People under threat of death stay sane by living in the moment, according to Dutch director Marinus Groothof, whose debut feature shows a city struggling to retain a semblance of normality in abnormal times.
Set in Belgrade during the NATO bombing campaign in 1999, The Sky Above Us portrays the daily lives of Ana (Nada Šargin), Sloba (Boris Isakovic) and Bojan (Nikola Rakocevic), who work in or near the offices of Serbian national broadcaster, RTS.
As bombs fall all around and the building that plays such a role in their lives also puts them at risk of death, each character constructs a defence to overcome the fear and retain their sanity.
Leading Serbian actor Nikola Rakočević plays Bojan, aged 23, who immerses himself in the undergound party scene. Conflicting with this nihilistic lifestyle, Bojan is messed up about a girl and any chance of a future together.
Shooting Star Nikola Rakocevic was first choice for Dutch director
Most prominently, he won the Shooting Stars Award for exceptional international talent at the prestigious Berlinale International Film Festival 2014.
“I couldn’t imagine any other person than Nikola playing Bojan,’ Marinus said. “There really wasn’t anyone like him.
“He was the one that I really wanted, without even knowing him. He has a sensibility that I couldn’t find with any other actor. It was good, too, that he looks very young but he is actually 31 now.
“All the young actors from Serbia, like Nikola, they are very involved, very loving and really want to work hard. I would like to work with any of them again, they were all great.
“Older generation actors are less easy to work with. They can be stars with attitude, they’re more challenging.”
As a young actor from Kragujevac in central Serbia, Nikola has carved out his name with lead roles in acclaimed Serbian films including Circles / Krugovi (2013) by Srdjan Golubovic, which won awards at the Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals, Skinning / Sisanje (2010) from director Stevan Filipovic, and The Man Who Defended Gavrilo Princip / Branio sam Mladu Bosnu (2014).
After carrying so many films, Nikola was happy to share the burden of this latest project with his co-stars. “I have had a lot of main roles recently and there has been a lot of responsibility on my shoulders for the last five years,’ he said.
The female lead is taken by Nada Šargin, who was an early shoo-in for the role, according to Marinus. “I always had Nada in mind for this role,’ he said. “I was sitting across a table from her at a party once and she made such an impression. She appears to be a very strong character but there is a vulnerability behind her eyes that struck me and intrigued me.
“But I looked at many actors for the role of Sloba. That’s where I got Boris. The casting wasn’t necessarily nice but I had a talk after with him and, what I saw in his eyes, I thought this is the man. He’s perfect for this role. He carries a responsibility, sadness and pride with him, in his eyes.”
Consecutive to the premiere in Rotterdam, the film was screened in selected European cinemas and discussed on social media. “They arranged a premiere in 40 towns in Europe and everyone was connected, sharing their thoughts and questions on Twitter,’ Nikola explained.
“We had questions from Poland, from Belgrade, and many other cities, asking about how we made Belgrade look as it did 15 years ago, stuff like that. They also wanted to know about the moment the bomb fell on the RTS building, and about our experiences during that period.”
Serbian journalists killed in NATO bombing
Director Marinus Groothof also appreciated the opportunities presented by the scope of the premiere screenings of The Sky Above Us// Nebo iznad nas. “It is fantastic that you sit in the cinema at your premiere and you know that people are sat at forty cinemas around Europe as well, watching with you and then able to participate in the Q&A afterwards,’ he said.
“We were able to get direct feedback from people watching the movie. It was a fantastic event, an opportunity to screen a movie on that scale.
He was unaware of the journalists and workers who died in the NATO attack on the RTS building.
“I was born in central Serbia so we didn’t have war and shooting there but everything else was affected by the war,’ he said. “It was on the news non-stop. As a child I saw dead people on TV every day.
“I was a child at that moment and I didn’t know what was going on in the country,’ he said. “But I try to understand people and situations in my real life. So when I get a role I try to understand them, get some connections with that character. It is even more important when playing characters that really existed. Then it is important not to mess up.
“It is one of the things that makes me think really seriously when choosing my movies or theatre roles. But I believe that when a director has a strong idea, when he knows what he wants, you must trust in that. At that moment, you must believe in that and do your job.”
Despite the film portraying events in a bombed city of 16 years ago, Marinus did not have any problem recreating the period or the environment, he explained.
“Much of Belgrade still looks as it did in 1999, it has been untouched in decades,’ he said. “So I had in mind the locations where I wanted to shoot this film. For those few places where it didn’t work so well, in shots showing the Usce shopping mall or the new bridge, we had a good effects crew from Greece.
“Actually, I love Belgrade. I have been walking through that city for a very long time. Recently I shot another short film there and I fell in love again while walking in the city at night. It is such a wonderful but bizarre city.”