With his debut feature, Incarnation, young Serbian director Filip Kovačević has crafted a visually striking thriller that can stand proud among Hollywood equals.
Incarnation, which premieres to an international audience at London’s Raindance Film Festival (28 September), is a fast-paced actioner that poses universal questions about identity, accountability and our perception of reality.
The story starts with a disoriented young man (Stojan Djordjević) waking up on a city bench, and immediately being set upon and killed by four masked assassins.
Repeatedly waking up on the same bench, he stretches the loop ever further, as he battles to outrun the anonymous killers, recover his identity and discover who has set him up.
Established Serbian actor Stojan Djordjević strikes a perfectly plain character in the role of the man, and that is precisely the point. This man is impressively ordinary, right down to his scuffed shoes and tired, disheveled appearance.
“The character needed to be totally normal in his outward appearance: just an everyday 9-5 corporate uniform wearing guy,’ said Stojan. “So at the beginning of the film he seems to be an average man with an everyday job.
“But we wanted to lead the audience to wonder if this man’s apparent normality might be shielding something more undercover. Maybe his office hours might be spent in a secret service basement or doing something more sinister that has led him to be targeted in such a way.
“As the story unfolds, we start to unveil a twist that sees our Mr Average morphing into something else, which was really interesting for me as an actor. I was tiptoeing around these opposite extremes in an effort to merge them harmoniously within the character.”
Even the character’s monotone narrative that steers through the film is toned perfectly to just sufficiently to mimic our own internal voiceover to the daily drudge, to a point where it is simply heard rather than listened to.
“Because the film doesn’t leave a lot of room for explicit emotional expression I had to find the best way to communicate the inner feelings of the character through subtle muscle moves, intense looks. It really was a case of less is more,’ said Stojan.
“Not embellishing the character with familiar traits, but cloaking the man in mystery, lessens the audience’s ability to apply stereotypes. The character doesn’t even have a name in the film, which should tell you a lot about who and what he represents.”
In turn, this adds to the remote and stylised visual feel of the film, as any truly emotional connection with the lead character is avoided, so as not to clutter the plot.
“The challenge was to decide if the narration should sound like it was coming from a Godlike figure or from the mind of our character, whether it should be a present thought or retrospective of the events,’ said Stojan.
“Given how timelines unravel in the film and how realisations are presented to the audience, I think we struck the right chord. It should almost pose and answer questions in the audience as they watch the story unfold.”
Incarnation screens at Raindance London Film Festival
Stojan and Filip are in London for the film’s premiere screening to an international audience, the Raindance Film Festival (Wednesday, 28 September) – a prospect that both find thrilling.
Although Filip Kovacevic was an avid film fan since his childhood in Belgrade, the writer-director chose not to study cinema.
While working on Incarnation, Filip was completing his graduate studies in theoretical maths at Belgrade’s Faculty of Mathematics.
Now, aged 27, he can bring that precision and clarity to telling well honed stories on the big screen.
“Working with Filip on his debut feature was a privilege,’ said Stojan. “It was seamlessly effortless to work with such a talented and gifted person.
“I was immediately drawn to the project when I read the script. The prospect of working with an intelligent director with a well scripted story, playing a cmplex character that doesn’t come along too often made this an opportunity I was going to fight for.”
Although the town is unnamed in the film, shooting took place in Belgrade, Novi Sad and the underground network of Petrovaradin fortress.
From the notable opening shot tracking over Belgrade city centre, the chase is on and the pace is relentless. Indeed, the chase is non-stop throughout the film.
“It is a film about running, running and some more running,’ said Stojan. “It’s about trying to decide where to run, and to work out who we are really running from. Ultimately, of course, we have to question if there is a meaningful reason to run in the first place.”
Not that the shoot was without its problems, as Stojan explained. “While filming on location, with me running through the city to escape these four masked men, a large man tried to tackle me to the ground.
“He thought I was a thief or something and tried to stop me from getting away. I barely evaded his attempts to bring me down, while yelling ‘we are filming a movie’!”
With all this running – and there is a lot of it, to be fair – impressive pacing was key to ensuring that rising tension and excitement could be maintained across the increasingly frenzied chase, confrontation, revelation formula.
Filip clearly proves his worth in this respect, even throwing in a few jaw-dropping moments and notable visual effects throughout the film’s lean 82-minute runtime.
To join them on that journey, Filip clearly invested a great deal of faith in his Director of Photography, Uroš Miltunović to bring his vision to the screen.
“I think that Filip and Uroš did an amazing work with almost mathematical precision,’ said Stojan. “In every shot through the film they kept perfect symmetry of all the elements.
“These seemingly small details give the story real depth, and our post-production and CGI team kept this attention to detail to stay true to our efforts invested during the shoot.
“In this film the style complimented the story,’ said Stojan. “In a way that is the story’s true narrator.”
With its stylishly bold palette of cold greys, oppressive blacks and startling whites mirroring a story that is refreshingly devoid of over embellishment or clunky bolt-on emotion, Filip has crafted a gripping and visually stunning film that raises the bar for action films in Serbian cinema.
Incarnation is an unashamedly modern film and is even confident enough to leave a few loose ends to allow the audience to think for themselves. But it’s a film about life. And life isn’t tidy.