Coproduced by Santa Barbara resident Ginger Sledge, this documentary follows Jeff Bowden as he tries to track down a young boy that haunts him from a photograph shot in Kosovo during the brutal Balkan wars. It’s a great primer on that era, and a compelling tale of one American’s interest in exploring the region’s postwar life.
How did this quest turn into a documentary project?
BD: I met Jeff Bowden on the set of my first film Sironia and we stayed in touch when I moved to Austin. Over coffee, Jeff told me about this journey he was on inspired by a photograph of a refugee boy taken by a French female war photographer during the Kosovo war. I was beyond intrigued. Jeff invited me to come along on part of the journey as a kindred spirit observer. As we met a Kosovar photographer who told us about how Alexandra Boulat influenced him, we understood that this story was bigger and deeper than we imagined. By the plane ride home I was on board as a documentarian. Twenty-airplane-rides-within-a-single-month later, we were well on our way as I followed Jeff on his quest to find the boy from the photograph. Through Kosovo, Croatia, Paris, Boston, and New York — we kept meeting the most fascinating people. I wanted to explore how the impact of this single image was unfolding from both sides of the shutter…to learn more about the photographer, the subject, and the passionate observer.
JB: The documentary officially started at a rooftop restaurant at a hotel in Pristina, Kosovo in March 2013. Brandon Dickerson and my daughter, Gracie, joined me on that trip and were at that lunch. (It was my third trip to Kosovo. My first two trips, in the fall of 2012, had resulted in one meeting with one imposter. Until the third trip, I’d pretty much bounced off the atmosphere. In all, I’ve made six trips to Kosovo. Every member of my family has joined me for at least one trip, including my wife.) Anyway, we were having lunch with a Kosovo-based AP war photographer, Visar Kryeziu. Visar started crying when he told me the story of how Alexandra Boulat had given him his very first camera, which essentially gave him a career and a professional life. A future. It was clear in the way Visar talked about Alexandra and the war that he wanted his story to be told. Folks were happy enough to help me find the boy, but they wanted me to listen to them while we searched together. Maybe we were all searching, you know? To make sense of something. In my case a photograph, in theirs, the war. Until that lunch with Visar, there was no documentary, no magazine article, no nothing. Just a photograph of a boy taken fourteen years before by a long-dead photographer. The next day, Brandon and I looked at each other. “We have to do this,” we said.
How many years of searching did it take to reach the conclusion? How many trips to Kosovo were required?
JB: Gracie and I saw the picture for the first time in Dubrovnik in June 2007. She surprised me by giving me the picture in January 2010. I framed it and placed it in my office on a shelf in front of a window-unit air conditioner, which meant I had to tip the photograph forward every time I turned the air on or off. Perhaps as a result, the photograph never faded away like it might’ve if I’d hung it on a wall. I was face-to-face with the boy’s image several times a day. Almost immediately I started asking myself: what happened to him? Is he ok? Eventually, I decided that I couldn’t keep the photograph without knowing what had happened. So, in the spring of 2012, I started making phone calls to Wade Goddard, the founder of War Photo in Dubrovnik; Annie Boulat, Alexandra Boulat’s mother; Gary Knight, who worked with Alexandra during the wars in the Balkans and Ron Haviv, who also worked with Alexandra. Wade put me in touch with Birol Urcan, my Kosovo fixer. I made my first trip to Kosovo in September 2012. When I drove into Pristina I knew exactly one person, Birol. We finally found the boy in March of 2013. It took a 13 months start-to-finish.
Without revealing the ending, would you have had a film worth of making without reaching that conclusion?
BD: Absolutely. I think the journey is what is interesting and everyone you meet along that road. Learning about the war, meeting the people of Kosovo, engaging with war photographers — all of it was inspiring and insightful.
JB: What a great question. I don’t know. For some reason, it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t find him, if he was alive. At a minimum, I’d find out what happened to him.
How did Ginger Sledge from Santa Barbara get involved?
BD: I had been working with editor Sandra Adair with all of the footage I had shot in Pars and the Balkan regions when we were looking to bring on a producer to see us through to the end.
I’d met Ginger when I first moved to Austin and had been wanting to work with her ever since. After a coffee, I brought her into the edit bay where Sandra and I showed her the best-of clips of our cut. She loved it and instantly shared the passion we had for the project. In particular, she connected deeply with photographer Alexandra Boulat. I introduced her to Jeff a few days later and they clicked.
JB: Brandon and Ginger had met a year before he introduced her to me. She was in Austin for the winter. Brandon and I didn’t know how bad we needed Ginger before she said yes to producing A Single Frame. Ginger had never worked on a documentary before, always features. I’ve always felt that A Single Frame is a film with a feminine presence. The photograph was taken by Alexandra Boulat. My daughter, Gracie, set the story in motion by asking me to go to the gallery in Dubrovnik and then by giving me the photograph. Alexandra’s mother, who runs a photo agency in Paris, Cosmos, allowed us to make the film (she’d already turned down several filmmakers). Sandra Adair, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Boyhood, was our editor. And Ginger, well, without Ginger there’d be no A Single Frame. She’s the hardest working person I’ve ever met. And among the kindest.
Do films like this help the healing process or do they uncover old wounds?
BD: I think it does both. It’s certainly a painful season, but they are thankful that the story continues to be told. The old wounds reveal a truth that can easily be forgotten… and it is a worthwhile journey to look into the past to better understand the future. When we started visiting Kosovo in search of the boy in Alexandra’s photograph — the term “refugee” wasn’t on the front of every paper as it is now. The photograph takes on a new meaning and lives on.
JB: Probably a little of both. My experience was that older folks would talk for hours about the suffering they endured during the war, but their children have heard it all before. They’re tired of war. Young people in Kosovo want jobs, freedom to travel, a stable country where they can raise a family.
Any other updates on any of the characters?
JB: Five of the Kosovaars have been to visit us in Austin: Sadik, Dardan, Birol and his wife, Mimoza (who worked for ASF as a translator), and our Kosovo photographer, Kustrim Kadriu. Sadik is presently in New Jersey. Getting him a visa was almost impossible. He was turned down three times to go to Germany and once to come to the States. But he’s here now. He’s connected to an Albanian community in New Jersey. They’re trying to help him with additional visas. He says he can’t believe his life sometimes. I mean, he never knew the picture existed before he found out that someone was looking for him on television. The whole thing is like a dream. For all of us. At some point it’ll be like we always knew each other.