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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.”

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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Art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 你好*

Welcome to Tuesday, where violence erupts after Sudan's military coup, Australia finally gets onboard with climate change goals, and Harrison Ford stars in Raiders of the Lost Credit Card. From Bogota, we also see what the capture of drug kingpin Otoniel means for Colombia, a country long stained by cocaine trafficking.

[*Nĭhǎo - Mandarin Chinese]

💡  SPOTLIGHT

Saving the planet is really a question of dopamine

The elite of the ecologically minded are set to descend on Glasgow next week for the Cop 26 conference on climate change. But beyond debating policy prescriptions, French daily Les Echos explores the role our own brains have on making the right choices for the planet:

Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the "pleasure hormone."

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Stefano Lupieri / Les Echos

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Sudan in chaos following military coup: After Sudan's military seized power from the transitional government, defiant anti-coup protesters have returned to the streets of the capital city Khartoum, for a second consecutive day. At least seven people have been killed and 140 injured. Coup leader General Al-Burhan has announced a state of emergency across the country, while the military cut off access to the internet and closed roads, bridges, and Khartoum's airport. Washington condemned the coup and suspended aid, and the U.N. Security Council was expected to discuss Sudan behind closed doors later today.

• Egypt lifts state of emergency in force since 2017: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, announced the end of a four-year-old state of emergency, undoing powers that had given the government sweeping authority to quash protests, make arrests, search people's homes without warrants, and control everyday life in the most populous Arab country.

• Platforms take down Bolsonaro video linking vaccine and AIDS: Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have removed an anti-vaccine video from their respective platforms posted by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Beyond blocking the video, in which Bolsonaro falsely linked the COVID-19 vaccine with developing AIDS, YouTube went further and suspended the far-right leader for a week.

• COVID update: The U.S. will launch a new travel system on November 8, imposing new vaccine requirements for most foreign national travellers and lifting severe travel restrictions over China, India and much of Europe. Meanwhile, authorities in northern China are reimposing lockdown, and other emergency measures as COVID-19 infections spread to 11 provinces.

• Australia pledges net zero emissions by 2050: As one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita and a major exporter of fossil fuels such as coal, Australia has finally committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. This is a target already adopted by most nations heading to next week's COP26 international climate conference, but that Australia had so far refused to pledge.

• Japanese princess loses royal status over wedding: Japan's Princess Mako married her boyfriend Kei Komuro, giving up her royal status. Under Japanese law, female imperial family members lose their status upon marriage to a "commoner" although male members do not.

Raiders of the Lost Credit Card: A tourist returned the credit card of American actor Harrison Ford, who had lost it in Sicily while shooting scenes for the latest Indiana Jones movie.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Out of control," titles German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, reporting on the release of a series of articles by a consortium of 17 U.S. news outlets, called the "Facebook Papers," that reinforce whistleblower Frances Haugen's claims that the social media giant is prioritizing profits over the well being of its users and society.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

$1.01 trillion

After striking a deal to sell 100,000 electric vehicles to car rental firm Hertz, Elon Musk's Tesla has joined Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google's Alphabet in the club of companies that have reached a $1 trillion valuation.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

What the capture of a drug kingpin means for Colombia

While the capture of Otoniel, Colombia's most wanted drug trafficker, made global headlines, Bogotá daily El Espectador writes about the significance of the news for a country that has battled narcotrafficking for decades.

👮 The arrest of the Colombian mobster Dairo Antonio Úsuga David, a.k.a. "Otoniel," is a victory for Colombian intelligence, law-and-order forces and the broader fight against crime. Details of the eight-year-long pursuit of the head of the Gulf Clan, of the tireless and meticulous work, testify to the capabilities that the police and army have managed to develop in the fight against the narco-trafficking that has long been a stain on Colombia.

🇨🇴🇲🇽 Otoniel is responsible for a criminal organization with more than 3,800 members and influence on 12 departments and 128 districts in Colombia (though data from the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation counts 211 districts). The Gulf Clan sends half the drugs going out of Colombia, and is the main exporter to Mexico. Its ties to the Mexican cartel chief Joaquín "el Chapo" Guzmán are well-documented — and Otoniel had aspired to fill the power vacuum left by Guzmán's capture.

⚖️ Some have observed that the ensuing power vacuum will engender more violence, which is true. But we are, in any case, far from eliminating drug trafficking in Colombia or cutting its tentacles across public life. That shows the limitations of the hard-line response to drugs, when we have seen it is not enough. Still, it is essential in any fight against crime for the state to show its operational capabilities. The message is clear: not even drug overlords are above the law in Colombia.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I love Mako. I would like to spend my one life with the person I love."

— Kei Komuro said during a news conference after his wedding with Japan's Princess Mako, the niece of the current emperor and the sister of the likely future sovereign. The princess lost her royal status as a result of her marriage with Komuro, a "commoner."

📸  PHOTO DU JOUR

An art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, as part of the 2021 exhibition "'Forever Is Now," the first international art exhibition to take place there — Photo: Balkis Press/Abaca/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Send all commoner and royal well wishes to Mako and Kei — and let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com

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Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
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