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Film Show 035: Dane Komljen
An interview with the Serbian filmmaker about Arthur Russell, exploring language and gender through science fiction, and his newest feature film 'Afterwater'
Dane Komljen (b. 1986) is a filmmaker born in SFR Yugoslavia and currently based in Berlin. Throughout his career, Komljen has crafted poetic films that show a keen interest in the way people form relationships with one another, their surrounding locales, and the nature around them. Through an incisive use of varied cameras, language and silence, and unhurried pacing, his films end up being meditative and thought-provoking. His first feature film, All the Cities of the North (2016), premiered at Locarno. His second feature film, Afterwater (2022), premiered at last year’s Berlinale, and features a three-part structure that shows an evolving understanding of gender, language, place, and humanity’s place in this world. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Komljen on February 6th, 2022 via Zoom to discuss Arthur Russell, exploring language and gender through science fiction, and the differences between his past works and Afterwater.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: I loved Afterwater (2022). you’ve used similar ideas and techniques in previous films but I feel like everything comes together so well here. In a previous interview, you said that when there’s something you can’t see, you make a film in order to see it. I’m curious what it was about Afterwater that piqued your interest.
Afterwater actually started with my short film All Still Orbit (2016) and the work that I did back then linked to Vila Amaury, which is this improvised settlement. Construction workers who were building Brasilia created it next to the city to house themselves and their families. When an artificial lake next to Brasilia, Lago Paranoà, was created in order to alter the region’s dry climate, the city was submerged. This story about the city became part of the short film. After it screened, I met a lot of people who had their own stories of submerged settlements. Bit by bit, I thought, “Okay, there is something that could be done with all these stories.”
Afterwater first started as a film about submerged settlements, but then it became more about lakes as particular landscapes, but also, in a way, as containers, or repositories for the imaginary. What was interesting about these stories was that there were certain things repeated across cultures and very different places. There was this idea that there is something that is close to you, like the bottom of the lake, for example, but that you can’t see. How do you then create images and create stories? In a way, you project something onto this surface about what it is that lies on the other side. I found that super interesting.
Do you have relationships with specific bodies of water? Is there something that draws you to water?
My ascendant is a water sign, this is the first thing that crosses my mind, but I think that’s an interesting question. I always felt very much at home in water. I think one of the moments of purest happiness that I can remember comes from me being in different waters, the sea, the rivers. This peacefulness that one feels when one floats in the water is something that I can’t really compare with anything else.
In the place where I grew up, there’s a very cold mountain river running through it. But there’s also the Adriatic Sea, where we used to go for vacation before the war, and also the lakes around my hometown. Those would be the waters of my childhood. But it’s not even specific to the river or the lakes, it’s just this feeling of floating in water. I still can remember, very clearly, moments from childhood when that happened.
Where were you born?
In Banja Luka, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. When I was born, it was Yugoslavia. The country started to fall apart when I was five.
Where do you live right now?
In Berlin, Germany.
In Afterwater, you go through different time periods, different locations, different groups of people. Given your history, do you feel tied to a specific place enough to call it home?
Afterwater definitely came out of my own experience of migration and also existing between different languages, between different genders. I think this idea of movement and not staying fixed is something that informed the work. When I think about home, I think about where I am now, I think about the life that I have with my partner. This relationship is what gives me a sense of home. I stilI like my hometown, I like Belgrade very much—where I studied—and I like Berlin. Somehow I think that even though I didn’t live in Banja Luka for a long, long time, or in Belgrade, I still feel at home when I go there. The same thing with Berlin—I’ve been here for six years already. But I think Afterwater would not have been possible if I didn’t start to move around.
You mentioned language, and we hear so many different ones in the film. In the first part, it seems like every line is spoken in a different language, and then the second part is in Spanish, and then for the third, we hear these breaths with texts underneath. I know some of the texts are sourced from different authors, poets, and philosophers, but how did you decide on the specific languages that would be spoken at different points in the film?
Each part had its own way of becoming and finding its own shape. In the case of the first part, it was very much the language that the people who acted in the film spoke. It’s also the choice of texts in the first part, trying to find something that could work in the languages that these people speak with each other. In the second part, it was determined by the text itself, because the second part is a very free adaptation of a novel by Miguel de Unamuno [1931’s San Manuel Bueno, mártir]. The third part was really trying to communicate science fiction. In films set in the future, there’s always a lot of effort being done to signify that we are in another time via set design, but people always, more or less, communicate the same way we do. The relationships that they form with each other and with the world are very similar to what we are going through now. For me, I wanted to imagine a different way of communicating that would also be felt and translated to non-human life forms. That’s how we got to this idea that perhaps they could communicate through breaths.
It seems like there’s a reverse chronological depiction of people and their relationship with land and water. In the beginning, we see the scientists who have a reason to go into these areas, and the second feels like something that people today would more readily experience, and the third feels pre-Christian in a way, though there is this nuclear reactor. I felt this desire for people to go back to an older way of engaging with the world, with a deeper connection with nature. Do you feel strongly about humans and their need to connect with the world around them?
This is interesting, because I actually don’t think it is possible to go back in any way. Of course, I think it is necessary to find ways to engage with the world, because I don’t think of nature as something separate. There is this whole concept of how you have “nature” and then you have us, which is probably cultural civilization. There’s a separation, but we are always in the middle of everything that exists. Everything that we do influences that. What is becoming more and more apparent is that how we treat the life surrounding us has to change. I think art could give us proposals for how to see the world, how to feel the world, how to be in the world differently.
There is the background story for the third part, which is something that we used in order to create this world. It involves some sort of catastrophe after which humans had to either live in super sheltered environments, or create these experimental units where they try to engage with the world in different and new ways. One of the things that we were thinking about is this idea of slowing down our rhythms. When one thinks about how to relate with human forms that are not ours, I think the question of rhythm and time becomes super important, because we need to attune ourselves to a different temporality. We were thinking, “Can we imagine that?”
What we did, of course, is fiction. The only way that it can work is as fiction. It’s a proposal of a different way to be in the world. That’s why we took the freedom that fiction and worldmaking give to us, in order to propose something. It’s also interesting that you say it seems almost pre-Christian or somehow pagan. I definitely feel that it’s very pan. It is a worldview which sees beauty in everything. For me, the question is, is it possible somehow… not to go back, but to invent a new type of sensibility and a new type of worldview?
What would be your ideal way for humans to be in the world?
I mean, I’m not sure I have a precise image. One thing that comes to mind in this utopian direction is that I would like to see less separation, whatever that means. I think we are more and more distant from each other in many different ways. If this distance were somehow reconsidered… that would be the one thing that would need to be worked on.
You briefly mentioned gender. At the beginning of the film, it seemed like the people were coded as queer, and in the end there are these more ancestral views on gender. How did your experiences and thoughts on gender inform the film?
The idea of gender becomes less and less stable as the film progresses. When the film started, the choice of languages came from the friends I wanted to film, and the film was very much shaped by them at that particular point. It was also a young couple. I think the film starts in a very straight place and I found it interesting, as a queer filmmaker, to see how I would film this relationship and move it into something else that interests me.
Also, when I think about Miguel de Unamuno, I wondered how to film something that involves a priest and a sister and a brother in a way that is interesting for me. For me, it was important to understand that cinema puts me in positions where I am challenged to film things that don’t form part of my experience, and to try to find empathy but also not to subvert. I think it’s not for me to be like, “Oh, I wanted to subvert something” when it comes to Unamuno. It was genuine interest in that story that became part of the film.
But I also had a lot of resistance towards the idea of filming that novel. For example, when you think about all the submerged places, there was always a story about a church tower that was above the water. During the research, I was like “Okay, why do I have so many church towers in all these images?” And it was because the church towers were the only part of the village that came above water. So it is a part of the story that I’m trying to trace, and I needed to face this. Where my views on gender feel most at home is towards the end. In the third part, it was important for me to create this almost post-gender situation. I wanted to create it in a way where it just doesn’t matter. It is science fiction, but also the power of it is that we can just say, “Okay, we are already there.” I wanted to present these human beings not behaving or dressing in certain ways that form a lot of how we engage in society.
What I want to say is that, maybe I feel closest to what is in the third part. With gender, for me it’s always about not being in a fixed role, not about going from A to B, but actually being in this process of looking for something new. This is also something that cinema captures. What is strong about cinema—not this film, but cinema in general—is this process of looking for something. I think this is why it resonated with me. I move from a more normative relationship to something that is not sexual in a traditional sense at all, to this post-gender community in the end. It is somehow in this process of moving between different modes where this idea of non-binary gender becomes more and more apparent.
That’s interesting. It’s not just a film about gender, but gender in relation to these other facets of life, our way of relating to each other, to the world around us. You mentioned science fiction. This film isn’t typical science fiction. Are there specific science fiction films or novels that have inspired you?
For us, when we were creating the third part, a lot of thinking came from remembering the science-fiction films we saw as kids in the ’80s and ’90s on VHS tapes. Not the films themselves, but the memory of watching those films. It was our understanding that the future that was proposed by these films didn’t change so much. Perhaps, if we could imagine a really different future, we could go back to these memories that these images imprinted on us. That’s why in order to depict something that comes from the future, we felt we should not use the most current cameras that we have at this point. We wanted to use Hi8 to recall this memory of watching these films on VHS. And it’s not a particular novel, but Donna Haraway was super important to me when I was making this film.
Do you mind speaking more about that?
I mean, I’m not the only person who has read lots of Donna Haraway recently. And there are also other references. But I think if it is there, it is there in the film.
Do you have any specific memories of watching films that come to mind? Was there a specific feeling that you had that you wanted to capture?
Of course, the big science fiction reference for me is Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). I think my relationship with Tarkovsky is a bit complicated because he’s great—of course Stalker is great—but it’s also very problematic. So I have this feeling of, on one hand, being really fascinated by this world, and on the other hand, questioning a lot of it. But in the case of Stalker, that is the one that I question least.
When I think about science fiction, the things that come to mind are always, like, Terminator (1984) and Blade Runner (1982) and Aliens (1986). Somehow, these very metallic looking films, always very dystopian, always came with a certain… especially when I think about Blade Runner, it didn’t feel like the world that I wanted to live in. It took me some time to understand how science fiction can also work in a different way, where it does not only propose the dystopian consequences of how we are living in this moment. This is something that took me some time to understand as a possibility.
To switch gears a bit, one of the most striking things about the films and your previous works is the use of different cameras, from digital to celluloid. Was this pre-planned or was it something you discovered mid-shooting?
It became very clear that it was going to be a film in fragments, in different movements. We wanted to create a different sensation for each of these worlds. If we start in the present, do we want to use high-definition digital cameras? For the past, it was clear that we wanted to do it with 16mm. A big question was, if we go into the future, how do we represent that? In general, this shifting between different textures is one of the different strategies or different lines of inquiry about the possibility of cinema to transform itself as it goes along. It was never a question to do it with just one camera and one format. This was one of the most important ideas with the film.
I realized something, which is that in finding different articulations in different films I make, there are these shifts between different image textures. How do they influence each other? It’s not just that you change into something in order to move into a new perspective, but these different textures influence each other. When you place them next to each other, they can seem to enhance or diminish the effect of one another.
What got you initially interested in using different textures?
I don’t know. I thought that I belonged to this generation—I really grew up during this shift between the different materials. Of course, I remember VHS and watching things on 35mm in the cinema, and then MiniDV and then going through these different digital cameras, and then to filming with a phone today. For me, in general, I realized I am actually always living in this transition. There’s no feeling that there was one ground, or one most important way of looking and recording the world I’m living in at any point. It was always this feeling of constant transformation and constant shifting between these different materials. It was happening as I was growing up, and when I realized that, I wanted to acknowledge this fact, but also to make it present in the work I do.
I love what you’re saying with regards to constant transformation, this constant looking. Can you talk about the camera you used for the final section?
It was a Panasonic Hi8 camera. We did tests for it. It was clear that we wanted to do some sort of analog video, and Hi8 was this format that was between VHS and MiniDV. In the end we decided on that camera on the basis of its pictorial qualities. We tried different analog video cameras, seeing how they react to green, because it was clear that green was going to be the color of the film.
In the film we see intertwining bodies, this element of dance. What’s your relationship with dance as an art form?
Personally, dancing is super important for me as a way of being in the world. It always reminds me that it is possible to move and to feel this world in a different way. One of the things that I miss the most, since the pandemic started, is the feeling of being able to dance with others. This is one of the things that really doesn’t work when you are on your own. It’s a super privileged thing to complain about in this horrible moment that we all find ourselves in, but I really feel a lack of dancing.
In terms of this film, it was clear that it was going to require people who are very much in control of how they move their bodies. The third part was developed together with Rose-Anabel Beermann. She is one of the performers in the last part. Together we developed a kind of score for the third part, including a backstory that would help with the performance, understanding the actual situation they find themselves in, but also how to develop this way of moving. For me, it was a super interesting experience because I don’t have so much experience with the performing arts. And it was also about being challenged, about discovering, and figuring out new ways to work with someone who comes with a completely different language.
I rarely work with people who are professional actors. The way I approach acting is to try and spend time with people and build films from their own lives, figuring out how all these bits and pieces can connect. This was really like an act of, “Okay, let’s imagine something together. Let’s create something together.” I didn’t want to make a dance film with the last part. This was a decision. We didn’t want to create a dance performance that is then filmed. It was closer to this more traditional idea of, when they teach you to make films, you have to construct a character. For us, we were constructing these characters, but not in terms of their motives, but in the ways that they move and engage with the world. I think this third part is the closest thing I’ve done to a traditional fiction film, or trying to work in such a way.
This is your second feature film, and you’ve made shorts along the way. How do you feel like you’ve grown as a filmmaker?
One thing that is different is that I felt that All the Cities of the North (2016) was a very personal film. It came from a personal history, my background, and me somehow dealing with where I was born and, in my own way, engaging with that. I think Afterwater is a film that looks outwards. This is the big difference between the two films.
But I would also say that Afterwater was done much more intuitively than All the Cities. When I think about it, even though it was very important to be open during the process of filming, I think Afterwater was done much more intuitively, and Afterwater was done very much in dialogue with other people. But also this is only two features; I don’t think this is necessarily my trajectory. There is a set of themes or questions that I ask myself, and that I try to deal with in my work. I don’t think there’s a plan, but I think these questions repeat themselves and how I engage with them is actually what makes these works different.
It’s interesting that you say that it’s not about having a trajectory because that once again goes back to what you were saying earlier, about not simply going from point A to point B. I loved how you had Arthur Russell’s “Let’s Go Swimming” at the end. Can you tell me about that decision?
Well, I love Arthur Russell. It was one of those things. World of Echo (1986) is super important to me as a piece of art, but actually further down the line, when I was editing the film I realized that the end of World of Echo could fit perfectly for the end of this film. It was not my intention from the beginning; it was one of the things that I found in the film. When it became clear, I also included some parts of lyrics in the long text that appears in the third part.
There is a lot of play with fluidity in the text. For example, Unamuno is adapted in the second part, but there are also bits and pieces from [ecologist] G. Evelyn Hutchinson, and also from another novel. This idea of not making a “pure” adaptation, but creating texts that are always linked or contaminated by different texts. At any point, different texts can flow into what may be considered the main or primary text. This is done a lot, on the script level of the film. I also wanted to use Arthur Russell to have these words there. It’s one of those things. It’s the same with Donna Haraway, for example. I don’t think I could say anything super smart or elaborate on it (laughter). It was one of the most expensive things we did with this film, and the film did not have a lot of money, so it shows that I really wanted it.
Well, I’m glad it’s there. Even the way Arthur Russell’s cello sounds, there’s a texture that’s unlike any other cello texture you’ve ever heard. So it felt appropriate.
When we decided to use “Let’s Go Swimming,” we thought we could maybe use these almost alien noises that he’s producing to put all over the third part, but we decided to just keep them at the end. At one point, this almost indescribable sound of cello from the beginning of “Let’s Go Swimming” was placed at the beginning of the film. It was almost like the whole film took place within this track, but it didn’t stay like that for long. I think it fits very well.
There’s one question I always ask everyone at the end of all my interviews: Do you mind sharing one thing you love about yourself?
I’m from Eastern Europe, we are not so good at loving ourselves (laughter). I don’t think I judge—this will be my answer.
Is there anything that you wanted to talk about that we didn’t get to? Is there a question you’ve always wanted to be asked?
This was a very unexpected interview. It’s one of the first interviews I’ve had for the film. I’m happy to speak to you, but this was quite philosophical. I guess I should be ready for things to be going that direction.
I enjoyed talking with you a lot, it made me like the film even more.
That’s a good thing. There are certain filmmakers that just ruin your experience of the film and you’re like, “No, I wish I didn’t hear you speak. You are such an asshole.” (laughter).
Trailers for Dane Komljen’s films can be seen at his Vimeo page.
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