A Serbian Film is, unsurprisingly, an independent film from Serbia that debuted at this year's SXSW film festival. It has come under a firestorm of controversy as a result of the heinous acts that are graphically depicted on screen. You can read my SXSW review here to get an idea of what the film is about and just how intense I found it to be.
While spoilers are running rampant and are readily available across the internet, I've specifically stayed away from that. Having had it's world premiere at SXSW, it's a film that only 500 or so people have seen. I also think it detracts from the film to know what happens before you sit down to see it. I will say that the controversy is well-earned and has sparked some great discussions about art and censorship.
There were a lot of intense films on this year's SXSW slate, films like Red, White and Blue, Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void, Dogtooth and others, but this film trumped them all. A Serbian Film was often spoken of in whispers and hushed tones, with even casual fest-goers wondering what all the fuss was about. Quite frankly, it was a film that had to be seen, had to be experienced to be believed. I had the opportunity to speak at length with screenwriter Aleksandar Radivojevic and first-time feature director Srdjan Spasojevic about their experiences making the film, the reactions to it and the state of European, specifically eastern European, cinema.
Horror Squad: It should be noted that Srdjan is wearing a Cannon films shirt, which is pretty awesome.
Aleksandar Radivojevic: It's one of the first inspirations for Srdjan, the Cannon films, the Cannon action films, because you know, there are a lot of subtle homages to action films in A Serbian Film.
Srdjan Spasojevic: Yeah, like Bronson, Chuck Norris. Invasion USA, the Cannon one.
AR: [laughing] Yeah, it's a little bit transcendent you know when [describes a key scene from the end of the film] it's a very crowd-pleasing sort of Steven Seagal kind of style.
HS: You guys had said last night that obviously de Palma was a big influence...
HS: and I got a little David Fincher too, with some moments that felt like his film, The Game...
AR: Yeah, I mean there are many influences, like mostly the filmmakers of the 70s you know, William Friedkin, John Carpenter, Brian de Palma, David Cronenberg.
HS: Those are the filmmakers you guys grew up watching...
SS: Yeah, of course...
AR: Yeah, we grew up watching them and those are the filmmakers we love. One of our mutual favorites is William Friedkin's Sorcerer.
SS: Sorcerer, yeah.
AR: It's a hugely underrated film. And in the music score, you can hear some similarities [between our score] and the Sorcerer Tangerine Dream soundtrack.
HS: Very cool. Well, let's kinda start at the beginning and tell me a little bit about how this film came together.
AR: It's absolutely independent. Srdjan is the producer. He used his own money, and he managed to get some sponsors, some businessmen who liked to finance, to kind of be sponsors to our film. The only way it could be made, it had to be totally independent. Because it wouldn't be possible for this film to be made in Serbia in any other way. [interpreting for SS} Even the sponsors were like "don't mention us," when they realized what they were financing. We're friends, but don't mention us.
We don't blame them at all. This is a very ferocious film and it's ferocious for a reason. We really tried to communicate some emotions that we were unable to express in another way and which were repressed for too long. You know, it's like those emotions were something that's kept hidden in our own country and in many other countries like in the world today, the world of political correctness. It's absolutely natural to suppress some real, raw feelings about some things and statements about the world in general. This is like an anarchist's cry for freedom in a way, for artistic freedom. It is metaphorical. It is like it's our own metaphorical fantasy that tells some real things, trying to communicate some real things and to comment on reality in the most direct way.
HS: Speaking of that, kind of along those some lines, what does the film mean personally to you, finally seeing it now on the big screen?
AR: It means a lot to us. Many things are in there and many things are pretty direct if you follow the dialogue closely there are some things that are really direct. Like when our villain talks about how this is no country for real art. It went from our own guts. It's not like we were trying to make a ferocious genre film. But we had certain emotions and ideas, it was almost like emotion built the story and not the other way around. We weren't trying to make any world records in ferociousness...
SS: But we did.
AR: But we did spontaneously, I think we did something very, very tough. But it had to be made that way, because that's how we feel about certain things. It had to be communicated in such kind of raw strength and you know, anger. In a way some righteous anger that we had about our own country and about the world in a general [that] had to be communicated.
SS: ... like Mel Gibson
AR: [laughs] We had to make a film of our own, like Mel Gibson said "we have to make a country of our own" in Braveheart. It's a running joke now.
HS: There's a section in the film where Vukmir has a diatribe about the victim. Can you maybe explain that a little, what you're thoughts are on victimization?
AR: Exactly what he said in the film, victim sells because victim feels the most and suffers the best.
SS: It's like merchandise.
AR: Victim sells best these days, and that's about the political correctness thing. It's like today in Europe, you cannot fund your own film if you don't have a victim, if you don't have a real victim. In order to have your funding, you have to a real true story that happened about such victims and minorities that had those experiences. And all those films look like documentaries, but they're false documentaries. It's like they're making kind of a false truth thing. They're destroying the pure pleasure of the cinema. Cinema is fiction, cinema is a metaphor, cinema is something totally ethereal. And they're making documentary style stuff about victims, and the victims are being exploited in this way. It's the exploitation of victims for certain people to feel sorry for them. It's like tear-jerking. Today's cinema in Europe is like the Red Cross, we're trying to help these people or trying to help those people, and it's not like people don't need help, but it destroys cinema in such a way. European funds tend to fund just one kind of movie. We cannot have a real film industry where all kinds of genres happen, where you can have a horror film, a comedy, a thriller or something like that. No, no, no, we just have to make all these films about those poor souls where we exploit their tragedies.
SS: Their suffering...
AR: It's like a whoring of misfortune. It's about that kind of prostitution. Our film also deals with prostitution, so all in a metaphorical kind of way, you have the professional victim, you have the professional torturer, you have all those things kind of packed in a transcending genre film.
In America it's maybe harder to understand because you have a film industry that's really healthy, you have independent cinema, you have blockbusters ... but in Europe, especially in eastern Europe they have these Red Cross movies. And it's not even cinema it's propaganda. It's the exploitation of sorrow, exploitation of misfortune ... misfortune porn. That's what it is, misfortune porn.
HS: OK, let's talk about that a little because you obviously use pornography as the central conceit of the film ...
AR: yes, central. Because that is porn.
HS: it's almost like the language that you tell the film in. Can you talk a little about making that choice and why you chose pornography and what that lends to the metaphor that you're trying to get across?
AR: Like we love to say, pornography in our film means every decent job you can do. Everything you can do in our country these days is [a type of] pornography. You know you sell yourself for a little cash, and then you get to feed your family, then you get to live a certain mediocre existence. You know, it's totally metaphor. The pornography is totally a metaphor for everyday life in Serbia. You're being exploited in the most unmanageable ways. It is exaggerated in our film, and that is exactly what we are trying to show. The normal existence is kind of being a rented dick in order to feed your family. They rent your dick and then you get to be fucked and you get to fuck. It can also translate to many other countries. [Our film is a film] where exploitation by authority is the main theme actually, authority that grounds lives to shit. It's a story about authority and the little people.
Definitely some heavy stuff here! The conversation was pretty lengthy so I've split the interview up into two separate pieces. Look for the next piece to hit here on Horror Squad soon!