“Can’t You See Them?—Film Them.”

by Clarissa Thieme, Asja Makarević

Clarissa Thieme, filmmaker and artist, and Asja Makarević, film scholar, met to discuss Clarissa’s long-term artistic collaboration with the Library Hamdija Kreševljaković Video Arhiv Sarajevo, a collection of video testimonies recorded by the citizens of the besieged city of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, from 1992 to 1996. In response to the aggression, a group of friends around siblings Nihad and Sead Kreševljaković and Nedim Alikadić began to document their everyday lives. As they drew on their pre-existing video practice, they produced film essayistic commentaries and fictional miniatures that critically examined their situation. Subsequently, they created a video archive but also a space where they shared and discussed this material. The interview attempts to contextualize the emergence of this archive and answer several questions. Why is the Video Arhiv Sarajevo more than a mere collection of war footage, an “archival forum”? How can such a forum open itself up beyond its specific time and local context? What opportunities are there for artists, video and filmmakers like Clarissa Thieme, Nihad and Sead Kreševljaković and Nedim Alikadić, who, given the disruptive nature of the (post)war condition, assume the role of accidental archivists? In which ways do their friendship and the ensuing artistic collaboration help them communicate through time, between the traumatic then and now, between the lived and mediated experience of war? Why does their archival practice appear more like communication via a time machine or a message in a bottle?

Asja Makarević: The Library Hamdija Kreševljaković Video Arhiv Sarajevo contains video testimonies by citizens of Sarajevo who recorded their daily life during the siege of Sarajevo (1992-1996). At the same time testimonies were made simultaneously by numerous citizens in Sarajevo due to the accessibility of video equipment at the time. Could you explain the overall context but also the specific situation that made the group of friends around the Video Arhiv Sarajevo archivists by necessity or accident?

Clarissa Thieme: The Video Arhiv Sarajevo is a collection of amateur videos shot by people around the siblings Nihad and Sead Kreševljaković and Nedim Alikadić in besieged Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. It was and still is located in a garden house, in the historical private library of Hamdija Kreševljaković, the first Bosnian historian and grandfather of the Kreševljaković siblings. Multilingual and internationally connected, he devoted his life to the historical study of Sarajevo under the alternating reigns of Austro-Hungarians and Ottomans and consistently pointed to the complex and rich culture of the region, which, out of an imperialist reflex, was and to this day is often dismissed as a periphery or no-man’s land to the ruling political centers. So, there is this family archival tradition of the Kreševljakovićs’ grandfather, on the one hand, and a growing group of people with their video equipment recording life under siege, making their own repository, on the other. At the beginning of the siege, there was a public call to the local population to document the attacks on Sarajevo. That surely influenced the Video Arhiv Sarajevo, whose members already had certain cinematic skills, which took on a different dimension with the war. From the beginning on, it was not only about documenting and collecting but also about sharing the material, which included a variety of individual perspectives on the everyday life of war. I believe that the shared cinematic and archival practice helped restore their agency. The truncated perception of Sarajevo’s inhabitants as victims was found not only in the aggression of the Serbian besiegers, but also in the logic of the international community’s humanitarian intervention. Due to the overall depoliticization of the circumstances that led to the war, the victims of war were perceived much like the victims of a natural disaster. But in the context of the Video Arhiv Sarajevo, they are first and foremost filmmakers, documentarists, humorists, analysts, and cinematic poets. Making, collecting, viewing, and discussing images empowered them to speak about their situation. Here I talk about a practice of resistance that made them political actors and shapers of their future. Becoming a subject after being an object for different agents is also reflected in the active cultural scene in besieged Sarajevo.

AM: Can you tell us more about the genesis of the initiative Izmedju nas / Between Us, which seems to be a starting point for your exploration of this particular archive? How does it relate to Living Archive, the project carried out by Arsenal—Institute for Film and Video Art, 2011-2013?

CT: When I first came to Sarajevo in 2004, I met Nihad Kreševljaković through acquaintances. He invited me to visit the Video Arhiv Sarajevo by saying, “if you are interested in a view of the siege of Sarajevo different to the one you already know, you are very welcome.” A year later, Nihad showed me the material as we talked over coffee. Between my first visit and my first artistic collaboration with the Video Arhiv Sarajevo, more than ten years passed. At some point, we chose the term “archival forum” to describe the Video Arhiv Sarajevo, referring to the artistic archival practice, the kind of exchange and resulting, constant editing and collaging. The idea of forum goes far beyond a collection. Its inherent qualities, the processual approach and openness for exchange, made us consider starting the project Izmedju nas / Between Us. In terms of its material and genesis, Arsenal with its Living Archive project is, at first glance, fundamentally different from the Video Arhiv Sarajevo. But I saw a commonality in the history of the lived practice of both projects. Arsenal radically revitalized its archive as a living organism of interdisciplinary exchange, beginning in 2011. And Nihad announced towards the opening of the Video Arhiv Sarajevo at the end of 2012, during Limited Space: Berlin / Sarajevo.[1] Stefanie Schulte Strathaus moderated our main panel and asked about the potential of art and culture in the context of conflict, against the backdrop of the specific circumstances of Sarajevo and Berlin, while shedding light on the role of alternative archival practice.[2] Do You Remember Sarajevo,[3] an archival film Nihad had made with his brother Sead and friend Nedim Alikadić, was shown the following day. Inspired by the Q&A and previous panel discussion, I finally asked Nihad if he would be willing to open up the Video Arhiv Sarajevo to others beyond the sworn founding group. The idea was to digitize the material, invite scholars, artists, and the public to work with it. Over the next few years, we felt that the post-Yugoslav space did not appear on any agenda of European funding. At the end of 2015, we decided to launch the initiative without funding. We promised to include Izmedju nas / Between Us and the Video Arhiv Sarajevo into our artistic practice, whenever suitable.

AM: The testimonies in the Video Arhiv Sarajevo come up repeatedly in your work. What insight does this kind of footage offer you, given your prior knowledge about the siege of Sarajevo, the Bosnian War, and the breakup of Yugoslavia? What are the aesthetic possibilities for further exploration?

CT: When Yugoslavia broke apart in a succession of wars, I was a teenager in a northwest German province. The coverage of the wars was mostly one-sided, unanimous in the fact that Europe considered them inevitable and marginal. After the Cold War, huge parts of Eastern Europe including Germany underwent massive transformation processes and system upheavals, which were not received in such a detached way. I learned about the war in the former Yugoslavia through dramatically pointed TV images, in which a cruel force of nature seemingly met its victims. The style, which comes across as objective, depoliticized the situation and turned its actors into objects. There seemed to be something terrible happening in a very distant land. Fortunately, my family background enabled me to see things differently. My parents are workers, who were politicized on the left. My father’s escape from Eastern Germany just before the Wall was built prevented them from having an overly romantic view of GDR socialism. Tito’s non-aligned Yugoslavia seemed a desirable alternative. This political infatuation took me to the Adriatic Sea with them almost every summer. This connection was superficial, but in the 1990s, created a healthy resistance to German news images. When Nihad showed me footage from the Video Arhiv Sarajevo, a different, personal view of Sarajevo under siege emerged. In many videos, little happens. The war was not an event, but a violently imposed, new destructive normal. By then, I sensed that there was a certain falsifying dramatic structure, the perspective of the West on which the stories about the war were built. The Video Arhiv Sarajevo made me see people, not victims. The radical subjectivity of the material turned things around for me. The friendship with Nihad and later with Nedim allowed me to relate. As long as our encounters are possible, I do not see an end to my exploration of the Video Arhiv, regardless of the aesthetic approach my work may have.

AM: How did your installation/performance piece Vremeplov / Time Machine—1993 I 2003 I 20XX I 2037 I 2320 I 2572 and your film Today is 11th June 1993 from 2018 come to life? One format appears to inform the other. What did each, the installation and film, help you express?

CT: The performance Vremeplov / Time Machine and the resulting film Today is 11th June 1993 were my first works with materials from the Video Arhiv Sarajevo. I found fragments of the sci-fi video shot in Sarajevo on June 11, 1993. A group of young people imagines themselves escaping the war with the help of a time machine. The video begins with “Today is June 11, 1993. The war has been going on for a very long time. I tried everything to get out, to save myself, but nothing worked. The only thing I have left is this videotape, which I’m going to give to my son, he’s going to give to his, and so on until the time machine is invented and someone who sees this comes and gets me out of here.” We hear this several times in different variations of the unedited recording. It is a game with time and different possibilities of reality. As I see it, no one came back from the future to save them. Instead, they dreamt themselves into the future. Here they are, 25 years later, permitting me to interact with the versions of themselves from 1993.

[Fig. 1]: Film still from Today Is 11th June 1993 (Source: © Clarissa Thieme, archival video material courtesy of Library Hamdija Kreševljaković Video Arhiv Sarajevo)

[Fig. 1]: Film still from Today Is 11th June 1993 (Source: © Clarissa Thieme, archival video material courtesy of Library Hamdija Kreševljaković Video Arhiv Sarajevo)

CT: It started with me wanting to reactivate the time machine but not knowing how. I knew I wanted to work with the process of translation and with a non-regional, female voice. The aspect of translation had to be perceptible. I found the perfect match in Grace Sungeun Kim, a South Korean video artist based in Berlin who lived in New York for a long time. Of course, this male group of sci-fi geeks needed a female voice to interpret them! With Grace, I worked out a monotone translation style, reminiscent of what they still do on TV in some countries: a (male) voice translating all the dialogue. Hilarious! As if Brecht snuck into television entertainment with the alienation effect. The translation booth was added last, and the synchronous translation became a sculptural object. There is an aspect of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia’s (ICTY) iconography with the soundproof interpreting booth and simultaneous translation in its court rooms.

Before I did the film, I presented it as a performative interaction. I showed the video material, as it was shot in 1993, and translated the dialogue into the local language of the exhibition site, delivered by a member of the local community. The performance has its own intensity: it is live and yet a historical document. With its different camera perspectives, the film works quite differently with time and space. It draws you in more quickly. Perhaps the most intimate view is that of the installation. One enters the translation booth, where the 1993 video is played with English voice-over and sits in the translator’s chair looking at the transcript and its translation. On June 11, 2018, 25 years after the original video was shot, Nihad sat in the translator’s booth and “translated” from Bosnian into Bosnian. That was absurd, but he transferred the experience of Sarajevo 1993 to 2018. In post-war Bosnia, many people struggle to translate their past into the present. Someone in the audience said it was like a message in a bottle coming back. In a broader sense, an archival practice functions similarly. You never know if someone will find the material, but there is a chance of dialogue through time, as with a time machine.

AM: Your short film and installation piece Can’t You See Them?—Repeat (2019) draw on a testimony made by Nedim Alikadić. The video shows militia men nearby a river in a residential area, in relative proximity to his home. A lived-body experience of the direct witness of the unfolding siege of Sarajevo is caught by frantic camera movements. The movements are scrutinized by advanced digital image processing technology in your work. What drew you closer to the video and made you opt for this artistic strategy?

CT: Nedim recorded the Video 8 sequence in Grbavica on May 2, 1992. Shortly after, the Bosnian Serb troops occupied the district, expanding the siege around the city. It was one of the first videos I saw from the Video Arhiv Sarajevo and is part of the film Do You Remember Sarajevo. I still consider the off-screen cue: “Can’t you see them?—Film them” a key moment to describe the impulse of documenting what cannot be documented. The video stayed with me all these years. One could argue that hardly anything happens and yet one senses the horror of a dam breaking. Nedim stands at the window of his apartment, and suddenly, thinks he might be shot. This is the beginning of war for him. The trembling and searching camera depicts the body of the bottomless fear. I wanted people to encounter this trembling body. Nedim agreed I could work with his material.

[Fig. 2]: Film stills from Can’t You See Them?—Repeat (Source: © Clarissa Thieme, installation view, archival video material courtesy of Nedim Alikadić, Sarajevo, Grbavica, May 2, 1992)

[Fig. 3]: Film stills from Can’t You See Them?—Repeat (Source: © Clarissa Thieme, installation view, archival video material courtesy of Nedim Alikadić, Sarajevo, Grbavica, May 2, 1992)

[Fig. 2 and 3]: Film stills from Can’t You See Them?—Repeat (Source: © Clarissa Thieme, installation view, archival video material courtesy of Nedim Alikadić, Sarajevo, Grbavica, May 2, 1992)

I track the camera movement. The resulting metadata controls an automatic arm and ensures it moves a beam of light exactly as the hand moved the camera. I used the method of forensics that promised exactness and objective recording of this specific situation. The result was endless rows of numbers, which I sometimes juxtapose with the installation in the work CYST #0 as a large-format print. The numbers express the absurdity of the forensic approach: everything is in there, and at the same time, you see and feel nothing. The clash is also in the motion control sculpture trembling and quivering from its movements, as a half-being, a man-machine. You can see the cables and the built-in technology, but the movement makes it “live.” I find the switch in perception important because I am interested in making tangible what we lose when we focus on objectifying procedures, like forensic evidence and their implicit structural violence. Another aspect of the work is the loop, the “repeat.” As I was preparing this work, I met Nedim several times and we talked about the video and the time of the siege from his point of view. During this time, I recorded him switching back as if he were there again. That was crucial because I could incorporate it next to the original video from 1992 and the technically generated embodiment (motion control sculpture) from 2019. It meandered seamlessly between the traumatic moment then and now in a never-ending loop.

AM: How would you relate your collaboration with the Video Arhiv Sarajevo and the initiative Izmedju nas / Between Us to the concept of “accidental archivism”?

CT: With regards to the Video Arhiv Sarajevo, both necessity and accidents come into play. The friends around the Video Arhiv Sarajevo found themselves entrapped in war. To call war an accident would be cynical and ignore the legal, political, and moral responsibilities for the war crimes committed. Nevertheless, this group of friends, like many others, faced arbitrary life-threatening violence as a new normal. The Video Arhiv Sarajevo acted as a specific form of resistance to this unforeseen condition. The “archival forum” kept everyone involved sane, restored their agency, and confirmed artistic expression and culture as their fundamental human right. The initiative Izmedju nas / Between Us, my artistic collaboration with Nihad Kreševljaković and Nedim Alikadić in particular, was enabled by the “archival forum.” It allowed their “message in a bottle” from Sarajevo under siege to be found in multiple ways. My artistic and political interest in archival practice is entangled with the idea of “archival forum” as commons. No one knows what will speak to someone else, but there is a chance of response and mutual responsibility through time. I am not sure whether I would call that accidental, but indeed, it cannot be mapped out precisely. It differs fundamentally from an understanding of a forum centered around forensic testimony and proof. The “archival forum” is a space of possible connections, not certainties. It calls for trust and openness to be touched, the willingness to fail, and still care about this shared space and dialogue.


[1] Limited Space: Berlin / Sarajevo was an exchange program, organized by Adla Isanović, Jasmina Gavrankapetanović, and Clarissa Thieme for the Sarajevo Art University (ALU) and the Berlin University of the Arts. It included seminars and workshops over two semesters, as well as the final series of events and an exhibition.

[2] The Limited Space: Berlin / Sarajevo opening panel with Heinz Emigholz (filmmaker), Jasmina Gavrankapetanović (artist, scholar), Adla Isanović (artist, scholar), Angelika Levi (filmmaker, artist), Claus Löser (film critic, author), Clarissa Thieme (artist, filmmaker), and moderated by Stefanie Schulte Strathaus (film and video curator, co-director of Arsenal—Institute for Film and Video Art, founding director of Berlinale Forum Expanded).

[3] Do You Remember Sarajevo. Dir. Sead Kreševljaković, Nihad Kreševljaković, Nedim Alikadić, Video Arhiv Sarajevo & deblokada, 2002.