On November 16, filmmakers Shawn Convey and Kevin Ripp presented their observational documentary Among Wolves to a full theater of Madison moviegoers. The film, shot in modern-day Bosnia and Herzegovina, paints a stunningly human portrait of an altruistic biker gang that protects wild horses in the mountains where they once fought. CREECA met with the filmmakers to discuss the complexities of a decade-long film project, the struggle to remain apolitical in the Balkans, and re-defining documentary film.
“I go there with all these questions and I naively think I’m going to get them answered,” says film director Shawn Convey. “But the war, it’s not like talking about a math equation. It was chaos, and it was different in every town, village, and corner.”
Ten years ago, Convey arrived in the Bosnian and Herzegovinian city of Mostar. Weeks before, he had sold all his belongings and set out to find a realistic story of what he describes as achievable optimism. “I decided I wanted to make a film that humanized the area and didn’t stigmatize it,” he says. As he explored his new home, the weight of this task became evident. A full generation after the violent breakup of Yugoslavia and the resulting wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mostar remains a city split in two; between Bosniaks in the East and Croats in the West.
His search for an optimistic story ultimately led Convey to seek out the town of Livno, located a few hours from Mostar. He had read that a group of middle-aged men was protecting a herd of wild horses in the mountains encircling the town. “And that stuck out,” says Convey. “In Bosnia, they are still very much dealing with human rights issues, and they haven’t even discussed animal rights. It’s not even on the docket.”
On that first visit Convey met two men, named Branko “Lija” Lijavić and Željko Kristo, and together they set off to see the horses. “Their incredible willingness to take us there as complete strangers who don’t even speak their language,” says Convey, “all this is very abstract to me. And very admirable.” Convey’s fascination with the men, who go by the names “Lija” and “Željko” in the film, only grew with subsequent visits. Lija, he soon learned, had been a paramilitary commander during the defense of Livno. Željko was once a prisoner of war. “And then I found out that they ran a bike club. Every time I went back, there was another golden nugget. So I kept going,” says Convey. He would spend the next six years documenting their story.
Convey’s film Among Wolves screened last month at the UW-Madison Cinematheque after a whirlwind year of showings at international film festivals. Convey, winner of the Best Director for a Feature Film award at the 2016 DOC LA film festival, and Kevin Ripp, the film’s writer and executive producer, presented their work to the Cinematheque audience in person. Previously, they also accompanied the film to the 2016 Chicago International Film Festival, where it won the Chicago Award, and to the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival, where the producers were presented with the 2017 Hernandez/Bayliss Prize for Triumph of the Human Spirit.
The film, set for full release in 2018, was similarly well received at the Cinematheque screening, which was also sponsored by the UW-Madison International Division, Institute for Regional and International Studies (IRIS), and CREECA. The event was part of November’s International Education Week at UW-Madison, which celebrated international education, programs that prepare students for a global environment, and the formative experiences of alumni abroad.
In a post-screening discussion of the film, Convey mentioned that, among other things, he was struck by the feedback he receives from American military veterans who identify with the film’s distinctly foreign characters and their stories. For many, Convey says, “it really, really resonates on a level I had hoped but never really thought we would achieve.” Torrey Tiedeman, a UW-Madison student and vice president of the veteran’s student organization on campus, agrees. “Among Wolves was not the movie I was expecting to see,” he says. “I enjoyed the film immensely. The cinematography, sound, dialogue… and most importantly—content—was all very captivating.”
It was exactly this kind of captivating, meditative experience that writer Ripp, a UW-Madison alumnus, aimed to create as he pored over the 400 hours of footage captured by Convey. “My background as a writer was valuable for helping to bring Shawn’s vision to the screen,” he says, adding, “He definitely thinks visually, and I think verbally. And he had chosen this story because it has this sort of literary resonance that we wanted to capture and show people.”
Ripp is also full of praise for Convey’s ability to conquer the stumbling blocks of independent film-making. In the case of Among Wolves, challenges ranged from the mundane to the outright hazardous. Convey navigated frequent miscommunications in an unfamiliar tongue, endured long days in the geographic isolation of the mountains, and constantly exercised caution in the face of the still-present danger of leftover landmines. Gaining the trust of bikers in an area where locals are sometimes wary of foreigners was its own trial. “Shawn’s pretty modest… they definitely would not accept anybody into the club in the way they did Shawn,” says Ripp. “They trusted him to capture their story honestly.”
While on campus, Convey and Ripp also visited with students in the Cinematography and Sound Recording class in the Department of Communication Arts. Among the topics they addressed was the problem of sustainability, one of the primary challenges facing documentary filmmakers today. Early in the filmmaking process, meetings with potential investors fell flat as broadcasters questioned why they or their audiences should care about the former Yugoslavia.
“It was very, very discouraging,” says Convey, “Especially when you get this from Austrian and German [broadcasters], where they have huge populations of Balkan people… who are now active and vibrant members of their communities.” He then is forced to ask an uncomfortable question: “Why would any people not be relevant or worthy of their money?” Ultimately, the film was funded almost entirely through crowd-funding and the personal investments of the creators.
The fortunate upside to independently funding the film, however, was that Convey retained creative control over the story he was trying to tell. This is evident in the film as a clear attempt to avoid describing the political and historical context surrounding the protagonists and Livno in concrete terms. “Like I always say [about the film], there are no facts, but it’s all true,” says Convey. Ripp in this regard sees Among Wolves as a true outlier in the documentary film industry. “I feel like there are a lot of paint-by-the-numbers documentaries, and very little cinematic, non-fiction filmmaking,” he suggests. “What you don’t get with that is the emotional connection of living inside those films with those characters, and kind of drawing your own conclusions.”
As Convey tries to summarize his experiences living in Mostar and Sarajevo, years of filming in the stunningly beautiful but treacherous mountains of rural Bosnia, and the continuing struggle to share the unlikely story of The Wolves Motorcycle Club with the world, he comes to the following conclusion: “It’s not to be understood,” he says, “It’s to be learned from and empathized with.”
To learn more about the film or to arrange a screening, visit amongwolvesfilm.com.