Interview with Francesco Montagner, the director of Brotherhood // Verzió X ELTE

Francesco Montagner's second feature documentary film, Brotherhood, explores questions of masculinity, patriarchy, identity and destiny. It is an intimate and timeless documentary revolving around three young brothers living on their father's sheep farm. We are talking with the director.

You were born in Italy and then you studied in Prague. How did you stumble into the story of a Bosnian shepherd family?

I was looking for a school exercise and then I saw in the TV in an Italian reportage about the family, the father and his three sons. I got interested right away because I studied in Prague with many people from Ex-Yugoslavia. And when all of the sudden in 2015 the war was happening in Syria and ISIS was at its peak, I realized there was this small community of Bosnians who are being radicalized and they are going to Syria. So, when I saw a bit of this family in that reportage by luck, I got interested right away, because they were so unique. I wanted to know what their future in such a family could be like. I was wondering what these three brothers’ lives will be like in some years after their teenager years.

When you proposed them the idea of a documentary about them, what was their reaction?

Well, they were curious, also a bit scared. The father already had quite a big media exposure. The boys were curious, as any other boy. There was a chance to meet with us, to not be bored all the time with the sheep. They took it as a game. In the beginning, they were a bit skeptical, but then slowly they started to like it and to play with us and maybe even to propose scenes to shoot for the film. They started to be more and more engaged with the process. It wasn’t difficult to form a relationship with them and to make them like our presence, it was obviously so much harder with the father and the rest of the community.

You were filming for over more than four years with the boys, so they basically grew up in front of your eyes. How did you bond with them, how did you reach that level of trust?

It was not really difficult. I feel like Bosnian culture is very similar to mine. It’s also a Mediterranean culture, so it was kind of easy to get into their rules and life habits. At the end of the day, they’re only beautiful people, they’re simple boys. They saw me and the crew as older boys to be around with. And not only they grew up, but I also grew up with them. It was a big privilege for me to follow such a delicate moment of their lives. I think we gained their trust when they understood that we’re not there to make a journalist reportage but a documentary. That we are looking for their own thoughts. We gave them space to open up about what they really want to say. We were only, let’s say, a camera allowing their words to be shared with the world.

Are you still in touch with them?

Of course, we are still in touch through social media. I’ve been trying hard to bring them to one of the premieres, but so far with not much of a luck because of the covid restrictions. Also, they are not EU citizens, so it is complicated to make them travel.

In the film, we can see the brothers’ transitions from childhood to adulthood. Was it difficult to watch their personality slowly change and drift away from each other without intervening?

I had the feeling that I should not intervene, because they were doing it out of good will. It was their own life, their own process. The only way I could help them out was to legitimize their actions. Whatever they meant, I was not there to be judgmental but to listen and be helpful if they wanted some help from us to achieve their own goals. But yeah, definitely, it was very nice to be with them for such a long time, but also often very difficult to watch them struggle. For example, Usama, the middle one, spent whole winters, spent seven months in a tent, while his father was away.

Brotherhood explores themes like masculinity, finding one’s own identity and the consequences of an oppressive father. Was this the original concept to start with?

Well, in the beginning, I was more focused on the father. I was shooting with boys from the start, but their father had a more central role in my very first idea. And then the more we were spending time with the boys, the more we realized that the father was not so interesting as he was the stereotype of that kind of a man: patriarchal, strict and old. There was so much more energy, dynamism and dilemmas into the brothers’ lives, so we decided to shift all the importance to the boys. And regarding the themes, some yes and some. The themes of masculinity and looking for identity came with the film and the characters. Other themes like war, heritage and the conflict with the father were things we wanted from the beginning, because these were central to the story. I went there with the idea of “Who do you become as a man when you have a father like that? When you grow up in such a family?”.

It was so interesting to see that all three of the boys had such a different reaction to their sudden “freedom”.

This was one of the reasons why I was attracted to their story: I noticed that they are three very different people. On one hand, Jabir is a bit more mundane, opportunist and secular and on the other hand, you have Usama, who is more romantic and idealist, who really wants to believe in some ideals. And then there is little Useir, the sensitive one, who doesn’t know which brother’s path to follow. He doesn’t like either, both are too extreme for him.

Your documentary depicts a world that is technically not far away but feels like it is lightyears from us, both in the sense of time and space. The film puts emphasis on the lack of modern technology, the remnants of the war and the isolation in the nature. Was this an artistic decision that you made? Or did you just try to capture the raw, rural Bosnia in its truest form?

It was a conscious decision that I chose these characters. I was interested precisely in the clash, in the synchronization of their two worlds. They live in such an ancient world and yet they’re interested in Jihad, Syria and contemporary, foreign issues. There was this strong contrast between the modernity and this ancient, archived world. I wanted to dig into this contrast and find answers to my questions. But at the same time, what I represented there is actually too raw. I mean, they live in the nature like that, I did not isolate them. They live in such a secluded way in the middle of the nature. So, these terms only made it easier for me, I only had to shape and represent their lives in the most authentic way. Also, they’re not actors. There were a few moments for which we worked together, but for most scenes are a result of observation.

And finally, do you already have a next project in mind? If yes, can you maybe tell us a bit about it?

I’m working on shorter documentaries right now. I am thinking of an idea of a bigger film, but it’s not clear yet. What I can say is that I am going to work on very similar themes. For example, I’ll keep on exploring masculinity both in a good and a bad way. I’m fascinated by these places, which are at the same time beautiful and a prison for the characters. I am interested in the frustration of being stuck in a place where you are born to, but you don’t belong. These topics are dear to me and I want to keep exploring them.


Brotherhood won the 'Golden Leopard - Filmmakers of the Present’ award at the Locarno Film Festival in 2021. The film was awarded with Special Mention by the jury in the International Competition at the 18th Verzió Film Festival.


Hanna Toperczer

ELTE BTK, Media and Communications student