Vladimir Perišić • Director of Lost Country
“I am trying to dissect and diagnose the violence in Serbian society”
- CANNES 2023: The Serbian director returns to the Croisette with a film that has a strong personal dimension for him and an uncanny echo in the present reality of his home country
On 3 May this year, Serbia experienced its first school shooting. A 13-year-old boy killed ten people with his father's gun, including the school security guard and nine students, in the Belgrade school "Vladislav Ribnikar". Just two months before that, Vladimir Perišić finished filming on his second feature, the Cannes Critics’ Week entry Lost Country [+see also:
interview: Vladimir Perišić
film profile], at the same school. And the film, among its other key themes, addresses widespread violence in Serbian society.
“This violence that has always been there is something I am trying to dissect and diagnose,” he says. “With my previous film, Ordinary People [+see also:
interview: Vladimir Perisic: Ordinary …
film profile], I tried to address the war crimes of the 1990s in a way that was less narrative and more observational, because there was no way for me to penetrate this psychology.”
Lost Country is set during the 1996/97 civil protests against dictator Slobodan Milošević's attempt to rig the elections. The hero, Stefan (Jovan Ganić), is a 15-year-old secondary-school student, and as the situation becomes volatile, with basically all of Belgrade supporting the anti-government protests, he finds himself torn between his love for his mother, Marklena (Jasna Djuričić), who is the spokesperson for Milošević's Socialist Party of Serbia, and peer pressure from his friends, which threatens to turn into bullying.
There is a clear autobiographical element here, as Perišić's own mother was a member of Milošević's party and was involved in the cultural field at the time. The director, who was 19 back then, disagreed with his mother's politics and took part in the protests. He says there was no pressure at home, and he wasn't harassed in the streets, but people were aware who his mother was, and he felt a lot of inner conflict.
“For most people, the demonstrations were kind of a carnival, a party, but for me, it wasn't that laid-back,” he recalls. “But I know the protests liberated me. It would have been much more difficult for me to stand up to my family and be able to create a distance and take charge of my life if it hadn’t been for that collective rebellion that was a trigger for me to revolutionise myself.”
After the protests, Perišić moved to France to study Literature. This is where he first learned, from an article in Libération, that the daughter of war criminal Ratko Mladić had committed suicide in 1994, before her father even carried out the Srebrenica massacre. “It made me realise that I was a hostage of this violent society, and if I didn't stand up against its crimes, I would become an accomplice,” he explains.
This is why he had felt an urgency to make Ordinary People, but 14 years have passed since its world premiere in Cannes’ Critics’ Week. “I am not one of those professionals who consider filmmaking a job, and who make film after film,” he says. “I needed the things that happened in the 1990s to become history, as opposed to a never-ending psychological war, which continued after the actual war ended and is still around, albeit in a milder form. But I did start working on Lost Country in 2016. It was difficult to finance, and I was in the process of casting when COVID-19 struck and made it impossible.”
Finding the actors
For the character of Marklena, Perišić chose EFA winner Jasna Djuričić, whom he had previously worked with on his graduation short, Dremano oko. “The Party speaks through her as its spokesperson. There is a performative element in this, so the idea was that politicians have become something like actors when represented in the media. When Marklena comes home from work, it feels as if she has come from the theatre. I felt that if my film played out like a documentary about Jasna as an actress, the portrait of the politician would be a true one.”
For the role of Stefan, Perišić auditioned more than 1,500 teenagers from all over Serbia. In the screenplay, co-written with Alice Winocour, Stefan trains in water polo, which is what Perišić did himself as a kid. But he says he was ready to change the sport in accordance with what the non-professional he picked felt closest to. However, he found Ganić at a water-polo club.
“It felt like he picked me. I was standing by the pool, the coach called them, they swam to the edge, and I took a photo with my mobile phone. When I looked at it later, I saw one boy was looking directly at me while the rest were listening to the coach,” he recalls. When the team invited Ganić to the casting, he arrived with his best friend, Miodrag Jovanović, who ended up playing his best friend in the film.
Visual and storytelling approach
To this writer, who also took part in the 1996/97 protests, the quality of the image in Lost Country is reminiscent of how the things we watched on TV at the time looked. It was filmed on Super 16mm tape by Sarah Blum and Louise Botkay Courcier.
“I don't like films that are historical reconstructions; they have something antiquated about them,” Perišić explains. “I wanted Lost Country to look like a documentary that was filmed in the here and now of 1996, but you are watching it today. Super 16 has a way of sublimating everything into a past time.”
With the small budget, Perišić wasn't able to close the streets in order to recreate the era or film mass scenes. He solved this by opting for medium-wide angles in the protest scenes. “I picked the locations that haven’t changed since those times,” he says.
As for the narrative, Perišić says he always saw himself more as an observer than a storyteller, which is an approach he adopted in Ordinary People. But this story required real fiction storytelling. “I discovered the idea of ‘small form’ when I was reading Deleuze,” he recalls. “It means that you are following a character and gradually discovering his situation through little signs and indications that point to a larger situation that the hero slowly discovers. But I wanted these signs to be dichotomous, so these signs could point at two opposing situations, and you can't reach the true interpretation of what is happening. This is how politics works, and you end up not knowing what is true.”
Perišić feels that the violence in Serbian society is endemic and originates from the authoritarian way in which all of the politicians approach power. “I feel the situation in Serbian society never changes: whoever is in power rules in an authoritarian manner. This whole Orthodox Christian patriarchy with its dependence on the father figure is essentially authoritarian. So ideologies and discourse may change, but the set-up is the same. I wanted this film to observe this continuity of authoritarianism, which is actually subconscious, rather than a rational, intentional decision on the politicians’ part.”
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