"I Know": An Interview with Jan Cvitkovic By Maja Bogojević

in 19th Ljubljana International Film Festival (LIFFE)

by Maja Bogojević

MAJA BOGOJEVIC: You are a writer of all your films (and a co-writer with Janez Burger’s of the international hit Idle Running), director and an actor. You are also an archaeologist by academic education. Did filmmaking come naturally to you? How much have the studies in archaeology influenced your filmmaking, focused on personal, intimate stories?

JAN CVITKOVIC: I got into film by accident. Some years ago, I found out about a competition for a short screenplay, entered it and won. Then I co-wrote with a friend the script for a full-length film, Idle Running (V leru, 1999) and, as we didn’t find a suitable leading actor, I also became an actor. Later, I was curious what it would be like to direct a film, so now I direct films.
At first I didn’t think about the connection between archaeology and film, but lately I have been thinking a lot about it. As a child, I was completely fascinated when I would dig out a few shrapnels from World War I. Something similar would happen to me in archaeology. I remember when, during my first excavations, I came across a 6000 years-old container with marks of human nails on the surface. Something stirred inside of me, I was moved, and in an eerie way I felt connected to this man.
In film, also, I am more focused on earth, soil as a base, and on the planet. The planet as a secret home, hiding emotional relicts. Some kind of primeval memory… The last short film, which I am editing at the moment (This is Earth, My Brother/To je zemlja, brat moj), deals with the relationship between three people and the planet. But the planet is, virtually, the main protagonist.

MB: Your last short film, I know (Vem, 2008) is about the Man building a masterpiece in a cellar, watched by the Woman, the Boy and God. And, as you state, the film does not try to explain anything, thus remaining open to interpretations, which depend on the viewer’s emotional state. With its explosive ending (both literally and symbolically), I Know seems to me to be your most self-referential, cinematically deconstructive and even autobiographical film yet. What is your interpretation?

JC: More and more I am focused on films describing things that cannot be put in words. This is the meaning of film. To describe things that literature cannot. I am trying to get close to the feeling of the absolute, of the divine. I am trying to move back and forth between the small and the big, between microcosm and macrocosm. I am concentrated on what seems to me as the most crucial: for some time now it has been the relationship between the universe, on the one hand, and the triangle man-woman-child, on the other. Maybe I am looking for the divine in the family, I don’t know…

MB: You have been labeled ‘minimalist’ for your film approach, which shuns big-budget sets, gimmicks, special effects. Does this lead you to rely heavily on the actors for your full-length films? Has your acting experience in other people’s films helped you in your work with actors?

JC: ‘Minimalist’ is a bizarre word. My films are in some way more ambitious than, for example, Titanic or Gladiator, but it is true that they are cheaper and there are less people in them. Of course I rely on my actors — when I choose them I am completely led by my intuition and am less interested in their acting skills per se, than in what an actor carries inside.
Together with Natasa Burger and Janez Burger we have developed a specific system of actors’ preparation, which is much more intense and different from the classical method. It is not based so much on the screenplay as on the individual introspective process. We do exercises by which we research the influence of the subconscious on the movement. Sometimes, these exercises are more interesting and exciting than the shooting itself.

MB: Although different in film style and technique used [your first feature full-length, Bread and Milk (Kruh in mleko, 2001) was (re) shot in black and white; Gravehopping (Odgrobadogroba, 2005) was in colour; the pace of I Know is akin to animation], all of your films display an element of farce and the grotesque, reminiscent of the best ex-Yu comedy tradition, (such as S. Šijan’s The Martahon Family and Who Sings Over There), but in a more poetic tone and with more radical symbolism (political, religious and philosophical). Do you acknowledge any great cinematic or a literary influence on your work?

JC: My films are less and less literature and more and more film. In other words, they are gradually becoming what I consider FILM. In Bread and Milk, it was the last two scenes, in Gravehopping, it was the last 20 minutes of the film, in I know, it was the whole film. My next film, This is Earth, My Brother will be film in its truest sense. This means that I will use exclusively film language. Profound, subterranean… There will be no ‘literature’ there at all. It will describe things that are indescribable by literary means.

MB: What films do you watch?

JC: I have always read extensively and almost never gone to the cinema. I don’t watch films at home either. I have been disappointed so many times, the majority of films I see are different from my vision of film, perhaps that’s why I would rather make films myself. I mostly watch films when invited to sit on festival juries, although they know I do not watch many films. The most recent ones I would like to remember are Lanners’ Ultranova, Zvyagintsev’s The Banishment (Izgnanie), Zalica’s Days and Hours (Kod amidze Idriza), and Svilicic’s Armin.

MB: All of your films have won numerous international awards, you have been hailed as the most important Slovenian filmmaker in decades and your second full-length, Gravehopping, contrary to the expectations of many, was a huge success. You seem to be used to receiving awards and to both critical and audience acclaim. Apart from their practical side (prize cash money) encouraging you to continue your work, do these awards bear much symbolical significance to you?

JC: These awards gave me the initial self-confidence, which I needed as a self-taught filmmaker, with no formal education in film. Everyone at some moment needs the applause of the masses. It is desirable to receive this applause but to forget all about it in next moment. I am only focused on the film I am making now and nothing else. I would like to take pleasure in my film, I do not want to humiliate myself, so that later, in some scenes, to feel as if I have been bluffing. I have bluffed enough already in my real life.

MB: Does this status of an award-winning and best-known Slovenian filmmaker (at least since Slovenian independence) put additional pressure on you as a film author? Could it be also considered highly stimulating for the Slovenian film production, in general, especially with the recent change of the government?

JC: I do not think about this at all. The last four years, in spite of everything you have mentioned, I have run into a total obstruction by my state. They have attempted, in all imaginable ways, to block my filmmaking. I have made my last films without any money and with rented equipment. With a handful of friends only. I don’t give a shit about such a state.

MB: I Know was not screened as part of the festival’s short film competition program, but within the ‘Accompanying Program’ section. You became known first internationally before becoming appreciated in your homeland. Do you think that this phenomenon of “getting recognized abroad first” is the ‘unwritten rule’ for small countries, and puts you in the same category with other artists from the region who make ‘unpatriotic’ works?

JC: Yes, it does seem like some kind of a rule, a tradition rather. My films are much more respected at international festivals than, for example, at the Ljubljana festival. However, I don’t care much about this, it seems funny to me. This is the defining feature of small countries. When I say ‘small’, through, I do not only mean small in terms of area and population numbers…

MB: In the two full-length films you made so far, you worked with the recently deceased Sonja Savic, one of the greatest actresses of ex-Yugoslav cinematography, who, like you, insisted on human and artistic honesty in her work. Her acting style seemed to fit in impeccably within your overall authorial intentions, and, although your synergy with the other actors was also quite extraordinary, you and Savic were a perfect filming duo. How was it to work with her? Were her roles, in some way, reflecting your alter ego (in the sense of defying conventional gender boundaries)? Apart from suffering a great human loss on personal level, would your future film projects be affected by the absence of this actress?

JC: Meeting Sonja Savic has greatly influenced me and my ideas of film and art in general. Sonja was radical, tender, crazy, firm and fearless. She was some kind of a bridge between things real and the unreal. She gave me a sense of security, confidence, especially at those moments when I felt too lonely during my filming experience. She was the kind of person one could genuinely call an artist, a person with sensors for the divine.
Actually it is difficult for me to speak about her in the past tense. She is and will remain present, here… We liked each other very much and, simultaneously, we were getting on each other’s nerves. And… I have a feeling that she is laughing as she is reading this.