25-09-2014, Amsterdam, café ‘Het zwarte schaap’ (the black sheep)
‘It would be great to tell you: this is the big story, this is what I believe. But it’s not possible in the real world. There’s an other side to every story.’
Bosnian with a Croatian mother and a Serbian father. In 1992 Lidija left her hometown Sarajevo in Yugoslavia at the age of 22, ‘thinking I would be back next Monday for an exam’. But the journalist and filmmaker has lived in Amsterdam since. She contributed to several productions dealing with former Yugoslavia, with and in front of the camera. ‘I’m not sure if I will be of any use to you, I’ve become super cynical about media!’ she warns me in advance. We meet in her ‘living room’, café ‘The black sheep’ in Amsterdam. The Serbian owner decorated the wall with an old map: Yugoslavia is still there.
Bosnian, Croat, Serb, Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, all overlapping identities?
‘I am still Yugoslavian. Together with my ‘new family’ in the Netherlands. That’s what we say really. We grew up in the same country.’
From Sarajevo via Belgrade and Zagreb you arrived in 1993 in the Netherlands and did a master thesis Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam about the effect of Serbian propaganda on the war. Did you see the way media worked there, because you left Yugoslavia?
‘No, I was already working in the media in Sarajevo. There I learned how important emotion is in media production. I was very young at that time working as a news presenter. I was mostly occupied with my looks. My boss told me to be more careful with the words I used. Unconsciously I was telling a story of equality, ‘we’re all one’. At that time, this was highly political. I felt how powerful the media is in constructing an image. In Belgrade at Studio B, my ‘innocent youth bubble’ snapped completely. The simplicity was devastating. ‘Croats this, Serbs that.’ And at HRT in Zagreb it was really terrible. My accent was Bosnian. That was not allowed. Everything had to fit the image. Here I felt lonely for the first time since I left home.’
You left Sarajevo, but your family stayed. Did they get effected by media differently?
‘Yes, especially my Croatian family was caught by the new national identity. But also when I told my Serbian family that the Albanian Muslims in Kosovo acted more kindly than the Serbs – not because they are better people, but because of the role they had! Serbs turned away from western media reporters because they where pictured as bad guy all the time, while Muslims willingly told us their story – my cousin judged me. ‘That you abandon your people like that…’ My people? I didn’t know that was ‘my people’! You create your identity in relation to the other. I remember my first encounter with this new nationality. I was seventeen. Two boys threw snowballs at each other. One of them didn’t see there was a stone in the snow. He threw and the other boy died. “Serbian boy throws…” the headlines said. Why Serbian? Why is that relevant? Like a dead boy isn’t bad enough already.’
How was the contact with your family after you left?
‘With my Serbian family the contact was good. We grew up together, that bond is forever. But when I heard my cousin was a sniper for the Serbian army, I thought ‘I never want to see him again’. Until I met him four years later on the street. ‘Lido!’ I looked back and saw him, just as surprised as me. I simply had to love him. I wanted to love him. We agreed to disagree. Later, he suggested to make a film about Ratko Mladic together. He had been his personal reporter during the war. To him he was a hero, to me he was a criminal. Impossible, I told him. “Yes, you could learn something from me.” “What if you learn something from me?” “What do you know about him? Did you ever met him? And you are going to tell me what he is like?” He had a point.’
After your studies in 1997 you started to work for western media. What was your experience there?
‘I worked for Channel 4 when a colleague showed me a fax that literally said “Sorry, could you leave out the Croats? Three parties is two complicated”. The complex reality was heavily simplified. Sometimes I tried to change something. Like the time I wrote a story about an Albanian and a Serb who opened a bar together. The business was good, and it brought people together. But the reaction was “Sorry, it doesn’t fit the story”. Reuters didn’t place it. ANP did, but not a single medium picked it up. So I wrote about conflict, refugees, emergency situations. Media create a clear image of what is going on. Good guys, bad guys. And of course the international opinion has an impact on how people act! The boundaries are reinforced.’
Are we in the Netherlands too proud of our so called ‘free media’?
‘Absolutely. ‘Free press’ is about the perception of freedom. OK, in communist Yugoslavia we had one newspaper, here there are ten. But they all tell the same story. When people talk about ‘propaganda’, they think about far away or the past. But western media also tell one story in a way. When the BBC simplifies the situation – “Croats are understandably bad, Serbs are criminals and Muslims victims” – people start to act accordingly. I witnessed how media cultivated the Serbian ‘the world is against us’ perception. People become what you tell them they can not be. And Muslims fitted more and more the victim role.
Look at the murder of Theo van Gogh in 2004 in the Netherlands. When he was killed, it was said that a Moroccan had tattooed the Koran in blood on his back. I wrote a newspaper article warning for dramatisation based on my experiences in the beginning of the Yugoslavian war. The article was forcefully criticized. “The guts she has to compare us to Yugoslavia!” How dared I compare the ‘civilized here’ to the ‘animals’ there. You wish it was as simple as that. When I first arrived in the Netherlands at the national holiday ‘Queensday’ in 1993, I also thought ‘Wow, what a party! Here people don’t care about identity and all that! Compared to this we are monsters in Yugoslavia. We deserve to die.” I considered my own people to be bad. Now I don’t think like that anymore. There is just enough wealth here and the identity of people is not questioned as much.’
What was the bigger story in the Dutch media about Kosovo?
‘At that time I was working as a war reporter in Kosovo. Imagine: one day someone tells you stories about the camp he or she just left. You experience terrible things yourself. The other day in the Netherlands, the simplicity of daily questions in the supermarket could confuse me. In this state of confusion I met my neighbour on the street. He is a lawyer. You can expect lawyers to think right? Thinking is their profession. He asked me what I thought of the NATO bombing Serbia. I replied I was not in favour – I simply don’t believe in fighting violence with violence. He directly stated his approval of the intervention. Then he added, suspiciously: “Wait, you’re Serbian right?” I couldn’t believe it. The black-and-white media world was framing all logical thinking.’
You were in Kosovo in 1999. You’ve seen the conflict close by. Media can not have only imagined this?
‘They didn’t create the situation, but enforced it. And yes, deep down I still consider Mladic a war criminal. But who am I to judge? He is already on trial. The circumstances make the man. Who is guilty? Only Mladic, or also the media that enforced the situation? Many are guilty, also me in my role as journalist, but only a few are found guilty. Sometimes I wish I had a judge too. Now you continuously judge yourself. Am I doing the right thing? War is terrible but also compelling: a matter of life and death, good and evil, constant threat. After Kosovo I continued to work as war correspondent in Afghanistan, Gaza. It destroyed me, but I needed it too. I was adrenaline addicted. It took me years to escape. I used to read six newspapers a day, wanted to know everything. But my experiences have made me very cynical. For nine years now, I did not follow the news. Wonderful. Life is too short!’
In your new film My own private Mladic you do return to your struggle with media again?
‘I will always be a storyteller. I tell my son “Yes, the story of the wolf and the seven little goats. It is told from the perspective of the goats. But what is the perspective of the wolf? The wolf left his children at home. Wolfs eat meat, goats don’t. That’s how nature works.” My family still thinks Mladic is a hero. In this film I try to answer myself: what do I think of him really?’