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Life On the Margins: How This Filmmaker Captured Youth Culture Yugoslavia

In the tradition of Ken Loach and the Yugoslav Black Cinema from the 60s, Ikić is taking a social realist approach to his examination of Europe's changing urban landscape.

"Barbarians"

“Barbarians”

Courtesy of Ivan Ikic

This article was produced as part of the Locarno Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring journalists at the Locarno Film Festival, a collaboration between the Locarno Film Festival, IndieWire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center with the support of Film Comment and the Swiss Alliance of Film Journalists. The following interview, conducted by a member of the Critics Academy, focuses on a participant in the affiliated Filmmakers Academy program at the festival.

Watching “Varvari” (“Barbarians”), the first film feature of Yugoslavian filmmaker Ivan Ikić, one could easily have an impression of déjà-vu. Shown as part of the Filmmaker Academy’s screenings at the 69th Locarno International Film Festival, the film set in Yugoslavia depicts youth living on margins of society, that recalls the troubled kids populating the films of Alan Clarke or Ken Loach.

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Ivan Ikić positions himself as a heir of the fathers of British Social Realism — and also claims affiliation with a quasi-forgotten movement from his own country, the Yugoslav Black Wave of the sixties and seventies, which was lead by directors such as Dusan Makavejev and Aleksandar Petrović. Like those films, Ikić’s cinema has an affection for those on the margins of society and doesn’t shy away from tackling contemporary political issues. In “Varvari,” he documents the pervasive racism of soccer fan-clubs culture and the consequences of Kosovo’s independence from Serbia in 2008, all the while maintaining an empathetic eye on his “barbarians.”

Recognized by the prestigious Cinéfondation, he is currently preparing his second feature, “The Users,” a story centered on three mentally ill young people and explores the themes of sex and suicide. We met the director in Locarno to discuss his intriguing new project, his method when working with non-professional actors and a possible current wave in Serbian cinema.

Why did you decide to apply to the Cinéfondation residency and how was your experience as a resident there?

I heard about the residency and I applied without any kind of previous knowledge of what it was or how it worked. I needed some kind of break in my everyday life, I needed to move away from my environnement to finish the script for the new film. It sounded like a good idea to move to Paris. I applied but I had no idea if I were going to get in or what I’d do if I did get in. So I applied at the last minute. One day I received an email that I was in the shortlist and that [I’d] do an interview with the jury. And finally Georges Goldenstern called and said: “Pack your things: you’re coming to Paris in March. You can go have a drink now.”

It was a really interesting experience to be part of because it’s not a workshop or something similar, it’s more about giving the filmmaker time and space to focus on cinema. You have plenty of time to think about your film. Not only to write it but also to think about [what] it’s going to look like.

Ivan Ikić

Ivan Ikić

courtesy of filmmaker

So talk to us about “The Users,” the film you have been preparing there.

“The Users” was supposed to be my first film. It’s inspired by the work I did as a student [filmmaker] with young people with mental handicaps. It follows a love triangle between two girls and one boy in a mental institution. The story is about the battle between strong sexual desire and suicidal desire. It’s kind of the next stop in developing my own style, which I’ve started with my first film where I also worked with young non-professional actors.

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What is your method when it comes to working with non-professional actors?

When I finish the script, I start the casting and when I do the casting I find interesting characters. I do not know precisely who is going to play what but I have some ideas. We do rehearsals. It’s very close to psychodrama where we stage scenes from their own life so the characters of the film are shaped by the actors that play them. I’m using a lot of their own stuff, their own experience and background. In the final draft of the script I adapt the characters I imagined to the actors who are going to be in the film. The script is a work-in-progress. But the narrative arc stays the same.

Is directing your second feature more difficult? Not just in terms of financing but trying to tell another story, maybe affirm your style and take your independence from your influences?

There is a good quote by this Yugoslavian composer. He said that for the first record you had all your life to prepare it but for the second you only have one year. It’s hard when you need to put yourself in a new story but I thought about that story for such a long time that it’s very mature in my head. It has obsessed me for a long time so I know that I’ll make efforts to do it. Filmmaking is a marathon, it can be a long process so you need to be attached to the story to make it happen and not lose it.

This might be an easy comparison but your first film “Barbarians” reminded me a lot of British Social Realism like the films of Alan Clarke, or more recently “Fish Tank” directed by Andrea Arnold.

What connects me to British cinema is the working-class milieu, the small town, the industrial landscapes. My film might as well happen in the U.K. Many people from the U.K. write me and tell me that it’s very similar to their experience.

The setting of the film is a small town near Belgrade, in a suburb, a former industrial town which was devastated by the transition to capitalism. So it’s a story that is similar to many stories about post-industrial towns around Europe where many people stayed without jobs or found themselves into real trouble after that transition. So it happened in my town and I wanted to show how you live and deal in those circumstances where you are alone against everybody. When you feel like you don’t belong to a certain place but you don’t have the opportunity to leave.

Are there autobiographical elements in the film?

Everything is very personal in the film. It’s not an autobiography but there a lot of things that are very close to my life. The film happens in the place where I was born and where I grew up. It’s the place where my family still lives. I found a small gang of kids from my neighborhood who are soccer fans so I put them in the film. My father was the president of the club that is in the film so I know that environment very well.

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Would you say that you are part of a cinematic movement in Yugoslavia?

There are couple of films which are being released now that have the same approach when we talk about filmmaking. They are inspired by real stories and involve non-professional actors. They call it “Serbian hyperrealist” cinema or the “New School of Belgrade” cinema. But I wouldn’t call it a movement, it only concerns a couple of films.

What inspired me the most, and I think the rest of the auteurs today, is the Yugoslav Black Cinema from the 60’s and 70’s which is always on our mind. It is now unfortunately forgotten in the history of cinema, the films have not been preserved so they are very hard to find. But we are deeply inspired by them, it was a strong movement of young filmmakers characterized by very strong political approach and black, sharp humor — which is also present in my film, I consider that there is a lot of humor in my films. What I also like from Yugoslav Black Cinema is that it deals with people from the margins. The main characters are always outsiders. And I really like that position of the main character in this cinema because it’s very close to me personally. My emotional attachment always goes to the people who have no exit or opportunities.

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