Writer and Director Sabina Zejneba talks about her latest film ‘SEVAP/MITZVAH shown as part of this year’s Cleveland International Film Festival

A figure not as well known to us here in the UK, Zejneba Hardaga, alongside the Hardaga family risked their lives to save the lives of Jews who faced the prospect of prosecution from the Nazis during WWII in Bosnia. An Islamic household, the gesture greatly showed the strength of community – the Hardaga family’s heroism seeing them rewarded with the ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ title post war, bestowed onto non-Jewish individuals who risked their lives to save others during the holocaust. Inspired by the efforts of this extraordinary family, writer and director Sabina Zejneba presents Sevap/Mitzvah, a film 50 years post war, where the tables have now turned and it’s now Zejneba’s turn to be protected from being hunted. Having recently taken part in this year’s Cleveland Film Festival, Sabina tells us more about the film.Hi Sabina, your short film Sevap/Mitzvah was recently shown at the Allen Theatre as part of this year’s Cleveland Film Festival. How did it go and what was the response towards the film?

The Cleveland screening went great! People really loved the film and came up to me throughout the festival to talk about it, and ask questions. This is one of the reasons I love going to festivals. There’s nothing better for a filmmaker than to see a theatre full of people moved by their work. As convenient as streaming is, I for one (and perhaps selfishly), really hope that theatres never go away. And that we keep having in-person festivals.

Sevap/Mitzvah is inspired by a true story. During WWII in Bosnia, Zejneba Hardaga risked her life to save Jews from being rounded up by Nazis, including her friend Rifka and their family. 50 years later the tables turned, and it was now Rifka’s turn to save Zejneba from being hunted. What inspired you to explore this narrative further?

Tired of the refrain that Jews and Muslims hate each other, I wanted to tell a story that showed this not to be true, at least not in Bosnia, where I grew up. In my research, I came across the photo of Rifka and Zejneba walking down the street in 1941 Sarajevo, in which Zejneba was hiding Rifka’s yellow Star of David armband underneath her burka. Curious, I started digging into the story behind the photo and I was truly floored by what I found. It felt surreal, like something that would only happen in the movies, so I decided to turn it into one.

Written and directed by yourself, the film is produced by Kerim Masovic, with cinematography by Alen Alilovic and stars Helena Vukovic, Magdalena Zivalic Tadic, Sanela Krsmanovic, Asja Pavlovic, Adnan Haskovic, Reshad Strik, Muhamed Hadzovic, Emina Muftic, Rijad Gvozden, Frano Maskovic, Snezana Vidovic and Amar Selimovic. How have you all worked together to realise the film?

While I was born and raised in Bosnia, I fled the war as a young girl and spent most of my life, and my entire filmmaking career, in the U.S. I’m also not from Sarajevo, where the story is set and where I wanted to film it. But I really wanted to spend the Claims Conference grant I received to make this film in Bosnia, employing all local cast and crew. So I ventured into this without any of my usual (American) collaborators, completely blind, and having to trust that whomever I hire will work out. I had enormous luck in meeting Kerim Masovic (big thank you to Adnan Haskovic who introduced us!), who is not only an incredibly talented and capable producer, but also honest to a fault, a trait that isn’t as common as you may think in post-war Bosnia that, unfortunately, thrives on corruption. Our Production & Costume Designer, Adisa Vatres-Selimovic, was another person who truly impressed me with her talent, hard work, and great collaborative attitude, and with whom I hope to work on many future projects. And, of course, none of this would be possible without my phenomenal cast. With the exception of Frano Maskovic (who played Josef Kabiljo), who is an old friend and with whom I’ve been wanting to work for years now, everyone else was also new to me, and we had to work together on quickly establishing the trust needed to bring this film to life. Once we got there, the shoot itself was great, and I feel so lucky to have had a chance to work with all of them.

In 2005, you received critical acclaim for your feature documentary ‘Back to Bosnia’ – a film following a family who return to post war Bosnia to reclaim their stolen property and while there, are forced to examine their past. Featured as one of the top 100 films directed by a woman by the BBC, how did you find exploring this narrative further? What does this accolade mean to you?

What motivated me to tell this story was the fact that this part of Bosnia was largely hidden from the media during the Bosnian War, allowing the atrocities committed there to happen undetected, and leaving all of us who survived them struggling to articulate our traumas afterwards. If no one talks about it, everyone forgets, so nowadays when I go to my hometown I experience consistent gaslighting about my wartime experience. I wanted to share my family’s story so that everyone who lived through those events as well can know they are not crazy and not alone. It did happen. All of it. And their feelings about it are valid. So while getting accolades for that film was definitely wonderful and welcomed, it’s really the ordinary people who tell me this film has helped them feel seen and heard that mean the world to me.

What have you learned/taken away from creating SEVAP/MITZVAH?

SEVAP/MITZVAH is the first film I made in which I felt very much led by the film itself rather than the other way around. Fortuitous things would happen unexpectedly and synchronicity was everywhere. At times I wondered if it was Zejneba herself guiding us to tell this story. As a Type-A person, this was hard to accept at first, but I’m also deeply spiritual and once I allowed myself to get out of my own way, I learned to trust it and let it tell me what it wants. In a way, it’s like finally seeing your child for a person they are outside of you, trusting them to know their heart and mind, and letting them tell you what they need instead of you deciding for them. It was a beautiful lesson to learn, and I hope I retain it in all my future projects to come.

What can viewers expect from SEVAP/MITZVAH?

To be moved and inspired. Or so I hope. 🙂

What would you like for viewers to take away from the film?

We’re living in very difficult times nowadays, full of division and fearmongering. At times these obstacles feel completely insurmountable, and it’s so easy to slip into “this is too big, there’s nothing I can do, best to keep my head down and worry just about myself and my immediate circles”. My hope is that by sharing this story about two ordinary women, without obvious power or influence, who still managed to save lives and change the world for the better by simply remembering their humanity in times of enormous fear and strife, we too can be encouraged to do the same and to remember that goodness begets goodness, and there is enormous power in that.

Questions by Lucy Basaba.

To find out more about Sevap/Mitzvah, visit here…

Written by Theatrefullstop