Premiering in the East of the West Competition at this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (August 20-28), Roots is an unexpected documentary gem from filmmaker and video artist Tea Lukač. Through striking cinematography and the simplest of concepts the Serbian director takes us on a journey to present-day Dvor, the Croatian town that Lukač and her family fled when war came and she was just six years old. Intriguingly, we get to know the rural locale not through travelogue but through the back seat of a moving car, where seven distinct stories unfold via passengers of ascending age. Costumed kiddies debate the merits of carnival treats. A loquacious old veteran attests to the superhuman immunity he gained after surviving a hornet attack. And dividing these delightfully surprising scenes are arresting images of a vast forest, one which has steadfastly weathered storms and war and now perhaps nuclear waste – its final story yet to be told.
Filmmaker reached out to Lukač, whose 2016 doc The Most Important Boy in the World follows “the biggest Justin Bieber fan in the Balkans,” just prior to the film’s KVIFF debut.
Filmmaker: So this film is very personal, as it’s shot in your hometown of Dvor in central Croatia that you had to leave as a child due to war. It’s an attempt to capture lost pieces of your culture – or as you’ve put it, “stories struggling not to be forgotten.” And yet neither the Bosnian War — or even your Serbian heritage for that matter — is ever alluded to. Why choose to keep these aspects offscreen?
Lukač: Even though it’s been more than 20 years since the war, it is unfortunately still very much a part of that place. Even my house still has bullet holes left on the facade. And because so many people experienced it, it is a generational trauma, one that hasn’t really been dealt with. People suddenly became refugees scattered across many different continents and were forced to focus on pure survival. That part is a universal story, found in many places around the world. When it comes to my hometown it is an overwhelming atmosphere, and I am sure people from the area will feel it from every shot, whether it is longing for something lost or a sound of the language they are not surrounded with anymore. And they know why without being told.
In a way, coming from this region one cannot escape it. Within the region Dvor is mostly associated by the atrocities that happened there and I didn’t want it to be the only image people and I myself had of the place. It is still painful, and for some people even shameful, what they had to go through. So I wanted to give some heart and light to the area mostly associated with darkness. That being said, if someone during filming talked about the war or mentioned anything related to it, which often naturally happens during any conversation, I wouldn’t have cut it out. It was just a deliberate choice not to explicitly search for it in the film, not to force it.
For one, it was not so important to the form I wanted to explore. And secondly, I was tired of seeing both my childhood and the personal histories of people from the area constantly defined by and reminded of what was lost and why – always reliving the trauma. That is just one aspect of life. In dealing with the past I didn’t want to lose even more by not looking at the present, moving on and keeping what is left – the life, customs and people who are still there.
Filmmaker: The film is quite formally structured. You’ve got the long static shots from inside the moving car, and these distinct scenes that almost render Roots an omnibus of aging – beginning with children and ending with the elderly (with the final scene absent of people). How did you come up with this approach?
Lukač: The concept of passengers and nature intercutting their journey was set from the very beginning, but their order was not. I was inspired by wild/unofficial taxis from the area and my grandfather. He is a very sociable person so there was always someone in the back seat he was giving a ride to. In many ways his story – it’s the one about hornets – sparked the film into existence. I listened to it countless times growing up and was always fascinated by it. It has some magical realism note to it. And I did think at some point about each story almost as a genre. For example, maskare, a custom I also participated in as a child, was comedy/thriller; the nuclear waste issue was science fiction; the folk ensemble club was a musical, and so forth.
Since my directing approach for Roots was noninvasive I was prepared that some stories might not end up working in the final film, be it because of technical issues or not getting the people who wanted to tell them. So I had a wider draft of multiple stories to film and then, based on what we managed to shoot, to decide on the order in which to arrange them. Even though the film is not narrative-based in a classical sense, I never saw Roots as an omnibus but as a natural progression of themes and moods. That was what we were aiming for from the start. When we finished filming I found it very fitting that we have stories that mark a lifespan, and that they worked perfectly in that order. So we edited the film in a sort of circle – without the credits it could even be played in a loop.
Filmmaker: You’ve said that while all stories in the film are real, “the framing is not quite, blurring the line between documentary, concept film, ethnography and fiction.” Honestly, I couldn’t quite discern the fictional element in there – unless you’re referring to placing folks in the back seat of a car. Could you fill us in on this a bit more?
Lukač: That is a very good question and a much needed discussion, seeing that more and more films are made in less strict traditional approaches – experimenting with the form and redefining the meaning of words we use to describe them. Roots is obviously not a fiction film; however, it dances along some lines that are between concept, documentary and staging.
For example, I am aware that the interventions we did on the vehicle for the purpose of filming made it less of a natural space for passengers to be in. Worried to not lose intimacy I initially, somewhat naively, envisioned the filming in a regular car with just me and the driver in the front seats. However, it quickly became obvious that in order to get the visuals we wanted we needed to find a different solution. So we bought a van, removed some seats, made a rig for the camera, soundproofed the vehicle, installed mics and hired a driver. Interestingly, the driver also had roots in the area so it was a nice coincidental magic that sometimes happens when making a film.
Being truthful was very important for me so I didn’t have a problem with the audience being aware of the camera – of course there is one present. But I did want the conversations to be as natural and intimate as they could be. Additionally, I also wanted the routes of the rides to be determined by the actual needs of the passengers, to use the filming to actually transport them to places they had to go to. However, due to weather conditions that was not possible so we ended up mapping the routes that would give us the best light and view through the back window. All of that made it less of a natural environment for people to be and behave in. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s fictional, but it was definitely concept driven. If I wanted to be closer to documentary style I could have done it otherwise, with simpler means. I know those interventions are not radical, and even considered normal for some documentary films, but the question is how many interventions is one too many and combined with what other elements? Roots was funded as an experimental film, will premiere at Karlovy Vary alongside fiction films in the East of the West competition, and will premiere nationally in competition at Beldocs – an explicitly documentary film festival. So I do think it is an exciting conversation to be had.
Filmmaker: The characters in the film range from a group of talkative kids, to a silent guy glued to his phone, to female activists petitioning against nuclear waste. And then there’s your granddad who claims to be immune from sickness after having nearly died from a hornet attack as a boy. So how did you go about casting this eclectic bunch?
Lukač: Dvor is a very small place and on average people from the area are good storytellers; they know how to keep your attention. Some of the people I already knew, such as my grandfather and the woman who worked in Germany, who was my neighbor (it is me sitting next to her). As for the others, since I knew the themes and types of stories I wanted to have the bigger challenge was finding the people willing to be filmed and who were in town during filming. I guess because of the historical circumstances, people there can be very cautious about being recorded. There is some unexplainable fear that there might be consequences if you are too visible.
So it was very important for me to have the people who really wanted to do it, who would be comfortable with filming and not for me to have to persuade them. For example, the children and the singing group were both found at the local folklore classes and we filmed all who showed interest to be in the film. Part of the reason was also the fact that not much is going on in town, especially when it comes to art. I am immensely grateful to have had the support of my producer Andrijana (Sofranić Šućur). Among other things, she understood the need not to make castings which would result in having to turn some people down, but to be inclusive of the community and provide some content for them as well. That approach resulted in those scenes having different takes with different combinations of passengers to choose from for the final cut. And some scenes were pure chance. Many people from the area ended up marrying abroad, and I wanted to have that language barrier and an outsider’s perspective included. We had many ideas and combinations in mind, but upon arriving the first day we met a wonderful man from the Philippines who was staying and working in Dvor. We were very lucky to have him in the film.
Filmmaker: The rural landscape glimpsed through the back of the car window, and the scenic shots of the forest that divide the scenes, transform nature itself into a character. Is there an environmental message embedded in Roots as well?
Lukač: That is one of the reasons we included the story about the nuclear waste. It felt bizarre planning to have a nuclear waste landfill, or any kind of waste for that matter, put into one of the rare places where nature is still really pure and almost untouched. There are many texts arguing that nature is always seen in weather, meaning we cannot perceive landscape separate from the weather conditions we are looking at it in. And the natural order of the weather is disrupted. We purposely went to film in February when the chances for snow and rain were the highest, and ended up with having warm summery days without a cloud in sight for the whole month. That is not normal and shouldn’t be normal. We were stressed about our bad luck for days until we realized it is not bad luck but our new reality. It is global warming that is making Roots an autumn-looking film instead of a winter one. It was a devastating realization. I often think I will be left only with the memory of what spring used to look like and wonder if I’ll have to tell it to my children only as a sort of fairytale. It is an immensely tragic thought. I grew up by the clear rivers and beautiful woods surrounding the town and I wanted to paint them as I hope they will stay – monumental and ethereal, vast and eternal.