Interview: Igor Drljaca

Filmmaker Igor Drljaca first made headlines back at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2011 with his semi-autobiographical Canada’s Top Ten selected short The Fuse: or How I Burned Simon Bolivar, but he would make just as many waves in the Canadian film scene with his feature length debut at the same festival the following year, the soon to be released Krivina. Both films very heavily reflect the director’s place of birth, but whereas his short was structurally playful and used low grade, era appropriate video footage to tell a true story from a time just before young Igor left Sarajevo at the height of the country’s lengthy civil war, his feature asks a bit more of the audience.

The York University alum bases his latest fictional feature in both of his homelands as Toronto based construction worker Miro (played by Goran Slavkovic) travels back to the home he left behind to investigate the disappearance of a former friend currently being sought by the authorities on suspicion of war crimes. While not something that Drljaca went through personally, the film captures quite stunningly the landscapes of Bosnia and the ghosts hidden in every dilapidated door frame or open country road. It’s a thrilling and largely existential story of loss and guilt taking place in a nation of secrets.

We caught up to Drljaca just prior to the debut of his latest at TIFF to talk about Bosnia, making the jump from shorts to features, what it was like to mount his most ambitious project to date, and potentially making the move to work on larger canvases.

Dork Shelf: It seems like a really easy question to answer, but what keeps you going back to the themes you find yourself going back to and going back to the former Yugoslavia?

Igor Drljaca: Somehow, it really comes from the fact that I don’t think I’ve really digested everything just yet. I’m kind of moving away from that, though. The next film I want to make delves more into the actual immigration experience itself, and it relates to Jasmin Gelgo’s character here, (Miro’s) friend where it’s a different kind of messed up situation.

DS: Do you think that inability to move on led you to make a longer film this time instead of just sticking to making a short this time out?

ID: I was doing my Masters at the time, so the project actually began as my thesis, then I just continued with it. I defended it back in December of 2010, and I graduated last year in 2011, so I just kind of continued working on the edit itself, and trying to follow that and trying to get at this inability to reconcile the old world with the events that transpired. When I was there, I met a lot of Bosnian war veterans and some of them were actually from one entity. Bosina divided into two entities, and I had family on both sides because I was mixed. It was really strange. Everything about me is really strange because of that and a lot of my work is about trying to disassociate from borders, especially because in Bosnia everyone tries to confine everything within this zoned off present form of reality because the country is still suffering. It’s still going through this post-traumatic period, and a lot of people affected by the war are still going through that.

DS: Do you think that any time in the near future there won’t be a generation affected so greatly by this war?

ID: I think the current generation growing up in post-war Sarajevo and Bosnia, and especially the one’s born after the war, they don’t necessarily have a grip on it, and now they’re a part of the myth making that goes on, and that’s all they really have right now. That goes on with any war, and there’s a lot of myth making even though it’s still not that far removed from the culture if you think about it. There’s a lot of creative or made up narrative, but yet they still get attached to it. There’s various versions of different stories. The textbooks in Bosnia are often the worst. They show different histories often depending on where kids go to school, so we sometimes end up having two different schools under one roof, where you have kids going to school in the same building but being taught two completely different versions of history. They’re being taught two different geographical ideas of what is and is not their land. It’s bizarre. It’s a country that really hasn’t ever been able to come to terms with the legacy of that war. It’s still going in some ways.

DS: In your own work, and especially something here where you might not always necessarily agree with or understand the motives of Miro after a while, is it important for you to always keep that mythologizing at arm’s length?

ID: I do think that’s important, and I think that’s what I tried to do with the film. I tried to create a narrative that never really roots itself in this vision. It takes things into a much more subconscious terrain.

DS: It definitely conveys that sense of being out of place and distant from a once well known location, but it’s also very thoughtful. There’s a lot of very long takes, sometimes with narration or dialogue taking place over it, but it’s interesting to look at something like that where you’re looking at your surroundings and taking in that view that could lead people to be a bit more reflective. Was that something you were actively trying to convey, especially with regards to the cinematography?

ID: I was very mindful of not making it too obtuse, but the land is so picturesque that there was no way to avoid it. But I did know that I wanted to experiment with some very bizarre sound design and some bizarre editing; kind of like I was layering the dialogue over things and particularly working with a lot of static shots and handheld shots to combine everything together into this kind of dream-like world like the one Miro finds himself in. Dream spaces seems to be sometime be exploiting a particular set of clichés, so I think when people are watching the film they might not realize that they’re in a dream space and that they’re taking it as a completely literal understanding of things, and I kind of tried to create this kind of tension between reality and the dream.

When I was shooting it, I actually really wanted to experiment with the editing in a way that you could feel the construction and that the space was never a literal journey. Just by like cutting from really, really shaky handheld footage and cutting right on to really picturesque static shots, which is a bit unusual in these confines, and then taking the audio and using it to create a sense of tension, disassociation, and distance from the image and the people. And the things that the people Miro meets and the things they say – which are all different versions of that same story that they’re just reiterating – was another element used to clue people in.

DS: By that same token, some could take your own experimentation as a way of creating your own version of the mythology of this place, which is kind of different from the more personal story you brought to TIFF in 2011 with your short. Was that something that you were conscious of or that you wanted to actively create?

ID: I don’t know if it was my own sense of mythology here, but I wanted to convey a real sense of feeling. Some people did ask me about this, like why would I have this character that’s being searching, but is simultaneously seems representative of two different armies. It’s something that I find kind of amusing because they’re not aware of this sense of competing armies that went on at the time that were involved in the war. People would say that it made no sense and they would ask why at one point he would say he’s in the Bosnian army and why at one point he would say he was in the Serbian army.

DS: But that also leads into why this feels like such a classical story in a way, because it really is an epic quest of a different sort, because no matter who he says he has aligned himself with, he still goes to dozens of places and never gets closer to the truth. It’s kind of a Don Quixote story in a lot of ways, which makes it a lot more relatable if you think about it in that sense.

ID: Yeah, exactly. I’m definitely thinking more in context of the actual history of the war and its structure. Like the particular history and how much people actually pay attention to the actual details in relation to the ones they have created themselves.

DS: In terms of crafting your main character, he seems more on a journey to find himself than he is to find his friend…

ID: Yeah, but he doesn’t know that.

DS: How hard is that to convey?

ID: I kept him out of the loop in a lot of ways, but I think Goran kind of suspected what I was trying to do. I never gave him too much to work with in terms of telling him exactly what was going to happen around him, and I tried to have him act a bit more stoic and at times robotic to kind of disassociate himself to make him seem like he was psychologically affected by this journey.

DS: How much did you tell him going in? Was there any real instruction or preparation he could have done?

ID: I told him that Miro’s someone who has a hard time remembering. He knew that there were elements of amnesia, so that obviously probably made him suspect where I was heading with this story, but there’s also this almost more prevalent form of collective amnesia where he’s going on and talking to people who are all talking about the same person and they know who they are talking about, but they don’t actually have the ability to identify who he’s looking for, which kind of feeds into this idea of a sort of surreal space. As the filming went on he started to suspect what I was doing, so I tried to maintain a little bit of a distance and mystery in his own head space, which I thought was another thing that could aid in my performance. It was another thing with which I could experiment. (laughs)

DS: It seems like most of the improvisation happened in the editing room.

ID: There was a lot of improv that was involved on the days of shooting, though, and that was something that happened because I was working mostly with non-actors. I was working with two actors, one sort of an up and coming actor with no professional training in Goran and Jasmin Geljo, who comes from kind of an Academy background. He’s a known name in the former Yugoslavia. I tried to bring in their own sort of stories in a way. Jasmin’s story of his arrival and the trauma and whatnot was based around his actual arrival. We tweaked a few things, but that’s basically how it happened. I told him to tell that story a few different ways and then I manipulated it a bit in the editing room. So there was a lot of improvisation that happened in the ways these stories were being told, but the overall affect was manipulated or constructed from the get go. Formally I knew what I was aiming for, but I really wanted them to give me something from themselves because that was more authentic. I didn’t want an overly dramatized rendition of the character.

DS: So what are you working on next?

ID: Well, apart from the immigration story with Jasmin, I’m actually working now in Europe on a film about the post-war youth and the children growing up after the war and the sort of collapse in moral value systems that exist in modern day Bosnia. There was this huge capitalist transition that went on from the old sort of Cold War Communist values to this sort of inbetween phase. I’m also working on a few screenplays that are a bit more genre mashing by their design. I think minimalist science fiction would be a good thing to call it. I’m trying to explore not confining to a single genre, but more looking to explore certain ideas within certain genres, because I think that’s becoming more and more of a type of vision these days. Lots of filmmakers are starting to explore this sort of in-between space.

DS: Do you think that you’re ready to make that leap to working on a much bigger canvas?

ID: I would love to be able to attract more funding for my projects, and I think there are audiences that are ready for us to make English speaking Canadian cinema relevant to the rest of the world apart from just the big names like Cronenberg and Egoyan. It’s kind of like entering the space of English speaking Canadian cinema and trying to make it relevant again.

Krivina opens at the Royal Cinema in Toronto for a one week run on Friday, January 25th.