Among Wolves is an award winning documentary released in 2017 about a community minded motorcycle club in Bosnia-Herzgovina made up of veterans of the civil war in the 1990s. The film is the first release by the director Shawn Convey. It will be screened at the Wakefield Doc Fest this coming weekend. Before that Convey answered questions from ARTSFILE.
Q. You are a filmmaker today but you started as a photographer. Can you explain your history with images?
A. My father was an amateur photographer and a film buff so I was always surrounded by imagery. It was spoken of and taught to me as a positive and fun form of creative expression. However, I grew up in a lower middle-class household in Buffalo. My father worked in a chemical factory and was sick most of my childhood. I say this because in the ’90s the idea of becoming a photographer (nowhere near as insane as a filmmaker) seemed crazy and not realistic, however both my parents were very supportive of this career path. I did really well at the Rochester Institute of Technology and when I left I moved to New York City where I worked on professional photo crews and sets of all sizes. That was where my love of cinema grew into a bit of an obsession. At this time now in the late ’90s some feature films were being released shot on SD (standard definition) DV tapes. Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express and Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark inspired me to explore this new low cost filmmaking possibility. So I did.
Q. What kinds of subjects appeal to you?
A. I am really intrigued by subjects who are actively engaged with bettering the world around them but who are unnoticed. Stories that focus on Nelson Mandela and Ruth Bader Ginsburg are great and necessary and I enjoy watching them, however these people are akin to a “superhero” in my mind. I often leave stories like these feeling as if I have nothing in common with a Mandela or Ginsburg, and as such I don’t feel all that inspired to invoke positive change. I try to make stories where you see more of yourself in the protagonists … if the people in my film can do it, I hope you feel as if you can as well.
Q. How did you find this story?
A. I sold everything I owned and bought a one way ticket to Bosnia (BiH) in 2006 with the goal to not return back to the U.S. without a story that humanized the area and its people. I didn’t want to make a film based on a preconceived idea informed from a visit I had had in 2004. So I moved there with an altruistic goal to listen and learn and let the “right” story come to me. After nearly two years it did. I had set up a google alert with the keyword Bosnia and every morning with my coffee I would read the articles it had found. One day I learned of a group of middle age men who were trying to protect and save a herd of wild horses. This struck me. BiH is still suffering from many issues started by the war including crippling unemployment with slow to no redevelopment initiatives. People are having a hard time simply getting by… as such you don’t hear about a bunch of middle age men caring for animals much. So I drove a couple of hours to Livno and met with two of the three main characters (Lija and Zeljko).
All in all I lived there for six years in Mostar, Sarajevo and Livno.
I went to find and make a film that humanized the area and the people. I felt that so many films on the Balkans and the war stereotyped and stigmatized the region. The narrative was: “this kind of war could only happen in a place like that and with people like that” and to me that is such a lie, a lie that may be told to populations to help them feel safe, something along the lines of saying: “war like that could never happen to us here, it can only happen with people like that there”. I actually don’t buy that at all, and I wanted to illustrate that while there are differences between the Balkans and other parts of the world for sure, but there are far far more similarities. I should also point out that my time living there was incredibly rewarding, I love the people, cities and natural beauty of the Balkans.
Q. How long did it take you to bring this project to fruition?
A. After making initial contact, it took many more trips over a few more years before we all trusted each other to make a film like this. An observational documentary needs lots of access, time and patience and committing to a project like this is a very big decision as anything can go south at any time. The entirety of the project, from the day I got on the plane until the day we premiered at the Chicago International Film Festival was just over 12 years. I should point out that this film was not a “hobby” for me, most of those 12 years were jam packed with 40-50 hour work weeks attempting to complete the film, finish the film, promote the film or otherwise keep it alive.
This is my first film (of any kind or any length). The crew consisted of me as Director/DP/Producer and a good friend (Djanan “Baka” Bakamovic) who assisted with anything and everything including translation. I was lucky enough to have another very talented cinematographer Martin Lagner who would fly in from Berlin a few weeks at a time to help out. Also our writer/executive producer Kevin Ripp spent a month with me getting to know all the guys and familiarizing himself with the story. But mostly it was Baka and myself doing the filming.
Q. The Wolves, the bike club, are former soldiers/paramilitaries. What is your explanation for their community mindedness.
A. The one thing that I feel most certain about is that much of it has to do with Lija (our main character). Lija is a born leader with a very strong moral compass. I feel he has led this group in the right direction and gives the group purpose. You see similar types of veterans organizations in North America that focus on charity but normally they are not the small, grassroots and organic groups that the Wolves embody. One of the things that I feel make the Wolves’ charitable actions remarkable is how much they give back with little to no resources. They have no outside funding and everything they do is done of their own volition. It really is quite special.
Q. Is Lija a hero?
A. I don’t think he would ever be comfortable with the word hero, and I feel that that word and what it infers can be dangerous as it again hints to that “superhero” concept I spoke of earlier… Heroes are often seen as infallible and in my mind unrelatable. I feel that Lija is a unique individual who tries harder than almost anyone that I have ever met to do what is right. This is coupled with the fact that he is also a born leader in a way that again I have never seen before in my own life. I admire him and he embodies many qualities that I could certainly improve upon in my own life.
Q. What did making this film give you?
A. I am a completely different person. I became a filmmaker while there. I found my wife (from Philadelphia) there. I have learned to love and appreciate the Balkan lifestyle and feel like many of their daily rituals and customs would benefit our lives here in North America. I could really just keep going on and on as I feel so fundamentally different from the person I was before living there.
Q. Do you go back often?
A. I have only been back a couple of times since the main part of our filming ended in 2013. I have wanted and still want to get back there more often however the finishing and traveling with the film has left me with little time and resources to do so. Kevin Ripp (our writer and executive producer) and I presented the film to the club for their 15th anniversary motor rally. It was quite a nice feeling to bring the film back to them at a time when everyone was gathered together along with a bunch of other motor club members from all over the Balkans. I need to go back for an extended period soon, I miss it a lot.
Q. Have you been surprised by the film’s success?
A. I am always humbled by the success of Among Wolves. When something takes 12 years of your life you become very attached to it and protective almost like a parent and child relationship. However with this film I knew it would be a challenge to get large audiences to attend. It is a foreign language, observational documentary that takes place in a part of the world that many of us don’t think of often. That is a tough sell. But once we have those butts in those seats people really relate and I think they enjoy films like Among Wolves that don’t tell them what to think. I am super excited about the films DVD/VOD release so the film can live on in peoples homes and for it to have a chance at a wide audience, but with that said it really should be seen on the big screen. It is a cinematic film that plays great to live audiences.
Q. What’s next for you?
A. Shortly after I moved to BiH I met the woman who would eventually become my wife. Ashley is from Philadelphia and arrived in Mostar shortly after I did for an internship working with Roma people outside. The French university where she was studying approved her second internship a year later in Kolkata, India, where she worked at an organization made up of survivors of human trafficking and violent crimes and were themselves rehabilitated with a form of Dance/Movement Therapy (DMT). These individuals would then go back out and practice DMT within other marginalized populations in Kolkata and the surrounding area. I joined Ashley and filmed these people for six months and we are now editing that film. It will be called Within That Fire and we hope to have it completed by the end of 2019.