The title of Danis Tanovic’s film An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker, which screened at the 2013 BFI London Film Festival, makes it sound like it’s a documentary. It is, in fact, a candid document of the truth in dramatic form. It tells a story that’s a variation on a thousand other true stories, all of which are played out across Europe on a daily basis.
The ‘iron picker’ in Tanovic’s film is Nazif, a Roma man who makes his living from selling scrap metal and lives with his wife, Senada, in a small village in Bosnia and Herzegovina. After complications with her pregnancy, Senada is told that she requires a lifesaving operation, but that it will cost her 980 marks (€500) as she does not have an insurance card. Here begins a desperate struggle for the family against the bureaucracy and red tape of the Bosnian-Herzegovinian state, with the danger to Senada’s life becoming more urgent with each passing day.
Depressingly, this is the lot of innumerable minority families in Bosnia and Herzegovina, with Roma communities suffering the brunt of systemic discrimination. For Tanovic, revealing this state of affairs was the motivation behind making the film, his goal being to provoke discussion, encourage action and, in his own words, inspire an ‘emotional understanding of the victim’s state’.
The film was shot in nine days, on location, on a hand-held camera. Tanovic, who worked in documentary filmmaking during the Bosnian war, applied many of his old camera techniques to Iron Picker. He found the conditions (outdoors, in freezing weather) to be remarkably similar to those of his wartime documentary-making. He credits the extraordinarily quick production to the natural acting of the cast, who rarely required more than three takes to get a scene perfect.
The film owes much of its success to the actors, who are superbly convincing and naturalistic throughout. This fact is made all the more startling and impressive given that the cast are not only non-professional actors, but are playing themselves in a re-enactment of an episode from their own lives. The Senada on camera really is the Senada who desperately fought for her life in the face of hopelessness, which only makes the film more astounding. Here, the line between fiction and documentary grows ever thinner and hazier.
As Tanovic commented on the absence of any desire to make the film more sensationalistic: why bother adding drama when the truth is already so unbelievable?