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Limited Space: Berlin / Sarajevo - An Experiment in Listening and Relating

Clarissa ThiemeClarissa ThiemeIn 2012, Jasmina Gavrankapetanovic, Adla Isanovic and I organized an exchange between the University of the Arts Berlin (UdK) and the Art School in Sarajevo (ALU). The project's title Limited Space: Berlin/Sarajevo refers to an historical phenomenon both cities share: the limitation of space. A few days before the opening I was invited by the local radio station RBB

Kulturradio Berlin to give an interview about Limited Space: Berlin/Sarajevo. The interviewer started the interview with a statement expressing his discomfort in comparing the situation of Berlin surrounded by the Wall with that of Sarajevo under siege. I could only agree. The comparison made me uncomfortable, too. The difference was that I believed it to be unavoidable.

My colleagues in Sarajevo and I planned this project for almost two years. We knew from the start that the comparison Siege of Sarajevo / Separation of Berlin by the Wall would be a provocation. We chose it consciously. Our reason was simple, and we had no guarantee for success.

We had often noticed that somehow false concerns towards Sarajevo pigeonholing the city as the war victim prevented real dialogue and a real debate both inside the country and abroad. It was by no means our intention to belittle the real tragedy of the war and the siege through a superficial gesture of taboo breaking. But we did want to compare Sarajevo under siege to something that people in Berlin could relate to in a personal way.

Let me give you another comparison maybe as inappropriate as the one between Berlin and Sarajevo. Edin Forto, one of the protagonists of my film The Place We Left, came to New York after he managed to leave Sarajevo under siege in the 1990s. Forto was in New York City on September 11, 2001. When I interviewed him about that time, he described his first reaction: "I wasn't particularly scared because I knew nobody could shell New York City – if it was an airplane, if it was a bomb, it could not be to such an extend that I would need to panic." Forto knew what he was talking about. He had made the experience of having a lot of reasons to panic back then in Sarajevo.

Relating in a personal way often, or even necessarily, means to get out of your comfort zone. You need to get close – it sticks, it itches, sometimes it even hurts. That doesn't mean that it can't also feel good. Maybe the discomfort we feel in comparing "our cities" with Sarajevo stems from our knowledge that "our cities" wouldn't be under siege in any circumstances. But if we really thought about what that actually tells us would mean that we have to give up the comfortable labeling of Sarajevo as the war victim. A victim, being helpless and innocent, is hit by fate itself, as it were – and hit in a bad way. Of course we feel sorry about that. Who wouldn't? I find myself in discourses where labeling others as victims often means not thinking about the reasons why something happened. Europe is guilty of what happened in Sarajevo. We watched it happening – even literally and comfortably on our TV sets. But it seemed so far away. We disconnect. Bad things happen somewhere else and to someone else – until they happen to you. Daring to compare Sarajevo under siege with the world means first of all to question this smooth, arrogant illusion. Because it is never far away; it is just next door, but we are so very good in putting up a distance – a distance that limits us.

Nevertheless, some things take us to our limits of comprehension. Ultimately, that is what happens when you look on Sarajevo under siege from a German perspective. But I had to make the comparison in the first place in order to reach this conclusion. Not to rest on my prejudice that this is just a different cup of coffee. Meaning: not my cup of coffee. We all start from our own small limited space when trying to relate. I may come to my limits in understanding, but I can still relate.

The exchange program Limited Space: Berlin/Sarajevo builds on several artistic works of mine that deal with space, memory and identity in the region of former Yugoslavia by confronting the audience with a not pre-defined space of seeing and listening.

My film Was bleibt / What Remains / Sta ostaje (BiH/AT/DE, 30 min, color, 4K), which premiered in 2010 at Berlinale / forum expanded, deals with the explicit feelings of familiarity and alienation I felt when I first came to Bosnia Herzegovina in 2003. The film shows sites of war crimes committed between 1992 and 1995 in Bosnia Herzegovina, yet without commenting on or explaining these sites. What Remains is an attempt to process the trauma I experienced in Bosnia Herzegovina in the extremes of silence and verbosity in the public space inside the country but also abroad. The film contains no dialogue, yet is far from silent. The lengthy tableaux of trivial sceneries let the sites speak for themselves, but also put the spectator in a space where she_he has to rely on her_himself, without recourse to cliché explanations. I believe it is necessary to experience this initial speechlessness fully before putting the comfort of a narrative and sense into the pictures.

I showed What Remains several times in Bosnia Herzegovina where people were very open towards the film and grateful for the free space it offers. A lot of the spectators approached me after the screenings and started to talk about their own personal experiences during the war. But one of the most interesting screenings I had was during the Peace Academy Sarajevo. The Academy brought together many different young scholars from the whole region of Ex-Yugoslavia, many of them working on research projects connected to the wars following the breakup of Yugoslavia. These scholars reacted towards What Remains with disbelief and anger. I was surprised by the power of their rejection. But I realized that many of them were so eager to find answers to what happened to them and their region that they felt threatened by the fact that What Remains gave no answers at all, because I simply had none. They perceived this as an attack on what they were struggling for: an explanation.

I very much respect their anger and their struggle. But it is not mine. That may be partly due to the fact that I am not from the region and they are. I am a German born in the third generation after World War II and the Holocaust. Germany is now a country rich in politically correct explanations about what happened in Germany and why it will never happen again. And it is also a country with a lot of subtle taboos and silence in the families. Coming from such a country, I started to become suspicious about explanations especially when they are uttered quickly and eloquently, putting things in nice, tidy boxes. I simply think that if you listen truthfully, you often won't find any ready answers but will be forced to relate to what you hear and is next to you. This is exhausting. But it can offer you a common ground. Even if it is just for finding out that you can't really grasp things. Nevertheless, you still share a space together.

After visiting the Peace Academy, I started to shoot another film in Sarajevo: The Place We Left (BiH/AT/DE, 60 min, HD), which premiered at Diagonale, Graz and Sarajevo Film Festival in 2012. The film focuses on six people who talk to you – to me as the filmmaker and to you as the spectator. These six talk about leaving their hometown Sarajevo during the war and about the confusing implications to their own understanding of identity inextricably linked with it. The Place We Left is a talking head film interrupted by purely visual sequences that show the interior of places the interviewees call "home" as well as lengthy portrait-shots of them looking directly at the camera and, consequently, at the spectator. My focus was not so much on the facts they could tell me about what happened to them. I was more interested in the stories they tell themselves first and foremost and then us, explaining why what happened makes sense to them now and thus loses some of its terror.

To be without words is frightening. But sometimes we just are. Our societies, each in its own ways, are full of taboos and struggling with their own blank spaces, which are often invisible – something, or even more crucially: someone is missing. A lot of the really important things can neither be simply said, nor explained, nor even seen. We need to learn to listen and take the time to do so, even and especially when we run out of codes. Because it is exactly at this point that we will create a new space in our limited spaces, one that opens up and takes us beyond the limits.

Clarissa Thieme