Interview with Una Gunjak

Una Gunjak is a Bosnian filmmaker based between London and Paris. In her previous life, Una was known as editor but then went on to write and direct and made herself a name at the world's most prestigious film festivals (Cannes, Sundance, Sarajevo, etc.).

In May, during her month-long residency at Q21, she will be working on the script development of her first feature film, "Alfa", a story about a mother and her daughter who intense bond turns toxic and bitter as they try to find a better future outside of their defunct home country. During the festival she'll furthermore be on the jury for the Music Video Competition.

VIS: You're originally from Sarajevo, but you've lived for quite some time in Turin, London and now recently moved to Paris. How do you reconcile all of these different bits and pieces in shaping your sense of home and of identity?

Una Gunjak: It's certainly something that I ask myself quite a lot. I have had the luck to live in each of these cities enough to kind of appropriate them, but also to have an attitude that you can only have towards something that you know very well, so you can be critical about it. I often say that Sarajevo for me is like a parent. I don't necessarily want to live with my parents. But at the same time, it's my marrow, it's who I am. It's the same with these other places as well. There are all these things that kind of blend together and what is nice is that you really try to take the nicest things that you find in the culture. In terms of home... I guess, home is now Paris. Home is London as well, home is Sarajevo, home is a lot of places. Home is where people miss you, where you have friends, where you go and you don't feel lonely. It can be an unknown place. I remember, this is kind of a singular experience. When I had just moved to London, as a student, I didn't have much income. And as hard as it was, as as poor as I was and as miserable as it was, I have never felt in any place as at home as I felt there.

VIS: In another interview you said that you tend to take your stories from a very personal place. Is this related to talking about things that you know or is it about personal deconstruction, like putting a mirror in front of yourself and trying to understand your experience in the world?

UG: The project that I'm working on at the moment comes from a personal space in the sense that it's deeply inspired by a relationship that I have had in my life and that I have put into context of bigger questions. What I am trying to do is that I am trying to channel something that other people can recognize and speak about it in my own way. But when it comes to other things I've previously worked on, it's not necessarily a very personal matter. It can be a phenomenon in society, a metaphor or something that is absurd in our daily life that triggers the questions. And that's what I'm trying to do, ask questions and maybe give some of my answers but they're surely not definite or right. Just a perspective, I guess.

VIS: Some work is more personal than other. In those situations where you reach inward for inspiration?

UG: I don't want to go into this project I'm working on now because I am still very much in the raw process of it. But my short film, "The Chicken", started from a very personal point. At first you try to distance yourself from the facts because you think "It's not about me". So you come up with something that is kind of working but it lacks context, it lacks soul. You come to a point especially if there are some troubles in the writing or in the pre-production, where you ask yourself, "why am I doing this?" Not because I want to be called "director" or "writer" or whatever, it's about "why would I watch this film?" And then this is the point when you start carving inside and digging. For "The Chicken" it boiled down to saying "I've never said what I had to say about my childhood, about war", and it was really like a corpse that I had to bury. You start seeing what is important and what is not. Killing what you thought is great and getting to the essence. It's almost like a natural process, you cannot force it. Even though it's painful, it's good to recognize when you feel like something is not right. It's very difficult but it's very, very precious because it means that you're onto something that is more genuine, that is bound to work better even though it might not be perfect.

VIS: In an interview you gave about "The Chicken", you mentioned that sometimes the audience assumed that someone living during the war wouldn't still feel like dressing up, or having a birthday party. However, you replied saying that people still have the impulse to do normal things, even in traumatic situations. So I was wondering, how do you manage these narrative preconceptions that the viewers might have?

UG: I think that it's very important for the authentic to shine through and to give this universal message. Even if you experience something like the death of a grandparent or something, that day you still try to keep the sense of normality because this is what we do, this is our survival mechanism. Especially because your reality becomes war so this is your norm and even in this new norm you want to be who you are, you want to be who you were before, to look nice and treat people the way you always treated them and have fun or have a drink. With "The Chicken", for instance, my priority was being authentic towards the subject, towards the people and towards the place. And if that fails to resonate then I cannot fight. That was my main concern.There is a photo of a woman in Sarajevo that became quite famous. She is completely dressed up. She is a nurse and she's completely dressed up, nice hair-do, lipstick, nice bag. And she's just going to work. She's walking by this garage that's become like a front and there's soldiers standing there and they're kind of admiring her. Everything around her is a disaster, the building has fallen, the poor soldiers are so skinny, in their shirts, having half a cigarette. But the image gives a feeling of "This is how I fight", I'm going to stay normal despite this madness. And that's inspiring. It's also a womanly way of fighting with circumstances. I very much pointed out that "The Chicken" was also a story of women in war and how our survival was equally dependent on them engaging in keeping society going.

VIS: Keeping up with the idea of narrative preconceptions, have you encountered this when it came to yourself? Have you ever felt that there is this image that is constructed and arrives before you actually do as a person?

UG: I felt it in the UK where I graduated and worked as a film editor for a very long time that people were very prone to pigeon-hole you. It's easier for people to handle you once you have a label and this is who you are. I haven't yet felt that in terms of my private life or personality. Maybe it's more me, feeling out of place but then I realize I'm actually testing the ground.

VIS: Let's talk about your project here, at the residency.

UG: It's still a writing process and I'm now finishing a draft that I'm very happy with. My project, "Alfa" is a coming of age story, with a twist. On their mission to make it outside their defunct homeland, the relationship between a mother and a daughter turns toxic as they both start questioning their expectations and sacrifices. I hope to finish by the end of the residency which is quite nice, so I focused all my time in Vienna in really getting that done. I really appreciated the environment that gave me a lot of inspiration to really be focused and work a lot and still enjoy my time and leave the residency and have something. Later on, fingers crossed, we're going to start financing by the end of the year, and depending on the casting and on the location, shoot next year.

VIS: What is one belief that has kept you back?

UG: I don't think anything has really kept me back, if I thought I had a chance somewhere. I don't mind trying, even though maybe it falls through. But I am a bit of a perfectionist so it takes time to get to a point where I'm happy. It's the nature of the job that it's such a long process and you're constantly selling a lie but you still have to preserve something that is still honest. It's such metaphysics. So in those terms you're constantly facing "is it good enough?" And that might have held me back in enjoying it more because there is the constant questioning. But the feeling when it's good enough, is really amazing.

VIS: One belief that has kept you going.

UG: I have never wanted to do anything else but make films, so however hard it gets creatively, practically, I am not sure if I would know how to step out if I ever decided to. Also I am long distance runner, by nature. So I guess that mentality helps. In order to get the runner's high you have to push a bit harder through the tough bit.

VIS: If you were to pick a director to direct your memories, who would it be and why?

UG: Kieslowski, he's one of my favorites. I like his poetics, his sensitivity and his attention to emotionally big events but which narratively are not necessarily huge. "A Short Film about Love" has always been in my top five.

Interview by Diana Mereoiu, Laura Hörzelberger