Serbian director Stefan Arsenijević is competing for Karlovy Vary Film Festival’s Crystal Globe with his second feature, “As Far As I Can Walk.” It’s a surprising and exhilarating blend of contemporary refugee story, love triangle and medieval Serbian poem.
Arsenijević’s hometown Belgrade marks an important point on the Balkan migrant route. A few years ago, he could see thousands of new refugees arriving every day. He says, “Having my own experience of war and poverty in the 90s, I could easily identify. I started talking with migrants, hearing their experiences. There was this moving story of epic proportions happening right in front of me. It was just important to find the right angle to tell it.”
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As Arsenijević considered compelling ways to put the migrants’ experience on film, he also thought about the epic poem, “Strahinja Banović.” He says, “This poem is a very important part of the Serbian cultural heritage and I’ve always wanted to make my own version. I was thinking about turning it into a contemporary story.”
As the migrant crisis grew, many locals promulgated paranoid fears that migrants would take over European culture by imposing their own. “National identity and national heritage are touchy subjects in my country,” says Arsenijević. “So, it occurred to me: what if I replace Serbian national heroes with contemporary African migrants? I thought this could provide some interesting perspectives.”
At first, Arsenijević considered using real migrants as his main actors, but soon it was clear that it was too big and too complex of a task for non-pros. He says, “We started an extensive casting process. We had three different casting agents, two in Europe and one in Africa.” By the end they had their leads: Ibrahim Koma, a French actor with Malian roots and theater performer Nancy Mensah Offei, who was born in Ghana and lives in Austria.
Together, helmer Arsenijević, his co-writers Bojan Vuletic and Nicolas Ducray and the two leads invented a back story for their characters, describing how they met, fell in love and lived together in Ghana before deciding to start a new life in Europe. The back story didn’t wind up in the film, but it enriches their performances. Koma even moved to Belgrade for two months before the shoot to get to know the language and culture and to understand the migrant life.
Accomplished Syrian actor Maxim Khalil, a war refugee now living in France, plays the third character in the love triangle. Arsenijević says, “Maxim is a huge star in the Arab world. We witnessed it the first day he came on set. You could physically feel the wave of excitement among the migrants who were playing extras in our film. Everyone wanted to be in front of the camera with him.”
Unable to shoot in a real refugee camp, the production found a similar location and recreated a camp. Says Arsenijević, “All the extras you see in the film are real migrants from several refugee camps. We had great help and support from the workers in refugee camps who connected us with the migrants and offered them to be on film. The fact that we had real migrants on the set all the time helped us to be as authentic as possible. If we were depicting something wrong, they were correcting us.”
At first, Arsenijević was a bit nervous about how the extras would react to the shoot, given that it is a long process full of repetition and waiting. “I was afraid they would lose patience,” he says. “But actually, these were people who are used to waiting. They wait all the time. Their life is on hold.”
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