The Human Centipede tried valiantly to be this year’s most controversial movie, but that title clearly falls to A Serbian Film.
It will finally get a UK release this Friday 10th December, after the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) insisted on 49 cuts just to get an 18 certificate. That amounts to four minutes, 12 seconds of the 99 minute-long film, and gives it the dubious honour of being the most cut film in 16 years. Earlier this year, attendees of the annual FrightFest were not allowed to see the film uncut, thanks to Westminster council, leading it being pulled by the festival in protest. Even the United States and other countries had screened the full version.
Director and co-writer Srdjan Spasojevic claims his film is an allegory of the atrocities his home country Serbia has endured. If you can stomach the headline-grabbing shocking moments (which you can easily find online if you want to be warned) you’ll see what a compelling and striking film it actually is.
A Serbian Film follows former porn star Milos (a haunting and sympathetic Srdjan Todorovic), now a loving husband and father to a young son. When his old colleague Layla persuades him to come out of retirement for a wealthy and eccentric director determined to make cutting-edge art house pornography, he is drawn into a living hell.
The morning after its UK premiere, where it played to a receptive and fascinated crowd, DIY joined the guys at Beyond Hollywood and Screenjabber, for an indepth interview with Spasojevic and his producer Nikola Pantelic.
DIY: Could you first tell us a bit about your background in film making?
Spasojevic: Concerning my background there is nothing interesting, because this is my first film, first work, I never did anything before this, no commercials, no video spots, it’s absolutely my first work.
SJ: So, how did you come to make this film?
Spasojevic: Well, I studied movie directing. I started in 1997 or something like that, and finished in 2001. After that, I was working on one script that we never shot. So five years ago we started with this one. I think we had a short synopsis around five years ago, and after one and half years working on the script with the screenwriter, we finished and started preparing.
BH: Do you think that A Serbian Film, along with Life and Death of a Porno Gang and Tears for Sale, which I believe has the same screenwriter as A Serbian Film, are the start of a new wave of genre cinema from Serbia?
Spasojevic: Lots of people ask that question, and lots of people in Serbia think there is kind of a new wave, but unfortunately I don’t think so, because Serbia is not that much of a fertile ground for free cinema. So those films are maybe just kind of accidents, and made by people who had a strong idea, and a strong belief that they could pull something like that off. I’m not sure that in the near future we will see something similar, but of course if there is a chance for this to become kind of a new wave in Serbia that would be great. But in Serbia you cannot get your film financed unless you are financed by state funds and government, or some European funds, and they are always looking for the same, same stories, films for European festivals, and there are politics - a new European movie order, ruled by European film funds, and this is the only way you can finance your film in Serbia, and in Eastern Europe of course.
DIY: It’s an incredible, fantastic looking film, and the production levels are really high. Could you have done it on the sort of amount they would have given you?
Spasojevic: Well actually, this film cost less than average than an average film in Serbia. It was just about gathering together a good crew, to know what you want to do and everything else comes into place. Movies in Serbia and that region are spending a lot of money, almost for nothing.
SJ: Could I ask you what filmmakers you have been influenced by?
Spasojevic: Mostly American film makers from the Seventies like Friedkin, Cronenberg, Carpenter, Peckinpah and even Walter Hill, lots of those guys.
SJ: Do you think that shows up in your film?
Spasojevic: I think so, because this film is kind of a mixture about our feelings towards our region and the world in general, and of course with a movie style that I would like to see or make, so I think there is a influence from those guys of course. In story structure, in a thriller way, an action way.
BH: Tying in with that, do you think that the film has a similar feel to 1970s American film making in the post-Vietnam era?
Spasojevic: Yes, our screenwriter Alexander likes to say that this is our own post-Vietnam syndrome, because it is a film about feelings that we have after the last few decades of wars in our region, a political and moral nightmare. So, it is in a way our own post-Vietnam syndrome.
SJ: Was that high on your mind when making the film?
Spasojevic: Absolutely not, because we only wanted to express our deepest feelings in the most direct and honest way possible, so we really never thought about any of those things, we didn’t much analysis during the making of the film, because I’m not much of a theory guy. I don’t analyse in that way, I just approach the film very instinctively and honestly, and maybe that’s one of the reasons why this film is so hard and powerful for some people.
DIY: Could you tell us a bit about the special effects team that you had? They are obviously very convincing, where did you find the team?
Pantelic: I’ve been working with those guys on some short films, some student films from college. They did a great job here. Miroslav Lakobrija was the leader of that team and he always does something, he always has a film, even if it’s a short film or feature. He likes those kinds of honest approaches, meaning that he could invent anything, and make anything look real.
DIY: What was his biggest challenge?
Pantelic: In this film, probably cutting the head off the girl, because in some shots in the film we used a complete body, a doll of the whole body of the girl, so that was pretty challenging and very, very hard.
BH: Following on from that, am I right that there are no computer effects in the film at all?
Pantelic: No, none at all.
BH: Was that a deliberate decision, given that so many horror films today, you can really see the obvious computer effects?
Spasojevic: Yes, I think that the mechanical effects are more real than computer effects. And of course, in Serbia we do not have the opportunity to use the best computer effects, so we had to go with puppet dolls and mechanical effects.
SJ: What do you think of the film’s reception so far?
Spasojevic: Well, the film was shown only in festivals all around the world, and that kind of audience is in a way trained for films like this one, of course lots of different reactions, some people didn’t like the film, lots of people liked it. So, I think the reception is pretty good, as we tried to say a universal story, of the modern world, set only set in Serbia. I think that almost every audience could relate to this film, and that there is no need for any previous knowledge of Serbia. So I think that the film is understood in a good way and of course there is no film that is made for everyone, so different kinds of reactions are always best.
SJ: With the title A Serbian Film it sounds like it is geared very much towards a Serbian audience. Was that your intention?
Spasojevic: Well, we thought about a title for a long time, and this one was the first one that appeared and it stays till the end because it was the most exact title, absolutely, because it is saying about Serbian product in general and Serbian movie industry especially.
DIY: How do you feel do you think about the fact that the infamous scenes have been taken of context in the media, and that people are talking about these scenes but not the film and what it means?
Spasojevic: There is lots of talking about those scenes, lots of people talking about them considering them like a shock, and some people understand what they are all about. Of course, all this film is a giant metaphor about our feelings, our lives in the last few decades in our region, but unfortunately there will always be people who will consider those scenes and look at them out of the context.
Pantelic: Yes, but we always knew that they would.
Spasojevic: Of course, yes.
Pantelic: Cannot avoid it. Reactions are also… its not about that. Reviews are made, and a lot of comments, it’s good that it’s not all about that.
BH: It’s very clear that it’s a very multi-layered film, as well as a metaphor it has politics and themes.
Spasojevic: Absolutely, I’m very surprised all the time that some critics are analysing the film, they are saying things that I had never thought about. There are lots of levels.
BH: Do you think on any level it works almost as a comedy? It’s so extreme, and ramps it up to a point. Since it’s a metaphor, and you’re not saying that this is life in Serbia?
Spasojevic: I cannot consider it of course as a comedy, but there is a humour in some parts of the film, because it’s kind of our way of dealing with things which we are facing, tough things and tough situations in Serbia, but you have to save your sense of humour, and to watch all these things objectively.
SJ: There is quite a strong theme of exploitation in the film, various characters being exploited. Some of the more pornographic parts of the film, there is a case to be made that your female actors are being exploited. Do you think that is a fair accusation?
Spasojevic: Well, the whole film, as I said, is a giant metaphor, and especially concerning the pornography, we treat the pornography as our own lives. So the major metaphorical step was to treat pornography as real life, because for the last few decades in Serbia we brought ourselves to the point where we really experienced our lives as pure exploitation. Through any kind of job you can have in the name of feeding your family you end up being viciously exploited by your employer or the rulers of your destiny, or different kinds of corrupt authority. So, that was of course done on purpose, so we could show, in a way, our way of life.
SJ: So as film makers are you not passing it on by exploiting the people you are employing?
Spasojevic: Well, you can always call shooting a film exploitation, because you are having your actors and actresses and you have to tell them what to do, so if that is exploitation, then okay, we are exploiting them.
DIY: Does it express your views on exploitation in porn? Would you like people to see it not necessarily just as a metaphor for Serbia, but people perhaps porn itself?
Spasojevic: Well, as I said, it’s not just about Serbia, it’s about the whole world - we think it’s too sugar coated in political correctness, but actually very rotten under they façade. The way that this film was made is in a way our resistance to all those censorships and fascism of political correctness that are suffocating any free thinking or art that there is today.
BH: In terms of modern genre film making, recently from Europe there has been a lot more extreme films like Martyrs and Inside, even through to more mainstream stuff like Antichrist. I was wondering do you think those films have prepared the way for A Serbian Film coming? Was there any influence?
Spasojevic: I like those films very much, they are very great and I really liked watching them when they appeared. But A Serbian Film didn’t need any preparation or anything that should happen in the movie world so that we could have an easier way to shoot it. A Serbian Film would be shot anyway.
SJ: Have the cuts that the BBFC have taken from the film affected how the audience is going to view it?
Spasojevic: That’s a tough question because I will always have a different opinion on that question than the audience will. Unfortunately that’s the rules of the game and the crazy world we live in. I’m certainly not happy about those cuts, I never watched the entire film in this new version, I only saw on DVD those scenes that are cut. I’m not happy about that version, but as I understood last night, people who saw the uncut and cut versions said that it’s still working, but the bad thing is that this version is made only by removing some shots, and the rest was just put together. In order for the new version to be better, some re-editing was needed, maybe some additional takes to be put back in the gaps where things were taken. It loses some pace, but it’s like a bumpy road.
DIY: Did you not have the chance to oversee the edit before it happened?
Spasojevic: I didn’t want to be involved. They asked me of course, if I wanted to be involved and make those cuts, but didn’t want to. We decided, and sent some materials they asked for that they could use. We weren’t involved in making this version.
BH: I guess the main thing is that people get to see the film in one form or another. If people see the cut version.
Spasojevic: Yes, of course. The other thing that could’ve happened is for us to be so stubborn and then no-one will see it, so it’s okay.
SJ: Do you think the shocking elements of the film are going to help it find an audience and was that intentional?
Spasojevic: As I said many times, if you can trust me of course, there was no plan to make any kind of shock or controversy or to break any records, just an honest desire to make the most honest and direct film that we can. Maybe that kind of honest approach resulted in such a tough film.
DIY: What was the most emotional scene for the cast and crew to shoot?
Spasojevic: Well, there were not too many emotions on the set because we were always travelling and having technical issues, so there were not that many scenes we could feel during shootings the emotions that the film would produce. Maybe the scenes with the mother and kid together crying - those kind of scenes, you could feel something, something tough, but all other scenes, we were mainly just struggling with technical things and technical problems.
DIY: How was it working with the child actors? How did you discuss the film with the parents or guardians of the child actors?
Spasojevic: First, the important thing was that their parents were satisfied with the script, and they understood the idea and they wanted to be involved with it. They were always present during shooting, and we had a director working with the kids. The young boy was eight at the time, of course couldn’t understand everything that is happening in the film, so the director and his parents, always, and the whole crew always played it as kind of a game for him. All the things he did in the film, in his shots, it was always a game for him. The young girl is my cousin, and I think she was 11 or 12 at that time, and she understood. I explained to her something about the film, that she was part of an evil group that would do bad things to the main character. She understood that completely, but of course she never participated in shooting all the violent and nudity scenes. We were always shooting the children separately, and added that stuff later.
BH: What has the critical reaction been like back in Serbia?
Spasojevic: That was really schizophrenic, again, lots of people liking and hating it. But we had lots of problems - we wanted to put the film in theatres back in February, and of course we couldn’t find a distributor, and even worse we couldn’t find any theatre willing to screen this film. Only after all those festivals, good reviews and some awards they were kind of softened and accepted to screen the film in late September.
BH: As serious film makers, you’ve done a film like this which, for better or worse, people are going to talk about it for its content. Where are you going to go with your next film? You’re not going to try and top it?
Spasojevic: Of course, as I said about the approach for this one, I never made any plans about any kind of shock or controversy or anything special that this film should achieve, so I will have the same approach with the next film. The only thing I can say and guarantee is that it is going to be with the same energy and editor, and I hope with much less problems than A Serbian Film!
DIY: You’ve expressed so much anger in one film, what themes would you want to put in your future films? Is there still a lot of anger there that you would explore?
Spasojevic: I think that it will be angry in the next one, yes.
BH: We’ve talked about some of your past influences, but are there any filmmakers today that you consider contemporaries, or whose work that you enjoy?
Spasojevic: Lots of fantastic directors and movie makers and great films today. I’m not that good at remembering the names, but let’s mention some of them, for example, Takashi Miike, the French directors of the new horror wave, Martyrs, of course Gaspar Noe.
SJ: The pacing of the film reminds me of Audition, I thought I could see a bit of Miike influence?
Spasojevic: Yes, but the pace was intentionally made in that way to show our way of dealing with problems, not acknowledging them on time, and when we acknowledge problems and can see the problems it is too late and everything is going downhill from that point. So the main character is trying to solve a problem that is already solved a few days ago. That’s a political way - we are always trying to solve problems solved years ago, still living in the past.
DIY: I believe that your leading man was someone that you wanted, your first choice?
Spasojevic: Yes, almost our whole crew was first choice, and we were very lucky that they wanted to participate in this one. The main villain, Vukmir, played by Sergej Trifunovic, played in lots of Hollywood films, with Danny Glover and Nicholas Cage, and lots of movies in Europe, so they are very big stars in Serbia, and that’s one of the strange things for a Serbian audience, to see them in those kind of scenes.
DIY: What were you looking for in the character of Milos, what did you want him to embody, and for the actor to bring to the role?
Spasojevic: He’s a fantastic actor, and was more than good enough. He’s really a fantastic actor.
DIY: In the press notes, you made a remark that was interesting, that you found no nobility in the idea of a victim, and that you didn’t find the idea of being a victim being heroic?
Spasojevic: Well, it’s not a film about Chuck Norris, so there are no heroes in this story in that way. In a way you can consider if this one was a film with sending Chuck Norris to Serbia, he would die. Two years ago, there was a mineral stone was found in Serbia, and it was 95% similar to kryptonite, from the movie about Superman. So, even Superman cannot survive in Serbia! No really, that’s a scientific fact, I really think it was 95%. The only difference was a grey colour - the missing 5% would give you the green colour. But Superman would die anyway.