Thursday, February 18, 2010

PSIFF10: DONKEY (KENJAC, 2009)—The Evening Class Interview With Antonio Nuić

Not since Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) has an animal eye witnessed the pitiful plight of human beings with such patient compassion, as in Antonio Nuić's sophomore feature Donkey (Kenjac, 2009), which saw its US premiere at the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF10). As synopsized in the festival program, this gentle comic fable shows how one family of mulish, macho men in the Herzogovina countryside ultimately gain some much-needed self-awareness—with the help of a real donkey. Director Antonio Nuić accompanied his film to PSIFF10.

Born in Sarajevo in 1977, Nuić graduated in film and TV directing from the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Zagreb. He is a member of the Croatian Film Directors Society. In 1998, his first short film On the Spot won awards at the Croatian student film festival FRKA for Best Film, Best Screenplay, and Audience Choice Award. His television drama Give Them Dinamo Back fared similarly at FRKA, winning the Audience Award. From 1999-2004, Nuić directed television shows, music videos and his third short film Sex, Booze and Short Fuse. In 2005–2006, All For Free—his first feature length film—won multiple awards for Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress at Croatia's Pula Film Festival. At the Sarajevo Film Festival, All For Free won the Heart of Sarajevo for Best Male Performance. It likewise garnered a Special jury award at the New Author Festival in Belgrade and the Bronze Rosa Camuna in Bergamo.

Nuić's second feature Donkey has followed suit, winning three Golden Arena awards at the Pula Film Festival: Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography; and Best Music. It also received the Croatian Film Critics Society Award and, consequently, was chosen as Croatia's official submission to the Foreign Language category of the Academy Awards®. Although Donkey did not make the Academy short list, it remains one of my favorites seen at this year's festival. My sincere thanks to Jonah Blechman of inclusive pr for setting me up to interview Nuić over drinks at Miro's Restaurant. Nuić is a ruggedly handsome, affable fellow with a rumbling voice deepened by chain smoking.

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Michael Guillén: Donkey is a beautiful, elegant narrative about the grief shared between fathers and sons. Straight off, I was impressed with its bleached cinematography. Can you speak about how you worked with your cinematographer to develop the look of the film?

Antonio Nuić: The cinematographer
Mirko Pivčević is a great friend of mine and obviously a very talented person. When we were location scouting, we discussed the script and the way the film should look. What we came up with—because he lives near those parts of the country where the film takes place—was his remembrance of how sometimes at the beginning of August everything goes yellow because there's no water, as if it's Autumn, not Summer. The land is already dry and rocky and the intense heat creates a bleached look. There is no green. That was my idea of how the film should look—strong highlights and no green—because green represents life, whereas when something is yellow, it represents the time of the year when everything dies back down. I believe that look was important for this story.

Also, one of my personal motivations for that look came from a famous Croatian poet who came from the village where the film takes place and in his poetry, the color that he used to describe sadness was yellow. It made sense to me to go this way.

Guillén: Could you identify that poet?

Nuić: His name is
Antun Branko Šimić. He was a great poet at the beginning of the 20th Century. He wrote expressionist poetry that was current with European literature of the time. He died very young, actually, when he was 27 years old; but, he managed to become part of Croatian poetic history with only a few collected books of poems.

Guillén: Donkey is bolstered by its poetic influences. It's amazingly simple on the surface; but, underneath there's much inherited grief and a tragic sense of generational repetition. It intrigued me to watch Boro (Nebojša Glogovac) come hazardously close to repeating the mistakes of his father. Are you a father yourself?

Nuić: That's what made me think about the father/son relationship. As I grow older, obviously I see myself making the same mistakes my father made, especially with regard to his relationship with my mother. They're still married and live a good life; but, I see his character flaws. We like to call them "character flaws" but really it's just bad behavior based upon not thinking about the other person—whoever you live with or whoever your friends are—you rationalize, "That's just the way I am." Whereas, a man should think about, "Why do I tell people this is the way I am when I can change?" That's what most men don't do and, basically, in Croatia there is a traditional way of raising male children. Boys are allowed to do things their own way. It's considered a good thing and it makes families proud—that way of thinking—but as a consequence sons don't get a good upbringing. It's an unrealistic way of looking at things. Men expect things to go the way they imagine things should go. As time goes along and things change, my generation of Croatian men are very much in conflict with their surroundings and their female partners, male partners, whatever, because they can't accept that there are other people and other ways of thinking. We've been basically brought up that way.

I was raised by my grandmother and—as she was feeding me—she used to say, "Son, it's best never to have one wife. Always two, possibly three." Brought up that way, a man thinks he can get anything he wants. Now, I love my grandmother, I love my grandfather, and obviously they love me; but, this is the way men are raised in Croatia and throughout the Balkans. That's what I was thinking about when I drafted the script for Donkey.

Guillén: You were wanting to critique the existing practice of how men are raised?

Nuić: Yes. The basic idea is that we usually repeat the mistakes of our fathers whereas we should learn from their mistakes and not repeat them. My film critiques that behavior because such behavior leads to larger conflicts and damages future generations.

Guillén: Are you saying that this is still pretty much how Croatian men are raised today?

Nuić: Yes. It's changing a little bit now with my generation and their children; but, in some parts—those communities close to the Dalmatian Coast, for example—this still happens, though on a much smaller scale than before.

Guillén: Though I'm aware that your film is critiquing masculinities in the region, I admire that Donkey likewise explores the conflicted emotionality of these men. The story that spoke most to me was that of Ante (Ljubo Kapor), Boro's uncle. His realization at film's end of what it has truthfully cost he and his wife not to have children—collecting money instead—carried such sad weight.

Donkey won three awards at Croatia's Pula Film Festival: you won Best Screenplay; Mirko Pivčević won Best Cinematography; and
Srdjan Gulic Gul won Best Music. Then the film was chosen as Croatia's official submission to the Foreign Language category of the Academy Awards®. Despite this critical success, how have your local audiences accepted the critique in your film?


Nuić: Very well. I'm always afraid, obviously, as a filmmaker. Whenever I make something, I ask myself, "Who will watch this? Who will be interested in some small family drama set in some rural part of the country? Does it communicate?" You might know that there are many different dialects in the Croatian language. The people in the South—who were influenced by Italy—speak totally different than the people in the North, who were influenced by the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. If you pair an older guy from the Northern part of Croatia with an older guy from the Southern part, they won't understand a word each other is saying. I kept a lot of those dialects in the film and I worried, "What have I done? Who will this talk to? What am I talking about?" But, basically, people have loved the film, especially the people from the South who have told me, "This is it. This is us." That was very flattering to me because my father comes from that part of the country, I know those people, and I wanted them to see themselves in my film. It's not very common to make a film about these Southerners. There aren't many films in Croatia that have been made in that part of the country about the people in that part of the country.

Everywhere else people loved the basic relationship between the father and his son. Just before my trip here to Palm Springs, a guy I know came to me and told me, "I've just seen your film and it helped me. After seeing your film, I went and had a conversation with my father that I have put off for such a long time because we were in conflict." I think people got the point and they love the point that men should simply communicate.

Guillén: Equally fascinating for me was the role of the donkey in furthering that communication. I'm aware that kenjac—the Croatian word for donkey—is pejorative slang for a man who is mule-headed; i.e., an ass. But you've distinguished in your press notes that you wouldn't call a donkey an ass. I've noticed where these masculine issues come into play that—if a woman does not help a man come to terms with himself—an animal will. [Nuić chuckles.] I have to commend the different ways you showed your male characters relating through the donkey to themselves and to others. The donkey became—how do I put this?—a witness to these various self-examinations, if you will. He actually became the agent who brought these estranged men together.

Nuić: It's almost as if he's their silent priest. These are religious people who—when they go to confession—communicate with their priest. But here they choose to confess to an animal because, obviously, they don't want to hear an answer. They already know and are aware of the answer. They're just so stubborn and into themselves that they can't communicate with another human being with whom they have any issues. They would rather just get it out of themselves, vent, by communicating with a donkey. The donkey becomes someone who takes all their problems unto himself and he can bear it because donkeys are famous for carrying heavy loads on their backs.

Guillén: How much has or hasn't changed with regard to men's perception and respect of women?

Nuić: You mean in Croatia?

Guillén: Yes, in Croatia, but also between the city and the countryside in Croatia.

Nuić: I can assure you that women in those parts of Croatia are pretty powerful in their own way. They know how to handle things—let's say—quietly. They willingly take this role of being humble and being servile to their husband; but, basically they rule everything. Croatia is a maternal country. But I'm not a woman so I cannot say how women feel in Croatia. I don't see anything different from any other European country.

Guillén: As the writer/director, can you say where this story came from?

Nuić: I had already written something about a father and son relationship when I heard about the trading of donkeys, which was told to me by my cousin Boro who lives in Drinovci. He told me that this uncle Ante—who is based on a real person—sold donkeys to people from across the border who then sold them to Italians to make sausages; some mortadella is made from donkeys. That anecdote helped me decide to set my father-son relationship in Drinovci. That village is the birthplace of my father. I knew the people. I knew their characters. I knew what I was being told when I heard that anecdote. That's how I came up with the story.

Guillén: Along with the trafficking of donkeys, your film mentions a lucrative cigarette trade, yet no one smokes in this film. I've been to the former Yugoslavia and I don't remember anyplace where people weren't smoking.

Nuić: [Laughs.] Yes, we do smoke a lot. I don't know quite how to explain to you why I decided not to show smoking in the film. I'm a chain smoker myself. Perhaps I could say that it was very hot when we shot the film and—when some of the older actors wanted to smoke—I suggested they not do so because I was afraid for their health. Also, I found no reason for the characters to smoke. Besides, it's a common thing in Croatian films—or in European films generally—that everybody smokes so I simply decided not to do it.

Guillén: Can you speak to why you situated your narrative against the political context of 1995? You've suggested in your press notes that this timing was chosen for two reasons: first, to juxtapose family conflicts against historical events and, second, to respect a certain authenticity; i.e., it was in the summer of 1995 that donkey trafficking actually took place.

Nuić: That's right. Also, 1995—the year when the film takes place; the year of
Operation Storm—is the year when the war ended in Croatia. It lasted for a few months more in Bosnia; but, basically 1995 is considered the end of our civil war, which took place in Bosnia-Herzogovina. The village Drinovci is in Herzogovina, which borders Croatia. It's so stupid and difficult to explain because the majority of the population living in Herzogovina are Croats.

At the beginning of the film when Boro and his family cross the border you see two identical flags on both sides. That could be confusing to someone who doesn't know the situation; but, that was supposed to be funny. During those war years Herzogovina and Croatia were technically two separate countries; but, they weren't really.

That border was used to make enormous sums of money through custom fees. Speaking of the cigarette trade, Croatia passed a law that set taxes on cigarettes—let's say 10%—whereas Herzogovina set the taxes at 5%. So, Croatia would export cigarettes to Herzogovina and then the law would be killed for a few days during which time cigarettes would be brought back into Croatia, thus making millions of dollars for one or two men. That was the situation we had. It resembles something your country did back when the west was won; but, unfortunately for us, it was at the end of the 20th century.

Guillén: Srdjan Gulic Gul won Best Music at Croatia's Pula Film Festival. He used a mix of both pop and classical. Why?

Nuić: The pop song was kind of an inside joke. It's a song that's been popular in Croatia for over 20 years and which—if translated—means "Long Hot Summer". Classical music was in the mix because—as you could see—Boro's aunt loved classical music. And I love classical music, to be honest with you. I love classical music in film. I think film and classical music have a lot in common and they complement each other.

Guillén: Which American directors do you like?

Nuić: American directors? I could go on for about an hour, right? But I'm a great admirer of classic Hollywood. I like Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, Frank Capra. For recent directors, P.T. Anderson I like. Scorsese, obviously, I like. Wes Anderson I like. Clint Eastwood I like. I'm a great admirer of American culture and I was brought up especially on westerns. My mother took me to see them at the cinematheque twice a week. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of my favorite films.

Guillén: How did you feel having your film chosen as Croatia's official submission to the Foreign Language category of the Academy Awards®?

Nuić: I was really flattered by their decision. And it's been great getting to come here to Palm Springs. I love seeing my film in a US theater because—as I just mentioned—I was brought up on classic Hollywood cinematography. My mother loved classic American films so she took me to see them at the cinema, twice a week at least, whenever the film changed at our Cineplex. So I was brought up watching American films. I'm very much influenced by them. The fact that my film is being shown in a US cinema is very exciting for me.

Guillén: Can you tell me a little bit about your actors and their backgrounds?

Nuić: My actors are well-known actors who all come from the country formerly known as Yugoslavia. We have trained at similar—if not the same—acting schools. The main actor Nebojša Glogovac (Boro) comes from Belgrade. The main actress Nataša Janjić (Jasna, Boro's wife) and some of the other actors are from Zagreb. The guy in the wheelchair Emir Hadžihafizbegović (Petar, Boro's brother) is from Sarajevo. I like working with actors from different acting schools because I think something good happens. Actors are intuitive and they pick up all the good things from their colleagues. I like working with actors from all over. It may sound funny to you because it's such a small region but it's not conventional. You don't ordinarily see Bosnian actors in Croatian films; but, I tend to mix them all together, which is rather unconventional, at least in the last 20 years in our country.

Guillén: To wrap things up here, let's discuss Krenica, the lake in Drinovci, which you've indicated represents a kind of doom for the villagers. I was struck by the image of Boro's wife nearly drowning herself in the lake much like his mother had earlier "let herself go." Then there was also that scene where Ante throws his money into the lake. What does this lake Krenica represent for you in your film?

Nuić: Okay, there is a story about that lake, which is a very strange lake. When I was a kid, every Summer we went to Drinovci and we all swam in that lake several times even though it was considered somewhat dangerous. The story about the drowned boy is, unfortunately, a true story. It seemed like every other Summer somebody drowned in that lake. It has unpredictable currents with very cold water. Though most of the water in the lake is perfectly warm and perfect for swimming when it's hot, an unexpected current of cold water can hit you and you can have a heart attack. So, more accurately, people don't die by drowning in that lake; they die of heart attacks and many of them have never been found. The divers that you saw in the film diving for the boy in the lake in real life dove for three days and never found him. They dove 80 meters below the surface and never found the bottom of the lake. Since it's rocky terrain and the sea is nearby, a week later Krenica spit up the drowned boy and he had salt water in his lungs.

Krenica is associated with local mythology. The legend goes that a very powerful man was riding drunk on his horse. He was dissatisfied with his life. He rounded up all of his horses and they jumped into a pit, creating the lake. This lake is haunted by fate. It represents life because the water is pure, people can drink from the lake, and it provides the watering system for that village; but, also, it represents death because it can take away everything you love. It's the pure symbolism of the water that represents life in such a rocky terrain. It gives life. It takes life. That's what I had in mind.

Guillén: You've added in the press notes that the disregard of Krenica's actual danger renders "a deeply irrational, dark side of the people from Herzegovina, otherwise extremely religious and cautious people." Final question: Are you working on anything new?

Nuić: Yes, I am writing a new script based on a theater play. It's a Christmas tale that was turned into a theater piece. I saw it and I was lucky because the guy who wrote it was asked by a few other directors for permission to turn it into a film but he rejected their offers. I met him on the street one day in Zagreb and I asked him what was happening with the script and why hadn't it been made into a film? He said, "Would you like to do it?" I said, "Yes!" That's how I got the rights. We know each other from the Academy. We studied together. So basically, right now I'm in the process of writing the script from his play. It's beautiful. My films are always about family and this is about the relationship between two brothers. It's pretty much a chamber piece that happens in an old barber shop on Christmas Eve.

Cross-published on
Twitch.

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