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Image credit: Jade Jackman

Aleksandra Bilic: Telling stories

Aleksandra Bilic: Telling stories

How experience can become a driving force for change

Image above: Profile picture of Aleksandra Bilic

#LCJB winner, Jade Jackman talks to Aleksandra Bilic, the Founder of video project, Page She, about how being a child refugee brought her to where she is now and gave her a passion for storytelling.

“’Don’t scratch at the surface of things too much’ my dad once said. And I’d imagine a bruise with horrible bloody secrets hidden inside it,” Aleksandra Bilic recalls, thinking of her childhood.

But, then, she adds, “I talk about my past now and I’ve embraced it. I think it’s a particularly important time to do so. I think I owe it to people going through a similar thing.”

Originally, the filmmaker and script writer came to England as a refugee from Sarajevo, in what was then known as Yugoslavia. Tragically, the region descended into a genocide that eventually claimed around 250,000 lives and displaced many more.

Yet, as Alek quickly acknowledges, she was fortunate to be one of those who were able to leave. This same sentiment informs her aforementioned sense of responsibility to use her experiences to educate others. 

At the outset, arrival in the United Kingdom was tough – not only due to the emotional toll of leaving friends and family in a war zone but due to the misconceptions held over the heads of those who do. For Alek, a general sense of embarrassment – due to being foreign and from a place that was constantly on the news – clouds her thoughts. Other instances of casual racism still leave a mark on her mind.

“We had two next door neighbours, two young boys with shock blond hair. In my memory they are little skinheads but I don’t think they really were. I had a white teddy, with a Sarajevo t-shirt. One of the boys threw the bear in the mud.

“Another time, I remember my mum taking us to the park to play with the kids of a new friend she’d made. We ran off with the kids. I was used to playing cowboys and Indians with my brother, so I said ‘hands up or I’ll shoot you’ to the daughter. My mum’s friend told me off – with proper rage in her eyes – and said, ‘In this country, we don’t talk like that’.”

Storytelling and cultural dialogue

Consistently treating people as the “other” harms much of our discourse around refugees, migration and freedom of movement. In fact, it can be little comments that end up creating the biggest feeling of difference.

Yet, Alek’s experiences led her to become passionate about storytelling to encourage more of a cultural dialogue between all sorts of people. Thoughtfully, she adds “I’ve noticed this is similar with a lot of cultures which have been uprooted. It’s a fragile way of holding on to and celebrating identity. I think in former Yugoslavia there is a huge storytelling culture – whether they are tall tales told by tall men or nostalgic love stories for a painful time long gone told by shrinking grandmas.

“We’re always telling stories. It’s in our blood, and there are so many to tell. We don’t even have words for ‘nonfiction’ and ‘fiction’. I grew up listening to my family tell stories – those have shaped who I am today and I wanted to continue that legacy. It’s important.”

A force for change

Much of the rhetoric that surrounds refugees portrays them as people trying to take something from other countries. But Alek’s spirit shows how experience can become a driving force for change.

“I used to feel quietly guilty about everything, as I had family and friends who remained in the Balkans throughout the whole conflict,” she tells me. “But, today, I am grateful to the way the stars aligned themselves for me  that I am in a position now where I can tell stories, where I can engage with so many incredible people on a day-to-day basis and create with them, facilitate projects, support voices and in general be a strong person. 

Burnt out cars next to burnt out buildings

A street in Sarajevo during the Yugoslav Wars that took place from 1991 to 2001. Image credit: Ulicar Streets 

“I'm drawn to telling stories about displacement, those that challenge audiences. And in a similar vein those are the stories I am most drawn to – genuine ones that are accessible to all audiences and explore bigger narratives through a personal lense.” 

Page She

In her latest project, Page She, Alek does exactly that. With Page She, Alek and her co-founders have distilled the sometimes dry, heavy and disenfranchising topic of feminism into enjoyable snapshots of inspirational women. 

Rather than take a heavy-handed approach, the energy and spirit of the women emerge leaving the viewer with an insight into the life of a female doing it her way, insightfully revealing the many forms of ‘womanhood’. So, perhaps it is unsurprising that she feels that she gets her attitude and inspiration from the women closest to her.  

“Really, it’s the women in my family who are my everything,” she says. “Every day I think about what they had to go through when I was a kid, being displaced, uprooted and how they still managed to hold it together and raise me, provide me with a life that I am grateful for.”

Without falling into the trap of praising “productive” refugees or migrants, these sorts of stories – and listening to individuals, like Alek – are as important as they are necessary.

Globally, we are seeing a shift towards nationalistic and protectionist modes of governance. To fight back, charities and other organisations are falling back onto campaigns that dehumanise individuals by showing them only in the most desperate of situations. Of course, this is vital to galvanise fundraising efforts to those in dire need.

However, across Europe and America, populist politics argue that those from other cultures and countries will fail to integrate on arrival. To combat this, we need to diversify the conversation by amplifying the experiences of others, like Alek, and reinforce that it is just luck where you are born.

“I'm drawn to telling stories about displacement, those that challenge audiences. And in a similar vein those are the stories I am most drawn to – genuine ones that are accessible to all audiences and explore bigger narratives through a personal lense.” 

Aleksandra Bilic