Bosnian Roma iron picker turned award-winning actor applies for asylum in Berlin

Bosnian Roma iron picker turned award-winning actor applies for asylum in Berlin

BERLIN - The Associated Press
Bosnian Roma iron picker turned award-winning actor applies for asylum in Berlin

A photo taken on February 20, 2013 shows Nazif Mujic holding his Silver Bear from 2013 Berlinale film Festival in front of his home in the village of Svatovac. AFP photo

Nazif Mujic flashes a toothless smile and his entire face lights up when he recalls how he won the best actor award at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2013: "I went up on stage, everybody was cheering, everybody wanted to talk to me - it was like walking on clouds."

Mujic, a gypsy from a small village in Bosnia, won the Silver Bear for his role in "An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker" by director Danis Tanovic. The film is about Mujic's real-life struggle to save his wife's life after she had a miscarriage.

Now, almost a year later, the movie star has turned into an asylum seeker. He returned to Berlin in November, this time with his family to make his asylum bid, although he was vague about what grounds he was basing his application on. He was rejected by the German authorities and is now desperately fighting his deportation, slated for March.

Sitting in a coffee shop near the asylum center in a forest on the outskirts of Berlin, Mujic looks defeated. He has dark circles under his eyes, wears two black coats on top of each other, but is still shuddering from the cold Berlin winter.

"They promised me money, a job, a good home, an education for my children - but instead I was betrayed," Mujic, 43, said bitterly during an interview with The Associated Press. More than anything he feels that Tanovic, the director, turned his back on him. "Everywhere he is showing the movie about my poverty and making money with it," he said. "But I'm still poor."

He and his wife made only 100 euros per day during the shooting which lasted 27 days, he said, and he did not get any cut of the movie's sales. Repeated calls to Tanovic and producer Amra Baksic-Camo seeking comment went unanswered. Last week, Tanovic told Germany's tageszeitung newspaper that he always treated Mujic with love and respect and wishes he could have helped him more.

The production company said the movie cost 17,000 euros, and that most of the crew worked for free because it was an important story to tell.

When Mujic returned to his village of Poljice after the awards ceremony last February, the neighbors welcomed the nearly illiterate gypsy with a big celebration. Everybody was proud of him. A butcher from Sarajevo even promised to buy him a set of dentures, but the stardom didn't last long.

Mujic said he had initially hoped to become a "real actor," but nobody came and offered him a new role. Soon other gypsies, or Roma, did not let Mujic work in his old job as a scrap metal collector anymore because they were convinced he had become a rich movie star, he said. After a while, Mujic found a job as a garbage collector in the nearby town of Lukavac, only to be humiliated by people in the streets who, he said, laughed that a film star would pick up trash.

He said he eventually hurt his back so badly that he quit the job. "At the end of autumn, we were so poor that we didn't have anything left to eat," Mujic said. "That's when I decided to go back to Berlin."
 But things turned out to be quite different this time.

His visa is the 'teddy bear'

Last year, a limousine picked him up for the awards ceremony; he had a bodyguard and walked down the red carpet with journalists begging him for interviews. Now he is sharing one cramped room with his wife Senada and their three little children. The guards at the asylum center don't allow him to invite reporters on the compound, and he is always afraid that somebody is going to steal his silver bear. Mujic therefore keeps the 20 centimeter-high trophy - a bear standing on its back legs as if it were dancing - in a black bag that he carries with him at all times. He affectionately calls it "my teddy bear."

Germany has not accepted asylum seekers from Bosnia in years, because it considers the country politically stable. Mujic now hopes to get help staying in Germany from the Berlin Film Festival - the people who made him famous to begin with.

"When we found out a week ago that Mujic is back in town, we contacted him immediately," said Frauke Greiner, a spokeswoman for the Berlin Film Festival. She said the family has been invited to this year's festival, which starts on Feb. 6, and staff members have privately raised money to pay for a lawyer. "His situation is difficult, but we're hoping the lawyer can help him."

Lately, Mujic said, he feels like a dancing bear himself - like the ones that gypsies put on leashes and forced to entertain crowds. "I don't have any influence on my life."

Despite the problems Mujic encountered since winning the award last year, he still believes the prize was more blessing than curse. "The teddy bear is my visa to Germany," he said, caressing its shiny head.