Barbarians, Serbian filmmaker Ivan Ikić's first feature film, was joint-winner of the top award at this year's Crossing Europe Film Festival in Linz, Austria. The film is set in the post-industrial landscape of Mladenovac, a suburb of Belgrade, in the run-up to the 2008 protests that rocked the country in the aftermath of Kosovo's declaration of independence.
Melding autobiography with the real-life circumstances of its impressive non-professional cast, Ikić's debut addresses some of the issues troubling Europe today – nationalism, xenophobia, unemployment, listlessness and hooliganism – as seen through the eyes of Luka, a fatherless, Kosovo-born teenager trying to navigate an ultra-macho world with few opportunities beyond passionately supporting FC Mladenovac, the local football team.
We spoke to Ikić – who also wrote the film – about protests, third-tier football hooliganism, working with a non-professional cast and Eastern European miserablism.
VICE: Why did you set the film during the 2008 "Kosovo Is Serbia" protests?
Ivan Ikić: In 2008 I returned from the Berlin Film Festival, and as soon as I arrived back in Belgrade I saw the news reports on TV about how kids had come from all around Serbia, how they were in front of the US embassy and trying to burn it. I somehow identify those kids with my generation, who'd protested against Milosevic eight years before that. The only thing that's changed is the political shift. We believed that we were fighting against nationalism or the end of the [Yugoslav] War, and so on, and those guys in 2008 felt that they were frustrated because of the opposite: they wanted to feel more patriotic, more nationalistic.
None of your characters actually engage in any political discussion, and yet they're used by a government that we don't really see. Why is that?
When you're a teenager, you don't have a very sharp political approach or attitude. You are led by frustration, and the will to change everything that your parents left you, because you feel that everything is wrong. What is actually wrong is that every society uses that healthy attitude – that healthy rage – for its personal aims. You are always manipulated if you lead that kind of organised protest, and I don't believe in spontaneous protests. I grew up in Yugoslavia, and all the protests were very well organised. I'm so sceptical about spontaneously organised protests.
Towards the end of the film, why does Luka express disgust with his friends after they loot a shop during the protest?
He feels that he needs something to change, to show his rage and fight with the police who are protecting the American embassy. He is a tragic character, because everyone else around him doesn't believe in that. They only make an effort for themselves, to steal something or to do some damage. It's very strange to explain someone who doesn't believe in Serbia – that double-outsider position of the main character. He's from Kosovo and needed to move to Serbia. He never belongs.
The racism in the film is linked to this hooligan subculture, and this environment – in which these young boys feel like they're part of something – also enables them to abuse Mohammed, a player from Ghana.
You have it all around Europe. It's the speciality of Italian fans, and in England also. That's how the people from one small town, in one small football fan group, see how they should behave – through the media. They grew up in a society where they didn't see any black people. The first black players who came to Serbia came for economic reasons, because they could make more money than in Africa. But when you come to Serbia as an African you are totally an outsider because you're not in Europe. You're on the borders of Europe.
You have some personal ties to FC Mladenovac, right?
At the time of the film's events my father was actually the president of the club, so I had an opportunity to watch the games and travel with the team. I saw second division football from the inside. Most of the clubs were owned by some shady guys connected with the mafia, or politics, or both. It was a really fruitful environment for a filmmaker, because a lot of interesting characters showed up, especially on the management side.
How did you audition a non-professional cast?
We tried the traditional process. We went to schools, and I wasn't really happy with the results because I felt that the kids we were searching for were not going to school. You need an insider to introduce you to those guys. My insider was an old school friend dealing in some shady business, and he organised a meeting in a local cultural centre.
I loved those guys from the first moment. I knew all the guys who were authorities to them, because I went to [the same] school [as them]. I mean, I left home when I was 19 to study, and was away for ten years, but I was so involved [in their world] because my mother, father and brother lived there. They felt very confident about me and they agreed to start rehearsals.
During rehearsals we tried a lot to improvise on circumstances from their lives. We did a lot of psychodrama stuff, where you play some situation from your life but from another perspective. We involved that in our process to make them actors. It was really an eclectic way of preparation.
How did their own lifestyles affect the production?
That was the big problem. All of my colleagues told me, "Yes, maybe you'll get them for one or two days, but you need a six-week shoot." And I said, "Yeah, maybe from a rational perspective." But if you don't put irrationality into filmmaking you play a safe game and never reach anything.
We had several production assistants who were in charge just to follow them, because they didn't have mobile phones. We did it the old-fashioned way: if someone didn't show up on set we called their neighbours, or their father, or their sister, and a driver waited for them in front of their building. There were problems, of course, from time to time, but we never lost a day of shooting. One of the main [actors] went to jail, which we knew about before. At the end we had a break of six months because he went to jail.
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The cinematography employs wide framing on the one hand but shallow focus on the other. How did you arrive at that decision?
I feel that Cinemascope is the proper format for film. It has some basics in film theory and perception theory, because you see wider than you do higher, so wider pictures are more pleasant. What's most common when using Cinemascope is that you see a great depth of field, with many layers in the background. But we felt that for our story, which is mostly intimate and following one character's point of view, we needed some kind of psychological tool to show how Luka feels.
A lot of films of this kind are very grey at, but your film embraces colour.
My cinematographer and I talked for almost a year and a half before shooting. We were inspired a lot by British cinema. We talked about a lot of films, like Kes, like Fish Tank, like the old films of Mike Leigh or Lindsay Anderson. Mladenovac really reminds me of some towns in the UK, because it was an old industrial town devastated in the transitional process towards capitalism. There is some common emotion. And we wanted to achieve something very different to the movies we see from Eastern Europe, where this style came into fashion, where all films look grey and miserable.
We didn't want to make our world look better than it is, but we wanted to look around ourselves with different eyes. Mladenovac is full of old buildings made during socialist times, which were very well designed. We wanted to show how one old industrial town is devastated now, and how the great architecture now looks – and all those buildings look very colourful, and when we got to the apartments of our real characters they were full of colour. It's always connected to kitschy objects and very colourful lighting. We wanted to keep those colours and integrate them into our vision.
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