Originally published on Ink 19 on November 19th, 2019
One of the most compelling films that we have seen so far at this year’s AFI Fest is Ivana the Terrible (Ivana cea Groaznica), the second feature by acclaimed Serbian filmmaker Ivana Mladenović, whose debut directorial effort, Soldiers. Story from Ferentari, not only garnered major prizes at the 2018 Trieste Film Festival and San Sebastián International Film Festival, but also in its production and release, led to the formation of significant personal experiences for the director which were woven into her new film. Co-written by her Soldiers. Story from Ferentari collaborator, Adrian Schiop, Ivana the Terrible stars Ivana and her real life family, former lovers, and friends (included amongst them is Romanian-Canadian singer-songwriter, Anca Pop, who tragically passed in 2018 in a car accident) in a narrative that draws from Ivana’s sojourn back to her hometown of Kladovo for a much needed, but sometimes humorously disturbed, period of recuperation following the tumultuous events that accompanied the release of her debut film. Centered on the Romanian-Serbian friendship festival in Kladovo, Ivana the Terrible emerges as personal study of the historical and contemporary relationship between the two nations and the alienating experiences of leaving and returning to one’s family and home. We spoke in depth with director Mladenović shortly before the premiere of Ivana the Terrible at this year’s AFI Fest about her inspirations for the film, her second screenplay collaboration with Adrian Schiop, her experimental process in rehearsing her own family and friends for their roles, and her thoughts on the late Anca Pop.
Q: We’re at an exciting time in cinema where many narrative films are moving toward hybrid documentaries that vacillate between reality and fiction such as Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time It Gets Dark and Quý Minh Trương’s The Tree House, and your film certainly exemplifies this approach. What becomes interesting in this paradigm is the idea that sometimes fiction can be truer to the feelings in reality than the real moment itself. As you were writing and filming Ivana the Terrible, how did your memories of real moments of your difficult summer of 2017 impact the creation of a scene? Did the emotional impact of a memory lead you to create more of a true re-enactment or more of a fictionalization of the memory?
A: My first film, Soldiers. Story from Ferentari, is based on the autobiographical book written by Adrian Schiop. Adrian plays himself in the film, together with another brilliant non-actor. It is the story of an anthropologist who moves to the ghetto to write his PhD thesis on manele (contemporary Roma music) and starts an affair with a Roma ex-convict. But, not all of the people performing in the film act as themselves or have lived the moments written in the book and the script. Here, in Ivana the Terrible, I try to expand on this concept. I invited all of the people involved in my summer 2017, my friends, my family, my ex-boyfriends, to relive the emotions that happened then, but this time in front of the camera.
As Andrei, one of the characters, says in a scene in the film: “Whenever you want to talk about your family, you have to realize that you are talking about your family from your point of view, as you perceive it, not as it actually is”—so, this whole story has passed through my filter. And, my point of view on what happened, once written, began to change. We started rehearsing, and by talking, we realized that our memories don’t match. Eventually, we decided that it’s the emotion that matters, and although the characters at first didn’t quite reach the level of emotion that I considered to be genuine, I eventually managed to evoke and capture it while shooting.
Q: We understand that Ivana the Terrible was conceived to be your personal therapeutic method to understanding that summer. As you sought to study yourself in the film, did you also seek to create a personal anthropological study of your hometown of Kladovo?
A: How you feel about your life somehow almost always has to do with your family and the place where you were born and grew up. Even though some memories seem to be hard, now, I find them to be funny and maybe even childish. Just like Soldiers, this film also doesn’t fully reflect reality. I decided to write with Adrian Schiop again for Ivana the Terrible because I enjoy working with him. He is more cynical than I am, and the way he relates to reality is much more interesting and funny. I didn’t want to make a serious movie. The process was strange because at one point, while rewriting the things that happened, they started to get further away from reality, and even if it’s a personal experience, you no longer feel it’s about you. By reliving experiences several times (reality, writing, rehearsals, and shootings), things get easier and make you evolve or change. But in the end, you realize who you were. From this perspective, I find what I did to my character quite funny. The hardest part of it all was getting my family and friends involved in this experiment.
Q: As you mention, this is the second time you’ve worked with anthropologist and writer Adrian Schiop. How do you feel his approach to field studies and, overall, to understanding humans informed your filmmaking process?
Adrian focused his PhD thesis on manele music, but the thesis concentrated on people who lived in the community, not the music itself. In writing about his experiences in Soldiers, he presents the story of a forty year-old anthropologist whose girlfriend recently left him and who decides to move to a ghetto (Ferentari) to conduct research for his PhD thesis on manele music. While there, he meets Alberto, a poor ex-convict who promises to introduce him to Roma musicians, and very quickly, they begin an unpredictable relationship. In transforming Adrian’s book into a film, I never wanted to make an ethnographic study of Ferentari, but through the relationship between Alberto and Adrian’s character, we talk about societal issues that arise in the book and film: we address homosexuality, poverty, marginal communities. And, all of these are always seen through my characters’ points of view.
Of course there is a temptation to concentrate on the exotic parts of a community, because gazes can be diverted. And there in Ferentari, you just want to film everything you see. I felt the same way when making Ivana the Terrible. I placed the story in the middle of the folk festival dedicated to the Serbian-Romanian friendship, and instead of making an ethnographic study, I chose to talk about the Serbian-Romanian relationship through Ivana’s relationship with her small-town community and new friends from Romania who are visiting.
Q: Our deepest sympathies to you on the passing of your friend Anca Pop, who is wonderful in the film. Could you discuss your process of creating her character in the film, given that Anca in real life straddled not only multiple cultures and nationalities but also sexualities? How much of her reality did you want to infuse into her fictionalized form?
A: Besides being an amazingly talented musician, she was also very, very generous in her energy and was inspiring to other people. When I was writing her character, I wanted to make someone Ivana’s character is not only jealous of, but also amazed by. Ivana tries to hide the relationship with the younger boy, and at the same time, she presents herself to her family and her community as a progressive person, without any confidence issues—which is why I have put her in all these moments of conflict in the film. She would very much like to be open like Anca, but it’s harder to take responsibility for that. It’s much easier for her to criticize when she is not accepted.
Q: Throughout Ivana the Terrible, there is this precarious balance between progression toward the future and adherence to old traditions that may be mired by past conflicts between Serbians and Romanians. Was then your desire to book Anca and Andrei’s characters’ experimental folk duo for the friendship festival based on a real effort that you undertook, or was it a manifestation of your frustration about the tendency of your community to dwell in the past?
A: The Romanian-Serbian friendship festival has already been happening for some years in my hometown in Serbia. History reveals a good relationship of cooperation between the two countries. During Ceauşescu, they would come to us for food and supplies, and during the 2000s, we would go to them, but there are some small jealousies between the two cities on the border, and there are jokes about each other depending on the moment in history. We thought crossing from one country to another, and how Ivana changes in relation to the two, is important in the film.
The problem is, or let’s say the humor is, that Ivana is so desperate to teach her small community what she learned abroad, yet she is not ready to accept those things herself. As some nice people said: This is a film which is a portrayal of a generation that seems to be stuck in eternal puberty. Maybe they’re too smart to continue the lives of their parents, but they’re too weak to build the new world.
One thing the two countries have in common is that both citizens want to emigrate. In Ivana’s case, she is kind of stuck in between. Like most of the people who leave their home country, Ivana, too, has to ask herself if she made the right decision.
Q: As a follow up to the previous question, was Anca’s disappearance before the scheduled festival performance indicative of yours or her frustration, or was it simply a moment that actually happened?
A: Anca’s not showing up to the performance is not inspired by reality. While talking about reality and fiction intertwined, that summer, I was reading a lot of Marguerite Duras, and in one of her novels, Ten-Thirty on a Summer Night, the character was drinking a lot, and while reading it, I was thinking that if I ever make that film, Anca should play that character. Also, the novel featured a similar trio of characters with two women and one guy. Maybe that inspired me to make those scenes of maximum frustrations for Ivana’s character not happen in my life, but happen in Anca’s life in other moments.
Q: This final question emerged during the scene when you, Andrei, and Anca meet with the mayor and the festival committee, and Anca goes on about bringing her movement of clitoris bronzing to Serbia. This immediately made us think about the gilded penis in Dušan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie, which he made after fleeing Belgrade and settling in Canada, as Anca’s family did. In that scene, it is as though Anca has taken Makavejev’s creation back to his homeland, but has spun it towards her more modern feminist perspective. Was that a conscious allusion to Makavejev? If this is the case, is the primary underlying current of Ivana the Terrible about the wisdom of travel and creation abroad and how that can be translated when one returns home?
A: He inspired me a lot, and Anca inspired me as well in forming that scene, since she was organizing a real clitoris festival in Romania. Those were some serious topics, but I believe if we discuss them through humor, we might succeed in bringing people closer to the issues. She is my favorite character in the film—the feminist Anca organizing a clitoris festival in Romania and trying to talk about it with Serbian women. I think that little dialogue says a lot about women’s societal positions in both countries.
Interview conducted by Generoso and Lily