A Serbian black comedy about suicide, bureaucracy and a mother’s endless struggle to make ends meet in a society hampered by its past is flagged as a must-see film at the über-prestigious Berlinale International Film Festival (9-18 February).
Pushed to her limits – by the death of the family rabbit, no less – Jelena (Mrs J) resolves to commit suicide on the anniversary of her husband’s death. She has just one week to put her affairs in order.
“The idea for the story originates from intimate acquaintance with a woman who embodies a typical victim of the transition process in Serbia,’ said the film’s writer and director Bojan Vuletić.
“Mrs J is a modest, quiet woman who does not want to bother anyone. So, she decides to complete all her private and administrative obligations – wash a sink full of dishes, go to the store, dig up her husband’s pistol – so that she may commit suicide in the way she wants.
“But she still needs one more thing – a certificate of her employment over the past 20 years. In a country that is going through social transition and administrative reform, this turns out to be highly complicated.
“Living in transition is complicated. And dying is even more complicated.”
New economics brings changes in the value system
In spotlighting some ridiculous hurdles and bureaucratic burdens affecting this one woman and her family, Bojan confronts the social and economic issues that he sees affecting people in Serbia.
“The film deals with one of the painful and unavoidable issues in Eastern Europe – social transition and economic crisis,’ said Bojan. “The new political and economic systems are altering the old face of socialism, bringing big changes in the value system, which inevitably leads, as in this case, to total identity crisis.
“It’s a satirical story about the current difficult social and psychological state of the people in Serbia today, and their lives, which are often tragi-comic and absurd.”
Corruption, bureaucracy and double moral standards rule
Life is tough, especially with a system that seems to conspire against you at every turn, Bojan said.
“Ours is a system which eats its own children, with people who have always worked hard and yet fail to cope with the age of transition. Corruption, bureaucracy and double moral standards rule.
“In the post-war period and after 20 years in an economically and morally devastated Serbia, these people have no hope left.
They have no more strength to adjust. They are confused and drained and the only transition they can perceive as salvation is to the other world.
“In Serbia, however, bureaucracy and corruption make not only life difficult, but death as well. The transition to the other world can be slow and vague, hindered by mundane things like trying to find a document that has been lost in the system.”
Emotionally honest Mirjana Karanović excels as Mrs J
The title role of Mrs J is grippingly played by outstanding Serbian actress Mirjana Karanović, who gained international fame in Emir Kusturica’s When Father was Away on Business (Cannes Palm D’Or) and starred in Grbavica (Golden Bear at Berlin 2005). Her directorial debut A Good Wife premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
“Mirjana is one of the greatest, leading actresses in the Balkan region,’ said Bojan. “From the moment I started writing this script, I knew that she was the right actress for this role. Working with her is the best experience I’ve had so far in filmmaking.
“She is emotional, honest and with a distinct energy. Mirjana is a versatile artist whose pedagogical work as well as being a theatre director present an indispensable part of the cultural life of the Balkan region and of Europe.
“I learned a lot from Mirjana during the making of this film. Her experience is incredible and valuabe. We went through the process together: talking about the script, rehearsals with other actors, etc. She was a great contributor, both as a professional and as a unique human being.”
Vučić Perović is a Serbian actor to watch
“I enjoyed working with Vučić very much,’ Bojan said of the star of Branio sam Mladu Bosnu and TV’s Sindjelici and Military Academy 3. “As one of the actors of the younger generation I look forward to seeing how his potential will develop. I would love to work with him again.”
The director and primary cast will fly to Berlin for the film’s World premiere (Monday, 13 February).
“I was thrilled when I heard about our inclusion in the official programme at Berlinale,’ said Bojan. “There is no better place for a film to start its life than one of the most prestigious festivals.
“We will see how the audience and film professionals react to the film but, having our premiere in the Panorama special selection is already a great achievement.
“In Serbia, it is difficult to make a film, and when professionals in Europe like what you did, this fills you with joy. Serbia is a small country and international success is important to us.
Serbian premiere at Belgrade FEST
Bojan won’t have to wait long to see how a hometown audience reacts to his film. Within weeks of the international hoopla of Berlin, the film will screen at Belgrade FEST (4,5 & 7 March).
“In Serbia, we love local movies, especially commercial movies,’ he said. “But after Berlinale I think interest for such a small art-house film as ours will be bigger than we might otherwise have received.”
Bojan’s first film Practical Guide to Belgrade with Singing and Crying (Prod: Art & Popcorn) won national and international awards. To kickstart his follow up, Bojan won a €100k Works in Progress Award from the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, Czech Republic.
“It was a little easier to find the money for this film, but the problems are always the same,’ said Bojan.
Serbia is becoming a healthier place for film
“Things are getting better for film in Serbia, though. There is more money for financing and the new generation of professionals working in our film institutions is changing things and will continue to change things for the better.
“People are slowly realizing that culture is important, that film is not just entertainment, but is also art. Serbia is becoming a healthier place. It’s part of a process, of course.
“Making my first film I learned that in the film business the most important thing is to be patient and persistent.”
Great art that reflects society and has the potential to influence attitudes or drive change also comes with great responsibility.
“Absolutely,’ said Bojan. “This is the only task of art: to confront people with the problems that we do not see or acknowledge enough, to talk about issues that are not pleasant. This is what we should do every day and with any art form.
“I see film as a vehicle which allows the people to talk about things that we don’t see. To show characters that we don’t notice, to reflect and raise to the surface topics and issues that are not pleasant.
“We cannot change the world and art cannot solve problems. But we must talk about problems. This is our task as filmmakers.”
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Requiem for Mrs J
$1million co-production between Serbia (Nenad Dukic: SEE Film Pro), Bulgaria (Pavlina Jeleva: Geopoly Film), Macedonia (Tomi Salkovski: Skopje Film Studio), Russia (Aleksander Rodnjanski) and France (Alis Ormiers: Surprise Alley), with the support of Film Center Serbia, the Bulgarian National Film Center, Macedonian Film Fund and Eurimages. Executive producer: Miroslav Mogorović (Art & Popcorn).
Cast: Mirjana Karanović, Danica Nedeljković, Jovana Gavrilović, Mira Banjac, Vučić Perović, Srđan Žika Todorović and Boris Isaković.