What would you to do save a friend? In Sabina Vajrača’s defiant and handsomely made short film, Sevap/Mitzvah, one Muslim woman hides a Jewish friend in order to save her from persecution in Nazi-occupied Bosnia during World War II. We do not see a lot of representation when it comes to Bosnia’s experience under this oppression, so Vajrača’s film instantly draws us in.
Zejneba makes the decision to hide her childhood friend, Rifka, when she witnesses soldiers bursting into homes and carting Jewish people away. Vajrača may not have grown up during this time, but she her family endured the war in Bosnia. We can feel Vajrača’s respect for history.
“The idea for this film goes way back to when I was talking with my grandmother,” Vajrača revealed at the top of our conversation. “When World War II happened, she was a little girl in Bosnia–she couldn’t have been more than nine years old–and before she passed, she talking to me about regrets, She told me about this Jewish girl that lived next door to her family when she was growing up, and the Croatian offshoot of the Nazis took her friend and her family away and she never saw them again. She didn’t understand what was going on since she was so young, but she knew it was something bad. My grandmother said that she remembered–fifty years later–the Serbs came to take her away. She was a religious woman, and, she thought, that if she would’ve done something in the 40s, they wouldn’t have suffered the same fate. That stayed with me growing up, and, since then, I looked into how so many people were saving Jews all throughout World War II. I wanted to tell a story of Muslims and Jews saving one another. We are in divisive times in general, but there is an assumption that Muslims and Jews are supposed to hate one another. That’s the only narrative that you hear in the media, and I wanted to change that. Even if it was just of a tidbit.”
Before Zejneba brings Rifka into her home, her sister-in-law, Bahra, sees Zejneba reading a Jewish book. Bahra scolds her and says, “What will the Germans do if they find out we have Jewish books here?” In America, we have seen the news stories of teachers having books being ripped from their classrooms. No, it’s not at the extreme level as what we saw at the beginning of World War II, but Vajrača’s film subtly explores the beginnings of an environment of fear.
“I am somebody who really believes that fear and love live closely on the spectrum, and if you make decisions out of fear, it will lead to one path,” she said. “If you lead with love, it will lead to another, and I try to live by that example. I don’t always succeed, unfortunately. I was a kid when a war in Bosnia happened, and it took me a really long time to forgive the Serbs on the ground for turning away and not helping us. We were persecuted and were almost sent to concentration camps. That’s just my experience. In times of such enormous fear, some of us shut own and only think about our small circle or to those that we consider family. In order for us, as a society to overcome evil, we need to think outside of those circles. Our reptilian brains want to save itself. We all have it in us to overcome fear if we can see it for what it is, and we sometimes express that fear as anger. In terms of books being taken, it’s really remarkable how we don’t value arts and humanities in the same way that we value other things. What is the first thing that regimes try to get rid of? Art is the one thing that we can influence the world. The words we put in people’s head can change how we see the world. A book can teach you to be kind or have a more positive outlook, and that can be threatening. ”
Moments after Rifka secures safety, Bahra’s husband, Izet, is concerned that the soldiers will find her and punish their family. As Zejneba and Izet argue, Vajrača concentrates on Rifka’s distressed face. It was a choice that I particularly loved was something the director wanted to focus on in that moment.
“It was an idea that came to me when I was talking with my cinematographer, Alan [Alilovic],” Vajrača said. “We didn’t want to do something obvious. When you are in a situation with someone deciding their fate–and you do that with children a lot–you treat them as if they aren’t there. Almost like a piece of furniture. We wanted to, as an audience, to be in her shoes and imagine what it would be like for you as they are deciding whether it’s worth it to save your life. It’s such an uncomfortable feeling, and we wanted to see what we could do in that instance. We can imagine the fight going on above their heads, but we wanted to go against the instinct of ignoring Rifka as the fight goes on. I felt it was important.”
As Zejneba brings Rifka’s husband, Josef, to safety, they are stopped by an officer on the street. Vajrača’s script briefly and succinctly establishes the relationship between the officer and Zejneba with just a few lines. As they are walking away, the officer says, “Don’t you worry. It won’t be long before we round up you lot too.” It’s a chilling line that could stop anyone in their tracks. The following scene is calm and shrouds the characters in a warm embrace of safety.
“It comes to back to the question of fear and love. The threat is enormous, and you can still succumb to love,” Vajrača said about the transition. “As a storyteller, I love creating transitions in the editing process. The last thing we see the soldier say is, “Round up all the Jews,” but then the next image we see is a Jewish couple safe. I really wanted to have that juxtaposition and play with the tension of a threat and see what these people would do in these situations.”
While Sevap/Mitzvah is set on a global scale it is, ultimately, a story of the bravery of love. We have the power within us to stand for what’s right. We just need to tap into it. Vajrača has high hopes for more audiences to learn about this section of Bosnian history.
“There are many examples of Bosnian Muslims helping Bosnian Jews in World War II, but the reason why this story struck me is that these are two ordinary women. Zejneba is a traditional Muslim woman living in a traditional Muslim household so her power is nonexistent really,” she said. “Her husband loves and respects her, but she still has to figure out a way to do this. A man could’ve, we think, done a lot more. I wanted us, as an audience, to be inspired by someone who still has the power to change someone’s life. We constantly believe that we can’t do anything. “Who am I to go up against this big thing?” is something we think, but I wanted an audience to be moved and inspired to remember that when evil comes knocking on your door…you have more power than you perceive.”