Movies are people who appear in them - Interview with Milutin Petrović

By Saša Markuš

Milutin Petrović is a film director and independent producer from Serbia and Montenegro, the author of Land of Truth, Freedom and Love (Zemlja istine, ljubavi i slobode, 2000, Reiner Werner Fassbinder award at Mannheim Heidelberg International Film Festival) and South by Southeast (Jug jugoistok, 2005). He belongs to the group of authors working in post–war Serbia, with small budgets and relying on a group of friends as collaborators. His movies are statements on the complex political situation in his country, and, at the same time, they propose interesting and innovative aesthetic solutions. Land of Truth, Freedom and Love aroused a lot of interest in Barcelona at the I edition of Posible – Central and Eastern Europe Film Festival, and South by Southeast will be shown during the next festival edition (January 2006).

Let’s begin with the position of independent filmmakers in Serbia. In your country there isn’t much industrial filmmaking. If you are independent, what exactly are you independent of?

For a long time now I’ve been thinking about making a documentary on our cinematography, which would consist of the opening and closing credits of the movies that have been made in Serbia in the course of the last 15 years. Then we would realize that movies were sponsored either by the state-owned television, a private television owned by one of the highest-ranking officials in Milošević’s wife political party, or the state-owned firms completely controlled by Milošević. These titles show the authors’ gratitude to Milošević’s close collaborators; some movies are even dedicated to them. Of course, after the fall of the regime, everybody came up with a story that they were using the regime’s money in order to act subversively and fight against it! In fact, contemporary movie scene is full of sleazy characters and opportunists. Besides, during the nineties, Serbia was the most retrograde space that could possibly be imagined. I don’t want to insist (it looks as if I have an obsession of some kind), but I am really the only one who made a movie without touching Milošević’s money, without even getting to know any of his people - people who, by the way, are still at the helm of Serbia, with a full blessing of those who bombed my country six years ago, supposedly, because of Milošević’s regime!

The movie you talk about - your first film Land of Truth, Freedom and Love - was made during Milošević’s regime, almost in a clandestine way. Were there any risks of confrontation with the regime?

If you were a declared opponent of the regime, there was a possibility to be arrested or harassed by petty, Kafka-style, bureaucratic problems. Also, you were put on the margin, excluded from money flows, but it wasn’t much worse than that. On the other hand, as a declared opponent of Milošević’s regime, you had a possibility to contact with the NGO sector and the opposition, which was financed from abroad… in my opinion, the origin of that money is also very dubious.
My movie stands clearly and openly against Milošević’s regime, but I wouldn’t like to be seen as a dissident. It’s that I lived in communism and I saw dissidents getting privileges from the state, and at the same time, complaining about the hard life and the lack of democracy. You know, I can’t complain, because the fact that I made an independent movie means that I had a good time! People who were tortured or raped, imprisoned or injured during the war are those who really had a bad time and an objective reason to complain. And a group of intelligent people making an independent movie are having a good time and there is no reason to worry about them…

The protagonist of Land… thinks that editing Milošević’s propaganda (that was his job during the war, and later he is suffering from a guilt complex because of it) is the same as taking part in ethnic cleansing. Has the relation ‘truth – film – propaganda’ become very complicated lately?

We are surrounded by artificiality, there are more artificial than natural things around us. Every person living in a city has seen more flowers in commercials that in a field. We have seen more sex in film than in our personal life. Even the laughter in comedies is arranged, so we do not have to laugh. The nature is not considered as contaminated because of the quantity of nuclear power plants, but because of the quantity of things that we perceive with our senses; the senses we use to observe reality. Today we don’t know if the murderers are imitating movies, or the movies are being made because murderers exist. The same goes for kissing, dressing, humour, the way we treat our children…
That’s why today we have to make films using a special technique - that Frankenstein’s monster called postmodernism. Image contamination is so extensive, that we have to show the images of images of images in order to show reality. When Picasso painted Les demoiselles d’Avignon with twisted noses, it was not because he had decided to invent cubism, but because those girls really looked that way. So, that was the way to paint the girls in 1907! That’s why the art is a complex thing: it is telling the truth about the world, even if the truth is that girls are changed and they have twisted noses, or that reality consists of a series of images…
It is quite impossible to talk about propaganda and journalism in the context of contemporary wars in simple terms. If the contemporary army has a person in charge of Public Relations and Press, so journalists are going to combat together with soldiers, then what’s the difference between the one who shoots the gun and the other who holds the press conference?

Your film certainly has an interesting intertext related to the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. You even integrate the images taken by bombs while falling from the sky…

My friend and the cameraman of Land…, Predrag Bambić – Bambi, started to work for Zastava Film, a military film production, just before the wars in former Yugoslavia. He thought it would help him get a flat (in communist countries, military employees used to be given flats by the state). However, the war broke out instead and he was sent to the battlefield and on top of that was very poorly paid. Then foreign press agencies started getting interested in the war, so Bambi was hired by Reuters, BBC, and, finally, CNN. He was still shooting the war, but this time he was generously rewarded. And, since CNN doesn’t use the same tape twice, Bambi kept some of the used ones. We shot Land…using those tapes, because we didn’t have enough money to buy new ones. So, while making our movie, we were, in fact, erasing the real war scenes…
On the other hand, the frames for the opening scenes of the movie were downloaded from a web site, put there after NATO press conferences… and NATO got them from the shots made on an AVACS receiving the signal via satellite, and the satellite was receiving it directly from the bomb with a built-in camera that was flying towards its objective… One of those frames shows the man turning his head in order to face the bomb, probably because he heard it coming…
So, that’s it… That’s the reality, not a metaphor… Or, maybe, it is a metaphor?

You make references to many movies in Land …Every reference has a complex meaning, puts the mentioned movie in a new context, and generates a variety of new meanings. How did you do that? A 100% consciously? Using intuition? Did it come out on its own?

How should I know? All those years spent in cinemas, watching old movies left a trace… Like a painter, you mix some colours together and something turns up. The meanings in a movie are definitively unplanned. They certainly don’t appear the way bureaucratic structures of different financing foundations imagine! Today, none of those foundations would support Godard’s Au bout de soufflé. Can you imagine Godard arranging the synopsis of the film in Berlin, and preparing to explain to a committee what his movie is all about?

The main character in Land …, himself a film buff, even says that movies are people… Are they?

I wanted to say that movies are people who appear in them because real people and their souls are the main ingredients of what is captured on a celluloid tape. The primitive tribes are right: camera is taking away a part of the soul. That’s why people go to see movies. In spite of the fact that unlike the church, movies don’t possess a secret of materializing Christ’s body, in a way they do feed us with a holy spirit. There are many secrets in movie-making, but for me that’s the most important one: movies are people who appear in them.

South by Southeast is a periphrasis of Hitchcock title North by Northwest. What can we learn today from Hitchcock’s obsession with political paranoia?

I’m afraid we won’t learn much from Hitchcock in a long time. Today’s film professors or people working in cultural institutions have simply lost contact with the essence of Hitchcock - his movies are just like an old art which is to be rediscovered by the generations to come. However, in his films, Hitchcock wanted to warn us about something: he was talking about the seed of evil. And now, when the evil is invisible, but all around us, the damage is already done. If you keep going northwest, you will certainly reach southeast at some point.

The critics objected that South… is too complicated, too difficult to grasp without being familiar with Serbian political scene. What do you say to this? In spite of the risk that the movie might turn out to be incommunicative, do you think it was necessary to make it?

How can I explain something to a person who thinks that my thoughts are too complicated? When I was a student, the way to offend somebody’s film was to say that it was too metaphoric: it meant it was too obvious, too easy to understand. Back then, we were influenced by modernism, which was pretty much dedicated to the formal aspect of art, and we new very well how to read its formal codes. And nowadays… for example, a month ago, the jury of a festival awarded a film pointing out that it was a work of ‘a simple metaphor, understandable to everybody.’ That should be a modern art! I refuse to indulge the people with this kind of judgment. If my ideas are too complicated, and they really don’t know anything about Serbian political scene, they can play Sting’s records and read Harry Potter, because they probably know enough about flying on a broom.

However, with Land… you took part in several international festivals and won Special Prize in Memoriam R.W. Fassbinder at Mannheim - Heilderberg International Filmfestival. How do you see the international projection of Serbian cinematography?

When I won the Fassbinder award, I thought a member of the jury had noticed some important cuts in the movie or something about the frame composition. In fact, the award was the result of superficial political thinking and the simple fact that Serbia was on CNN-s breaking news at the time. My movie was the first to appear from a new, democratic Serbia. Big institutions are full of people who really don’t know much about movies. There is no more Jean Cocteau, today it’s Madonna who is expected to say something about the essence of humanity. The crisis of the reception of film art is bigger than the crisis in the production. I can almost say that, with the exception of the awards won by Clint Eastwood, all film awards in the last 15 years got into the wrong hands. Maybe I shouldn’t say this, because my own movies are also shown at festivals, but each day it’s clearer to me what Joseph L. Mankiewicz meant when in the seventies he said that he was glad to have had taken part in the rise, the climax and the fall of what we call the film art…

Finally, how do you see the relationship between globalism and particularism of small cinematographies?

In my view, today’s cultural reality is a malfunction, a collapse of everything that can go wrong in a system. Today’s film society reminds me of a fancy club whose membership doesn’t include a Michael Cimino, because he’d stand out like a sore thumb, Jean Luc’s declared a lunatic, John Milius a Nazi, and at the bar there is a group of people whose company is not to my liking at all. Small cinematographies, like mine, are supposed to be an illustration of what I call ‘cultural segregation’. What should be the same old antiglobalistic and world music twaddle is in fact almost as if you saw a black person and said – ‘Hey, I bet you’re one hell of a conga player’ when in fact the guy’s on his way back from a conservatory where he practiced Paganini’s music. Following the same misconceptions, Serbs are the ones who shoot and screw all day long, and Serbia is a place of people who are toothless, but ‘have an open soul’. And then this global antiglobalism, in fact, acts like a true imperialism and makes small regions meet the big centers’ expectations. So everybody takes what is offered, without thinking much. If they say you’re a fatso with acne and a silly smirk, you’ll waste no time in growing boils all over your body and put on your most moronic grin so as not to miss your moment, your only opportunity to be noticed, and your 5 minutes of glory.

If you could choose the budget and the production, how would you make your next project?

If I were a painter, I’d tell you: any kind of canvas, any kind of colours… As long as you can paint - you should paint. Even if they forbid you to paint, you should look for a way to push your paintings in. Collage, oil on canvas, drawings on napkins, designing plates, tapestry, I do everything, I just work and work some more…

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