Bosnian-born, Portland-based artist and filmmaker Daniela Repas shines a spotlight on the experiences of refugees and other displaced people with her upcoming film Pour the Water As I Leave.
The film, which got its name from the Bosnian tradition of pouring water behind a guest as they leave to wish them a safe journey, is part fiction, part non-fiction animated documentary about the exodus of Bosnian refugees during the Bosnian War.
On March 3, 2023, the Pour The Water As I Leave team held an opening night at a gallery space at 220 SE Market Street in southeast Portland. They will be displaying an installation of photographs and drawings from the film until the end of the month to raise awareness and funds to animate Repas’ drawings into a 90-minute feature-length film.
For the gallery’s closing night on March 31, attendees can catch the premiere of a two-and-a-half minute clip of the film, plus participate in an online auction where—among other things—people can place a bid to have a custom self-portrait made by Repas in her signature style, with all proceeds going towards animating Pour the Water As I Leave into feature length.
When she was just 15 years old, Repas herself became a refugee. When the Bosnian War broke out in the early 1990s, Repas and her family were displaced and lived as refugees across several different countries for around 10 years.
Despite her circumstances, Repas’ passion for art never fizzled. While living in a refugee center in Geneva, Switzerland, Repas held her very first art show with the help of her sister and others who worked at the camp. She has now exhibited her art around the world.
After coming to the United States in 2000, Repas’ artistic career blossomed. She debuted as a film director in 2017 with her multi-award-winning film Mnemonics, in which a Bosnian refugee reflects on her home and brings drawings to life through stories of her past. Repas has since worked on a variety of films, including Blacktop Films’ documentary about Portland’s legendary artist Viva Las Vegas called Thank You For Supporting The Arts and an original short film, Dogs of Home, which uses both animation and live-action segments to display the “ripples of time through war.”
Repas began production for Pour the Water As I Leave in early 2021 in collaboration with Jessica Daugherty, the film’s producer, photographer Simone Fischer, screenwriter, former Vietnamese refugee Vu Pham, and countless others. Early production of the film was an extensive process that included filming a dance sequence with Seattle contemporary dance company Whim W’Him, conducting and shooting seven interviews with Bosnian refugees (including Repas’ mother), and taking a trip to Bosnia where Repas and photographer Simone Fischer captured stunning exterior and interior shots of the Bosnian landscape.
Alongside the interviews with real-life Bosnian refugees, the film incorporates a fictional love story told through the art of dance performed by members of Whim W’him. To help eliminate a language barrier and to push the film beyond Bosnian borders, Repas said choreographer and fellow Princess Grace Award winner Rena Butler was brought on to interpret the film’s fiction element through a series of choreographed dances.
“When I was a refugee, I remembered how many times we used gestures to communicate because, in the refugee center, there were people from all over the world,” Repas said. “And the dance [in the film] came as a heightened version of [these] gestures.”
Finishing the film remains a painstaking, intricate process. Though Repas animated a two-and-a-half-minute segment of the film herself, both Repas and Daughtery estimate that around 20 animators will need to come on board to create the final product.
As an artist, Repas said her main goal is to create a space where people feel safe to discuss trauma. She said that she hopes to create a space where “fear is weakened and where our understanding of each other is more emphasized. I understood that, for my audiences to be there too, I needed to offer my own heartbreak, my own vulnerability.”
Producer Jessica Daugherty said they are also doing an impact campaign along with the film to work with organizations that support refugee communities worldwide and hopefully fundraise for them.“It’s not just the film,” Daugherty said. “It’s what it can do in the world. These stories absolutely, desperately deserve to be heard and stand to make an impact on the general feeling towards refugees and understanding them as humans.”
Too often, Repas said, the conversation around refugees becomes distanced from the humanity of the situation, so much so that people get too caught up in numbers and statistics to remember the human beings behind the headlines.
Now, more than ever, it is imperative to remember the human beings affected by the breaking news stories we all read from the comfort of our homes. Repas said films like Pour the Water As I Leave “can be used as a tool to humanize again, to tell their stories.”
Pour the Water As I Leave is a film that not only should be made, but absolutely must be made. “This story, even though it is about this Bosnian experience, doesn’t mean that it won’t resonate with other people who have experienced displacement for many different reasons,” Repas said. “I’m hoping this film will create comfort for people going through that now.”