The devastating siege of Sarajevo was in full swing when Peter Schumann visited Bosnia in 1994. "We had to walk through sniper fire," recalls the founder of Glover's Bread and Puppet Theater. "We saw people burning the pages from books in tin cans to stay warm and to cook. The place was full of UN peacekeepers who were only protecting themselves."
A student named Jasmila Zbanic attended the workshop Schumann was conducting there, and he invited her to "come to our farm." With help from Senator Patrick Leahy, she navigated the labyrinthine immigration process the following summer and remained in Vermont for six months to learn puppetry.
Back in her native city - where an estimated 12,000 people died in a frenzy of ethnic cleansing from 1992 to 1996 - Zbanic is now a 32-year-old filmmaker. She won the prestigious Golden Bear Award at Germany's Berlinale festival in February 2006 for her feature debut, Grbavica, the Land of My Dreams (see trailer). The picture, about a mother and her prepubescent daughter grappling with politically charged family secrets, premieres this Friday at New York's Film Forum.
"When Jasmila was here, we toured as far as Seattle with a production about the war in Bosnia," says longtime puppeteer Linda Elbow. Schumann, 72, remembers that he created the show "based on Jasmila's advice and news stories of the day." That August, it also was performed during Bread and Puppet's "Domestic Resurrection Circus" in Glover.
In a recent New York Times interview, Zbanic explained that the Green Mountain State sojourn continues to nourish her. "I still feel that bread and art are the same thing," she noted. "During the war, you are hungry, but you still need culture."
In Vermont, Zbanic's pursuit of culture included cinema as well as live theater. "In the fall, Jasmila wanted to see movies, movies, movies," Elbow recalls. "She rented a shitload of videos from Catamount [St. Johnsbury] and the Savoy [Montpelier]."
Though a few members of the troupe will head to Manhattan to see Zbanic's film, Bread and Puppet is booked through Sunday for various events at the Boston Center for the Arts. The highlight: "The Battle of the Terrorists and the Horrorists," described by Peter's wife Elka Schumann as "a sprawling, panoramic spectacle with a pointed message about contemporary issues."
The trademark papier-mâché puppets, cardboard figures, masks, costumes and props are predominantly painted black and white. According to Peter Schumann, this dichotomy is also symbolized by the God of Everything and the God of Nothing - "two major divinities who rule over our present-day existence."
To help convey his topical theme, he has recruited 25 local volunteers. The 15-piece Second Line Social Aid and Pleasure Society Band from Cambridge is providing music. The Boston schedule includes an exhibit of Schumann's paintings that were inspired by a November trip to the West Bank.
After the Big Apple unveiling of Grbavica, Zbanic is reportedly popping up to Beantown for a reunion with her puppeteer pals.