WARSAW — In December the European Film Awards took place here, the first time the event has been held in Eastern Europe. And in Warsaw, a city still blanketed by the pall of the past, two distinct cultural spheres were evident.
There was the West, with the German filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck winning best film for “The Lives of Others” (“Das Leben der Anderen”), about the decaying regime of East Germany, and the popular “Volver” picking up just about every other prize in sight, including a best-director citation for Pedro Almodóvar.
And then there were the filmmakers from Eastern Europe. They didn’t expect to get prizes in Warsaw, but they came with hope of a certain recognition. They would have preferred spending time with directors like Wim Wenders, who presided over the event, and Roman Polanski, who won a lifetime achievement award, rather than being trotted onstage like forlorn waifs to talk about the hardships of distribution.
Two young filmmakers, Jasmila Zbanic, from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Agnes Kocsis, from Hungary, had been nominated for stirring first films, stories of damaged women and fatherless children. Ms. Zbanic’s “Grbavica, the Land of My Dreams” and Ms. Kocsis’s “Fresh Air” were made on shoestrings, and with an economy of pathos.
“We hoped to get together with Wenders and others from the West,” Ms. Zbanic said. “In the ’60s directors like Milos Forman and his friends drank and smoked pot together, stole film stock and smuggled their little movies into festivals. We were happy to come here because we have so much to discuss together, but everything seems to put us at different tables. I don’t get it.”
Ms. Zbanic, 32, is the very tall, forthright director who won a surprise Gold Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival last year with “Grbavica.” She fumes, but also laughs often, in great gusts; she doesn’t mince words and is aware of her impact. Her film has been nominated to represent Bosnia for the foreign-language Oscar. “Grbavica,” which has already been shown in most of Europe, is scheduled to be released in New York at Film Forum on Feb. 16.
Ms. Zbanic grew up behind Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn, where reporters were lodged during the war in that part of the world in the early 1990s, and across from Grbavica, a quarter that became the site of an internment camp.
“I grew up during the shift to socialism, and since it was my childhood, I used to think that everything was beautiful and human,” she said. “The world I live in now seems very hard and unjust. Sometimes the period after war, what we are left with, is as bad as the war itself.”
She always knew she wanted to make movies, and there were plenty of movie houses in Sarajevo, “because the regime knew movies were good for propaganda.” When everything fell apart, and war raged on the streets, she took to writing stories and films.
“It was important to feel that you were resisting the fascism around you,” Ms. Zbanic said. “But we had no electricity to watch movies. We were imagining our movies. When I wrote, I imagined having conversations with Bergman.”
When she received the award in Berlin, she mentioned the Serbian war criminals who still have not been captured. “Immediately there was a response from the Serbian press, from people who hadn’t even seen the movie, saying that it was against them,” she said. “Then came threatening letters to the actress calling her a Muslim whore for playing the part of a Bosnian when she is Serbian.”
In “Grbavica,” the actress Mirjana Karanovic, known for her roles in Emir Kusturica’s films, plays a mother living alone with her preadolescent daughter in Grbavica. She has told the child that her father was a shaheed, a martyr, concealing the real story of her brutal conception.
“The mother is a passionate woman, and she loves this child that she didn’t want,” the director said. “War questions basics like motherhood; all our human emotions are turned upside down.”
When Ms. Zbanic wrote the screenplay, she had just given birth to her own daughter. “Writing this script was the best way I could find to deal with a story of trauma and how it is transmitted to the next generation,” she said. “I have never understood why people identify with criminals: even if your father and grandfather were criminal, you have to find a way to be free. What my father’s father did is not what I have to do, and I don’t have to identify with being a victim either.”
“We were a Communist family,” she continued, “and my parents believed that religion was the opium of the people. Today the churches are full in Bosnia, and because we are Muslims, I can’t travel anywhere without a visa. The trouble is, as a result, young Muslims today are attracted to radical Islam. They say, if nobody wants us, we’ll go someplace else.”
During the war, artists, writers and entertainers came to Sarajevo. Ms. Zbanic stayed there for much of the war but was invited for six months to the Bread and Puppet Theater of Vermont, a radical political theater whose practice is to share its bread with the audience at each performance.
“I met Peter Schumann, who heads the company, and liked him and what they were doing, so when they invited me to make bread and puppets on the farm, I went,” she said. “And today I still feel that bread and art are the same thing: during the war, you are hungry, but you still need culture.”
The Vermont troupe plans to come to New York for the opening of “Grbavica,” she said.
Her time in Vermont was also excellent for her English, which she speaks in a rush and without a hitch, particularly fluently when she talks about her country’s history.
“It’s not that complicated,” she said. “There were once three nations and three religions; Bosnia became independent, and we were attacked by the Serbian army. We had a U.N. embargo on guns and weren’t allowed to defend ourselves. The international community didn’t do anything to help us for three and a half years.”
She finds that being Bosnian today means having another relationship with the world and particularly with the issue of being Muslim. “We have questions about identity and have to find ways of dealing with the nationalisms around us,” she said. “In school, we learned that the partisans were heroes. Now, we have to relate to the fathers in our own history. Were they heroes or terrorists and rapists?”
Ms. Zbanic’s daughter is 6. “She is in love with the boys and wants to put on makeup and all that,” Ms. Zbanic said. “I told my husband, ‘Soon we’ll be grandparents.’ ”
Then she added: “This generation gets serious quicker. The times are so serious. Her teacher was telling them about how God created the world, and she raised her hand and asked, ‘Did God also create Ratko Mladic, the war criminal?’ ”