From Bosnia to WeHo, Vera Mijojlić Embraces Diversity and Explores It Through SEEfest

Fri, Feb 10, 2017   By Jason Gibby   

Imagine “Inside the Actor’s Studio,” but instead of James Lipton, with his dyed red beard and trademark hairline, picture Jackie Onassis: one of those rare few who live permanently in elegance, while the rest of us, on occasion, manage a glimmer or two. At least that’s what it feels like sitting across the table from Vera Mijojlić as we talk movies, politics, and, of course, her baby, the South East Europe Film Festival (SEEfest).

Which puts me in an admittedly odd position since I’m the one supposedly conducting the interview. But as the saying goes… When at Hugo’s, and confronted with someone possessing a vastly superior knowledge of film, shut up and eat your cauliflower pakora.

But when she tells me that, years ago, while still a journalist, she interviewed industry greats, like Robert De Niro, Francis Ford Coppola and Michelangelo Antonioni, my admittedly odd position begins to make sense. And from then on, we play a game of back-and-forth only possible by two people who are normally accustomed to asking the questions.

Mijojlić, now a resident of West Hollywood, was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia, to Serb parents. The region was, as it is today, a sea of cultural exchange, where ethnicities crashed in great, unexpected waves: sometimes in conflict, and other times in art. But for Mijojlić, the greatest drama unfolded on screen, in the flashing pictures of world cinema—a drama she later brought to SEEfest, and before that, to her work as a journalist for the newsmagazine NIN and Belgrade’s daily Politika.

In the early ‘90s, however, the region’s tepid peace fractured into full-blown nationalist fervor. Apartment buildings and city blocks — spaces once shared by many cultures — soon became ground zero for ethnic cleansing and tribalist warfare. And Mijojlić, by then a mother of two, found herself stuck in the middle, hit by tear gas and water cannons at protests, in a losing battle against an invisible enemy of former neighbors and lifelong friends.

Vera Mijojlić (Photo by Joseph Daniels, http://josephdaniels.com)

Finally, in 1992, to extricate her two young sons from the turmoil, she left and joined her sister in Los Angeles. It took Mijojlić two years to come to terms with her exile — still functional, she recalls, but much like a zombie. Even so, zombie-state be damned, she made it work. Not long after landing in L.A., an ad exec struck a conversation with her in a small café. A pitch later, and the two landed an account. She ran with it for the next five years.

Mijojlić founded SEEfest in 2002 to celebrate and showcase South East Europe’s eclectic ensemble of cultures, histories, and peoples. She cycles between genres and regions as you would thumb through a crowded rolodex: flip to any page and you’re bound to find something. In her case, probably annotated with director’s notes and a deeper symbolic meaning. The latter, of course, with the caveat, “always changing.”

Jason Gibby: What prompted you to found SEEfest?

Vera Mijojlić: Well, one of the main reasons was to talk about the region’s disparate interests. All the countries, besides Turkey, are relatively small, and within each, you have a multitude of competing narratives: ethnic, religious, historical. It gets so complicated that, for me, it’s paralleled with why I’m in West Hollywood and not someplace else. I always felt that, like in a movie, when you pull back to see the bigger picture, you can finally give context to the ridiculous, to the tragic, to the poignant.

Which is the case with Southeast Europe. And when you have such a confluence of cultures, you also have conflict. And conflict, unfortunately, breeds creativity. And every once in a while you have a brilliant artist or scientist or somebody who just rises out of that conflict, and gives poetry to something that is so difficult to define. It’s that indefinable quality, that elusiveness that makes the region so capable of art.

JG: Do you think the close proximity between the region’s cultures acts a catalyst of sorts?

VG: Well, many psychologists say close proximity breeds animosity. It’s like in a family. The largest conflicts you have throughout history—and in the arts—is the family. Whatever it is, between brothers, sisters, parents… I mean, Star Wars, there’s a bad dad! [she laughs] And then there’s the son. It’s the same thing in the region. The cultures are so similar, but they are just trying so hard to distinguish themselves as different. Which is also understandable.

People want to say, “I’m my own original. I’m not just a reflection of you.” I wanted to balance that, and show the diversity and perspectives of cultures that seem similar on the surface, but possess such beautiful, unique characteristics on a deeper level. Because, you know, there is power in numbers. It’s hard to do something as one little country. But if you have a group of countries and you show a palette, all of a sudden you get that bigger picture, like an establishing shot in a movie, and then you go into the specifics. So, it’s an establishing shot of the region, but then, within it, these scenes from the lives of South East Europeans.

By showing that, I’m really in a conversation with my environment here in West Hollywood. Again, I’m not odd here.

JG: Care to explain?

VG: I can be who I am here and nobody is shocked or critical of me. Look, that doesn’t mean they always agree with me, but it’s this attitude of: ‘You’re different, too, and that’s okay.’ For me, that is the critical ingredient… Why I live here, why I stay here. This combination in less than two miles of the Russian babushkas and the boys in Boystown; little produce stores on Fairfax and Rage and the Abbey just down the street. I love that. There’s everything under the sun.

But for me, personally, the most important thing is that very, very, very often, before I ever came here, I was told that I was difficult or complicated or strange. But here, I’m just… [she laughs] It’s like no one pays attention to me! It’s wonderful. I can for once come out of my skin here and be who I really, truly am. And nobody finds it scandalous or terrible. They don’t find anything. What’s so strange about it? It’s a wonderful feeling.

JG: If you absolutely had to narrow it down to one thing, where would you say the festival has succeeded most?

Images from past SEEfest films.

VM: Our audience, without question. It’s mixed with people from groups that don’t see eye to eye, but sit, nonetheless, in a room and watch a film. Some agree, some disagree, but no one fights.

So, I try to get that balance, with sometimes three or four films on the same topic from different perspectives. In a way, we’re fostering this habit of avoiding an immediate kneejerk reaction to another group’s ideas.

JG: What demographics attend?

VM: SEEfest is like a petri dish for American audiences. We have a very large ethnic audience; Europeans, international people and diplomats; Americans who are interested in international affairs, international law, and history. We have a huge number of history buffs. And industry people, because you can’t really go to all the festivals that you would like to go to, even if you have the money, so this is an opportunity for you to go to one place, see five or six movies, and get a pretty good sense of what’s coming out of eighteen countries.

And that gives young American filmmakers great insight into not just Eastern European films, but into the world cinema culture.

JG: How do American audiences react to the films compared to those native to the region?

VM: Listen, when you talk about differences, when you talk toxic politics, and lethal politics, you have no better place than this to see what happens when things are pushed to their final consequences. You have no better place than this to see what happens when people experience racial tensions, and what happens when differences are not tolerated. What happens when the social structure breaks down because of corruption, because of nepotism.

It’s one of the ways to see how seemingly small things can lead to terrible consequences. And I think that it’s easier for Americans to talk about another place in the world than to talk about themselves. It’s always harder to talk about your own problems. You know how the saying goes, when you go to therapy, and you say, “it’s really not for me, it’s for my friend.” That’s what SEEfest is like for Americans. They can exercise what they normally perhaps wouldn’t—their fears, their concerns—without making it about them.

JG: Do you think that’s unique to the American audiences, or is it the art itself that allows for a dialogue without conflict?

VM: I think art is far better positioned than anything else to reinforce identity. Art is the only activity that can truly transform you without encroaching on another person’s identity or right to see things in a certain light. So, it just enriches you without disturbing the bigger universe.

JG: And that’s a necessity when talking about a diverse region, like South East Europe?

VM: Well, I’ll say this: the same black and white formula that’s applied to World War II—the heroes, the villains—is often applied to this region, to simplify things, which is extremely dangerous. The more you simplify people and regions, the more you breed animosity and make an already difficult situation worse. How do you survive in that environment? And that’s a super interesting question. And that’s why I do this.

A recent Bosnian film called “No Man’s Land,” which won the Oscar for best foreign language film, really epitomizes the region and the sentiment. It’s the only name that you can use for the region: it’s a no man’s land. It lies between the two worlds. It could be anything, it could be everything, it could be nothing. It lies somewhere, it lies nowhere.

It’s the same reason I find West Hollywood fascinating: the mix. It’s this meeting of the Russian Jews and other Eastern Europeans. And then you have the Iranian Jews, and the gays and the lesbians and the transgender people. And then you have the people like me [she laughs disparagingly]. And then you have the hotels, the designers, and the rock-n-roll on Sunset. So how would you explain West Hollywood? If you pull back, with an establishing shot, all of the sudden you see, from the western tip of the Sunset Strip to La Brea and Santa Monica, this extraordinary, indescribable place. And for me, it’s a state of mind.

The 12th annual SEEfest takes place April 27 through May 4.

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