Marina Andree: Sevdah (2009)

reviewed by Trevor Laurence Jockims © 2012

The documentary film Sevdah, directed by Marina Andree, treats the topic of Bosnian Sevdalinke—Bosnian folk songs that tell of love and the pain of love—in a compelling manner. At once a traditional documentary that utilizes voiceover narration, archival footage, and a range of beautiful musical examples of sevdalinka, it is also a personal portrait and remembrance of Farah Tahirbegović, a sevdah enthusiast and performer and close friend of the director.  The death of Farah, in a manner reminiscent of Montaigne’s devotion to the project of the Essais following the death of Étienne de la Boétie, both triggers the documentary project and acts as a kind of guiding influence to it. The film, which I was fortunate enough to see at the 2009 Sarajevo Film Festival (where the audience very enthusiastically received it), has won numerous awards, including the Audience Award at the Sarajevo Film Festival (2009), The Audience Award at the New York BiH Film Festival (2010), and the Best Music Award at the Kimera Film Festival in Italy (2010).

sevdahAs much as the film follows Andree’s journey to recover her lost friend and, as one of the many individuals who left Bosnia because of the war, her home country through its musical tradition, the center of the documentary is found in three generations of sevdalinka singers: Andree’s close friend, Damir Imamović, Damir’s father Nedžad, and Damir’s grandfather, and legendary sevdah singer, Zaim Imamović. Through these three figures, Andree manages to weave an extremely effective and moving narrative that breaks free of the limitations of simple talking-head documentation to create a film that projects and embodies the soul of sevdah and the country that the film posits it as representing. Here we have a living musical tradition that evolves through the generations within a single family, but also through the changing country itself. We have as well a search for the roots of a musical tradition that is also a search for one’s memory of a departed friend. That memory then serves as a tribute to a friend and an effort to somehow reclaim one’s own homeland.  The love and longing of sevdah, in other words, is clearly at the center of this film and its own coming into being.

sevdahDamir, through his Damir Imamović Trio, is shown to be an innovator of the sevdah form, updating the lyrically rich pathos of traditional sevdah to a sort of blues, folk-singer hybrid. On various occasions we see the charismatic Damir discussing the difficulty of being a singer with a grandfather as legendary as Zaim: “People say to me, of course you’re a singer. It’s natural,” Damir says, adding: “It’s not natural at all. The natural thing would be for me to run away from it.” He, too, was close friends with the deceased Farah. The two in fact produced a book on Zaim Imamović that is acknowledged as the inspiration for the film. Damir says of Farah, “Sometimes we meet people in life who put us in the right direction. Like a bullet they ricochet us and set us going where we should. Farah was that for me.” Likewise, the book the two produced seems to have ‘ricocheted’ Andree back to the subject of sevdah, back to the subject of Bosnia. As she poetically begins the film, in voiceover, acknowledging her need to finish the project of the film: “Let’s face it. Most things in life we do not see through. And some of them see through us.” Part of her seeing through of the project, and the difficulties of her own journey away from and back to Bosnia, which she obliquely presents, further evoke the power of the musical form she is both pursuing and paying homage to.

sevdahIn many ways, Sevdah is reminiscent of the conceits of Petrarchan love poetry: the singer tells of his love, of the beloved’s great beauty, and of his own pain and longing in this love. People listening to sevdah confirm and many of the film’s scenes show (including a touching visit Damir pays to an aged person’s home, where its residents light up with song when he begins to play)—that this is a beautiful pain. The sort of longing that a human is able to get to not as a negation of life but precisely because of the richness of one’s soul. The largest figure in this tradition, without question, is Damir’s grandfather Zaim, who is present only through archival footage. Such was the status of Zaim that, as his son Nedžad (himself a sevdah singer) relates, “A man who sold radios in Zagreb told me that once a customer came into his shop to buy a radio. The man only said, Give me one that has Zaim singing in it.’”

sevdahIn a documentary focusing on a musical form typified by pathos, and compellingly shown to be tied closely to the “soul” of Bosnia and its people, the step toward linking the suffering of the war to the suffering told in the music would have been an easy, and perhaps disappointing one, to make. To the film’s credit is the oblique manner in which the film manages to deal with the war. We are told, for instance, rather offhandedly that the many young people who had to leave Bosnia during the war managed in part to stay close to their country—or to realize, as in the case of Andree, just how much they missed it—through its sevdalinke. Although she utilizes voiceover to good effect, this is also a director who knows how to go silent: indeed, in a film about music, one of the surprising powers of its aesthetic is the visual skill with which Andree interprets and embodies Bosnia. This includes numerous impressionistic shots of shape-shifting clouds, rain, and the hillsides of Bosnia, all wonderfully evocative of the place as well as the place that the musical tradition of sevdah has within it.  Even the few shots of damaged buildings come not as argument or sentiment but rather as matter-of-fact statement.

sevdahThe most direct link between the music and the war comes at the film’s end, when we are shown a community center in Mostar where the Damir Imamović Trio is to play a concert. This center, where long ago Zaim himself gave a concert, stands at the dividing line of a divided city, still very much suffering because of the war. Evoking the famous and tragic images of the Mostar bridge being destroyed during the war, the center’s coordinator says, “We wanted this community center to be a kind of dry bridge” between the divided communities of the town. Here, though, Andree retreats and lets the power of the music do the talking: the film concludes with Damir singing in the concert at Mostar, without commentary. Just the music plays, as do the emotions on his face—and the faces in the audience—as the film comes to a close.

sevdahIt is no surprise that this film has garnered so many accolades: at once a musicological discussion of the history of an important form and a tribute to a lost friend, it is also the story of Bosnia told in an honest, non-sentimental way. Perhaps most remarkably, it is a film that (as I witnessed when I saw it screened in Sarajevo) presents Bosnia in a way that foreign audience members can feel themselves close to, without alienating its own citizens and presenting a simplified image ready for foreign consumption. Sevdah belongs to Bosnia, but it is a sound that most any attentive listener will be able to hear.

Trevor Laurence Jockims

Sevdah, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2009
Color, 66 min
Director: Marina Andree Škop
Script: Jelena Paljan, Marina Andree Škop
Director of Photography: Sandi Novak
Music: Damir Imamović
Editing: Saša Čelan, Marina Andree Škop
Protagonists: Damir Imamović, Nedžad Imamović, Familija Muhović, Vesna Andree Zaimović, Hasim Muharemović, Amira Medunjanin
Producer: Daria Kulenović Gudan, Marina Andree Škop
Production: Studio Dim (Croatia), in co-production with Fabrika (Bosnia and Herzegovina)

Marina Andree: Sevdah (2009)

reviewed by Trevor Laurence Jockims © 2012