AN INTERVIEW WITH GORAN MARKOVIC
THE DIRECTOR OF VARIOLA VERA
Conducted by Dejan Ognjanovic
Goran Marković's Već Vidjeno (Déjà vu, aka Reflections, 1987) was the purest horror effort made in Serbia to that date; it is included in the second edition of Phil Hardy’s Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Horror (1994). I wrote about Déjà vu in BFI's 100 European Horror Films (Steven Schneider, ed.), British Film Institute, London, 2007, pp. 63-64, and about Marković in Steven Schneider's 501 Movie Directors, Quintessence / Barron's, London / New York, 2007, p. 498.
Variola Vera (1982) is a title which refers to the Latin name for smallpox, and the film is loosely based on a real event. In 1972, an Albanian Moslem from Kosovo was infected by smallpox on his pilgrimage somewhere in the Middle East, and upon his return to Serbia he caused an epidemic in the Belgrade City Hospital, since his symptoms were not immediately recognised. The film's director, Goran Marković, uses the disease as a metaphor: it provides a distorted mirror for an unhealthy system... He explains how he came to make this cult film which mixes disaster and horror movie formulas with an auteur approach.
(My review of this film is HERE)
(My review of this film is HERE)
-- In your film, it is the society who is generating horror and psychosis... What is your attitude to horror films and how consciously did you use horror genre in making Variola vera?
What I have done was to abuse the elements of the genre. I've never made a real genre film, primarily because I didn't think I was able to, and also because I felt no need to examine the possibilities of a genre. Variola vera is, I would say, first of all, a disaster movie, where these elements of horror, so to speak, are used sporadically.
What I did was to gather material that was concealed, regarding the real event, the epidemic of smallpox in Belgrade in 1972. It was 1982 when I was making the movie, and all the time, in those ten years in between, the truth about the epidemic had been concealed. I was conscious that there must have been some kind of cover-up.
When I reconstructed the events I found out that there was a disease that had not only its biological but also social aspects. And the story of the epidemic to me has served to place doubt on the validity of the society in which we lived.
I carried this film with me when I taught film classes in New York. The American students who saw it, they only perceived a story about the epidemic. What they failed to see is that it's also a story about a society, about a sick society. But that sort of thing happens when you try to use metaphors, symbols etc. But such were the times back then.
--- What kind of research did you conduct?
During the research I was very much helped by a brochure on smallpox, and a voice recorder that I used with doctors who wanted to talk to me. I was afraid that they would not want to talk if they knew I was recording them, but once it so happened that it clicked when the tape came to an end and then they found me out. I was ashamed.
That's what I basically did: a reconstruction of the story. When people enter the quarantine they wear those white protective suits, it's one of those horror elements which seemed attractive to me.
It is interesting that Erland Josephson came to shooting the film immediately after working with Bergman, on Fanny and Alexander, and he asked what language to use and I said 'In English'. The first scene was with the Albanians from Kosovo. We found them at the railway station and took them to play the relatives of the deceased Rexhepi. When they came to the set, it was the first time that they've ever seen a film camera, and we had Josephson speaking in English, they are using Albanian, there are also Serbian actors... It was an incredible set of people!
--- You mentioned the Albanians, and this inevitably imposes a comparison of coincidence of the premiere of your movie which happened just one year after the massive Albanian demonstrations in Kosovo, in 1981. Was there an intention to present the disease as a metaphorical version of this type of risk coming from there?
No, it was factually quite authentic, I just changed the name of the man who brought the smallpox virus to Belgrade: in the film he is called Halil Rexhepi, while in the real case his name was Rexhep Halili.
As for the opening sequence, I also had this one idea that horror fans would've liked. It was supposed to happen on a cult place for Islam, and that is the tower in Samarra. It is absolutely a masterpiece of architecture and rhythm. It somewhat resembles the Tower of Babel, it's like a pyramid, made up of a spiral road which climbs to the summit. This path is widest down, at the base, and as you get above, it gets very narrow. So, the idea was for this Albanian pilgrim to climb the spiral, and I wanted the originator of the disease, with his flute, to be on the very top.
But it is true, at the time of premiere, there was a critic from Zagreb, who wrote that Variola vera was anti-Albanian film and that I suggested that evil comes from the Albanians...
--- At the time of the film's premiere it caused some controversy because some people recognized themselves or their relatives in certain characters of the film.
It was only a matter of relatives of one of the nurses. I have a character whom I presented as the mistress of a doctor on duty, but that was my creative freedom, it was not based on any specific real character.
--- Could you summarize, in a nutshell, what Variola vera is about?
The theme of an individual against the dark forces is what haunts me and I think that's what surfaces from the initial analysis of a society in which there is little hope for individual happiness and harmony.