A Conversation with Rajko Grlić: Films Are Stories About People, Not About Ideas

By Aida Vidan and Gordana P. Crnković

© Aida Vidan and Gordana P. Crnković, 2011

Rajko Grlić (b.1947) made his first amateur film at the age of fourteen, his first professional acted film at eighteen, and his first award-winning film, If It Kills Me, at twenty-seven. Since then his accomplishments have spanned several continents, and included a number of highly acclaimed movies, multiple festival awards, recognition in the area of education, and the founding of the Motovun Film Festival. Born in Zagreb, Croatia, where he spent his youth, he went on to study at the renowned Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU) along with several other important South Slavic film directors, such as Goran Paskaljević, Srđan Karanović, Lordan Zafranović, and Emir Kusturica. His experiences at FAMU left an indelible imprint on his directorial style and made him recognizable for his remarkable sense of humor, meta-narrative commentaries, and an interest in the fates of ordinary people who come to stand out under the burden of social and historical circumstances.

GrlicRajko Grlić’s sensibility for political issues doesn’t manifest itself in open proclamations. Rather, he tends to focus on simple individuals and their foibles, on characters who exist within a well-rounded social and political environment. As they cannot escape the intricacies of their own temperaments and habits, much in the same way they are entrapped, sometimes even without knowing it, in the circumstances dictated by a specific historical and political moment. His films point to the obvious, the absurd, the ridiculous in our lives—to which we have become oblivious. He has a keen eye for everyday passions, but in front of his camera our little, carefully constructed universes crumble, typically in a rowdy manner, only to reveal undercurrents, traits, and thoughts which, turn out to be not so funny. It is this precarious balance that gives Grlić’s films their particular flavor.

Titles such as Bravo Maestro (1978), The Melody Haunts My Reverie (Samo jednom se ljubi, 1981), In the Jaws of Life (U raljama života, 1984), Three for Happiness (Za sreću je potrebno troje, 1985), Charuga (1991), Border Post (Karaula, 2006) and most recently Just Between Us (Neka ostane među nama, 2010)—to mention just the most important—have entertained, provoked, and amused his large domestic and international audience and made them reflect at the same time. He has also directed many documentaries which have resonated profoundly both on the film and political scene such as, for example, his series Drinking Water and Freedom (Pitka voda i sloboda, 1974, 1986, 1999), while one of them (co-directed with Igor Mirković) entitled New, New Time (Novo, novo vrijeme, 2001) literally defined a new era in development of artistic and political democracy in Croatia.

melody Despite some common stylistic and cinematographic denominators, Grlić’s opus is too diverse and complex to summarize in a few lines of introduction. It must be noted, however, that already one of his earliest films, The Melody Haunts My Reverie, was recognized in the category Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival for its “original and different” vision. This feature about a young Partisan hero rising quickly in the post-WWII socialist hierarchy of Yugoslavia only to be brought down by apparatchiks envious of his love for a woman from the wrong social class is a provocative and passionate commentary on socialist practices and ideological blindness. That it roused political ire is not surprising. More importantly, it has also been pronounced by many critics and audiences to be the best Yugoslav film of all time.

His Charuga was made at a time when Croatia was in the process of seceding from Yugoslavia and when its political scene was undergoing tumultuous change. The film focuses on a legendary rebel-outcast figure from the northern part of the country and it examines another turbulent period, that of the 1920s, which was similarly unstable in terms of regional political orientation. Through playful probing of the notion of political leadership and the need for local populations to have a fatherly “hero-figure” who will dominate the political scene regardless of background, Grlić’s film in many ways pre-figures and comments on the events that were to unfold in the 1990s.

In the Jaws of Life is a film with a number of meta-levels which in a mockingly reflective manner does not leave any Yugoslav stereotype unturned. Based on Dubravka Ugrešić’s novel Steffi Cvek in the Jaws of Life (Štefica Cvek u raljama života, 1981), itself a parody of romance novels, Grlić gives us an East European Bridget Jones' Diary long before Hollywood did. And being East European and non-commercial, it is profoundly richer and more reflective: it has a pronounced political dimension which does not shy away from exposing the typical profiles of a conformist, anarchist, activist, etc., poking at gender issues, playing with local ethno-types, introducing a folk dimension to clashes between urban and rural mentalities, examining characters against their fictional and meta-fictional Doppelgänger, and parodying both literary and filmic procedures.

There is also a political dimension to his Border Post analyzed in detail in this issue of Kinokultura, a film which bursts with comedic energy at the beginning only to implode in a vortex of tragic events that sweep away both individuals and the country. In addition to the many other fine attributes Border Post deserves, the degree to which its humor hinges on a complex political backdrop is interesting to observe. This humor reveals incongruities, injustices, biases, indoctrinations, and calculated schemes which devour those who do not know how to play the system. The fact that Grlić’s most recent film, Just Between Us!, is apolitical is a decision which is perhaps a commentary in itself, for in the author’s own words: “there are no politics any more, it is all about money” (see below). In it he returns to the tradition of the family comedy that brings him close once again to the Czech tradition, but which is nonetheless marked with riskier and more provocative, sometimes even astringent, South Slavic humor.

how to make a movieParticularly admirable about Rajko Grlić’s career is his devotion and commitment to teaching. He is currently Eminent Scholar in Film at Ohio University, Athens, USA, and has previously held positions at Zagreb Academy of Dramatic Art, and New York University. His teaching engagements also include Art School in Amsterdam, the Central European University in Budapest, Centro Cinematografico Central in Mexico, UCLA, and Harvard University in the U.S., among others. The importance he ascribes to film education is evident not only in the fact that he brings students along to his sets and includes them in the process of making his films, but also in the interactive CD-ROM set he designed—a virtual classroom for anyone interested in film—“How to Make Your Movie: An Interactive Film School. One of his favorites, this project was named the best multi-media project in the U.S. at the New York Festival in 1998 and has won many other forms of recognition. While it never claims to replace practical experience, this amusing primer with over two thousand instructional graphics and a hundred QuickTime clips provides solid beginner-level training for aspiring film students and cinephiles.

Last but not least, Rajko Grlić is co-founder and artistic director of the Motovun Film Festival which, in 1999, breathed new spirit into Croatian film at a moment when, owing to political circumstances, it was on its deathbed. Gaining over the years in popularity and reputation, Motovun has re-introduced polyphony to what had been the increasingly monophonic film life of the region and has transformed it into an alternative scene that brings local filmmakers together and opens a window to the treasure trove of non-commercial world film. The festival is more than a film event; it is a series of cultural happenings that take place every July in a bucolic medieval town in the heart of Istria.

Rajko Grlić is loved by his audiences, closely monitored for his innovative approach and provocative topics by his critics, and followed (even literally) in his footsteps by his devoted students, all of which we saw with our own eyes during our stay at the Motovun Film Festival in July 2010 when this interview took place.


You are known to have made your first film very early, at the age of fourteen. Could you tell us about how your interest for film developed and what drew you to film?

motovun– Well, I had an uncle—in all good stories there is a good uncle—I had an uncle who worked for the UN in the pharmaceutical industry in Switzerland. With a Japanese colleague he developed a system which is still used today by Interpol for tracking drug routes by chemical analysis. In their free time, however, they started making amateur films. He was so drawn to it that he gave me a Bell & Howell camera as a Christmas present when I was fourteen. That camera more or less defined my life. Around then I joined Cinematheque [Kino-club] Zagreb. The cinema clubs at the time were places where various intellectuals, painters, doctors, architects made strange little films. There was the official grand-scale state film industry, while at the other end of the spectrum there was the intellectual underground. From this underground later sprang the GEF and the other festivals attended by various people like Mekas and others who came to Zagreb. I was very impressed by all of this, finished some coursework and started making my first little films. This is the period starting with 1964 and on.

I was in my sophomore year of high school when, along with several friends, I made my first film entitled The Brick (Cigla). In Zagreb at the time street urchins liked to ambush couples. They would attempt to sell the guy a brick, which often, out of fear, he would consent to buy and pay for. I made a few small films like this, went to some festivals and received a number of awards. This would have been 1965 or 1966. I was given the award for the best Croatian amateur film. If I passed the entrance exam in Prague at FAMU—the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts—the award would include the possibility of a scholarship. In this context I also met Lordan Zafranović with whom I shared the award. One cannot enter the FAMU straight away, but must wait for a year after finishing high school, which is quite clever. Then there was an endless entrance exam which was likely the most difficult exam I have ever taken. In the course of several months culminating in the final exam which lasted for two-three weeks they whittled it down the list of thousand applicants to ten people. There was a clear rule that only five would make it to their second year, while the other five would not be able to continue. This was a very harsh game, but I passed with enough points to be accepted directly into the second year. So for the first year I had only to make films and could go on.

In addition to your uncle, what other influences did you have in your formative phase?

how to make a movie– It was only when I came to the Academia that I started falling deeply in love with the works of different directors. The Prague Academy had a great custom of showing new films all day every Friday, while during the week the Kinoteka (film club) was active and they had and probably still have one of the finest film archives. They would show retrospectives for a week of, for instance, Buñuel. They would screen some thirty films, you’d spend the week watching these films all day and after that week you were absolutely convinced that this was the only way to make a film, that there was no other poetics that could be relevant. A few weeks later you’d watch Bresson and you were persuaded that this was the only way to go. At such an age one goes through many loves not unlike falling in love with different girls. One of my big loves—and not only mine—was Godard and the French New Wave along with the Italians from Antonioni to Fellini, who somehow had a spirit that resonated with this part of the world. Parallel to this, we were studying in Prague during the flourishing of the Czech wave. My professor Elmar Klos received an Oscar for his The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na korze,1965) the year I became his student. Czech cinema was experiencing major growth at that time and we were being groomed to stay a part of it, which would have been likely had it not been for 1968.

You have received many awards from your earliest years and up to the most recent ones in both Pula and Karlovy Vary (2010). Is there an award you would like to single out, an award which has had special meaning for you or perhaps brought you a special type of recognition?

how to mak your movie– There are a few rules of thumb: one is “Never believe positive criticism.” And then: “Receive an award, but promptly forget about it.” These rules set us on the right track. Awards are endlessly cherished, they are a wonderful thing, the ego is stroked, but awards in the film industry are measured by how much they make it possible for a given film to “enter” the world. Personally, there are many awards I value, but if I had to single out one, it would be the award I received for my educational CD-ROM—How to Make Your Movie: An Interactive Film School—because it took me to another world, another medium. When I was given the award for the best multimedia project in the world, that meant I had managed to master yet another medium. I was convinced during that period that I was never going to shoot films again, and for that reason, too, the award had special meaning.

We have touched on your contribution in the area of film education, but of course, this is only a part of the picture since you are also a professor at Ohio University. You are known to take your students to the sets of your own films and you generally hold the educative aspect at the center of your activities.

charuga– The first time I entered the educative role was after I returned from Prague. Professor Belan, who was teaching at the Zagreb Academy had some health issues, and asked me to take over his class—I was twenty four or five and the cleaning ladies would often try to kick me out after hours as they thought I was a student. I taught for two years and was just beginning to make my first film. Professor Babaja warned me that I would have to choose whether I want to be an educator or a filmmaker and I thought it was a strange division. I, of course, chose to make my first film. This is how my first love affair with the Zagreb Academy ended. In 1989 Krešo Golik retired and insisted that I inherit his last generation of students. I was back at the Academy for two years, went off on a Fulbright and came back in 1991 only to be informed that my position no longer existed. After that I received an invitation from NYU after I showed Charuga (Čaruga). I was there, talked for several hours with students, and was offered the position. I came back, realized that I could not do anything in Zagreb anymore because I was on all kinds of lists, black, white, pink… so I went to NYU and was asked to teach the first-year directing class. I had a fantastic group of students! NYU asked me to stay and soon afterwards I started getting various offers—I was completely unaware that America had a market for professors! In the end I received the offer from Ohio University which was entirely different because they were willing to support any project I wanted to work on. Also I could combine teaching and my own work, which the position of eminent scholar allows. That’s what eventually brought me to Ohio University and there I worked on the CD-ROM for five years. They invested a large amount of money in it and luckily they got it back.

This is roughly my academic geography, but it has always seemed to me that it is incredibly stimulating to have some kids around with whom one exchanges and sharpens one’s ideas. I always insist that they work only on their own films. I have avoided showing and explaining my own films and that is, I believe, the only serious way to teach film. They work on their own film, and I put them to the test and through this common process certain things are learned. In Zagreb and New York and Ohio I have had a few fantastic students who have received awards all over the world for their school films and I have truly enjoyed this aspect. I have the privilege of choosing my students and I must say, it is, as a rule, a very pleasant partnership. When I do work on my own projects, I try to include them because this is typically their first contact with the real film world: when they are on the set with a hundred and twenty people, when they see the camera work—these are experiences which stay with them.

charugaIt was out of this same way of teaching that I developed my CD-ROM. When I was at NYU, a publisher contacted me. I must say, I enjoyed the process of teaching and that was the first time that I really developed a set of notes and tried to rationalize what the person does automatically. It is indeed a strange turning point when one has to distance oneself from the things one simply does and has to explain them as a part of a rational system. So a publisher contacted me and asked whether I would put together a book based on my lectures. For days I was roaming around bookstores and saw that there was an astonishing number of manuals telling you how to make a film for two cents, how to make a film in three days, etc. And I thought: why do another one? But then I got a computer that had a CD drive and I got a instructional book on film which was unbelievably boring and I also purchased some sort of computer game and just from looking at these two things I came to the conclusion that if I wanted to do anything, I would likely to try to combine these two things. I had no idea when I started the project in which direction to go and it took me year and a half just to write the script. It was about 1200 pages long. My office at Ohio University was huge and I was putting all sorts of post-its everywhere to organize my ideas since this was the first time I had to jump from a linear narrative into a non-linear one. We received the funding, found the right people, and worked on the project for four and a half years. It was a huge amount of work! When I embarked on the project I thought it was going to take some six months, but the project really resonated and it was pronounced the American film product of the year. It was shown in many places, from Cannes on, at numerous festivals. This work also gave me some lightness of living in the sense that I found a new toy during a time when I was not making films.

You mentioned earlier the political context of your career which forced you to relocate to America and prompted you indirectly to exploring the new media. It would be interesting to discuss this aspect of your work. In your films The Melody Haunts My Reverie (Samo jednom se ljubi), Charuga, Border Post (Karaula) there is a political element, while in your latest film Just Between Us (Neka ostane među nama) this element is not there.

– I think there are no politics any more, it is all about money. Politics have been reduced to money. The element of utopia has disappeared as well as the element of the social category in politics. Politics represents the process of arriving at a position of power that can be calculated through money. In particular, in transitional countries which have a portion of the new capital that was generated by crime, politics has become an empty category. Whoever is closer to the money takes it. For many, politics is the simplest way of getting money. It can all be reduced to these clear-cut parameters.

Did you ever feel anxiety, especially in the 1980s, for the consequences you might suffer as a result of your films? This, of course, particularly concerns The Melody Haunts My Reverie?

melody– No. When one is working on a film, and many would agree with this, the censorship is within us. We either liberate ourselves or not. I do not believe in external censorship. I don’t believe that someone can press you to that degree that they cripple your convictions. If you want to say what you believe in, you will find a way of saying it. Thus while making the film I was never thinking about its consequences. I tell stories and it seems to me that each of them has its own context. Just as this last one, Just Between Us, exists in a political vacuum, the previous ones were immersed in the political context of their time. Only when things related to the film (as with Melody Haunts My Reverie) started happening, did I understand that these are things that hurt more than I could have suspected. When the film was banned, when the police locked up the negative, when I was told not to travel anywhere, when it all acquired much more drama than I had anticipated, of course, I did realize that we have something that is “the merchandise.” We had to put up a long fight, and it if hadn’t been for Cannes, that film would not have become available for years.

A few years earlier some other filmmakers from Yugoslavia had had major difficulties, Stojanović was imprisoned, Makavejev, with whom you have a long-term friendship, experienced major difficulties and eventually had to leave. How would you comment on what came after this first wave of trouble?

– There were problems, but they were different. The government initially committed what is likely one of the biggest crimes against film in this region. They attacked the “black wave” movement bringing about as a result the “pink wave,” which revolved around turbo-folk and colorful joy that had as its main task muddying up the waters. We came somewhat later and it seems to me that in the meantime they had learned not to attack frontally. They attacked, but they did not have the same power. Their power was evaporating and so was the fear. In the eighties the situation was slipping out of their grasp and they had more important things to worry about. They left film alone for a while and fell in love with TV since they realized that this was a powerful medium which could be used and later was used on as the basic vehicle for [the 1990s] war. The politicians thus turned their attention to another toy.

If we look at the years of the eighties and your two films, Melody Haunts My Reverie and In the Jaws of Life, although these two films are stylistically different they both foreshadow a major crisis. It seems that it was quite clear to you back then from which corner and how the crisis was going to hit us. In addition to the political context, especially your film Melody Haunts My Reverie could be interpreted as a story of a “loss of innocence,” of maturing and understanding what the world is about.

– Yes, that is a story about utopia tripping over reality.

Do you think that once people lose their idealism (whatever their ideals may be) this is what happensa loss of politics, a loss of social values. Can society be shaken up again through certain types of stories, in particular through film?

jaws of life– This is indeed the main reason for making films. My goal is to shake you, or make you laugh, or make you think so you feel that you want to go on living. I made Melody Haunts My Reverie at a moment when I felt I was standing before a wall in a system of non-functional values. I asked myself: what is the source of all of this. I simply wanted to see how it all went wrong, where this utopia, once it touched ground, took a wrong turn and how it ended up in a swamp instead of a river. My parents were leftists and dreamed of living in a just society and ended up in gulags. I had a need to see how this illusion fell apart and that’s how Melody Haunts My Reverie came about. My next film, In the Jaws of Life (U raljama života), was made in one of the most depressing moments, 1984-85, when we had major shortages, were driving our cars on alternating days, etc. Deep desperation took root. I had a gut feeling that many good communists were going to become good nationalists since this is the shortest path from power to power. So I started playing with this idea and that’s why in the film I have a brave Serb, a cerebral Croat, a punctual Slovene—these are the clichés with which we were playing at the very moment when it was clear that the country was stumbling. However, Charuga was actually the film I made with the feeling – whether rational or subconscious—that things in the country were going down the drain. Charuga was my political statement because it was about a leader. It was also about us and the fact that we need this “Daddy-leader” who is also a little bit of a criminal, but nonetheless he is ours. By coincidence, the signature of the real historical Charuga was found on the first document that mentions socialist Yugoslavia. His is a story about the end of a utopia and when it entered movie theaters, although it’s a feature, its effect was documentary—there was not much difference between this character and the characters who in the 1990s piled logs up near the [Croatian city] of Knin. The images on TV and the images in my film strangely overlapped. The protagonists looked alike and said the same things. It was sobering to start making a film using historical elements and turning them into fiction only to hit upon reality. Charuga was my statement about the end of illusion and for this reason it is very dear to me. Also, it seems to have resonated well with younger generations since every time I visit regional drama academies, the kids are familiar with this film in details.

When we talk about your film Border Post, there is a political message in the film, but there is also a statement in the way the film was produced. It was the first co-production in the region which included all six former republics. Similarly, the Motovun Film Festival which you conceived and brought to life, is also a political statement.

jaws of life– Well, when I left here in 1991 to teach at NYU, I left with a clearly stated message of why I was leaving, as did many others who left at that moment. It seemed to me that nationalism served as a cover-story for theft. I am a person who in 1968 lived through the process of disillusionment during the Prague Spring and I had a difficult time getting excited about any type of political concept, especially a nationalist one. I thought it was a dark period and the strong nationalist vein that reigned during this time was something completely foreign to me. So I left convinced that I was never again going to be making movies. I did not even try because I had been telling stories for twenty years and they were seen by so many—those films were really watched! We had millions of viewers and successfully beat American films at the box offices. We had an illusion that we were telling something to someone and that these films, although not really changing anything in people’s lives were still advancing awareness perhaps by a millimeter with regards to what was going on. But nothing had really changed. The war was organized and executed with the help of TV in no time. I was truly convinced that I would never make another movie and then started feeling the hunger when I was back in Croatia during the time when Tuđman was hospitalized. Igor Mirković and I placed a camera in front of the hospital and then added another nine cameras and for three months followed the fall of an empire. The playfulness of the camera got me back into the game and I started making films again.

When I started making Border Post, I thought that if I ever had my own stance towards the war it did not make any sense to be making a typical war film which would end with “our guys are the good ones, and those on the other side are vicious.” It seemed to me that it would be much more interesting to see where and why the whole thing happened, how the people were prepped through the process of socialism for the war, how simple it was with the aid of a small TV set to pour hatred into people, and how the same TV set turned people into victims, blood-spillers, murderers. Border Post is about 1987, a moment which, it seems to me, was the turning point in what ensued. I wanted to tell a story about it and also decided not to deal with history again since I have dealt with all the points that have interested me in the region where I spent a good part of my life—from 1918 in Charuga to 1987 and Milošević. After that I had the enormous pleasure of making this last film where I focus on five people and their love problems.

Documentary is an important part of your opus. Your New, New Time (Novo, novo vrijeme) had one of the largest audiences in the post-war 1990s in Croatia. Could you comment on the role of documentary films which have acquired, in the last fifteen years, a very important and powerful role in Croatian cinema?

border post– I started my career with the documentary. When I returned from Prague, I first made a series of films for Angel Miladinov which were banned, then I did a full-length documentary Every Person, Good Person (Svaki čovjek, dobar čovjek) which was also banned. I have tried to make documentaries in between each feature film. In a similar way in which a musician tries to get just the right quality of sound, a filmmaker through documentaries sets out to find the sound of reality what will resonate in his feature film. I have always thought that this is an indispensable part of filmmaking. The documentary camera in a sense probes reality and after this process it is much easier for me to make my fiction films. This allows me to be aware of the scent of reality. The same thing actually happened with this particular documentary, New, New Time, which was essential for me in order to make Border Post later on. After all I had not made a film in this region for a full ten years and I needed to feel the reality. At the same time I needed to capture a moment when the type of reality which forced me to leave was still there in some form, regardless of how much varnish was laid over it. People were telling me: “No way, this is not going to work. Who in the world would go to the movies to see the same faces they watch every day on their TVs?!? Why would I pay for a ticket to see that?”  But still, movie theaters were packed because we managed to show those same faces from a different perspective. We stepped out of the sterility of TV, out of wearing politically correct suits, and it seems that this documentary helped set the stage.

border postThe stage is, however, inconceivable without the name of Nenad Puhovski. On one of these Istrian hills, not far from Motovun, we ran a school together called the Imaginary Academy(Imaginarna Akademija) which lasted for seven years. I received $15,000 from Ohio to go to Prague and hold a workshop. I managed to persuade them to bring the funding here. The Soros foundation matched it, and for seven years continued to match everything I was able to raise. Nenad Puhovski, Vjeran Zuppa and I organized a school which generated Motovun [Film Festival], ZagrebDox, Factum. This school also propelled Matanić, Jasmila Žbanić, and many others. It was a very healthy small summer school and at times also included fifteen days in Ohio. The young people who attended the school were terribly burdened with the experience of war and burdened with the images through which they lived. We started making films, initially documentaries because they are the least expensive in terms of production. Nenad [Puhovski] gave a documentary workshop, which later grew into Factum, which later grew into ZagrebDox, possibly one of the most interesting festivals in the region. World film industry is getting to be sharply divided into $100 million and over projects and $1 million and under. The space in which I have spent my life, the zone of independent film (which is between these two categories), is slowly disappearing. Through the web, YouTube and numerous other IT forums the documentary camera will be the food of the future. Whether this will also generate fiction film, I do not know, but if I were a producer, I would try to persuade young filmmakers who dream of feature projects to first make ten documentaries.

Since we are discussing reality and ways of probing it, perhaps we could turn our attention for a moment to your features. In many of them you have an overlapping of multiple narrative levels: a meta-narrative level, the level of “true reality,” the ironic level. It appears that in many of your features you probe reality from different angles and with different instruments.

– I am a child of central Europe by origin and by my background, I spent my formative years in Prague, one of the most wonderful and most cynical of cities—thus it is not surprising that my Weltanschauung has irony, playfulness, and the need to tell the most serious stories with some distance, laughter, and ambiguity. I do not believe in one-dimensional stories, but rather I think that stories ought to have several layers and that film is precisely a tool that plays with this multiplicity of levels. The viewer essentially chooses how many and which layers he wants to pursue. Films should not force people into this or that, rather they should be interesting and one should be able to follow them even at a superficial level. However, if one wants to use a shovel and dig for more layers, that, too, should be possible. Film should not be didactic or contain political propaganda because films are stories about people, not ideas. Of course, people live in certain contexts, in certain circumstances, in a political reality or a political bubble, so all these elements are contained in various layers.

Many critics recognize in your films a strong tradition of Czech family film that often addresses the fates of common people. These are unassuming but complex everyday stories and this trait is visible in your last film, Just Between Us. However, after the film was released, you were also accused of pornography.

border post– Let me give you another example of my earlier film Melody Haunts My Reverie with which I had enormous problems. If we had cut out all the parts that the police wanted us to cut out, there would have been perhaps five minutes left of the entire film.  But we survived. I arrived in America and had the premiere of the film at Carnegie Hall, which included a discussion with the audience after the screening. Ninety nine percent of the questions concerned the sexually explicit scenes in the film. I thought this was incredible since back home, in Yugoslavia, nobody mentioned a word about the erotic scenes and they wanted to decapitate me for the politics. In America, it was the other way around. But you see how the world has changed. Now here [in Croatia] nobody is interested in politics but they have become obsessed with bare bottoms. Croatia is divided these days in terms of its morality. At the state level it is shaped by the Church and, on the other hand, the media live primarily from their scandal sheets. The two (the Church and the media) try to patch it up from time to time. It is a strange situation. In the end, all the fuss ended up being good advertising for us.

We are sitting in the extraordinary town of Motovun which, over the years, has become one of the most vibrant international movie scenes. Yet, its beginning was not easy and the nearby national Pula festival initially created many obstacles for you. How did you manage to get this far?

– As I mentioned earlier, it all started with the Imaginary Academy which included students from some thirty countries. We had professors, filmmakers, students and people were bringing different films along. Eventually we ran out of space to show these films and started looking for a more suitable location. We (Imaginary Academy’s student Boris Matić with whom I started the Festival and I) found it on the next hill, in Motovun, which, having being a town of wealthy families, has wide squares and spaces which could be used for screenings. We started with one movie theater there, Bauer, and that’s how it got off the ground. But there is a pre-history since even before the Motovun Film Festival was conceived, I used to come here with friends and other filmmakers for two months over the summer and I can’t tell you how many scripts were cooked up in this very room. So, naturally, Motovun was our logical choice and when we proposed our idea to Motovun’s mayor he was taken aback because the town was completely bankrupt at that time. It had one grocery story that worked for two hours twice a week. It was neglected and sad. I thought if we managed to pack one outdoor movie theater, this would more than suffice. After six years of the Imaginary Academy, the Ministry [of Culture] still did not want to know about us and we lived off of foreign funding. But at that point we managed to involve the local officials and things got going.

just between usThat’s the factography. However, one should know that at the time Croatia was a claustrophobically closed country from which young people were massively emigrating because they were not in touch with the outside world. We wanted to have a locale where we had the right to our own form of happiness. Motovun was not envisioned as just another film festival, it was imagined as an event. All these years I structured it in such a way that the films are, naturally, at its core, but also I wanted to have ten recognized writers, painters, musicians. I wanted to have a space in which visitors feel good and can choose with what, in addition to great food and wine, they wish to nourish themselves.

You have mentioned that several younger Croatian directors became involved with the Academy and later on with the Festival. Would you comment on the new generation of Croatian filmmakers who are being more and more recognized for their work and some of whom took their first steps here? Related to this, how would you assess the status of Croatian film abroad? Does it have any characteristics that set it apart? We talked earlier about the Czech wave, these days a Romanian wave is going strong. What about Croatian film and film in the Balkan region in general?

just between us– In order for a film industry to have a profile, you have to start with the area of production. That has not happened here. Croatian film industry simply took over the structures that existed during socialism. As a result it is organized as it was in Yugoslavia, when, after all, each republic had its own cinematic structures. So nothing changed. Yugoslavia ran its film-financing program modeled on Russia’s. These are models that have roots in the 1930s and are based on the strong control of the state over funding and associations of the so-called “film workers.” Croatia continued to rely on this system which, for the first ten years or so was in the hands of [Antun] Vrdoljak. This arrangement produced strictly controlled films which chased audiences out of the movie theaters. Croatia committed a huge crime against its own film because it lost its audience and filmgoers still go to movie theaters in fear that they may have to face political propaganda of this or that sort. Croatian film thus went through a very unfortunate phase which is still in the foundations of the so-called new film industry. Since then not much has happened at the organizational level. We have HAVC (the Croatian Audio-Visual Center—Hrvatski audio-vizuelni centar) because one of the conditions for entering the EU is having centers such as this. However, the division was done mechanically. In other states it is such centers that have absolute control over their funding, here everything is funneled through the Ministry [of Culture]. Here the Minister handpicks the Center’s employees, provides the funding, etc. Accordingly, HAVC is just another branch of the Ministry of Culture and structurally we don’t really see any changes.

In order for a film industry to gain its identity, it has to have room to build its profile starting with ideas, scripts, stories. It has to have people who know this type of craft and can participate in the process. Film is an inherent creative process and if the state is the only producer and does not care about the process but only who gets the money and who doesn’t, this situation definitively does not help its film industry.

new timeIn the last ten years there have been several extremely interesting films and outstanding young directors in Croatia. But these are the exceptions. These people did what they did despite the system, on their own, through their own persistence, strength, determination. I had the same objection during the period of Yugoslavia when we had republic industries which weren’t very functional. We can talk about individual opuses such as Žika Pavlović’s, Dušan Makavejev’s, Boštjan Hladnik’s, but we did not have a cinema which had its own identity. We can contrast this, for instance, with Danish cinema. They have a structured system which allowed their film to become the second export industry of this fairly small country. Our changes are not fundamental but superficial changes when it comes to production. For Croatia, Pula is an interesting venue so the state can assert that six new Croatian films were shot—nothing else. There is no purpose and organic system, film is in the domain of politics and until it starts living in its own domain, Croatian film will find it difficult to acquire an identity. However, this is not to say that we will not have talented authors who will be and are recognized in their own right. We already have names such as Jurić who made his extraordinary film Blacks (Crnci), Rušinović with Buick Riviera, Milić with The Living and the Dead (Živi i mrtvi), etc. etc. There are local directors who are making surprisingly good films considering the film environment in which they are growing.

Distribution plays a huge role and, as you mentioned earlier, it is very difficult for those who fall in the category of projects around $1 million. How closely related is the question of distribution and winning at the big vs. small festivals for small film industries?

new time– My generation had the opportunity of seeing how Polish, Czech and Hungarian film industries dealt with this issue. First, in the world of film criticism there is a hunger to “discover” someone new every three or four years. For instance the Romanians now, the Austrians, etc. As a generation we had the luck to have had our turn at one moment. One needs to go to fifty small festivals, bring awards home and then slowly one gets to Cannes and such. There is a logical pyramid of growth behind all that. Back then films could win all this with their quality—or at least so I believed. Film is nowadays, just like politics, solely and exclusively tied to money. Nobody without a large distribution is going to enter Cannes these days. A little film simply cannot stray there on its own. My last two films were in the orbit of the so called “A” festivals because we had a serious sales agent. But I have to repeat again, the festival serves its function inasmuch as it gets the film to the movie theaters. Cinemas have disappeared and we have multiplexes and one hundred American films which hold on tight to 95% of the world screens. There is only 5% of the cinematic space in the world for you to enter with a non-studio film. There are about 2000 films competing for 5% of the space. Our win in Karlovy Vary this year meant five different distribution contracts and invitations to perhaps twenty festivals which all happened in a matter of hours. Festivals are big markets, nothing else.

You mention students both here in Croatia and in the U.S. several times in the course of the conversation. You are one of the very few directors with such rich teaching and filmmaking experience. Could you comment on your students on both continents and similarly on American and European or East European audiences?

new time– I think that students everywhere in the world are the same especially since the media have forced them to read the same books, listen to the same music, watch the same YouTube clips. They grow up watching the same material and no more is there the difference that there was in my generation. We leaned towards European films, while students in America were more exposed to American films, etc. Simply put, the world has erased these borders and students share the same curiosity. There is, however, a substantial difference: an American student who has patience, desire, persistence, stubbornness and a bit of talent can come to a point where he can realize his projects. Here, in Croatia that is much harder. Students here become disillusioned much earlier because they see that their options are to go to TV to work on soap operas, or wait for ten years to get small change from the Ministry. When such an amount of negativity and cynicism enters a young person so early it can turn into a type of poison which can be destructive for hope and determination and hope and determination are the positive substances from which films are made. Small environments are in general prone to backstabbing, everyone knows everyone. Small environments have the curse that they are small, while the big ones have the advantage of multiple options. So my students here and there, in Croatia and in the U.S., are in two different systems. Here, in Croatia, considering the small numbers, there is a remarkably large number of excellent young directors. In the U.S. there are some ten thousand students studying film and media while here we have five-six students per year. If in Croatia we have a promising director every two or three years, that is fantastic success.

To answer the second part of your question regarding audiences, I would say that people everywhere watch films in the same way. If the film is sufficiently rooted in the reality of one milieu, it will be understandable to everyone. Since I have the good fortune of living in the U.S., I have “test-screenings” of my films there and I can observe the degree of understandability. I believe that any film should have a level of comprehension that can be appreciated in South Korea and in Ohio, but I do not buy into Hollywood’s principle where the film is set apart from reality in order to force everyone to perceive it the same way. As a result Hollywood films exist in a fictive, post-production universe. Small films can survive only if they anchor themselves deeply in reality and say: ok, I am sitting here eating truffles and home-made pasta in front of a stone house, and that’s it—from this anchor-point the story can flow on.

Introduction and translation by Aida Vidan

 

Updated: 01 May 11