If his social comedy-cum-romance debut wasn't enough, Matanić's second feature, an acerbic drama about a lesbian couple in Zagreb, marks him as a rising European talent. Igor Pop Trajkov spoke to the director at the Skopje Film Festival.
Croatian film, by and large, is not in a healthy state. Most films made in the country in the 1990s were produced or co-produced by Croatian Television with the small screen in mind, and the country's international reputation has suffered as a result.
Now, however, things are improving. International co-productions, long the bread and butter of the Croatian film industry, are starting to re-emerge, and Croatian director Dalibor Matanić, who earlier this year celebrated his 28th birthday, is starting to make substantial waves in the European film pond. Matanić's debut, Blagajnica hoće ići na more(The Cashier Wants to Go to the Seaside, 2000), was a black romantic comedy notable for its fine observation and intelligent (and rather unlikely) mix of cynicism and humanism.
This year, Matanić is back with his second film, Fine mrtve đevojke (Nice Dead Girls, 2002), which relies on a similarly oxymoronic combination of acerbic social criticism and compassion. The plot follows a lesbian couple who move into a flat in Zagreb and the tension this provokes among other tenants in the block. Kinoeye met Matanić at the Skopje Film Festival, where his feature was playing in competition.
How old were you when you decided to do what you do? How did you progress and was it easy for you to get into the film academy?
I decided when I was 13. Before that I thought I was going to be a journalist. When I was 13, I decided that film was the only thing I was going to be interested in. I didn't even have that many problems. I managed to get into the academy quite quickly and easily, and I think I did not have any difficulties because I fought for everything I got myself, as an individual. The biggest problems I think are when you need to find how to express yourself creatively and also how to find the money to shoot the film. That is why I did not like my student period very much. I did not go to the academy so that I would be a good student, but to be able to make good films afterwards. So I was a true monster at university. Because of me, whole generations of students were put down. I was totally restless. I was constantly shooting stupid things, which used to drive professors mad, but I did this so that I would be able to make films as soon as possible.
When you were doing your first film work, did you feel that somebody is trying to prevent you from doing so, for example somebody from the older generation
There is always that problem; somebody finds it difficult that the younger generation is coming. I think what helped me was "they" felt that I was not looking at what others were doing that I am not wishing anything negative on anybody else. I am happy when I see that somebody has done a good film. That negative way of thinking is not me. The whole competitiveness is not healthy. Destroy your competition. Piss on its grave. A better way of looking at things is to think that the better films are made, the higher you will go as well. I hope that I was a healthy competition to the whole of the old gang. I didn't have many problems with that, as soon as I showed my film they understood what it was about. I always work individually no matter where I am working or where I am staying.
What work was an example for you that influenced your aesthetics? Work from the Croatian and European cinematography...
I loved the Croatian documentaries from the 1960s and 70s, made by Krsto Papić, Kresimir Golik, Radovan Tadić. From my professors—Tadić, he didn't influence me as much with the aesthetics of things as with how I should approach my profession and the film crew. He was an incredibly positive person.
Film examples; I am influenced by everything that is good. Especially Polanski and Tarkovsky. Basically, I believe that everything good is being filmed. Lately, I especially like Tarkovsky.
How did you shoot your first film Blagajnica hoće ići na more? What was your main inspiration? Was it a project offered to you or you were the one offering it?
I was the one offering it. The film is about a cashier, and my mother was a cashier for 20 years. I spent my childhood in stores. On the other hand, I had seen a very good documentary by Golik from the 1950s that was about a woman who spends the whole of her time working and has no rest, working and working. It was all a mix of that and the ironic side of Zagreb, something that I wanted to show. It is a cocktail of motifs.
Noticeable in that film is the work you put with the actors; how do you work with actors that are older than you?
There is a principle; I love actors. I love it when they are open, when they are relaxed. I gave them simple guidance—this is not good, let's make it more natural. You have to make people believe in you. The moment they start trusting you, you have everything, no matter how old that actor is. That is the most important thing about actors, for them not to have resistance, the distance.
Did the first film open up a lot of doors in the sense of afterwards being easier to fund the funding for the next project?
My first film closed a lot of doors. This is typical of Croatia. After the first film, I was in contact with some producers from New York, who told me that they would offer me some sort of work. At home, I had some other problems; I simply could not find the money for the next film. It is absurd that it is easier to find money abroad than at home, especially when you've had large audiences and good reviews for your debut.
What did they say the problem was?
I was not the problem but the system. A system that can't make fast decisions, can't improvise and can't stand creativity or agility. The system moves as slow as a snail and is not hindered by what I think is most important for a film in this region which is an instant reaction to the present, to emotions, events, people. Which is something like, if you want to shoot a film about the present, you have to shoot it now! There is no waiting in queues in various ministries like waiting in queues in supermarkets.
It was quite a long time between your debut and your second film, what were you doing?
Everything. I was the President of the Director's Society and I said to myself that I would never again be accepting a managing role. I was also one of the selectors on the Pula Film Festival, for foreign films. I succeeded in unbelievable conditions in ten days to select 45 films. When I saw how useless my effort was I tried some other things not related to film directing which I must admit unnerved me a bit. However, in the meantime I managed to shoot another short film. It's called Suša (Drought, 2002) and it received an award for the best short film in Croatia. This film is very dear to me. It is part of an omnibus of six short films and the same actress does all six leading roles. Most probably I will be able to shoot another film this year that will take place in Vukovar.
At the press conference, you told us that you'd had the idea for Fine mrtve đevojke since you were at university. How soon was the idea realised taking into consideration the circumstances?
The idea for the film is six years old and was too expensive for the Faculty of Film Art. It was also rejected by Croatian Television because it was too shocking for them. So, I was looking for funding together with the co-screenwriter and in the meantime we worked some more on the screenplay. At that time, it was only possible to do this project independently. There was no way of getting money from the Ministry, because they found it too shocking as well, and therefore it was done with the help of an independent production company Alka Film. A single man simply invested his own money in it. I don't even know if it was worthwhile for him, even though a lot of people wanted to buy it. The film market in Croatia is simply not that developed.
Did you want to raise understanding of lesbians with this film?
I would like to help the whole of society if I could, but I don't know how powerful art is to help at present since it is so marginalized. How is it possible to cleanse people, to galvinise them into action? But the more people you can touch the better; I wouldn't go for specific groups of people though, but for towns and states.
What activities do you undertake in order to inspire yourself?
Travelling, music and noticing life around us. Whether it is nightlife, real life, but mostly experiencing everything that is happening around us. That documentary part of it is very important, not to forsake the real time around you. In September, I am shooting a film that takes place in 1900, but I am trying to draw a time parallel between that year and today, between behaviour then and today, and even maybe behaviour then having causing today's behaviour.
Will this film be a co-production?
I would like it to be, most probably with Hungary because of the theme of the film. It has an incredible working title—"Ženu sustiže krvavi oblak" ("A Woman is Chased by a Bloody Cloud"). It is a film about a deaf and dumb painter who is an icon for all deaf and dumb people because she acts as a normal person, but society destroys her. Society tells her she's a reject
I notice that you have a special interest in so-called rejected characters?
Yes, I call them the silent people. They are silent not just in their attitude but in their posture as well. These are the people that society keeps putting in a beginner's position; whom unlike for the others society draws the start line 100m back. I also like female characters.
You said that for a director it is important to react quickly to the present, but a lot of them also like gaining points politically; what is the right way?
I don't like those monumental themes; I don't like Oliver Stone. I prefer projects about silent people, unnoticeable people. I even think that now films could be done about the war in Croatia because now you know of the humane level of things. It is good that a humane film for the area has already been done—Milčo Mančevski's Pred doždot (Before the Rain, 1994).
Where do you think the future of the regional cinematography is?
I think that the system of state cinematography is very bad, because it is always a case of the court financing its pawns. It suffocates creativity. On the other hand, there is something else happening; when I was on the jury of the Sofia Film Festival and when the main award was presented to the Hungarian Kornél Mundruczó's Szép napok (Pleasant Days, 2002) you could see that a new film language can react to reality. From a country that you would not expect a new generation to come out of, a new generation completely unlike the great old Hungarian names. With their films, this new generation simply clashes with reality. This is something that really appeals to me, because this area is very much in film fashion lately.
Igor Pop Trajkov
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