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A Real-Life Saga Of Movie Stardom And Bitter Poverty

The unlikely story of a Bosnian refugee who stumbled into winning best actor honors at the Berlin Film Festival, yet still can't feed his family.

Nazif Mujic and his Berlinale 2013 Best Actor award
Nazif Mujic and his Berlinale 2013 Best Actor award
Charlotte Theile

BERLIN — Eight-year-old Semsa Mujic, clad in pink leggings and pink lipstick, is chanting "100 euros, 100 euros, 100 euros!" as she hops around a visitor. Her parents, Nazif Mujic and Senada Alimanovic, offer tired laughs. Apparently, it doesn’t occur to them to tell their daughter not to beg.

Later, when Nazif Mujic fetches his Best Actor award from the closet to show assembled TV journalists, his first question is, “What will you pay me for it?” The answer is always the same: nothing.

Mujic shrugs his shoulders. He knows how it works. Everybody wants his story — a moving tale of bitter poverty, bureaucratic indifference and a fierce will to lift his family out of misery. But nobody is interested in paying for his story.

His saga begins in 2011, when an item in the newspaper came to Danis Tanovic’s attention. A Bosnian movie director, Tanovic won just about every movie industry award, including an Oscar, for his 2001 film No Man’s Land. The newspaper was reporting that a Roma woman had nearly died because doctors were reluctant to help her after the baby she was carrying died. The woman had no health insurance. That she finally received the operation she needed was only because of the insurance card of a relative and a few tricks.

Tanovic sought out the family and found Nazif Mujic, a man in his early 40s, a metal collector from the Svatovac Roma settlement who would have done anything to ensure the survival of his wife Senada, who is 10 years his junior. Mujic lived with her and their two daughters, Semsa and Sandra, in a derelict house at the end of a dirt road. Day after day, he went in search of scrap iron so the family could eat. He hacked abandoned cars apart with an ax, and then wheeled parts in a wobbly baby buggy to a dealer.

In An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker, Tanovic had the family act out their story about the death of the baby and Senada’s hard-won surgery. Everybody in the film, including the doctors, played themselves. The reality drama suited the movie’s cinema vérité style perfectly. Reviewers spoke of the movie’s “authenticity, immediacy, emotional intimacy.”

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Then the Berlinale, or Berlin International Film Festival, awarded the 17,000-euro production a special jury prize, and Nazif Mujic won Best Actor for the role of a lifetime. But his hopes that the newfound recognition would improve things for his family didn’t pan out.

Fame came cheap

The 1,350 euros he was paid for his film work evaporated quickly. But in the Bosnian village where he lived, everybody thought he was rich. When people saw that he was still collecting scrap iron, cleaning streets, doing the dirtiest jobs to keep his family’s head above water, they snickered. They took pictures of him, put videos on YouTube with captions like, “Take a look at this, here he is, best actor of the year!”

Nazif Mujic still has the black suit he wore to the 2013 award ceremony, kept carefully in a garment bag. He still has the Best Actor trophy and his memories of Berlin, the city where things went so well for him — where he was celebrated, slept in a hotel, and ate delicious food. And he thinks of Danis, the director, after whom he named his new baby boy, who has gone on to shoot more movies and win more prizes.

Berlin. Danis. Clutching at these straws, he returned to Germany. He took his eldest daughter Semsa, an alert happy little girl, out of school for the move. He applied for asylum, like so many other Roma from Bosnia who spend the winter months in German refugee centers. His application was rejected, like those of all Bosnian Roma — poverty is not grounds for asylum. Mujic was told to leave Germany and to return to Bosnia by March 9, 2014.

And then, a couple of days before the 2014 film festival and about two months after Mujic had moved into a former old peoples’ home in the Spandau section of Berlin, the media became interested in his story. They made a big deal about it — 2013 Best Actor living with his family in a room barely 30 square meters on the shores of the Havel River.

He says he holds nothing against the director Danis Tanovic, then looks straight into the camera and adds, “I would just like him to know that I’m much worse off now than I was before the movie.” Worse off in Bosnia, that is. Here in the woods on the outskirts of Berlin, life is “60 times better.” He would give anything to exchange his Bosnian poverty for life in Germany, even at the very bottom of the ladder. Of course, all the Roma here want that. Many Bosnian Roma live here. They all have known the most dire poverty, and would “do any job,” sweep streets, clean toilets, work at the abattoir. But they’re not allowed to.

Help comes calling

Thomas Hailer, program director for the Berlinale film festival, supports asylum for Mujic. He is familiar with the extent of social exclusion and poverty that Bosnian Roma suffer. But he says the Berlinale cannot, as some are urging, create a job — a janitor position, for example — for Mujic. It doesn’t have that kind of job to offer: It’s a cultural event financed with public money. It can’t override a refused asylum request.

But a few days ago, Berlinale officials did hire a lawyer for Mujic, who is currently unable to work because of a back injury. The newspapers say Hailer sent a black limo to drive Mujic, and Hailer says it’s true. “We sent a driver,” he says. “But next time we’ll send a yellow cab if that goes down better.”

Hailer is annoyed at having to take so many questions from journalists asking if the outcome of this story couldn’t have been anticipated. The Berlinale position is clear, he says: They saw the film and were touched by it. The jury singled it out. Would it have been better to ignore the movie so that Mujic had no opportunity to use the award to try and change his life?

Director Tanovic says that he got no money for the movie, and that virtually the entire team worked for free. All together, he says, Mujic earned a couple of thousand euros. Whether that’s a lot or little is a question of perspective. But, say other residents of the old people’s home on the shores of Germany’s Havel River, Mujic has achieved something substantial by getting word of their plight in the news.

“Now a lot of people know how bad things are for us in Bosnia,” one says.

It’s entirely possible that will remain Nazif Mujic’s greatest achievement.

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Photo of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen

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