The tale of Tigers

Denis Tanovic on his film about the Pakistan baby milk scandal

by Amber Wilkinson

Denis Tanovic on Tigers: 'I don't think I ever had bigger motivation in my life to make a movie'
Denis Tanovic on Tigers: 'I don't think I ever had bigger motivation in my life to make a movie' Photo: Courtesy of Toronto Film Festival
"I gave eight years of my life for this. You can't predict the life of a film, but I hope this is going to fly," said Bosnian director Denis Tanovic when I interviewed him about his baby milk whistleblower film Tigers way back in 2014 at the San Sebastian Film Festival.

Here we are, five years on, and Tigers is currently touring the UK (dates for the remaining stop-offs, including Ayr, Dumfries and Kirkcaldy can be found here), so it's certainly taken some getting off the ground - but then the film also documents the difficulties the Oscar-winning director of No Man's Land in getting the production off the ground in the first place. It's perhaps not surprising that the journey has been so tough, as the Tanovic sets his sights on Nestlé to tell a fictionalised version of the true story of a Pakistani sales rep (Emraan Hashmi), who blew the whistle on allegations of aggressive marketing by the company that were leading to the death of babies - claims which Nestlé denies.

Back in 2014, he told me how difficult it had been to even begin filming back in 2006 when they had the BBC on board.

He said: "We investigated, we went to Pakistan, we wrote the story, the BBC loved and then they sent their investigative team because they wanted to be sure that everything we said was right. So when they came back, they said, 'Not only is it correct, we have even worse things that have occurred.' So we took those things, because they found some things we didn't about the story. Then it all fell apart. At the last moment, I was six months in India and Pakistan and they just stopped - they got scared."

After that, he shelved the project for several years.

Danis Tanovic: 'Until now, I didn't feel like making Spider-man Versus Batman'
Danis Tanovic: 'Until now, I didn't feel like making Spider-man Versus Batman' Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival/Inaki Pardo
He added: "I went on with my life, making other things and two or three years ago now, I saw Indian director Anurag Kashyap, who's a friend. We met at Venice Film Festival and we talked and he said, 'What about the project?' I said, 'I don't think we're going to make it.' And he said, 'Well, look I know someone who might help with financing it.' So we started again.

"That same winter I sent a crew into Pakistan to see what was going on and it was the dry season and there's a big difference between then and the monsoon. In the dry season, you should have normally have that many cases [of babies being sick] - but the hospital was full. So it didn't change, it's not changing, it's a constant thing. What's so incredible is the difference between Pakistan and India. You just cross the border and India has laws and they're not letting these people do whatever they want."

Speaking about Nestlé, he added: "I didn't want it to become a movie about Nestlé because that's not the point. Nestlé was the case, and we have all the proof, but there are, like, 13 international companies that were doing this. That is why we wanted to name them because we wanted people to understand and it gave a device to the story. That's what we had to deal with. We had lawyer's telling us, 'Even if you don't say the name, people are going to know, so it doesn't matter.'"

The project was intensely important for Tanovic, who says making it was a "sacrifice" because he had to spend around an year and a half travelling back and forth, which meant he was apart from his own family. He points out that, of course, some parents will need to bottle feed their children but that it is the aggressive marketing of products that causes problems.

But he said: "I don't think I ever had bigger motivation in my life to make a movie. I have children and when they are ill, I am ill myself, not to think about having babies die. What really makes me angry is that these people are told that by bottle-feeding their babies, they're going to be smarter or better looking or whatever.

"The level of poverty is different to what we imagine. We think of people living in slums. There they have people who can't afford to live in a slum, because it has a roof, there are people sleeping on the street. Whole families. You're walking and then you see a can of milk. The problem has many different angles. You're making poor people even poorer by making them buy something they don't need in the first place. Plus, that kills their babies.

"Making this sort of film is not like other films. It's emotional, it takes a toll. You don't want to make a mistake.

Emraan Hashmi in Tigers
Emraan Hashmi in Tigers Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival
"This story is particular, because for the first time, we had an insider, to show how easy it is. It's a payback system. If WHO says that 1.6million babies dies could be saved if they didn't die from unsafe bottle feeding then I'm sure the number is double (current advice from WHO is here). These people are scared of everybody. Everybody is scared of big companies."

Speaking about the rep on whose life the film is based, Syed Amir Raza Hussain ,who now lives in Canada, Tanovic added: "These are the heroes of our days, these little people."

Tanovic, who has made Death In Sarajevo, TV series Success (Uspjeh) and English language film The Postcard Killings - currently in post-production and starring Famke Janssen - since we spoke, noted how hard at the time it was to get finance for films.

"It's very hard to get money for kind of middle range movies like this one," he said. "This is not a big budget film but it's not a small budget. So on the one hand, you have all these blockbusters and, on the other, you have people like me trying to make cinema because that's what we do.

"It's interesting that someone verified this fact, that from 100 directors who make a first film, only 20 make a second film ever. Out of those 20 who make a second film, only two or three make a third. It's hard to make a living making films. I mean it can be a wonderful - a hotel in San Sebastian - but it's also hard. You're always flying, you're always separated and you're shooting or trying to find someone to back your idea. It's not for everyone, it's hard.

"I myself thought maybe I should give up once or twice because it's hard. People think that because you won an Oscar or something that people are piling up in front of your door to make a film - and they are, but not the film that I want to make. Until now, I didn't feel like making Spider-man Versus Batman.

"It's tempting when someone comes to you and says, 'Here's $1 million to make a film.' It is tempting. But on the other hand, what do you have to do. Very often, I feel violated. Hollywood is all about money, PR and promotion, whatever they tell you. It's all about PR and how much money they put in and how much comes out and that's it. If that's what you're interested in, fine. If any of my ideas please Hollywood and they want to put money in then great. But it's my idea, not theirs."

As for what to do about the baby milk situation, he added: "We are living in a world in which companies refuse responsibility. You had the boycott of Nestlé - bring it back, it's the only thing that works. I think people have power. People don't even realise how much power they have, just by choosing. That's democratic power and we often forget that."

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