As a teenager, Nermina Selimovic daydreamed of traveling to a different country — anywhere other than her home in the small village of Srebrenica in Bosnia. Her wishes would come true, but she never could have foreseen the horrific atrocities that would drive her from her country to the United States and to Columbia where she and her family now call home.
Refugees of the Bosnian War, the Selimovics — Nermina, her mother Fatima and two teenaged siblings Nerzela and Adnan — fled to Columbia in 2002, seven years after the fall of the former United Nations Safe Area that led to the Srebrenica Massacre, one of the worst acts of genocide in Europe since the end of the World War II.
“Refugees like Fatima and her children have had the rug pulled out from under them and they had no say in where they were relocated,” says Kerri Yost, now an assistant professor of film and chair of the Film & Media Department at Stephens College.
It was while working as an education specialist and caseworker at the Refugee and Immigration Center in Columbia that Yost met the Selimovic family and learned of their circumstances. Nermina was only 7 years old when her father was murdered in Bosnia’s rampant mass executions. During a five-day period in 1995, more than 8,000 men and teenage boys were murdered in her village alone. Since then, many Bosnians have found refuge in Missouri — an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 live in St. Louis, with another 700 in Columbia, making the state host to one of the largest Bosnian populations outside their homeland.
As she grew closer to the Selimovic family, Yost, who taught English as a second language and helped the family find jobs and training, became interested in showing what it’s really like for a family trying to carve out a life here in America’s heartland. The resulting documentary film, “Neither Here Nor There,” which she co-produced and directed with Beth Pike, Steve Hudnell and Beth Federici, serves as a powerful portrait of a family forever changed by war, loss and heartbreak and perpetually caught between two worlds and two cultures.
More than five years in the making, “Neither Here Nor There” tells its story primarily through the eyes of Fatima, the family matriarch who arrived in Columbia as a widow in her 30s, grieving the loss of her husband, father and brother to the war, as she faces the daunting prospect of raising her three young children on her own. The film focuses on the family’s readjustment in Columbia and Fatima’s heartbreaking return to Bosnia for a visit and a memorial service, bring her story almost full circle.
The film shines a light on the reality of the immigrant experience.
The Filmmakers’ Inspiration
Yost became interested in refugee and immigration issues long before she began working at the refugee center. After graduating from the University of Missouri with a bachelor’s degree in English, Yost moved to London where she worked at a coffee shop owned by a Serbian. She began teaching English as a second language and moved to Poland to work for one of the Soros foundations, an organization that promotes open societies and civic participation in public life.
After five years in Europe, Yost returned home to Warrensburg, Mo., and earned a master’s degree from Central Missouri State University. In Columbia, she began teaching English as a second language and making short films, including “Billy,” about a homeless man in the city.
Yost shared her interest in making a film about the Selimovics at a meeting of the Columbia Media Resource Alliance, a longtime local hub for filmmakers. The project piqued the interests of MU journalism graduates Steve Hudnell and Beth Pike of Look Out Crew.
The Columbia natives work as a team and serve as freelance producers to create local segments that air on network programs such as “America’s Most Wanted,” “Entertainment Tonight” and shows on the Discovery Channel and Food Network.
“Steve and I had some experience with Bosnians already,” Pike says.
Around the time of the Bosnian war, the duo had taped interviews with a group of Bosnian teachers in Columbia to attend a class on trauma psychology held on the University of Missouri campus.
“We had hoped to turn more than 30 hours of footage into a film but it never materialized,” Pike says. “But their stories of what had happened in their country always stayed with us so we jumped on the chance to share this family’s story.”
So too did Beth Federici, a filmmaker and former executive director of CAT3 Columbia Access TV, where she won three gold Telly awards for producing and editing. Federici, whose master’s degree in public administration from MU was geared for nonprofit management, joined the team after hearing about the project at another CMRA meeting.
Together the quartet formed the independent production company Refugee Films.
The Production Of Film Production
As most documentary filmmakers know, making nonfiction films is usually an undertaking of love and passion — rarely does fame, glory or money enter the picture. Refugee Films received some upfront financing from Columbia’s Refugee and Immigration Center and the group’s first grant came from the Adult Learning Center, where Yost had taught English to non-native speakers; another came from The Missouri Arts Council. Women Make Movies, a nonprofit organization supporting women filmmakers, agreed to serve as the film’s fiscal sponsor, managing the accounting and the grant money.
Sharing resources and equipment, four filmmakers worked in the field as producers and directors. Yost and Hudnell shot film while Pike and Federici handled sound. Shooting alone took three years and resulted in more than 250 hours of footage. Because the filmmakers also had day jobs too, editing took almost two years on Pike’s editing system in her east Columbia home.
“Each of us wore every hat while making this film and we often had to shoot material on the spur of the moment so sometimes it was a matter of who was available,” Federici says.
Initially, the team produced a four-minute film that was screened at the 2005 True/False Film Festival. The short film “Waiting for Adnan,” featured a pivotal moment in Nermina’s life, when her husband, Adnan Halilovic, finally joined her in Columbia and met his son Alen for the first time. Another short, “Remembering Srebrenica,” documented the family’s journey to the memorial service in Srebrenica. Over time, those segments became part of the completed film, which begins a year after the Selimovics arrive in Columbia.
“Neither Here Nor There” opens as Fatima has found work as a housekeeper at the Holiday Inn, while Nermina and her siblings find jobs at MBS, a textbook distributor. Nerzela and Adnan work at night and go to high school during the day.
Like many refugees and immigrants, the Selimovics also must send money back to family in Bosnia. It is a stressful time as they deal with emotional and psychological trauma and the unspeakable horrors of war. When Fatima finds out that her father’s remains have been identified, she plans to attend the memorial service in her country.
A grant from Stephens College allowed all four filmmakers to accompany Fatima to Bosnia in the summer of 2005. The movie audience sees Fatima reunite with her mother and one of her brothers, whom she hasn’t seen in six years. They follow her as she returns to the house the family once happily occupied, now just a bombed-out shell of itself. These are gut-wrenching moments that speak of the war’s ongoing aftermath.
One of the most haunting scenes in the film is when Fatima attends a mass funeral honoring more than 600 newly identified remains (including her father’s) buried at a memorial. The service was attended by thousands of mourners and a few world leaders.
Capturing these moments in the Selimovics’ journey was a life-changing experience for the filmmakers.
“I came away from Bosnia a different person,” Federici says. “I find myself thinking about the family and all they have accomplished, how they kept hope despite losing everything. It’s really a classic kind of immigrant story. They worked really hard, saved every penny and rose from this tragedy.”
The film, which opens a window into an experience most Americans will never face, has resonated with audiences, too. In April, “Neither Here Nor There” won Best Heartland Feature at the Kansas City FilmFest, and was also included in the new “Best of the Fest” screening during the KC Fringe Fest in July. It has been screened at the True/False Film Festival, The International Justice Symposium and The Human Rights Watch Festival and has made its way to festivals such as triumphant! in Australia and others in Cambodia and Sweden. Video Project, an education distributor in San Francisco, signed on to distribute the film and the filmmakers also self-distribute it through their website, www.refugeefilms.org.
“It has been a very fulfilling project and very satisfying to know the family,” says Pike. “The Selimovics are our friends and have taught us much about perseverance and strength, and the importance of family. Going to their country and witnessing everything they have gone through has definitely changed my perspective forever.”
Although their lives will always be intertwined, the filmmakers and the Selimovics are all moving on. Federici moved back East in 2008 and now works as a production assistance program manager at Women Make Movies. She continues to make documentaries, including “The Ant Farm — The Movie,” about an architecture collective that will be screened at the Architecture and Design Film Festival in New York in October and at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art sometime this fall.
Yost founded the Citizen Jane Festival, an all-female film symposium that will hold its third event in Columbia in October. She also has a son now, nearly 2 years old, and she continues to make short films.
Pike and Hudnell won a regional Emmy Award for Historical Documentary for “Trustees for the Public: 200 Years of Missouri Newspapers,” funded by the Missouri Press Association. The film features the history of MU’s School of Journalism and writers such as Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway who cut their teeth on Missouri newspapers. It has aired several times on Missouri PBS stations as well as several in Illinois. This year, the national PBS organization picked it up through The National Educational Telecommunications Association.
Still, “Neither Here Nor There” holds a special place in the quartet’s hearts.
“This film is relevant because it’s a story of our heritage and society,” Pike says. “My own family fled England and Ireland and suffered religious persecution, but that’s about who we are here and what has made our country what it is.”
Hudnell notes how fulfilling it has been to watch the next generation of Selimovics become Americans. “America is not an easy place to get your feet on the ground and it’s the same story over and over for immigrants — they’re strangers in a strange land,” he says. “Making ‘Neither Here Nor There’ consumed a tremendous amount of time and once we were in it we were committed to see it through and make sure it was shown.”
After The Movie Ends
A few months ago, both Nermina and her husband Adnan, who works as a bus driver for Columbia Transit, became U.S. citizens. They had been living here on their green cards — good for 10 years — and could have reapplied for another one, but decided to go through the process and make it official.
“My husband’s parents are back in Bosnia and they wanted to visit a few years ago but weren’t allowed because the officials thought that were trying to relocate here,” Nermina says. “We just didn’t want to worry about that anymore and now they can visit.”
She and her family live in an apartment complex and she continues to work at MBS, as do her mother and siblings. Her brother bought a home for Fatima, who especially enjoys her grandchildren.
“Fatima is a brave woman,” says Senad Music, once a refugee himself and now an office manager for Refugee Service in the Columbia branch office. “She was lost when she came here but she has built a life for her family.”
“Some Bosnians didn’t feel it was right to show private things, like the inside of where we lived,” Nermina says. “Here we all went through the same thing so it was frustrating that some people feel that way and were critical of us.”
For Nermina, the film comes out only to show to friends, and she fast-forwards through the difficult parts.
“The film didn’t change my life but I’m really glad that some people who have never been to Bosnia or weren’t aware of what’s going on over there can see what war can do to people,” she says, “especially to the innocent and those that don’t deserve it at all.”
The pull of her former country remains strong and even now so many years later reminders of the war continue to haunted the family. Several months ago, just as they became Americans, the remains of Nermina’s uncle, Kisim Bektic, were identified in a mass grave and he and thousands of others were remembered in a funeral service held in July. Fatima could not attend the service because of the travel expenses and time involved.
Nermina and her husband did return to Bosnia in 2007 for a month’s visit.
“It was the first time I had been there since I was a child yet I remembered the village where I was born and I still knew all the neighbors’ houses and where I used to play,” she says. “It was kind of strange, though, because while there I was missing my mom, brother and sister so much and I really understood how hard it is for my husband being so far away from his parents and brothers and sisters.”
Occasionally Nermina visits friends in St. Louis’s “Little Bosnia,” where she enjoys a taste of her homeland.
“When you go there you hear Bosnian on the streets and you can go to Bosnian markets,” she says. “That’s not the way it is here in Columbia.”
And it is Columbia that is home to Nermina, as it has been since she was 17 years old. It is where she and her family will build their future. Her eldest son Alen is now the age she was when she lost her father and suffered the first tragedy of her young life. As a busy, working mother raising two sons, the stability and safety she can now offer her children has come at a very high price that she does not take for granted.
“I still think of Bosnia often and so does my husband,” she says. “But I remember everything much better before the war because during and after we moved around from place to place so much trying to stay safe that I truly didn’t know where I lived anymore.”
“Now I just want to settle down with my family and continue our lives and stay in one place,” she says. “I have moved around enough for a lifetime.”