Present and past: an interview with Mila Turajlic

An interview by Dalesia Cozorici.

Mila Turajlic (born in 1979) is a Serbian filmmaker, known for directing feature-length documentaries such as Cinema Kommunisto (2011) and The Other Side of Everything (2017), winner of IDFA’s grand award, and winner of the High School Jury at the One World Romania Festival 2018. Dalesia Cozorici, who was part of the jury, interviewed the filmmaker.

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I met Mila Turajlic at last year’s edition of the festival, where I was part of the high school jury with Ada Stan, Mihai Bostan, Ioana Gheorghişor, and Petra Torsan. “The Other Side of Everything”, which was selected amongst the documentaries that we, the jury, were due to watch, made us take a good look at each other from the moment the screening was over, and we ended up offering the film the grand prize of the festival. I remember the Q&A with her so well - I think all five of us do - it was a breath of fresh air. It was as if we were all waiting for a documentary that talks about family, self, power, the integrity of a country, about things that seem impossible. I felt like somebody had the power to talk about war and resistance at what I felt was an important moment for us as a nation.

Then, I saw her at a conference named “The Power of Storytelling” in Bucharest, where we talked about the things you can read below, but also about many more – some of which will only have been heard by the walls in the lobby of the hotel. Press play on a black tape recorder.

Where did your passion for films begin?

I wanted to do something else, I wanted to become a political activist. Then, at the time of the revolution in Serbia, I had a moment of disillusionment and I started looking for a way of communicating, or a way of expression that would reflect the way I see the world. And, bizarrely enough, I saw Agnès Varda’s documentary, “The Gleaners and I,” and because it’s a documentary about documentary film, it was an eye-opener for me. And then, there’s something in you, an idea that does not leave you alone, and so I end up making films.

How would you describe your films to someone who has not seen them yet? “The Other Side of Everything” and “Cinema Komunisto”?

Hmm, that’s interesting. They’re films that capture the way we tell stories and why we need to tell them exactly. “Cinema Komunisto” is a film about how the Yugoslav film industry has ended and how political stories have been created for the country. And “The Other Side of Everything” is the story of our apartment, the divided space in the family home; a film that talks about the war in the nineties and how we have separated ourselves as a country, in the end. Each of my films is directed towards something specific, which is usually a place, and ends up talking about the traces of the past in the present.

How do you see your documentary in relation to the other countries that have a similar story to Serbia’s, starting from communism, to grassroots protests and activism?

I was curious enough to see how it would be interpreted, because, obviously, we went through this communist experience, as you said, but I think Yugoslavia was different from the rest of the countries. We all went through a transition, we all believed that there would be only one form of society, defined by a single ideology, but then we became victims of the capitalist transition. So I’ve been trying to tell the story about how we all get to face a question, which is, “Will we ever be responsible for what’s happening in our country or not?” and I think this is also very relevant to Romania nowadays, or Bulgaria, or the Czech Republic ... this question of “Do you run away from what’s going on? And if you decide to stay, are you going to do something?

Did you start your film with a script, or was it the images that guided the script?

I had a clear idea from the beginning about how it should look like. First of all, I knew that the film would not leave the apartment, so we had somewhat of a structure from that. I also knew that the film would take place in the interior, and that allows the space to become a microcosm and the apartment to be a metaphor for the whole country. Aside from this I knew nothing more.

I’m sure you had hundreds of hours of raw footage. How did you decide what to remove and what to include, what is important and what is not?

It really was hundreds of hours. First of all, I worked with a very good editor. Because if you are the one who was there and filmed the events, the first challenge is to stay with someone who has a neutral look at all the shots and frames and can help you formulate a clear idea: “Is that [one] ok? Does it say anything?”. Besides, because you’re telling a family story, you’re always confronted with this question, “Is this interesting to me or is it also interesting for other people, too?”. After that, it’s like having to string of pearls on a necklace - you have to think about how to place them in line, what sequences you will use to build the entire thing.

How did you find the critical opinions on the film - both from those who helped you construct the film, but the opinions that you heard at Q&As?

Nobody likes criticism, but most of the times you receive it. In the second half of the production phase you, the director, have to organize a lot of closed screenings where you invite some people whose opinion really matters. And so, you have to go through a difficult feedback process, like, “That’s boring, I do not understand this...”. And that helps you, because when you are aware of the opinions of others, you can try to fix some things on the go and hope that these changes will resonate with the audience.

What would you tell to a young person who wants to pursue a career as a film director, or one who is at the beginning of their career?

It sounds very banal, but… nothing is stopping you from doing anything. I think the only advice I can give is that if there is a voice in you, you have to be very good at listening to it, that’s the only challenge.

What is the reaction of the audience in relation to the topics you are addressing in your documentaries?

It’s interesting because I went on a mini-tour with the film through America, accompanied by my mother, and everyone reacts to the theme of having a voice, something to say in the public sphere, and how to make yourself heard. I don’t think that, on the tour, I visited any country where the political situation is not dangerous and where the feeling that things are going wrong does not exist. And there is always a fear of social engagement.

How was One World Romania for you last year? Would you like to say something to the people who come to the festival every year?

It was incredible. I only came to Romania for 24 hours and I regretted that my stay was so short. And then… I have to tell you that I did dozens of Q&As in the previous year, but I remember so clearly the Q&A that we had that night in Bucharest. The questions people asked and the way they connected with the film with their own life experience here in Romania was something unforgettable to me.

You have a very precious festival on your hands, one which is a meeting place between the people who create and the people for whom films have been created... I encourage people to participate in this festival in all possible ways, whether you are making a film, watching it or discussing it.