An Oscar-Nominated Bosnian Filmmaker Recalls Her Time With Bread and Puppet Theater | Film | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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An Oscar-Nominated Bosnian Filmmaker Recalls Her Time With Bread and Puppet Theater

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"Quo Vadis" painting by Peter Schumann - COURTESY
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  • "Quo Vadis" painting by Peter Schumann

The Academy Awards are not usually a big deal in the modest Glover home of Bread and Puppet Theater founders Peter and Elka Schumann. But this year they're rooting for Quo Vadis, Aida? The film is a nominee from Bosnia and Herzegovina for the International Feature Film Oscar. A fictionalized account of the massacre of Muslim men by Serbian forces in 1995, it was written and directed by a 46-year-old Bosnian woman named Jasmila Žbanić. As a college student, Žbanić lived with the Schumanns during the summer when the massacre took place.

Peter Schumann said he first met Žbanić in December 1993 when he arrived unannounced in Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, bearing a loaf of stollen, the German Christmas bread, baked by Elka. He proceeded to the office of Bosnian theater director Haris Pašovi, who had put out a call for artists to come to the besieged city and show their solidarity with the inhabitants under Serbian attack.

"He was completely pale," recalled Pašovi in a phone interview from Sarajevo in late March. "It was really shocking to come to the besieged city. I couldn't believe it [that he had come], because I knew Bread and Puppet all my life. It was like a miracle, like a fantasy."

Schumann said that the visit was a painful, emotional reminder of his childhood in Silesia during World War II, when he and his family became refugees in the region. As a preadolescent boy, Schumann witnessed bombings and bodies washing up on the shore of the Baltic Sea.

During this visit to Sarajevo, Schumann held a workshop at the city's Academy of Performing Arts and gave one of his fiddler lectures for students and faculty in a large office. (The fiddle drones while Schumann yelps and delivers a poetic political manifesto.)

"The students came by bike or by foot or whatever, and they had to walk through sniper fire," he recalled. "But they came!"

Žbanić was one of those students. She was 19 at the time, and Schumann remembered her as the most spirited of the bunch.

"She was so sharp and awake and un-submissive to the situation," he said. Before he returned to the U.S., Schumann gave Žbanić his fiddle, which an American draft resister had given him during the Vietnam War.

Schumann was renowned for opposing that war, as well as American military intervention in Central America. So he surprised some in the theater world when, upon his return to the U.S., he advocated bombing the Serbian gun positions that were then pounding Sarajevo.

"When he came back from his Christmas trip, he talked about [Žbanić]," recalled Michael Romanyshyn, a key member of the Bread and Puppet company at the time. "She had made a real impression upon him."

Romanyshyn, who now lives in Maine and makes birch syrup, accompanied Schumann on his second trip to Sarajevo in the spring of 1994. Wearing flak jackets, they were driven into town in an armored personnel carrier and stayed in a bombed-out high-rise. A small group of Bosnian actors put on a circus in the street in front of the Sarajevo National Theatre, which shielded them from sniper fire.

Schumann invited Žbanić to come to Vermont, and in May 1995, she walked though the half-mile passageway known as the Tunnel of Rescue to the airport in Sarajevo. At the tunnel's exit, she and her boyfriend witnessed several civilians who had been injured by a grenade and were making their way back to the city for medical care.

In Vermont, Žbanić lived with the Schumanns for six months. "They accepted me as their child," she told Seven Days during an interview over Skype from her home in Sarajevo.

During the spring and summer that year, Žbanić worked on short theater pieces about the war in Bosnia, focusing on people who were losing their homes. After learning of the mid-July massacre of more than 8,000 Muslim boys and men in Srebrenica, a town in Bosnia and Herzegovina, she created a sideshow about it for Bread and Puppet's Domestic Resurrection Circus, which was held on August 26 and 27.

In the show, performed above Bread and Puppet's outdoor amphitheater, Žbanić was accompanied by an a cappella chorus of women singing a funeral song from Kosovo. She pointed to images painted on a banner and, in an urgent voice, explained that her mother had turned the family's country home over to a displaced family. Žbanić also told the story of a widow who was so distraught that she and her two children drowned themselves in a nearby lake.

"Peter and Elka encouraged me to talk about the stuff I care about, that were my stories," she recalled.

Žbanić said her time at Bread and Puppet had a huge impact on her development as an artist. The six months she spent in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom were eye-opening.

"I had never been in such a place," Žbanić said. "I had never been with such [a] group of people. Obviously ... it meant that I had something of them in me before.

"For me, [it] was very important to see that politics and art can be joined in something beautiful and powerful," she continued, "because many times you hear that art is maybe damaged if it's talking about politics in a direct way. But in Bread and Puppet, I learned how [art] can still talk about urgent issues of our time."

Žbanić has seen images of the 31 "Quo Vadis" paintings that Schumann has created on discarded bedsheets, inspired by her Oscar-nominated film. Some of the paintings depict planets exploding; all include the words "Quo vadis" (Latin for "Where are you going?").

"It's all about stages of a decrepit civilization not holding together," Schumann explained.

Schumann, now 87, said he's planning to watch the Academy Awards later this month to see whether Žbanić wins an Oscar.

The filmmaker said she doesn't know what her next project will be, but at some point she'd like to make a film or TV series about the siege of Sarajevo. Žbanić's 20-year-old daughter is now studying screenwriting at the Academy of Performing Arts.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Life During Wartime"