INTERVIEW WITH JANE BIRKIN

As a great humanitarian, she first visited Sarajevo in 1994, together with her friend Francis Bueb who opened the first French bookstore in Sarajevo. Bueb, founder and director of the André Malraux cultural center, invited Birkin to visit Sarajevo during the war and bring a touch of French culture and art to the wounded city. As a guest of literary gatherings organized by this cultural center, she had the opportunity to meet students and professors from Sarajevo, as well as ordinary people that she loved photographing with her Polaroid camera in the streets.

An extract from the interview.

When you first visited Sarajevo, the city was still under siege. Looking back, two decades later, what are some of your most vivid memories from that time?

When I arrived in Sarajevo with the rest of the crew, I was in an armored vehicle. It was late evening, or early morning, I really cannot recall anymore. I wondered where all the people were because the streets seemed so deserted. I carried my suitcases up the stairs to the entrance of the apartment where we were supposed to stay. I was, so to speak, a part of a humanitarian group organized by Olivier Rollin, a friend of mine who seemed to lived through similar situations a thousand times before. He was so calm the entire time, compared to the rest of us. We climbed to the last floor, one by one, in line. In the apartment, we were kindly greeted by our host, a man sitting down and feeding pigeons through the broken kitchen window. He seemed very depressed. We then met an old lady from the apartment next door. She was so happy about the medicine we brought from Paris. I recall that she had some sort of heart condition, and the pills we brought were the ones she needed. That made me happy. It did not take us long to realize that there was no drinking water in the building and that the toilet was not functioning properly. Our host was very unhappy about this and seemed embarrassed that he was unable to provide us with better conditions of stay. So, I went downstairs in my slippers, to a narrow street located between the two buildings. I crouched between cars destroyed by sniper bullets and... peed. I was terrified, of course, because I could hear the sound of bullets being fired above my head. I asked to sleep in the same bed with Francis, as they informed us that there were strange men rolling around on the rooftop of our building. I had already come to terms with the fact that a grenade or a bomb might kill me, but I was not prepared for suspicious men on my roof! The morning after, I woke up very tired as I barely slept. I was getting ready in a hurry because we were already late for our first meeting with Sarajevo students. We hurriedly unpacked our bags in which we brought the books we planned to gift to them. I also carried an extra suitcase. Before the trip, I asked my mother what to bring to the war-torn city and she told me: „Schiaparelli Shocking Pink perfumes!“ Wait, I said, what do you mean... perfumes? What about baby milk, food, medicine? „No, my dear“, she said, „when you lose everything, then all you have to look forward to are insignificant trifles“. So, I packed perfumes, colorful baby blankets, and board games for the kids, like jigsaw puzzles and POG. My wish was to keep them off the streets, to make them feel safe in their homes because the streets were dangerous at that time. I also brought a lot of flower seeds and silk nightgowns.

This does not come as a surprise at all, as it seems that you brought your true self to Sarajevo. The people here remember you as a great woman. How do you remember them?

I like to think that we all brought a touch of Paris to Sarajevo during the war. The entire trip was perfectly organized by Bueb. Every single day, we ran down the so-called sniper street to meet with the students and their professors. This was somewhere around the airport. Oh God, what a joy it was when the female students saw the silk nightgowns I packed! My mother was absolutely right! Then I met the wonderful headmistress of one high school, who used to come to our building on a  daily basis to hold classes, because most of the high schools and university buildings were already shelled and unsuitable for teaching. We only ate at a pizzeria nearby, and I remember that this was the only place that accepted Deutch marks that we had with us. This also proved to be an easier way of going to the toilet because the pizza place never ran out of the water (laughter!). I met many beautiful women and girls, and I especially remember a gorgeous lady who lived near the French library, in an almost ruined building. She was designing dresses out of old curtains, and she looked like Scarlett O'Hara to me. The girls moved so quickly through the streets, but always beautifully groomed, clean and wearing beautiful dresses. They probably did it out of spite to the Serbs who were aiming at them through sniper rifles as they waited in line to fill the empty vessels with water. I have seen the pride of people in Sarajevo; people who never complained and always cared for us as their guests. One professor's story touched me a lot. She told me that her students achieved the best possible results that year, and it was out of defiance to the aggressor! The children were so brave and dignified, and the professors related to them in some special way. Almost every family I met has lost one of its members. Schools were perhaps the only places that kept the children sane. This is probably all very unrelated, but I will continue if you don't mind... I wanted to videotape one funeral. This was at a Muslim cemetery. As I was filming, I noticed Rollin, who told me that he could see the red glare of a sniper on my shirt. The Serbs were stationed in a Jewish cemetery,  just meters away. They held me as their next mark. I was paralyzed with fear and dropped the camera to the ground. I remember my lips trembling at that moment. But, somehow, I forgot about the fear and helped the men bury their friend, as quick as possible. As a woman, I was not supposed to do that, as this was a Muslim funeral. But, I was so grateful that they let me do it. I talked about this situation with Olivier that same evening, and he said to me: „You did what was suppose to be done.“ I felt at that moment that I was forgiven. I also remember one night when we took a walk down the deserted streets of Sarajevo. We were on our way to an evening of poetry, organized at one basement. A group of soldiers suddenly stopped us and asked why I was holding a camera. They got really mad at us, but once we told them that we are on „their“ side, they let us go. Two of them offered to escort us, to make sure we arrive safely to our destination and eventually attended the poetry reading. I think this experience brightened their night.

Your memories feel so vivid. 

Well, they really are. There was also a moment when I was passing by the Grand Library and found an old edition of the Charles Dickens biography. I wanted to take a photo of the semi-burned book, but a little boy took my attention. He was playing in the ruins of the library, but stood up and walked towards me when he spotted me. He took me to a little shed where he lived, just next to the library. He pointed at my Polaroid camera as if he wanted me to take a photo of something that was inside. I took my shoes off, went inside. The boy took my hand and walked me to a small cradle. „Oh, God, please, don't let it be dead!“, I screamed as I saw the body of a baby inside. It was a very small baby, but alive one. My little friend was pushing me towards the cradle because he wanted me to take a photo of his baby brother. I left him that photo as a gift. I really hope that they survived the war!

After the war, you visited Sarajevo several more times. I get the impression that you love Sarajevo and that you somehow always find a way to come back to it.

My first visit to Sarajevo was much more than just attending literary meetings. Yes, we brought over thousands of books, dictionaries, textbooks, CDs in the French language and French newspapers, but it was a special visit... We provided cultural and moral support to all of the citizens of Sarajevo. In the city's basements, at student gatherings, Rollin read works by Cendrars and Michaux. We then sang a cappella verses of Gainsbourg and Prevert. Each following visit was special, but I remember the war times the most. The people of Sarajevo were very brave, proud and surprisingly calm. They were dignified. That is something that should never be lost or forgotten. I promised myself then and there that I'd always be back. The people of Sarajevo lived in spite of the war. In madness they found peace. That was something I deeply admired.

You are undoubtedly a living fashion icon. However, you seem completely unaware of that fact. Do you realize the impact you have left on the worldwide fashion scene? 

Oh no! One cannot ever be fully aware of this. You know, upon my arrival in France, I had a strong British accent. Because of this, no one wanted to work with me! It was difficult to get some of the more prominent movie roles that were given to Isabelle Adjani or Isabelle Huppert at the time, for example. Maybe it was possible for me to play their sister or something. Let's say I was really nice, or interesting to the movie directors, but I was never good enough. I was different from what could be seen in France at the time. I was unusual. Maybe I could have tried a little more, which I certainly didn't, or not take everything too seriously, which I did. Maybe I could have been a lot more serious from the beginning, and I definitely wasn’t. But, as with everything else, in life, you have to wait your turn for success. Serge was someone who went to fashion shows all the time. He loved watching young girls parade the runways. He chose what to wear and what not to wear. There were some Saint Laurent pieces in my closet, the rest were cotton T-shirts and jeans because that was what I loved and what I felt the best wearing. It would have been great if someone had told me earlier to get rid of the eye makeup. I waited for movies like "Je t'aime ... Moi non plus "or "Dust" to obtain that „I just got out of bed“ look. When I turned forty, the circumstances of my life began to change. Agnès Varda offered me to act in two of her films, and I also played in Patrice Chérau's play "La Fausse Suivante". This is my biggest performance to date. I think it took a lot of courage for a woman to live the way I lived. It wasn't until I was in my forties that I started to try harder than the others, learning the scripts in advance and taking classes so that my French accent would finally win over the British one. Sometime around that time, my music career kicked off, which made me very happy. You know, having the opportunity to perform at La Bataclan is a great honor. People wondered if I could make it, but I did. I proved everyone wrong. I cut my hair short, dressed like a man and just performed. Serge was there to watch, and it was truly magical. I don't know if I would change anything. I don't watch my movies and I don't listen to my music. There are critics to say if I did good or bad, I'm not the one to make a judgment about that. And, the Birkin bag just came along. 

(Interview was originally published in Urban magazine, May 2016.)