In the mountains where they once fought, a motorcycle club led by Bosnian War veterans defends a herd of wild horses, discovering a new kind of freedom for themselves…
Today, we’re excited to showcase Among Wolves (2019), a new documentary that follows The Wolves, a multi-ethnic motorcycle club comprised largely of Bosnian War veterans who help defend and protect a threatened herd of wild horses — animals they met on the front lines of the war. Their leader, Lija, led a paramilitary force of 250 men in the successful defense of their small mountain town when he was just 20 years old. Now he leads the motorcycle club, which participates in rallies, organizes charity for the community, works to protect the horses, and more.
The documentary is filmed in an observational style that becomes almost hypnotic for the viewer. Says RogerEbert.com:
“There’s great poignance in how the men feel compelled to protect a herd of wild horses, since the creatures have been discarded by society much like the veterans themselves. As a meditative mood piece, the film builds an arresting power…”
Other critics have called Among Wolves a “hypnotic, cinematic poem…[a] mesmerizing documentary” and said of the film, “As we spend long scenes watching the horses play and graze with [the bikers], some of that psychic soothing may rub off on the viewer as well.” It certainly had that effect on us.
Over the holidays, we caught up with filmmaker Shawn Convey to learn more about the creation of this powerful documentary, which took more than twelve years from the time he first jumped on a plane to the Former Yugoslavia to the premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival. As you might imagine, the road was a rough one, with limited funding, language barriers, and the challenge of winning the trust of The Wolves themselves. Says Shawn:
“It probably isn’t too hard to imagine the difficulties of getting a bunch of veterans, most of which were in an MC, to trust and open up to you…”
But, over time, The Wolves opened up their world to the filmmakers, and the result is a quiet, yet beautiful portrait of a community, a club, and a herd of wild horses — a film that might change how you view motorcycle clubs and the region as a whole. Says Shawn:
“They live as an antidote to those stereotypes.”
Interview: Shawn Convey, Among Wolves
“Can you tell us a bit about yourself, your background, and how you got into filmmaking?”
Well… I actually came up through photography and arrived late to the party when it comes to filmmaking… It wasn’t until my mid 20’s that I discovered films with substance and meaning. I grew up during a time when Hollywood really embraced corporate tie-ins and product placement, so while I loved going to the movies, it was a pretty hollow experience and one that rarely left much to consider or discuss when over. So when I finally started seeing films that you “had” to talk about just to wrap your head around…well let’s just say, that was enthralling…
A bit later when directors like Wong Kar-Wai and Lars Von Trier started using SD digital cameras (opposed to celluloid film) for some amazing cinema, I made a decision to switch my focus from photography to film. Until this “digital revolution” of filmmaking came about the medium was prohibitively expensive and just too big of a cost and a dream for someone who was raised in a lower middle-class blue collar family outside of Buffalo, NY. It still took me several years to muster up the courage to make that switch.
“What led you to this story, and how did you approach The Wolves — were they receptive to the concept?”
So my journey to the Former Yugoslavia in search of AMONG WOLVES is a bit crazy… I traveled to Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia Herzegovina in late 2005, rented a car and drove all over by myself. I found the area fascinating but also quite depressing… The war was still very present and the weather was gloomy as it was late fall. I left after two weeks feeling a bit beat down and had way more questions on that plane back then I did on my plane there. So I decided that I would use this confusion and frustration to be my inspiration for my first film. Knowing how I work and knowing that I needed to “go big” in order to succeed, I decided to sell everything I owned, buy the equipment needed to film and a one way ticket to the Fmr. Yugoslavia and not come back to the USA until I had a story that humanized the people.
I felt that the media had done such an awful job demonizing and stereotyping people and to my mind that wasn’t fair or accurate. So without any contacts there or even an idea of where I would land I hopped on a 1-way plane to Dubrovnik (HR) and eventually hitchhiked to Mostar (BiH) where I lived for the next four years. Two years after arriving, while in Mostar, I heard that there were these middle-age guys who were trying to save some wild horses a few hours away in the town of Livno. Me and a couple of friends drove out the next week and that is when I first met Lija and Zeljko. It took many visits back over the next two years before they were open to the idea of me making a film on them and I think they always thought I was a bit crazy and probably never thought I would go through with it or finish it… But in 2013 I arrived in Livno and told them I would be staying for the next eight months. I did and that is the majority of the film.
“I know you said it took some 12 years to make the film. Can you tell us a little about the process, how you shot it, and was there a language barrier?”
Yeah, twelve years from getting on that plane to our premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival. A lot of what took so long was first finding the story (first meeting Lija and Zeljko) and then, as mentioned above, earning their trust. It probably isn’t too hard to imagine the difficulties of getting a bunch of Veterans, most of which were in a MC to trust and open up to you… I knew this would be tough and as such I figured I would have to just keep filming all the time and earn their trust by attempting to deliver on my promises as much as possible. In the end, myself and Martin Langner (our other DP) captured 425 hours of footage, which all needed to be translated and edited by our insanely talented editor Katharina Fiedler into what became AMONG WOLVES. One of the biggest hurdles was we were never able to secure any financing other than a couple of Kickstarters. Foundations wouldn’t touch a foreign film, from a first time director about an area that no one is talking about anymore. As such, I needed to put tons of my own money into the project which meant I needed to work non-stop and spend all my earnings on the making of the film.
There was a spoken language barrier for sure, I never learned the local language as my time in Mostar and Sarajevo allowed me to keep speaking English as many do in those bigger cities… However in Livno most didn’t speak English so I really needed to rely on my buddy Djanan “Baka” Bakamovic who helped do all the things that I and Martin couldn’t do by ourselves (we were a functional team of 2-3 people while filming… Most of the time it was just me and Baka, and when we were lucky it was Martin, Baka and myself doing everything.) That said I am a very strong believer in visual storytelling and that a good film shows the viewer without explicitly telling them. So, I set out to make my liability (not speaking the language) an asset by looking for the shots, scenes and visuals that would drive the story forward. In the end I think it worked.
“Are you a motorcyclist yourself? Did the film change your perception of motorcyclists and mc clubs?”
I actually don’t ride, never have. Which I have to admit was one of the things that drew me to The Wolves… I am always fascinated by what I don’t know, it is one of the things I love most about living abroad…everything is new. So yeah, never rode a motorcycle and I was of course aware of the “stereotypes” that are associated with biker clubs, which is something that I found even more intriguing. From the onset, I knew I wanted to make a film that humanized the people, showed “normal” people doing good with little and I wanted to challenge any stereotypes that audiences may have coming into the film and ultimately correct those stereotypes (like Bikers, Balkans, Veterans, Men etc…) by showing them to be untrue.
The film is actually constructed in a very atypical way, it is almost a reverse structure to what you are taught to do in storytelling… We start out on a high or climatic type note off the bat, which at first blush is maybe supporting your stereotypes and misconceptions and then slowly throughout the film as you get to know the guys better you are not only left feeling gently corrected but you are left with something approaching raw humanity and (hopefully) with a “realistic form of hope,” which is so different than the way that Hollywood portrays hope.
“Who was your favorite member of the club to film/spend time with? Any comic stories to share?”
Favorite member huh? Well that is a tough one for sure… Lija is probably one of the strongest most admirable people I have ever met, he has a moral compass that is unwavering and truly a person whose word means something. At the age of 20 he led a multi-ethnic paramilitary force of 250 men in the successful defense of their town. He is a born leader and a great guy.
I became really close to both Braco and Nino while filming. Nino (the guy who is always singing) is crazy funny and amazing to be around, we had many a fun night w/ far too many Hladno Pivo’s (Cold Beers) into the wee hours. Braco has a poet’s heart and is always thinking big picture — the monologue that opens the film is Braco’s unrehearsed statement to the questions about how the war affected Livno and actually Braco made the journey from Bosnia Herzegovina to Chicago for our premiere. Really they are an amazing bunch of guys, when I mentioned above that I wanted to start the film by “supporting” (misleading the viewer a bit) some of the stereotypes people may have of bikers that was actually nearly impossible to do as I never saw them behaving “poorly” in all my time there. They live as an antidote to those stereotypes.
“The film has received amazing reviews. One critic called it “A hypnotic, cinematic poem…[a] mesmerizing documentary” and another said, “A gracefully photographed first film…. As we spend long scenes watching the horses play and graze with [the bikers], some of that psychic soothing may rub off on the viewer as well.” (It certainly rubbed off on me.) What has been The Wolves reception to the film?“
Honestly, I think it took them a little while to warm up to it. Kevin Ripp (our writer / EP and my partner in much of this process) and I went to Livno for their 15th Motor Rally and we screened the film in the town auditorium the night before the big day… It was a packed house filled with The Wolves, their family and some of their friends from other clubs in the area. While the movie was playing I realized that I had been so focused on “portraying everyone accurately” that I never actually took a step back and realized what an “accurate” portrayal looks like to the person it is of. For instance, I would hope if anyone set out to portray me they would be a hell of a lot kinder than “accurate”! This coupled with a style of filmmaking that is not common there (and really most places) left them kinda quiet after the lights came on.
Lija came up to me and said that everything on the screen was true and accurate (a relief for sure but hardly a glowing response). So that evening when we were at the rally site eating roast lamb and pig and drinking tons of beer, I realized that most of the club was treating me a bit more like one of them than they had in the past but others were clearly skeptical. I suspected this was because they weren’t sure how “others” say in America would view them. I later became fearful that some felt that the film may be supporting the negative stereotypes of the Balkans that I set out there to challenge. After all, the media has only ever portrayed this area and its people really poorly. So fast forward to our Festival Premiere and Braco is there with another member I am really close to (Jakman). We sold out the two screenings scheduled and the festival needed to add a third date due to demand. Braco and Jakman joined me on stage that first night and it was there that I they understood that they were really being seen by the audience in a positive light. The audience had so many questions and praiseful complements during these Q&A’s that Braco must have shared with the other club members because shortly after his return the sharing of AMONG WOLVES social media posts started going wild from club members, many adopted the logo for the film as their avatars and all in all I have felt quite good about their reception to the film. When we screened the film in Berlin I was surprised by eight members who were living in Germany, Austria and Switzerland who drove many many hours for the single screening!
“What’s next for Mark of Man, your production company?”
Well, despite AMONG WOLVES arduous journey, I am still “all in” on feature length metaphoric observational documentaries that will be difficult to get funding for. Right now I am in Sri Lanka with my wife who is here on a Fulbright Scholar Award and I am honing in on something that I think will be very beautiful, rhythmic, poetic, and culturally preserving. I am feeling good about its prospects but one of the many challenges of this type of film, as one never really knows until you are in the thick of it if it will be good in the end. As I am starting the next thing, I am also hoping to finish the very first thing. Before I started principal photography for AMONG WOLVES my then girlfriend now wife brought me to India where we filmed an amazing organization (Kolkata Sanved) who helps rehabilitate victims of human-trafficking, violent crimes and street children with Dance Movement Therapy. The “trainers” were themselves once participants from the program so one of the many beautiful things is that those helping those in need come from the exact same demographics, neighborhoods and have experienced similar trauma in their life. The title of the film is “Within that Fire” we are currently editing (and searching for finishing funds) and are very excited to share this experiential look into an important and misunderstood form of creative art therapy from the street level.
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