Conversation / 3 July 2019

Our contribution to the history of the world

An Interview with Predrag Ličina, Zagreb based filmmaker and author

The opening night of the movie The Last Serb in Croatia sparked a lot of discussion in the region of former Yugoslavia. Nevertheless, the movie was a huge success. Attacked in the mainstream nationalistic media on both sides, this science-fiction-zombie-comedy made the audience laugh at things that are not funny at all. Is it possible not to be deadly serious when talking about real problems of the region? Predrag Ličina obviously knows the correct answer to this question.

Vladimir Arsenić: Where did you get the idea for the movieThe Last Serb in Croatia? Do you see the movie as a provocation of the dominant political elites, Croatian as well as Serbian, or did it derive from a need to laugh at our provincialism which is broader than any ideology? Is it really about the fact that we are all enjoying the ‘narcissism of small differences’?

Predrag Ličina: I really wanted to laugh at these prejudices. Just a few days ago, the Croatian police caught the hooligan leaders of two footballing arch-enemies from Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia) and Red Star Belgrade (Serbia) – they were smuggling 170 kilos of marijuana together – obviously not for personal and/or medical use. The differences between us are small or none – they are like the differences in accents in the London metropolitan area, or some other big city. There are many examples of how we are using the same language, and that really makes us one nation. Linguists claim that the main proof that a certain group of people is using the same language is counting from one to ten. After I had read this, I checked my documents and archives and I realised that the only languages that count from one to ten in the exact same manner are Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin and Serbian. Luckily, this shameful and discouraging fact could be changed with relative ease, and I am ready to address the scientific institutions and academia. I would suggest the following – we should change the word for number six and then it would never be the same language. I am encouraging people to care about these small differences, so we could show the world how stupid we are.

VA: The movie is not the first attempt to put Serbo-Croatian relations into a motion picture. One could remember the movies Braće po materi (Maternal Half-Brothers) directed by Zdravko Šotre in 1988, or the recent Ustav republike Hrvatske (The Constitution) directed byRajko Grlić in 2016, but this is the first time that these complicated relations are rendered through SF zombie comedy. Was your first wish to make a generic movie, or was it to make a movie about these delicate historical and political relations?

PL: The relations between two of our largest nations are literally unbelievable, they have overcome reality and could be depicted only througha combination of fantastic genres – horror, science-fiction and fantasy. It would not be productive and would be pretty boring if I had chosen to show some Croats and some Serbs suffering and feeling bad in hard circumstances, to use the camera by handshooting in long sequences where the audience is folllowing the perspective of the protagonist in black and white. I think that our suffering can be shown differently. For instance, through a zombie movie behind which a viewer can find satire.

VA: What is also very clear in the movie is the dedication to the history of Yugoslav cinema and to the aesthetics of legendary film director John Waters. I am very interested in that link with tradition, because in Yugoslav cinema, genre movies were scarce. Moreover, aside from the partizan/war movies, the history of Yugolsav cinema has not produced any originally genre movies. And if you care to comment on the John Waters remark - one of the most succesfull movies from the beginning of the 90s, We Are Not Angels, was also influenced by him.

PL: You see, you are the first interviewer to ask me about the influence of John Waters. Thank you for that and thank you for understanding ‘camp’. Although I adore Sergio Leone's and John Carpenter's movies, I don't really have the opportunity to make spaghetti westerns or American horror movies. From these two of my favourite directors I can borrow characters, editing techniques or sequencing, but from Waters I'd take that incredible madness and folly and would use it to build the atmosphere of the whole movie. If by any chance John Waters had seen the movie We Are Not Angels, he would have liked it.

VA: Today it is common for filmmakers from former Yugoslavia (aka the Prison of Nations) to cooperate on different film projects. What is your opinion about this historical irony? Did we really have to kill each other just to realise that we could not be one without the other?

PL: I want to return to your remark that the movie is a dedication to Yugoslav cinema, because it is. It is a vital part of our collective memory, of my generation, and the one before mine, and to be quite honest it has a big cinematography, even in the genre sense. It could not be changed. In the same way, I can not change the fact that my mother is Croatian, and my father Serbian, that I grew up in Novi Zagreb, where I was received into a youth communist organisation, along with all my peers. These are our realities. Of course, we are living in different states today, but we have not solved our problems in a peaceful manner as Czechs and Slovaks did. We have chosen our classics: slaughter, forced depopulation, war crimes and all that jazz. Yet, here we are. We are condemned to exist and live next to each other. And that situation has been ongoing for many centuries. And, yes, today we are working together. We made a full circle and in doing so, so we have depopulated large parts of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia. Irretrievably. My movie begins with the voice of a radio broadcaster who reads statistical data about migration from Croatia, which is down 4% from the previous year.It is our reality. We are dissapearing slowly.

VA: Let us get back to films as media – what is their influence today? Do you think that a movie such as yours can do sometihng to change the way people think, can it help normalise these complicated relationships? Does art have that power?

PL: My first aim with this movie was to warn our people how small and stupid and insignificant we are, and that we can see that as a comedy, not as a tragedy. The myths we are building for and about ourselves should, once and for all, turn into comedy with elements of horror and science fiction. I think that the movie has something to say. Unfortunately, the people who saw the movie already knew how stupid and small and irrelevant we are. But those who do not know that do not visit cinemas nor do they watch movies, so piercing their minds requires much more serious measures. What is important is that the urban audience laughed equally on the opening nights in Zagreb, Belgrade and Ljubljana, and in Sarajevo, as I have heard, as well as at some screenings in Austria and Germany – there, I doubt that the audiences were Austrians and Germans, the lovers of the Adriatic coast or our cinematography, but immigrants from former Yugoslavia.

VA: Are you satisfied with the reception? Is there anything that is specific for certain countries?

PL: The only two countries of former Yugoslavia in which the movie has not been screened are Kosovo and Northern Macedonia. I was surprised that, in every country, the movie has been equally well-received – in Croatia, and Serbia, and Slovenia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro, as well. I will tell you an anecdote that could maybe explain why. One of my friends from Belgrade was travelling with his family to Croatia for vacation. He and his wife and two of his daughters, a six and a four-year-old. They were at the border crossing and they were reaching Croatian border police. The policemen asked them for their passports and the younger daughter told her father in awe: ‘Daddy, daddy, they speak Serbian’! The poor child was in shock. It is similar with my movie. We are shocked that we understand each other so well, as if we were the same.

VA: What about the reception outside the region? Is it possible for someone who grew up outside the former Yugoslavia to understand what is going on in the movie? When you started working on the movie did you have viewers ‘from the outside’ in mind?

PL: I haven't thought about the people from ‘the outside’. This is a movie for us. We are the only ones who can understand it. I think that even the generations born after the fall of Yugoslavia will have some trouble understanding. Still, they are lucky not to be exposed to the burdens of the past few decades. I really don't care how the movie is received in Portugal or Denmark – that was not my intention – to clarify for European horror fans who we are and what are we doing. I wanted to clarify those issues for us. Of course, I would love to know what people outside former Yugoslavia think and feel about the movie, but only out of sheer curiosity. If I would see a movie about the tensions between Northern and Southern Sudan through zombie epidemics, I would understand something, but not as much as the people living there.

VA: What about the movies from former Yugoslavia in general? What about their visibility in the world?

PL: The visibility is very, very low. Almost zero. We need another big war to become more visible. It would be great for Montenegro to attack Slovenia out of the blue and then to make a movie about that. That is when we are interesting to the world – when we are killing each other over boilers and door frames which soldiers tear out of conquered houses and then - I suppose - put in their own houses? The part about the door frames I will never understand...

VA: How do you see the future of movies, considering the popularity of television and series?

PL: Mark my words. Eight out of ten movies are garbage, one is viewable, and one is great. With television series, it is quite different. Five out of ten are extraordinary. The audience simply wants to follow characters, and you don't have that much space and time to develop characters in movies. People prefer series because of the characters. In the movies, the plot is playing a much bigger role, and in series the characters are. It is much easier to create five stooges, or five geniuses, than to create five funny and crazy and extraordinary stories. But one day, the popularity of television series will come to an end. It will be the day when someone comes up with a great plot.

VA: Along with the movie, your book The Mud at Dawncame out. It contains three novellas which are, basically, three unrealised screenplays. In what way does the experience of writing differ from the experience of filmmaking?

PL: When you write, you are all by yourself. You are sitting in front of the screen and you simply type. When you are directing a movie, you are surrounded by a bunch of people who can all see what a moron you are. While you are writing, you are a moron privately.

VA: You are well-known for your cheerful pessimism. It can also be seen at the end of the movie. What do you think about the future of the region of former Yugoslavia?

PL: To answer this question, one has to be clairevoyant. I am an avid fan of science fiction, so I will answer as most movies of the genre would – I don't see anything good. The only thing that could save and unite humankind is the arrival of aliens to our planet. The good ones, like in the Spielberg's classicClose Encounters of the Third Kind. The only problem is that after that, Serbs and Croats would immediately declare war to those good guests from outer space, and soon after the Bosnians, and Montenegrins would follow their neighbours. After the incident the virus of war would spread throughout the whole planet and intergalactic news would carry headlines such as: ‘Good aliens attacked in former Yugoslavia’ or ‘Former Yugoslavia is to be blamed for interplanetary scandal’. It wouldn't be the first time that a World War broke out in these parts of the world. That is simply our role. One Nobel prize for literature, one scientific genius over whom we are killing each other because he is a Serb born in Croatia, and a couple of extraordinary sportsmen. And that's about it. That is our contribution to the history of the world.