BURN, SERBIAN FILM, BURN!
AN INTERVIEW WITH SRDJAN SPASOJEVIC
THE DIRECTOR OF A SERBIAN FILM
Conducted by Vuk Radic
“All that talk about throwing up and passing out during my movie is as far away from the truth as you can get. I don’t like it that the media, as well as part of the audience, is so hung-up on the rumors of people being sick, getting up and leaving the theatre. They look at the controversies instead of the film.” That’s how Srdjan Spasojevic, whose feature debut A Serbian Film is lining up to become the most controversial film made in Serbia, defends his honor as we are talking in the offices of his production company, Contra Film, in Belgrade.
After seeing the film, it’s impossible not to talk about the rumors of the already mentioned violence and media reactions to the film, but also, how the media attention skewed the perceptions of the public and state institutions. “Can you believe it that this is the only film in Serbia in the last 15, 20 or more years that was made without a single cent from the state and cultural institutions?” asks Spasojevic, not sad or puzzled, but almost self satisfied. And there is reason to be satisfied. Within a country where there is no independent production at all, and every film is financed either by the state or a co-production between the state and European creative funds, Spasojevic made a film that hasn’t stopped provoking the interest of distributors ever since it premiered at SXSW.
“Hey, we didn’t even get the insignificant law-madated post-production money the government otherwise gives to help out Serbian culture and cinema. Out of the dozens of letters we sent out to all the institutions asking for funding, we got only one answer. And that was a no. But whatever. I took upon producing the film myself and managed to gather the money on my own,” explains Spasojevic. ”But you know what’s the worst thing? The Serbian distributors have no idea what to do with this film. They’re waiting for the crowd to react before they even touch the movie. In the same way that the state administration turned its back on us until it’s safe. But they have no idea what this film is doing for the promotion of Serbia. We just had our European premiere in Belgium. Dude, the prince of Belgium shook hands with us. He asked us a bunch of questions before and after the screening and sat trough the entire film. And our foreign policy minister has to wait months in order to meet with the Prince, and here, he just showed up to our screening. During SXSW all of Austin was talking only about A Serbian Film and Serbia. Now tell me that isn’t great free promotion for a country like ours.”
Even though Spasojevic loves the films of the 1970s, all the problems this production ran into made it impossible to use one of the defining characteristics of the era – the gritty film stock. In fact, the entire film was shot digitally, albeit on the super advanced RED camera. “We got the RED decision quite easily. We threw down all the numbers, and there just wasn’t enough money to shoot on film. As I mentioned, we were entirely independently financed and I was in charge of all the money. This was a huge problem since I grew up on the gritty film and just couldn’t stand the digital image. Fortunately our DP Nemanja Jovanov convinced me that RED was the way to go. I trusted him, and it turned out fantastic. This is the first film, not just in Serbia, but in the entire region that was shot entirely on the RED. It’s a risk but it payed off. Of all the screenings we have had so far, everybody was 100% certain that we used film. They’re usually blown away after I tell them it’s all digital.”
Of all the production woes they were faced with, one stands out. Very few films today can say they had something as bizarre happen to them. “I was so shocked by what happened to us in Munich that I usually tell this story right after each screening, just for fun”. Spasojevic tells a story straight out of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: “So, the entire film was shot digitally, and we had to transfer it to celluloid. We signed a contract with the world-famous Arri lab in Munich and all was great. We sent them the finished film and they made a few test runs for us. We chose the one we liked the most, so they started transferring the entire digital file onto film stock. The whole process took about a month, and all the while we were in Belgrade tending to some other affairs. We only came to Munich once after we turned over the files, and that was a few days before the transfer was supposed to be done.”
“Some problems came up even before we went to pick up the finished prints. We found some errors in the picture. It turns out the the Arri laboratory has never done a transfer of an entire feature film shot exclusively on the RED camera. We pointed out the mistake and helped them correct it. The people there apologized, and of course that first print was not charged. They even asked us if we could send them more material they could practice on. Sure, why not. We sent them more files and everything was fine. So we get to Munich to pick up the first copies and we were supposed to leave the very next day after their delivery. We get to the lab and were greeted by a whole bunch of people in suits we haven’t seen before. The Germans start of the meeting: “Hi, you know, we have a few problems with this film” I instantly thought that they messed up the picture again. “No, no, no. It’s not that kind of problem” say the suits. “We have a problem with the content of the film”. I have to say that made me laugh at first. But as it appears, he wasn’t joking.”
“And they start discussing the story… Is it porn? Is it snuff? But we managed to convince them that there aren’t in fact any porn scenes at all, or at least there wasn’t any penetration. Hell, if Antichrist could do it, what was the big deal? But they weren’t satisfied. It appears that the entire feel of the movie scared them so they showed up to the screening backed up by lawyers and guys that turned out to be some sort of censoring police. So you get into a retarded situation where you have to explain to these people that what they have in fact seen is a work of fiction and in no way real, and the violence of it is necessary as a metaphor of society that they don’t even know, let alone understand. But they just kept shaking their heads telling us that it all looked a little bit too real. What they were worried by the most was the decapitation scene. And then I try to foolishly explain that this is the horror element in our movie. And why is it ok when someone gets decapitated in a cartoon. The guy I was trying to explain this to just looks at me blankly and flat out tells me that we know that it’s not real in a cartoon. It didn’t help at all that I was trying to explain that it was special effects makeup. They just refused to take any of our arguments into consideration. They must have thought that we made our own private snuff film or whatever and that we were now spending 50.000 euros to have this transferred onto 35mm film.”
“That conversation went on forever, so we realized that they just gathered all of these people in suits to tell us what they couldn’t do themselves – they won’t finish this project, even though there’s no clear law preventing them to do so. I guess they must have felt bad about putting their seal at the end of our movie. It’s interesting to note that they obviously haven’t seen the entire film, since they failed to mention the nastiest scene. As funny as this story is now, looking back at it, the reality of it is much scarier – it’s the 21st century and somebody has found the audacity to call a work of art not suitable, and to destroy it. Film stock is symbolically destroyed by burning it. And it was the Germans burning it. Interesting, wouldn’t you say? Of course this incident gave us a great story to talk about and gather some publicity, but it was a production speed bump we surely didn’t need. We were just thrown out, with absolutely nobody to back us up and stand up for us. We had the same happen to us in the second lab we chose. Having learned form past experiences, we sat down with the people from the lab and watched the entire film. They said no problem, we’ll do it. They actually finished all the work and printed the copies and then changed their mind and never turned over the copies. We finally found a private lab in Bucharest that had no objections to our film and finished the prints only ten days before the world premiere in Austin.”
A SERBIAN FILM plays Friday July 16 at 9:10pm and again on Monday July 19 at 4:40pm in the Hall Theatre, hosted by director/producer/co-screenwriter Srdjan Spasojevic, co-screenwriter Aleksandar Radivojevic & executive producer Nikola Pantelic.
More info on the film page HERE.