The Last of Us director Jamila Zbanic on making Jackson – Interview
After the most acclaimed film of her career, Jasmila Žbanić brought her personal experiences to a fictional story that touched on the same basic human needs.
(Editor’s note: Included in the following review spoilers for “The Last of Us” Season 1, Episode 6, “Kin.”
Throughout its first season, “The Last of Us” told the story of people figuring out how to move on with life after the unthinkable. Some of the main characters of the HBO series have dedicated their lives to making sure that a massive global tragedy is less an end than a new beginning. The context is different, but the latest “Who” episode runs parallel to the last entry in director Jasmila Žbanić’s filmography, “Quo Vadis, Aida?” with title.
The film details the events surrounding the Srebrenica massacre in July 1995, which claimed the lives of 8,000 men and boys who lived in the town in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina. The legacy of war, especially the one that decimated his hometown of Sarajevo for much of the early 1990s, is a theme that runs through much of Žbanić’s work. From movies like ‘Quo Vadis, Aida?’ (nominated for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film), which present the war itself to others, such as “Grbavica” and “On the Road”, which examine how the post-conflict years shaped the city and the entire region, Žbanić’s stories confront the past, present and future.
The ability to consider all three at once was key to “Kin,” the episode of “The Last of Us” that introduces Jackson, a Wyoming refuge where a small but thriving society searches for ways to continue a deadly after a pandemic.
“This episode was very important to me because I felt a lot of similarities with what I experienced in the war,” Žbanić said. “Sarajevo was in some ways like a Jackson, surrounded by enemies. The people living inside had to somehow continue life, they had to find a way to produce electricity and food. All of these made me very attached to Jackson. Before I started, I didn’t know the game, but after watching it, after researching everything, I was like, “Oh, I know Jackson really well.”
That personal connection to what the show had to offer extended to Jackson’s look and what it stood for. Žbanić can tell so much about a location by patiently showing how an outsider moves through it, be it Jackson, Srebrenica or Sarajevo. There are no cars to be seen in Jackson, but the main road through the commune is still bustling in many ways. Mostly in the people passing by Maria (Rutina Wesley) who introduces the newcomers to this town.
“I like the extras, the faces of the extras. In my previous film and in this episode, I really hand-picked the faces because I think that’s what creates that social feeling. Every corner, every table, every person is really thought of,” said Žbanić.
Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) may finally leave Jackson for the promise of the Fireflies’ hideout deep in the Rockies, but you don’t have to be a gamer to sense that this may not be the last look at this town, which “The Last of Us” can store. Knowing that he was building a foundation that the show could return to, he and the rest of the show’s creative team put a lot of thought into how things worked in Jackson. It wasn’t all exteriors, dive bars, and living quarters – they took the few introductory details Maria offers Joel and Ellie and expanded on them.
“We talked a lot about how these people eat, how they grow their own food, how they cook together. One side protects me, the other prepares food, makes clothes, mends shoes,” said Žbanić. “It was also very important for us to have a cinema. Even during the war in Sarajevo, we had nothing, but we had a film festival. You cannot live as a human being without dignity. It was very important to me that they find a way to live a life of dignity.”
Between Žbanić’s personal experiences and those of the characters in the series, there was a chance that Jackson represented a different form of structuring society. Žbanić has been interested in the topic for a long time, which he will be able to pursue in a new documentary, which will present the life and public works of former Sarajevo mayor Emerik Blum.
“I believe that life goes on. Even in the worst of circumstances, people find ways to create a society. A particularly successful society is a society based on solidarity,” said Žbanić. “I witnessed it. During the war, I had the feeling that people were much kinder to each other in Sarajevo. They didn’t care about material things, many of the things we deal with now. We were all equal because we had nothing. There are different ways of organizing society, but this one has proven to be successful. So I was really happy that Jackson was portrayed like that, and it gives me hope.”
Beyond the thematic connection to Jackson and confronting things beyond, Žbanić said he enjoyed collaborating on the TV process. And she’s not done with TV yet – she’s also currently working on a Bosnian series that will reunite her with ‘Quo Vadis, Aida?’ with the series. star Jasna Đuričić.
“For me, it was about the people I wanted to be with and learn from. If there are people who inspire me, I want to do other things,” said Žbanić. “I make films under different conditions, in a European way. However, it was a new experience for me, how to bring someone else’s vision to the pictures. It’s different from what I’ve done before, but I like it because I’m a team player.”
“The Last of Us” airs new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO and can be streamed on HBO Max.
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