Michael Jackson is making a smash at international film festivals, this month, thanks to Serbian director Darko Lungulov.
The dead pop star was the talk of the Karlovy Vary and Pula festivals, for his pivotal title role in Darko’s new dark comedy, Monument to Michael Jackson.
Belgrade-born writer-director Darko Lungulov was widely awarded for his debut feature Here and There and his bittersweet Balkan comedy Monument to Michael Jackson (Spomenik Majklu Džeksonu) is already expected to pick up more gongs.
In a style that is quite familiar in Balkan cinema, this bittersweet comedy with its heart in the right place tells the fictional story of one man’s plan to make a difference for his town and to win back the love of his life.
Dying Serbian Town of Fallen Heroes
Set in 2009, this Serbian-German-Macedonian-Croatian co-production portrays a dying Serbian town populated by colourful characters leading empty lives who care little for the consequences of their actions.
The film opens as an old Communist-era monument is removed from its prime spot in the town square, symbolic of the final crushing blow to the old guard.
In a case of ‘out with the old, but not yet in with the new’, the film addresses the dilemmas facing a broken and directionless community whose former totems have been pulled down but without any new ideals with which to replace them.
The film’s hero is barber Marko, an eternal daydreamer played by Serbian actor Boris Milivojevic. As well as the usual trials and tribulations of life, Marko’s wife Ljubinka, who is as disappointed in him as small town Serbian life disenchants her, is threatening divorce.
Absurd ideas to revive Serbian town
“Out of despair, Marko comes up with the absurd idea to replace the Communist-era statue with a monument to Michael Jackson in the hope of saving his dying hometown by attracting tourists to see the statue, and also winning back his disillusioned wife,’ said Darko, explaining the film’s tagline: It takes a hero to build a monument.
“Marko even manages to convince his close friends to help him with his mad plan, but the town’s corrupt mayor has his own idea and calls on a right wing group Clean Serbia to shatter Marko’s dream.”
Darko has come up with a story of how desperate people react with seemingly doomed endeavours when faced with failing hope. “Marko, my lead character, is a common man who dies for an uncommon goal,’ said Darko.
“But both the character and his goal become transcendent in the process of striving for the greater good. They become something much bigger than the act itself, something historic and monumental. In that way it is a story that is both simple and beautiful.”
Often it can take a relative outsider to see the absurdity of life. Belgrade-born Darko left Serbia in the early 1990s, partly to escape the outbreak of war in his homelands.
Although he lives in New York, he maintains close ties to Serbia, where he is president of the advisory board of BelDocs, the Belgrade International Documentary Film Festival.
“In the last twenty years Serbia has repeatedly lost wars, changed its name, borders, flags and anthems. The World War II heroes of the socialist Yugoslavia are not politically correct anymore. Their monuments are being removed.
“The recent bloody civil wars in the Balkans did not leave behind any new heroes to celebrate. Our citizens are not clear any more who were the good guys and who were the bad guys, which has allowed various demons to feed during those years.
“Xenophobia, racism, homophobia and extreme right-wing nationalism are alive and healthier then ever.
“I wanted to make this film to address some of these dark issues by telling a bizarre, quirky story rather than a purely dark one. Doing that allowed me to deal with the issues in a subtle, slightly comical, yet still very emotional way.”
Ageing action stars replace war heroes
Although the story and characters are fictional, Monument to Michael Jackson is based on a somewhat odd phenomenon that has been seen across the Balkan states, Darko explained. “The story was inspired by a bizarre recent trend that has seen monuments to Hollywood and pop-icons cropping up in small towns in Serbia and the Balkans.
“In such a hero-less world, it is only rational that people will resort to a crazy idea, such as building monuments to pop icons and ‘safe’, lifeless heroes, such as Hollywood movie characters Rocky, Tarzan and Bruce Lee.
“In my film, while an innocent monument to Michael Jackson stirs everything up and unexpectedly brings the ever-present demons to the surface, simultaneously it also helps to create a new hero: Marko, a tragicomic, Don Quixote-like character that sticks to his idealism right to the bitter end. There is something noble in Marko’s intentions.”
While it seems that Marko has managed the impossible – giving people a reason to be proud of their town, and rekindling the spark with Ljubinka – it is inevitable that the whole story starts to unravel and Marko is compelled to concoct ever more convoluted stories just to keep his original idea on course.
“It all seems too good to be true,’ said Darko. “The town is revitalised and the people are full of hope, while Marko has regained the love of Ljubinka, his wife. But, of course, it cannot be that easy.”
Nationalist thugs called in to wreck the day
As the big day approaches, the lies pile upon lies until Marko even has to falsify a letter from Michael Jackson to convince the mayor that the King of Pop has agreed to attend a grand unveiling of the town’s new monument. The mayor is not having any of it and, thanks to some prompting, the nationalist group Clean Serbia piles in on the scene, intent on causing chaos.
Timing is everything is comedy and, for Marko, his timing could not be worse, as evidenced by developments that unfold and to which Marko must react. This unexpected turn of events leads to an absurd and darkly ironic outcome for Marko.
As could be expected, all the strands come together in a grand final scene involving riot police, nationalist thugs and Michael Jackson in a set-up that stretched Darko and his team to the limits.
Riot police, hooligans & Michael Jackson
“This final scene lasts only a few minutes on screen, but it had to be filmed over six days,’ said Darko. “It involved me orchestrating a big fight scene on the ground while a helicopter flew above it all.
“There was a military helicopter with stuntman hanging out and falling to the ground, a brigade of special anti-riot police fighting with a bunch of wild hooligans, a boy band on stage singing and dancing, a brass band, 300 extras and numerous actors on the ground and in the helicopter. All of that was happening simultaneously, of course. That was definitely my biggest challenge.”
Darko is clearly a skilled storyteller, no doubt helped by his experience as a documentary filmmaker. What is also clear is that Darko is a director who can create characters and conjure a whole world, look and atmosphere in which to set his story.
“I worked closely with my Director of Photography Mathias Schöningh to achieve a specific look for this film,’ Darko explained. “We worked long and hard on developing a stylistic approach for this film that will have a look that serves the story the best.
“Mathias and I worked together on Here and There (starring David Thornton and Cyndi Lauper) but we knew that this film required a very different approach. This film would definitely not suit the hand-held freewheeling style that we used on last time round.
A Balkan Western Movie
“We both felt that, in a way, Monument to Michael Jackson is a Balkan Western where the main hero sacrifices everything for his community. We watched a lot of films from directors such as Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah while discussing the style for this film.
“We hit on a feel and look that we called ‘nostalgic-Western Balkan’, which led us to shoot in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the widest and probably most Western frame. Also, while searching for locations we found one that had the charm of a small Mexican town, run-down but full of earthy colours.”
Monument to Michael Jackson was shot mainly in Lozovik, in the Serbian municipality of Velika Plana, 100km south of Belgrade, with additional scenes at Ponikve Airport near Uzice and in Skopje, Macedonia – a city that knows all about garish statues.
They must have hit the right note as the film has already received a positive reaction at a handful of Balkan film festivals and is scheduled for many other international events.
But Darko is not a man to rest on his laurels. He is already underway on his next project, King and Queen, a story based on true events concerning bizarre World championship chess match played during Yugoslav civil war in the 90s.
Director, producer & cast
Darko Lungulov left Belgrade for New York in the early 1990s, where he studied film and directed documentaries, including the acclaimed Escape. In 2009 Darko’s debut feature Here and There won the Best NY Narrative Award at Tribeca Festival 2009 on its premiere screening and went on to be screened at more than fifty international festivals, receiving numerous awards for best film and best direction. Here and There was also chosen by Serbian Film Academy as the country’s nominee for a foreign language Oscar.
Andjela, directed by Darko, will screen as part of the Official Programme at the Sarajevo Film Festival on 17 August, as part of Jednaki=Equals, a six-part humanitarian film project dealing with children’s human rights.
Monument to Michael Jackson is produced by Belgrade-based Papa Films, which was founded in 2009 by Darko Lungulov and Serbian producer Snežana Penev to make and distribute films that bring the spirit of independent filmmaking to the Balkans. Snežana is currently in production of A Good Wife a directorial debut film by Mirjana Karanović, written by Stevan Filipović.
Monument to Michael Jackson stars Boris Milivojević, Nataša Tapušković, Dragan Bjelogrlić, Toni Mihajlovski, Branislav Trifunović, Ljuba Bandović, Mirjana Karanović, Marko Janketić, Petar Mirčevski, Srdjan Miletić and Emilija Terzić