with Dejan Ognjanovic
Recently I gave an interview to Ms Melora Koepke from the Canadian HOUR MAGAZINE, regarding the SUBVERSIVE SERBIA program at this year's Fantasia, which I co-created with Mitch Davis, and with the help of The Film Center of Serbia and The Belgrade Cinematheque.
This program is announced in a text which can be found HERE.
It uses parts of the interview I gave.
Here at this blog you can exclusively read answers to several questions which could not be fitted into the limited space the HOUR MAGAZINE had for them.
I've watched LIFE AND DEATH OF A PORNO GANG and A SERBIAN FILM. It strikes me that the horror they convey is of a very personal, 1-on-1 nature in which you get to know the killers as well as the victims, and the line between the two is blurred enough to be nonexistent. I am hoping you can comment on the evolution of this very particular kind of horror in Serbian cinema in terms of its specific origins, or general context.
The key difference is that, unlike most Western horror films, these new Serbian ones are not recreational or entertaining in the usual sense of the term, the way so called 'torture porn' films like HOSTEL or SAW series are. Serbian horrors are not aimed at teenagers: they are essentially adult in their treatment of horror, pain and loss.
That is probably because they are invested with real life horrors from the recent civil wars in the region. Their directors were teenagers at the time when the country they had been born in (Yugoslavia) was torn apart in wars which, eventually, produced several 'independent' states, killing hundreds of thousands in the process. The brutality of these wars was, paradoxically, enhanced by the fact that they were wars between former neighbors, friends, even relatives. The gruesome images of eviscerated bodies were shown on state TV, in prime time, and you could not escape it.
The semi-documentary style (including the motif of snuff, shared by A SERBIAN FILM and PORN GANG) is a reflection of those real-life horrors. Also, the fact that you noticed, of difficulty to distinguish between victims and killers, may also be rooted in the fact that in a civil war there are no real uniforms and armies: it is a situation in which you say goodbye to clear-cut distinctions. Your friend or even lover of yesterday can become your killer today.
Obviously the acts depicted in these films can be taken as allegorical or metaphorical of Serbia's recent history of war. But in both films, the criminal challenges depicted come from "foreign money" and also, foreign desires to see the acts in question. Coincidence? Allegory?
These two films play upon certain expectations (and prejudices) associated with how this locale is perceived in the West, and they can be understood as grotesque parodies of Serbia's current image in the eyes of foreigners. They seem to be saying: "You thought we were a nation of criminals and maniacs and ogres? You haven't seen anything yet!"
Also, both deal with the concept of victimization in a very complex, layered manner. In both films snuffs are aimed at the foreign audience, bloodthirsty for the powerful sensation, hungry to feel anything in a world devoid of feeling. This is related to two facts:
1) the civil wars in former Yugoslavia were financially and politically supported by some Western countries, because it suited them to have many small, separate states in the region, instead of one single, united and strong;
2) the Western media were hypocritically 'shocked' and 'apalled' by the very images that their governments have sponsored and doctored to suit their own propaganda and to justify their intervention.
Both A SERBIAN FILM and PORN GANG talk about that – the role of the media, the complexities of voyerism involved even in the most brutal images, and also the culpability of 'victims' who willingly provided the show sponsored from abroad.
You make the huge distinction between A SERBIAN FILM and typical, extreme "dare films". How do you characterize the difference?
I think I have partially answered this question already. In "dare films" the shocking images are meant to entertain you, to make you laugh or squirm or cover your eyes for a moment, to affect you in a childish, superficial manner. They contain set-pieces which dare you to watch them, and that's it. Basically, playing the "who's the chickenshit" game in a safe environment, in a theater, instead of reckless driving on the road.
The two Serbian films we're discussing are different. They also contain images which are gruesome, transgressive, apalling – but they are invested with emotion and meaning which usually lack in the run-of-the-mill torture porns. A SERBIAN FILM and PORN GANG contain complex, real characters (played by good actors) in seriously dramatic situations: their fates resonate with you far longer than the usual "Booo!" effect.
I also want to mention the panel event you will be chairing, can you tell me a bit about it?
The panel on Serbian horror cinema will be held on July 14 with other Serbian filmmakers present at Fantasia. They will join me in my introduction to this topic in which I'll try to provide a historical and cultural context for these films, introducing and showing clips from many Serbian horror films from previous decades which are completely unknown to Western audiences. Most of them were never distributed outside of Serbia, which is a pity, since some of them are truly great. Luckily, Mitch Davis agreed to show three somehat older films which will prove that the recent wave of Serbian horrors did not come out of nowhere. There is a vital tradition of horror in Serbian cinema, and Fantasia will be the first place in the world to showcase these rare gems.