By Amir Ganjavie.
The brutal war that followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the hatred between Serbs and Croats have provided material for many Balkan filmmakers. Dalibor Matanic’s The High Sun, a fresh take on the subject from Croatia, is the first film from that country to participate at Cannes since 1991, when Yugoslavia began to unravel. The film depicts the consequences of the conflict and hatred in three time periods following the historical event, and in each section Matanic investigates the impact of this hatred on the romantic relationship of a couple from two different ethnic backgrounds. The movie has been received very well at Cannes, where it won the Jury Prize at certain regard section of the festival. The following interview with Matanic was conducted after the screening of The High Sun at Cannes.
Each section of The High Sun starts with moments of calm and quiet but then you suddenly change the rhythm and bring energy into the movie using music or tragic events. What was your philosophy behind this particular use of time in the movie?
Through decades nature and the animal world surround our characters and they are silent witnesses to human behaviour; they give rhythm to the moments when human qualities come out. The inner world of the characters – their hidden pain, hate, memories, and questions – all speed the rhythm forward. This is the energy of characters fighting with themselves and when they manage somehow to overcome their code of hate and move to the higher level of humanity, everything slows down to the untouched rhythm of nature. That’s why I think cities became boring places to shoot films. Of course, it depends on the topic but sometimes they look like overpopulated circuses with “urban” energy that is more like the “living from day to day” philosophy. I think that if you want to talk about the highest human principles then nature and its slow, clean rhythm is the right place for analysing that and asking new questions. You can also find this approach in literature such as Jonathan Franzen’s [2010 novel] Freedom.
Emir Kustarika directed Underground, a movie that also touches on the question of war in the region. Similar to your approach, sexual tension, playfulness, madness, and violence are also very dominant features of Kustarika’s movie. Was his work a source of inspiration for you? How do you compare Kustarika’s approach with yours?
I respect Kustarika’s filmmaking skills, but I think we have with different approaches to analysing reality and history. He’s very into politics and in a way we could say that often in his latest films he is taking a side. I want to neutralise any kind of political view of the world in my own films because, especially in our region, terms like “politics,” “nations,” and “religions” were misused and caused a lot of suffering and pain for the people. The biggest problem was that those terms were put before “tolerance,” “compassion,” and “love.” I adore filmmakers like Michael Haneke in modern era or Robert Bresson in the past who have fought for the highest human principles. This is my way, to use films to reach higher elements, not to stay on a lower level and describe this world as a boring place where politics and nations are the most important things. At the end of a sunny day we know really well that they are not. There is something above that which keeps this planet alive.
The music in your movie is mesmerizing. Can you tell me about the role of music in your work?
Music is definitely one of the main drivers for my ideas, and in the case of The High Sun I was inspired by the works of Tim Hecker, Phillip Glass, Arvo Part, and John Adams. The music composed for The High Sun was planned to come out of characters; it is deep inside of them and rather than being loud it dissolves into sounds of nature and comes out from the characters. The songs we play are highly contrasting with the situations, such as in the first story where we have a famous 1980s psychedelic rock anthem to express how those young people are not barbarians and not ready to be soldiers; in that case, the music clashes with a traditional Mediterranean orchestral score. When we show the effects of the war, such as ruined houses, we contrast them with a beautiful old love song which brings an atmosphere of peace and reminds us of the normal life that once existed in that area. And a party is the key moment to show the new younger generation and their way of shallow living se we really worked a lot on that score. Music is a very important thing for me and together with our composers I’m always analysing every single tone in the film.
The last episode seems optimistic. Do you feel positive about the future?
That is the reason why I made this film – to stop all the negative elements of the history and to open questions about how to go to a higher level, how to behave more humanely in the modern world. I am optimistic and positive about that but it is also everyone else’s responsibility to think and work that way or else history will repeat and we can expect more wars in the future, perhaps of some new kind, such as computer wars. This is not the way to build a future, and that’s why I’m trying through this film to find the strength to overcome history.
You chose romance as the genre for this movie. Do you think that romance is powerful enough to convey the non-violent message of the film?
Every time that hatred stops love in the film, I end the story and give a new chance to a new couple in a new decade. Love, tolerance, and compassion go together and if we are fighting in the film to leave the door open in order to give a chance to communicate on that level where there is a possibility for love then that is enough, even in a world with big walls where all the “others” are not welcome; those others can be Serbs or Croats but also Jews, black people, gay people, and neighbours. In a world of hate nobody is welcome.
So you believe that love could end religious, political, and social intolerance?
If you spend all your life on intolerance, hate, and judging others then it ensures that history will constantly repeat itself. I believe in the strength of art, of film, and that love and tolerance are the only way, wherever you live in the world, to change things and move to a higher level. Love is moving the world, not political ideas, the material world is coming to an end, and the spiritual world and higher human principles are the last oasis of mankind. This is a point where art and religion are close to each other and when they are based strongly on humanity, they act as guides to the only way that this planet could be a better place to live.
The story is about hatred and its impact on the lives of others. In order to respect others we need to know them but the movie provides very little information about those lives of others and the origins of their conflicts. There is no historical information or background in the movie. Furthermore, there is a very limited number of close-ups in the movie so we can feel very little about the misery of others. Given this, one might consider your stylistic choice to be in conflict with the representation of the other. Can you elaborate on this style and its relationship with representations of the other in your film?
I really don’t like films that explain everything to you. I want the audience to dig into the matter, to feel the problem, and not to have all the answers about characters in first ten minutes of the film. It is important to open the questions but not to illustrate everything for the audience. They should not be passive in the theater; they should be active and dive into the basic idea of the film. I did not want to intentionally explain the different nationalities and their political positions, but you can find that in small visual details in the film. The important thing is that the audience feels the tension, wounds, and hidden walls between the characters. Then historical facts and information become less important, which is the way in which I create the universality of the topic; you can move it anywhere in the world. My favorite Robert Bresson quote is “Debussy was playing the music with a closed piano.” This is how we used camera work and shots in The High Sun – we were filming the characters from inside, in a naturalistic and behavouristic approach. I would stick very much to the theoretical approach when it comes to close-ups because I think that sometimes a wide shot of a man in a valley can tell us more about his soul than a regular, old-fashioned close-up.
Given the high degree of tension in the region, how difficult is it for a Croatian director to depict the contemporary period?
Actually, I followed the main idea of the film. It is very good for the film, but not that good for living. This is a highly inspirational area to make films because every day you can hear that something went wrong with humanity. I use film as a mirror for reality in order to confront people with themselves, to find a key, a hope, or a new way that the future can be a little bit more peaceful. It is important to be on the street, to listen, and to absorb reality so that you can put a mirror in front of it.
How was your experience of working with young actors?
I called them beasts. They are young, bold, and eager to learn and to experiment. They had a really tough goal to have small differences between characters and I’m proud of their work. I consider actors to be a director’s biggest weapon and so I protect them and keep them safe in their peace so they can reach their maximum potential.
Why did you use the same actors for each story?
Moving in the film from decade to decade you have new characters played by same actors. By repeating familiar faces through stories I wanted to create a subconscious effect in the audience such that they would be aware of the possibility of history repeating itself and that all the characters are in fact one body at the end – they are one love, no sexes, one hope.
The location of the film seems to be a rural area. Do you see more hatred in rural compared to urban environments?
I really don’t know how answer to that. Urban area should be safer from hatred, but there are more people in the cities and you can find intolerance there more often. I used this area because the war in Croatia started there and even now, after twenty years, you can still feel the tension in the air. And of course, the nature with its peace is really wild and beautiful and still untouched.
Given your prize at Cannes, how do you think that the film will be received in Croatia and abroad?
The people who know how to love, I think they will like the film. People filled with hatred will be confronted by the film not just in Croatia but everywhere in the world. The great thing is that people from China to Mexico completely understand the main idea of how to find strength today to rise above history. I am very peaceful; this film is my point of view on the negative sides of history and also on contemporary “born to hate” movement by younger generations.
What are your future projects?
The High Sun is the first part of the Trilogy of the Sun, in which I want to confront the highest and lowest human principles like love and hate. My next film is The Dawn, in which I plan to confront the emotional bonds between people within the context of greed as one of the oldest negative human urges.
Fascinated by the issue of alternative and utopian space in cinema and architecture, Amir Ganjavie has published widely about cinema, architecture and cultural studies. He has recently co-edited a special volume on alternative Iranian cinema for Film International and edited Humanism of the Other, an essay collection on the Dardenne brothers (in Persian). His most recent contribution is an article on the meaning of space and utopia in cinema by analysing the films of Tsai Ming-Liang.