturgy and methods by which art performances are created. How the relevance and meaning of song and dance in Indian art developed one can also follow in the old theatre form Kathakali or in Parsi theatre. Kathakali from Kerala, an old art form that combines theatre, dance and music, lasts from 10 PM to 8 AM and I watched several shows fully, enjoying both the performance and the behaviour of the very engaged, dynamic and extremely appreciative audience.
Let's talk about your contemporary career, specifically about programming and the approach to programming documentaries. You've been involved with several festivals and events in various regions, but I wanted to focus on three—IDFA, Sarajevo Film Festival, and the Eastern Neighbors Film festival. Do you have an overarching approach to documentary programming? How does that approach adapt to these three specific events?
Well, I don't think I have one way of looking at the job of programming. It's more about understanding the concept of a certain festival and have this in mind when assessing what this particular event could offer to the audience. In my opinion, a festival should not follow audience’s expectations and taste but lead and promote good quality cinema, new trends, exciting makers.
My relationship with IDFA started when they selected my first Dutch produced film. I directed so far 4 films in my new homeland and my first doc Room without a view was chosen for Highlight of the Lowlands and was extremely well accepted by the audience. It was very flattering to be part of this selection. There were only ten films chosen. The film was also recently again screened at IDFA and within a curated program of women directors dealing with personal stories. Later, IDFA invited me to collaborate on one programme that somebody else was curating. So I was just a volunteer doing research. But little by little, they invited me to be on the IDFA fund's committee because it supported documentaries in different countries—including the Balkans and South Asia.
Later on I got invited to be on the program selection committee. It's a big responsibility and a big challenge because you don't know what you will get in your box. (Before we would watch from VHS or DVD, and would literally receive boxes full of submissions. Now it's all on links, of course.) You get a certain number of films to watch and have no idea whether they will be good films or what other colleagues are receiving until you start discussing with them. If you watch 300 – 400 films, you keep making choices, you cannot let 120 pass. You have to think about the arguments pros and cons. Each of us is of course, subjective. That's why when I talk to filmmakers, I tell them over and over that they shouldn't feel low if their film is not selected for some festival. Today one film can win IDFA, that few months before was rejected at Venice. It is still the same film. I believe the filmmakers should be content with their work if they feel that they did everything they could to make it the best they could. Filmmakers make films from their subjective self, and we asses from our subjective self, and try to understand and evaluate well.
When I select films for Sarajevo, I think of two main goals; to support exciting, singular voice but also I look for relevant stories that have to be told in that particular region. Cinema can do a lot to trigger changes. Look how fiction films of amazing director Jasmila Zbanic like Grbavica or Quo Vadis, Aida stirred the public opinion in the region and moved certain debates for the better. If just one person after watching a certain documentary starts thinking, rethinking, and considering decisions they made by voting for some party or agreeing to something, things change. Directors are often great researchers, investigators, they have a sharp eye, they are often brave and daring enough to speak up, to tackle taboo topics, to reveal injustice in the society. Just look what the Romanian fantastic, Oscar nominated (with dozens of other awards) film Collective by Alexanadr Nanau told us and how it shook his country, started debates on corruption. Documentaries are indeed measuring the temperature of a society. We see how a certain country breathes by watching its documentary yearly production. That would be an interesting subject of research, wouldn’t it?
Finally, when we talk about Eastern Neighbors, that's, again, something totally different. It's a festival I started with my friends in the Netherlands 13 years ago. In The Netherlands I noticed that there are so few films from Eastern Europe in cinemas or on TV. And the production in Eastern Europe and cinema heritage is so rich. I wanted to bring Dutch audiences good cinema from the SEE region. Secondly, and equally important, is that in the European Union we claim we are the same family. But we are not actually because we even don't know much about each other. Even worse, we are not curious about each other. Most of my Dutch students didn’t read Chekhov or did not watch films by Paradjanov or Wajda. When companies need workers to pick strawberries or flowers, there are Romanian or Polish people coming, which is fine, but we know so little about their culture. That's why you have on the television often comments how they're only drinking and making noise. It hurts me that there is so little knowledge, curiosity, and appreciation for the other.
I was looking through your relationship with the Institute of Documentary Film, and it's fairly extensive. You've done a lot of activities with them in various capacities. Using that experience, where does IDF stand as an organisation in breaking such informational barriers on the continent?
Their role is huge. First of all, the group of people who started and many of them still work there are film makers themselves, they see all needs of the community from inside. Each event of IDF is greatly organized, they have fresh ideas and the capability to bring to the makers top mentors and decision makers. They were tremendously instrumental in bringing Eastern European documentaries to the world map, making their films and film makers visible. If someone for example has an interest in showing a Slovak film in Brazil, they know now who to approach and if a maker from Brno needs a coproducer in Finland, they also know who and how to approach through IDF. They gave lots of know-how, brought visibility and networking to the whole region they cover. They facilitated so many successful coproductions. They are doing an amazing job.
Why do you think the current rising popularity in documentary as a genre exists?
I think because of the world we live in is full of exciting narratives, tremendous changes and tensions; political, ecological, environmental… Our day to day life became so dramatic and unpredictable, so the stories of seemingly ordinary life turned to be challenging. When I think of my life before, when I lived in Yugoslavia, there were ups and downs, but the days were not so different from each other. While here, everything is so intense, and it's such a high temperature in a society that every fictional story is just not interesting. I can't say that I stopped watching fiction films. In fiction, everything is possible. But when you watch a rollercoaster of a real person, a real family, it's something that deeply moves you. And there is no fiction or actor that can transpose this intensity in the viewer's stomach in the same way.
The interview is part of series of talks with European documentary filmmakers marking 20 years of the Institute of Documentary Film in Prague.