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KARLOVY VARY 2021 Competition

Sonja Tarokić • Director of The Staffroom

“It’s a story about realising you are not a hero”


- In her feature debut, the Croatian director heads back to school – only to find out that some things never change

Sonja Tarokić  • Director of The Staffroom
(© Nikola Zelmanovic)

In the feature debut The Staffroom [+see also:
film review
interview: Sonja Tarokić
film profile
, screening in competition at Karlovy Vary, Anamarija (Marina Redžepović) has just got a new job – she will be working as a counsellor in a school. But entering the close-knit community of teachers proves harder than expected, especially once she starts questioning the methods of one of her colleagues (Stojan Matavulj). Or, to be perfectly honest, also his sanity. We talked to the film’s director, Sonja Tarokić.

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Cineuropa: It feels like teachers always tend to get so much bad press – everyone complains about them, be it students or parents. Do you have a background in education yourself?
Sonja Tarokić: I have never worked in a school, but I feel connected to the stories about “the system”, in general. I grew up in a family of psychologists. Our main actress’s mother is a counsellor and the headmistress of a kindergarten, while our producer’s mother is a teacher. There is this personal link, you could say, but it was more about these micro-tensions that make you start doubting your whole belief system and your strength. This film shows how tension and anxiety enter your life without you even noticing, and that sometimes you can’t fix a single problem without establishing some relationships first. It’s really about choosing your fights.

Many people approached us after the screening, here in Karlovy Vary. They said: “This is us; this is my life.” It meant a lot. The general audience is one thing, but it’s a relief to know that the people who actually work in staffrooms like this like it as well – that I didn’t betray them or let them down.

At a recent panel about mental health on film sets, that’s what was mentioned as well: micro-aggressions, gaslighting. And yet, in her case, she still has to come back to that room every single day.
The most challenging, but also the most important, part of this story was about making sure that you could empathise with everyone in that room. It’s claustrophobic, but you understand why someone is scared of the parents or compassionate towards some lunatic who works with her every day. At the same time, you also understand the parents, the counsellor and the headmistress. Everybody is wrong and right at the same time. The anxiety is there, but nobody is a bad guy. They all have their own reasons why they don’t want to pick a fight. Anamarija can’t help one of the students, precisely because she has made too many enemies. You have to get on with others in order to do your job.

These days, when you have a female protagonist, there is this pressure to show her being strong, successful, a fighter. She is not that at all.
She wants to fit in and change things – it’s her inner conflict, constantly. These are your colleagues, and when you don’t have a single friend, who do you turn to? I chose that profession for her as a narrative tool – she is not one of the teachers. She doesn’t have her own classroom or an area of expertise that no one can touch. That’s why they feel the intrusion. But she needs to be the mediator between the teachers, the parents and the kids, which always positions her somewhere in the middle.

It’s something I find universal. You want to be a part of your community – you don’t want to be anxious about going to work every day. So many of us can feel this way. Also, educational teachers don’t really change schools that often; sometimes, they have to be together for 20 or even 30 years, which makes it all even tighter.

There is so much tension in the story. It makes one a bit nervous, also because of the music.
The whole narrative, as well as the music, goes around in circles. You have one problem, you have to go back, and then something happens again. It’s like a dance. It was always our intention to build up this crescendo of tension because it’s not just about her as a human; it’s about her as a worker. What are her options?

Of course, the school has a reputation to save: you have this responsibility to assure the parents that everyone working there is sane and doing their job, for example. I talked to one journalist here, and she started to complain about teachers a lot. I went: “Well, in this film, we are actually compassionate towards them.” Of course, you show the lunacy and the whole circus, but these are still normal people. You can’t always be the noble one.

Anamarija realises it, too, but presumably, many could view her trajectory as tragic.
It is a failure, but not her personal failure. It’s life – that’s the way things go sometimes. Also, she still has “it” in her. You have to keep this inner flame burning. It’s a story about realising you are not a hero, which means you have to forgive yourself, but also others – for not being as strong as everyone would like us to be. It’s painful, but maybe next year, she will be wiser? Because there is always next year.

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