In 1993, a year after arriving in besieged Sarajevo, Roger Richards of Norfolk, a filmmaker, photographer and author, stood amidst hundred of fresh graves in Lion Cemetery and made a vow to the citizens of that city that he would tell their story.
"Sarajevo Roses," was produced over 24 years and tells the story of five people "who survived death and unimaginable horror, and have struggled since to rebuild their city and their lives."
According to Richards, "The stories are of ordinary people living in extraordinary times. They survived a medieval siege, the longest of the 20th century at 1,395 days ... The war in Bosnia triggered the worst mass killings and ethnic cleansing of civilians in Europe since the Holocaust in World War II."
In a director's statement Richards proclaimed, "This film is about the human capacity to heal and find meaning in life after experiencing great emotional trauma. My goal is to help bridge the gap between the war and its aftermath, and show how its impact has felt even by generations that were as yet unborn."
The world premier of the film was last December in Brussels, Belgium, at the European Parliament. And the screening of "Sarajevo Roses" at William & Mary is the start of a U.S. academic tour.
I asked Richards why he chose William & Mary.
"I chose W&M because of their Bosnia Project that connects W&M students with Bosnian students and teachers, and promotes intercultural exchange. I have been in contact with the college for several years now, and when I was invited to bring the film to W&M I readily agreed."
He explained, the documentary is mainly about grace and human resilience in face of terrible acts of cruelty. But the film is also about how civilization is a fragile thing. "Our modern society is built on interpersonal relationships and tolerance of others who might be different. Whether the difference is political, racial or ethnic, we chose to live and grow together," he said. "Once those bonds begin to fray, or break, all it takes is someone in political leadership willing to exploit it for their own power. That's what happened in Yugoslavia."
Richards hopes that his film will prompt genuine political conversation and personal reflection on why our world seems to be in so much conflict right now. "In the USA I want the film to connect audiences to the fact that we are not much different than people in other parts of the world, and that at heart we mainly all want the same thing. Peace and a chance to provide for our families" he said.
I asked Richards which documentary filmmaker has been his role model. He apparently set a high bar for himself.
"I studied with the legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog, and what he taught me helped this film come to life, especially during the roughest moments, The, film "Shoah" by Claude Lanzmann, about the Holocaust, is an epic that has affected me and solidified my conviction to do my best to produce a film that hopefully stand the test of time."
During the four-year siege of Sarajevo, hundreds of thousand s of artillery, mortar and tank shells were fired into the city and as each exploded it left a crater resembling a flower. Citizens called them 'Sarajevo roses.'
The movie "Sarajevo Roses," will make its American premiere at William & Mary on Tuesday, Feb. 21, Tucker Hall Theater at 5:30 p. m. Roger Richards will be present and there will be a Q&A period. The event is free and open to the public.
Shatz, a Williamsburg resident, is the author of "Reports from a Distant Place," a compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and on amazon.com.