by Tijana Perović
Woche der Kritik 2020 endowed us with an opportunity to dive back into the summer of 2017, through the lens (both retinal and camera) of Ivana, the Terrible. Ivana the Terrible, as flavourful as it is, is only a snippet of the broad world of Ivana Mladenović. In a conversation with Ivana, I learned a bit more about how this movie came to life, and how Ivana became the gentle, but expressive voice of the Balkan youth, somewhat stranded on various bridges of friendship, yet slowly untangling the web of its complex cultural origin.
TP: How did you decide to make a movie out of this experience?
IM: I didn´t know that it was going to end up being a film. I knew that I wanted to film, because I wrote the script in the form of a diary in the form of script, [at a time] when I didn´t feel so good. As I started writing it, I was realizing what was going on and then working on the script. Then I [thought], perhaps I could start working with my parents. I really wanted to do something with them. I decided to borrow money for 10 days of shooting and during the festival, the Romanian-Serbian festival that same summer. I was sure I wanted to shoot during that festival and I didn´t want to wait another year to make this, because I was sure I would want to make another movie in a year. I borrowed money and invited my friends to help me out, not knowing whether we would have enough money to finish the film or even want to finish it if we didn´t like what we made. It might have been disastrous.
Or just an experiment?
Everything is an experiment. My friends accepted and after these 10 days of shooting, I showed it to a producer I worked on a previous film with and she backed me up, it was only then that it started to become a film. Up until then, I wasn´t sure that it would become a film.
Was it at any point problematic that the topic of this film is so uniquely personal to you?
I believe that whatever story you make as a filmmaker, you cannot give just a little bit of yourself. In the making of my previous film, I had so much more help, but so many more issues than on this one. I think I gave myself 1 000 000% on the previous film, even though it was not my story alone. I found myself in that story, nevertheless. I don´t think I can measure it that way. It was just a very specific period of my life, that I wasn´t stuck in forever.
Have the people of Kladovo seen the film yet?
The people who acted in the movie have seen it. I invited them to come with me to the Sarajevo Film Festival to see it. It was interesting, because before they saw the movie, they thought that it was a lot more about them. And in fact, it is also a movie about them. Once they had overcome this little fear of acting in a film, you get encouraged and then you are sorry that your part isn´t bigger. It was nice for them (and for me) to do this. We did it together, so it´s not only my experience, it is their experience that is being portrayed, too.
Do you prefer to work with non-actors?
I think it just somehow happened. The way I started is when the Romanian director Florin Şerban, who made If I want to whistle, I whistle, 13 years ago invited me a workshop that he was giving to young prisoners, inside a prison. He opened this portal to me, so it became natural. In Soldiers, it was very hard to find actors for these two specific roles. Not a lot of people wanted to play a gay role. So I ended up casting the guy whose book I adopted into a script, as the main role. Even before doing this with myself, I already did it with Adi. I adapted and fictionalized his story. It felt like I had to give it back. You film so many people and you present their stories. How could I not be ok with presenting my own story, if I present so many of other people´s stories?
But I enjoy working with actors, as well. I simply didn´t have the chance yet. In Soldiers, it happened that way. In Ivana the Terrible, it also just happened that we had this proposition, an experiment to involve all these people who were involved in the story of the 2017 summer in Kladovo. Funnily, at first my mother didn´t want to act and she even told me to find another mother to play her. So I asked her how could I ever find a better half of my father?
How did you coordinate being both an actor and a director?
I called my friends, once again. I didn´t mind having other people helping me out in directing. I invited Ana Szel, who in 2017, had a film in the same section of Locarno called The Belly of the Whale. She made a film where she put herself in front of the camera, among her daughter, her husband, her friends. She already did it before and she is also by chance, my Romanian mother, my best friend. I invited another friend, who is a film theoretician by the name of Andrei Rus. I brought them to my hometown, to help me direct me. In the end, I had a lot of help. It’s one thing to write something in the script, thinking, you can easily perform it, but once you get to the scene you realize that you might not want to show this part of yourself. There was one moment, when it clicked for me. In this scene, I was supposed to dance and make a fool of myself, but I was just being really reserved. The two co-directors told me: “Ivana, the way you are supposed to play this part is a lot more exaggerated than that.” Then I realized, I needed to be myself more. It was funny, because I experienced the same thing with Adi, it took some time to fine-tune the acting. This process is hard to explain. However, I had a lot of help and they were guiding me, both in directing and later, editing. This film involved a lot of people collaborating on the same thing, and therefore, was a very nice experience.
I really enjoyed the portrait of the small-town mentality.
Where do you come from?
Oh, I have been to Smederevo a lot of times. I have friends in both Smederevo and Kovin. But tell me, what about the small-town mentality?
It occurred to me that it might have been tricky to paint a portrait in this case, since you are working with real people, real inhabitants of this town and atmosphere. I assume that not everyone was playing themselves, but I was wondering how did they feel about it? Did they at any point feel exposed? Or misrepresented?
They were not really playing themselves. They were all playing roles. It has happened that one of the people I wrote the part for, decided not to be in the movie anymore, in the middle of the shoot, so someone else took his role. But no one felt exposed. They were rehearsing lines for six months. Only the biggest characters in the film were playing under their own names (like my family, or Anca, Andrei). The rest of them were people I asked to play a certain role and my impression was that they had a lot of fun. It was the first time they had to learn lines. They found it hard. It was very funny; since I left my hometown 15 years ago, I don´t really have friends there anymore. I ended up hanging out with people who are much older than me. We would go to rehearse lines and then we would go to a bar. It was very nice, I gained a lot of friends of very different ages.
Did you feel like this whole process was your way of understanding where you come from?
I think that the way you think about your life always reflects your family and the home you were brought up in. And naturally, at one point, you must make peace with your hometown, especially with smaller towns.
I relate to a lot of scenes in this movie. It´s incredible. I feel like for a lot of people who had left and then come back, they experience the same ten scenes in a couple of versions.
It´s because you go back after not speaking to your parents for fifteen years and you want to teach them everything you learned. This urge to explain to them the ways in which they are wrong is strong. I remember being in Croatia and someone was describing the story of a film: “a generation who doesn´t want to be like their parents, who wants to build a new world, but they are not strong enough”. Similarly, Ivana´s character, she doesn´t belong to either Serbia or Romania, she seems to be stuck on this bridge of friendship. These two movies seem to describe generations which are in eternal puberty.
This topic of immigration from Serbia towards EU is very alive, both in reality and in more recent fiction. Serbia has experienced ‘brain leakage,’ meaning that a lot of smart and capable people are leaving.
Yes, many people from my hometown want to move, as well. They want to go to Romania. Luckily, many Romanians visit my hometown and boost the tourism, keeping it alive. They love it there. So yes, there is migration, from both sides. They all want to go somewhere that is better. But then we are left with the question: what is better?
Did all of the people involved speak both languages?
No, my father for example, doesn´t speak any Romanian.
What was that like, working bilingually? That is not so common these days, during movie shoots.
It was crazy. There are a lot of people in my hometown, who speak Romanian. For example, my mother speaks perfect Romanian. My grandmother first learned Romanian, then Serbian. She involuntarily sometimes starts speaking Romanian. She lived all her life in Germany, so they taught me German, but they didn´t teach me Romanian. It was a very funny thing that I moved to Romania, only to then learn, coming back, that my Grandma speaks perfect, beautiful, clean Romanian. What was hard was having my Romanian friends directing and guiding me in Serbian. That was a huge mess. I even started teaching Romanians lines in Serbian. The two Romanian directors even have some favorite lines from the script, which are in Serbian.
Where can we see Soldiers?
Now, on Netflix. It is on Netflix Romania. Soldiers was a slightly different experience. Ivana, the Terrible was a more aware experience. We were working on what we thought was true. Sometimes, we wouldn´t completely agree on what really happened. For example, my father and I had different perspectives on certain scenes. We had to negotiate. As Andrei says at the end of the film, what you think of your family is not equal to your family, it is just your personal projection, a view.
I cannot imagine working this closely with my family. Did any issues occur within the shoot? Or did it bring you closer to them?
I think it was indeed very good for us to do this. We weren´t just sitting and talking about everyday problems, money, future, etc. We had specific tasks together: learn lines, rehearse a lot. We were barely fighting. Discussions became very simple: you acted well or you didn´t. Or even, you didn´t show up for the shoot? For example my father keeps very busy with a lot of veterinary appointments, which kept him away from the shoot. Or when he would have a few lines, he would think he didn´t need to memorize them. But once he experienced that even these three lines, if not properly memorized, cause a problem, he admitted that he needed to learn them each time. The hardest and most overwhelming experience was working with my grandma. When I came back to my hometown, I moved into her house. We got into fights, because she was the reason keeping my mother tied to Kladovo, so she couldn´t visit me in Buchurest. We were fighting for the attention of my mother. Then I realized she needed to be in the movie. As soon as she started practicing lines, we stopped fighting. It was a wonderful experience. Learning lines really made her day. It brought us back together. When I was small, she lived in Germany. I didn´t get to meet her. Now, at the end of her life, we got to really communicate. I realized that my grandma is a cool girl, who likes making jokes. I finally met her. I didn´t have a chance before, due to all of our fighting and her nagging.
Do you plan to stick to making fiction or are you at all interested in the documentary form, as well?
I am not sure about documentaries. I am working on fictionalizing a book that Anca Pop gave me. It is a story of hers and a friend of hers, from Timisoara. It is very strange, very touching and simultaneously a very funny story. Making this movie will have to include actors. Sadly, Anca died. It was during the shooting and during the editing. She was in a car crash. It was very hard to edit so much of the material she was in, when she had just passed away.
I forgot to ask you, what was your background?
I was studying law in Belgrade, for three years. I wanted to go to the film school in Belgrade, but I never got in. I decided to go to Romania. I went there, to try my luck, initially, for 10 days. I ended up staying for fifteen years. And now I have people to work with there, I have friends whom I trust to talk about movies. I think that is necessary. It must be hard to be isolated. I think I am staying there. I studied film direction. But I am interested in many fields of filmmaking. For example, editing. I would enjoy trying all of these roles. I wish I knew how to do anything else. But I seem to be only good at this.