In 2018 special competition film program for kids and teenagers “Teen Screen” at Molodist International Film Festival was very powerful. One of the movies, which was selected to this program, was Serbian “Witch Hunters” (“Zlogonje”), directed by Raško Miljković. Director arrived to Kyiv to present the film himself. After the screening we talked to Raško Miljković about meaningfulness of his first full-length film and problems it deals with; got to know the incredible story how he had found a very special actor for the leading part, tried to remember the craziest things he did as a teenager and to look into the future.
“We are all team of debutants, but because of this we had the crazy energy”
“Witch Hunters” is your first full-length film. I’m not a cinematographer, but I presume, that first movie has to be special or meaningful for the director. Why is this story meaningful or special to you?
I studied film directing and always wanted to be a film director. I did a couple of shorts and then I got into advertising: beer commercial, water commercial, telephone, happy people… I wanted to do a movie, but it’s very difficult, especially when you are young. No one wants to give you the money, like: “Who are you? Why should I trust you?” An amazing thing happened actually. My producer Jovanna sent me the first draft of this script and asked me: “Could you read this and tell me, if you like it?” So I read that first draft and it immediately spoke to me, because all problems of Milica are my personal problems. My father divorced four times. And every time he divorced, he remarried again, got another kid, divorced, remarried again, got another kid… So we have very complicated family relationships, I guess. And now I have a sister, who is 7 years younger than me, a brother, who is 16 years younger than me and a new brother, who is 26 years younger than me. And we are all the kids of the divorced parents. So for me it was important to make a movie that they would find entertaining. It’s going to address a subject they will have to engage now or then. My parents divorced, when I was six and a half and first two or three years were very hard for me. I was living with my mom and miss my dad a lot; I couldn’t stand his new wife. Again I had the same problem, when I was a teenager, because the first one – she was a witch, second one – she was a bitch – you know, I was 14 and a punk kind of kid. So for me this script immediately grabbed me in and I loved Jovan character- he is so selfless, and such a good-natured. He is vey timid, but in his imagination he sees himself as an amazing superhero, who wants to change the world. That’s what I love about him – his sense of justice. Then we started working on the new draft of the script and we applied to the National Film Fund. We had no hope of winning, and we kept on working to apply next time (in 6 months), but a month later Jovana called me: “We got it! We got it!” And I was the youngest director (25 at the time we got money) in Serbia who got national funding. It was a big risk: producer – the first film, director of photography – the first film, costume designer – the first film, both of the leading actors – the first film. We are all team of debutants, but because of this we had the crazy energy: you know, we have to do it, or we will die, doing it. That was our drive to do it. And as I told you, for me it was a personal thing to make a movie. My sister has already gone through this phase, but it’s not too late to help my kid brother. So it’s actually a movie for him. And I showed him the movie and he actually really liked it – so, I think, my mission accomplished, on a personal level at least.
When we see the title of the film – “Witch Hunters” – we presume that it will be a fantasy movie. But the story is realistic, and genre of the film is drama. And I saw in the beginning, that “Witch Hunters” based upon the book with very different title. Don’t you think that naming the movie in such a way is not being honest with the viewers?
Here’s the thing. We use the book just a sort of basis for the characters and then we built everything around this. What we wanted to do is actually to address two issues that are very difficult for Serbia as a country. One is the problem with people with disability and another one is divorce. Every year divorce becomes a better topic to converse about, but it is still – I can’t say taboo, but it’s not talked about a lot.
Especially in the movie for children.
Exactly. So what we tried to do – is to balance subjects that are tough with visuals and formats that are more in light of a children’s movie. So we tried to build an adventurous format with couple of superhero scenes, whole mixed up with the witch, but then through this tried to put as many subjects, not a lot of people want to talk about, into the film. Because I think it’s a good way to start a conversation to your audience, especially if you go to the cinema, and after the movie your kid is going to ask you like: “Mom, why does Jovan walk like that?” You have to address this problem at the young age, which I think is very important, because Mihajlo, who plays Jovan, does have cerebral palsy. And he is an amazing kid, he’s very intelligent and very brave. He has this insane charisma. But just because he can’t walk like everyone else, he gets treated much differently, so he even doesn’t get a chance. That’s what we are trying to do – to get the people to acknowledge, that kids and adults with this kind of disability are the part of the community, they can do something brave.
“Mihajlo, who played Jovan, had the problems with the other kids, he was teased a lot, but since we released the trailer in Serbia – he became a school superstar”
If you started to talk about the protagonist and cerebral palsy he has... We see in the movie that Jovan regularly attends therapy sessions in a modern medical center, he goes to common school… Is it how the things are with disabled people in Serbia?
It’s true. Mihajlo like Jovan has therapy. When he was a kid, he went to Suhobenska – clinic, where we filmed. His parents have good jobs, and now he gets therapy at home with a private therapist. Mihajlo goes to the normal school as well. Now he’s a sixth grader, he has pretty good grades. He had the problems with the other kids, he was teased a lot, but since we released the trailer in Serbia – he became a school superstar. It’s pretty different situation for him. He has got an award for the best kid actor in an European movie at Zlyn International Film Festival, I think it’s gonna be the big thing for his self-confidence.
Are you having high hopes getting an award in Molodist Film Festival?
I don’t know what’s gonna happen. I think the best award so far is Young Jury Award at TIFF – Toronto International Film Festival for Kids. For us it was a moral boost, because it was our first festival and first screening ever – and we got an award! In the end of May we were in Zlyn, Czech Republic, and there were 500 kids in the theatre hall, cheering on every superhero scene, and then we had an amazing Q&A’s with them. I think the audience responds quite well to it. We still have to see how it’s gonna be back home, we plan to release in September.
Leading characters in “Witch Hunters” do quite a lot silly or even crazy things. Do you remember, what the craziest thing you have done, when you were a teenager?
I had some pretty crazy shenanigans… But off the top of my head, I know, I was a demon child. I remember my mom told me years later. When we were going to visit some friends of hers, they would all take porcelain and glasses and hide it somewhere in the apartment. Because I was just running around and break things. When I was a teenager, I guess… Maybe it is sad in retrospect, but I remember I was only ten or eleven, my dad came to visit my mom and I asked him, “Why don’t you sleep here?” He didn’t want to answer, you know. And I went to my room and pushed my bed to the living room and told him, that now he had a place to stay. It’s a bit weird, you know, but you don’t think about it as a kid. And that I think a very special quality about kids. It’s a special quality, that leading characters in “Witch Hunters” have in their relationships. Milica doesn’t care, that Jovan has a problem with walking, she doesn’t give a crap about that. She cares what kind of person he is. And if you find a friend like that (and I had a couple of such friends in my youth), it’s really something truthful, something that really matters in life.
Did you look for a young actor with cerebral palsy for Jovan from the very beginning, or you thought about finding a boy, who would perfectly play a disabled kid? Cause it’s a biggest mystery of the first minutes of the movie – is the leading actor really has palsy, or it’s just a talented play.
We discussed it with my producer and decided to look for kid actors and try to work with them on this disability. But before we could do this, we had to go to experts, so we could learn more about this condition. I spoke with a very-very sweet doctor from Serbia, who was the Head of National Institute for Helping Children with Cerebral Palsy, and at the first meeting she asked me, “How many hours did you spend with children with cerebral palsy?” I answered, “I don’t know. Two or three days”. She said, “No. You’re gonna come here the next couple of weeks and meet these kids. And you’re gonna see that these kids actually have much greater potential, that everyone else gives them for.” So I spent some time in Suhobenska, and that’s where I really got to know these kids, and I’d got a sort of snap in my mind. According to the script the character does have cerebral palsy, why not give a chance to one of these kids. So I talked with my producer and her first thought was “No, no. No way”. But like four hours later she called me and said, “Okay. We can try. But if we don’t find the right boy, you have to promise you’d give up this idea”. I agreed. The casting process took us nine months – it’s like having a baby. We called all the schools from all over Serbia, then we drive in a car to the kids’ houses to meet them and ask, “Do you like movies? Do you want to play in the movie?” Finally we found about 20 boys this age, who had natural charisma to do acting.
Actually, the silliest thing is how I found Mihajlo. One weekend I went to my mother’s place to help her with some gardening. Her neighbor saw me and said, “Oh, I haven’t seen you for a long time. Come have a beer with me”. And while talking to him I told him, that I was in process of doing a film and looking for a boy actor. It appeared he had a friend, whose son had a cerebral palsy. So next week I came to meet that family. Boy’s dad told me, “Listen, I didn’t tell Mihajlo, that you are a filmmaker, because I don’t want his hopes up, if you don’t choose him”. So when Mihajlo came into the room, his dad introduced me as his friend. The boy just said “Hi” and walked away. But he looked very sympathetic, with a cool smile. I said to his dad, “I don’t know. I like how he looks. He is obviously not open now, but it would be great to have him at a casting”. So two months later we’re doing the casting, and Mihajlo comes. But this time he was told what it’s for. Boom! -The door opens: “Hi, everyone! My name is Mihajlo. How are you doing?” – a completely different person with this amazing charisma! And I looked over to my producer and she just kept smiling. The minute he walked in we understood that we found Jovan!
Simultaneously we were doing casting for girls – 600 little girls came to this casting. And we were looking for, you know, a little bit tough kid, a tomboy. Most of these girls were like princesses. So I picked 10 girls and we did like a photosession together with Mihajlo. It’s a very simple thing, but every time we were taking pictures with two of them, every girl just stood next to Mihajlo. Silma was the only one, who hugged him. You know, from then they really became friends, so it was really easy to work with them. Sometimes it was hard, because they were so close, they had like a bond of their own, so you had to negotiate with both of them. It was really easy to work with them, because when you’re directing kids, you have to treat them like they are your own age. So we’re not that different ages.
And how did it happen? You made them feel like adults or you became a teenager again?
You know, we meet middle way. I didn’t want to go down, because it’s patronizing for them. We spent four months before shooting the movie just going through the emotions the characters feel in the scenes and why they feel it. Because if they can relate to these emotions and know the reason why the character feels that way, they can play it. If they don’t – there is no way they’re gonna play it, because they don’t know what you want from them. So this is very important, you have to explain, everyone has to be on the same page and then it’s not gonna be a problem, shooting is gonna be fun, you know. And this is what we did. Mihajlo is a 40-year old man in a 13-year old boy’s body. He is very-very mature, Silma as well. So I didn’t have to go down – they went up. And there was pleasure working with them.
“After we got an award on TIFF Kids, millions of festivals called and asked for screeners”
We talk much about kids’ characters, but I want to ask about adults. Did you deliberately leave adult characters like in the shade? Didn’t you have in mind, for example, to deepen a conflict between Jovan’s parents? During the film there were some hints, that everything’s not so perfect in their family, as it may seem.
Basically I think that 90% of the movie is kids, they are always in the shots. It’s definitely their story. But what we wanted to do is make these small satellite emotional stories that will be happening around their journey. That’s why we can see the tension between Jovan’s parents, but I didn’t want to really accent this. You see that even though they seem like perfect parents, you know, they are happy, they obviously well-situated, but… this is very true. 95% of people, who have a child with disability, are gonna get a divorce. No matter what their financial status is or how much they love each other – it’s a strain on the marriage. I didn’t want to overburden the audience with this. I think focusing more on these drama aspects would make it less of a children film and more of an East European drama. But I think it’s very truthful, it’s very important to be inside. It was more of a question how these things that usually happen behind the closed doors in the kids’ lives, parents try to avoid fighting in front of you, but you always know about it, you can feel the tension. So how this affects the characters. How it affects Jovan, whose parents are obviously a lot more careful, and how it affects Milica, whose parents are in the situation, they don’t care about being careful anymore. I experienced both of these situations and I think it’s important to have them in the movie that deals with these subjects.
What is the general situation with cinematography in Serbia, especially with the family movies? I tried to remember what family movies from Serbia I know, and only amazing “Agi & Emma” had come to my mind.
Movies for children or family movies are extremely rare in Serbia. We have no idea, why we got the funding, because the time we got the funding, every year 4 or 5 movies gets funding – it was 5 debutants. It was decision by the Film Centre of Serbia, ”Okay, let’s give kids the chance and see what they gonna do”. But for us it was a big plus. Because you don’t have many children films, so you have a lot of room, where you can grow, and for marketing, and for potential distribution and everything. It’s like an added bonus on this whole situation. But I feel that current situation for cinematography in Serbia is getting better every year. It’s not so impossible to get funding, but what is impossible – you always get a very low amount of money, so you have to think of the way to do it cheaper. And co-productions are very tricky for Serbia. Because, for instance, you want a German co-production. You can get 100 000 euros from them, but you have to sign a contract, that you’ll spend 120 % of what you got in Germany. So I need to spend 120 000 in Germany, but German filmmakers are four times as expensive a Serbian filmmakers. You know, that’s not a good idea. If you need to film something in Germany – then yes, of course, you’re gonna do it. But it’s very hard. At least I know my producer was struggling a lot, but we got a co-production with Macedonia. The actress, who plays the witch, Elena Jovanova, is Macedonian; she is pleasure to work with. Our sound guys were both from Macedonia. For us it was easy, because we basically speak the same language. I think it’s becoming better, I think there more capital and I think there’s more need for films in Serbia. Who knows, what happens, when we release, if kids a hungry for a movie. But I know since we’ve done this movie, two more children film projects got funding. So I think we’re starting to revitalize the situation for a children cinema in Serbia.
Except release in Serbia, are there any plans for distribution to other countries or only festivals?
We have sales agent from Germany, “Pluto Films”, and they’re doing a great job. Because after we got an award on TIFF Kids, millions of festivals called and asked for screeners. I’m not sure, how much I can tell you without my producer killing me, but I know that we have distribution deals already. As for the local distribution, we’ve already signed a contract with our national television, so it will be starting to show in the middle of the next year. I know it’s getting dubbed in a couple of languages, which is very exciting. I’m afraid it’s all I can tell you on record.
In the beginning I asked you about importance and meaningfulness of a debut film. But after the first successful movie…
…so far successful, there comes a question about the second movie. Have you got any plans on what will you shoot next, or at first you want to finish with all the festival screenings and distribution of “Witch Hunters”?
The plan is to try to grow with my movies, so the next one will be a teenage movie. I always wanted to make a teenage movie. It’s actually about the relationship between younger and older brothers, 16 and 20 years old respectively. They’re going from Belgrade to Zagreb for the first time alone, they want to visit the concert of their favorite band. And I also want to address a problem of the differences and national hatred between Serbia and Croatia. It’s very special subject for my generation, and for me personally, because my father is from Croatia and my mother is from Serbia. So I don’t really where I belong. But I’ve been to Zagreb millions of times, and I have a lot of friends there, and my personal feeling is that people my age don’t care much about the war we had, they want to be friends. But political situation is like “Let us not forget, what we’ve done to each other”. I want to address this thing in my next film, but again like with the parents in “Witch Hunters”, this will be something that’s happening around the main story, which is about the relationships between brothers.
Foto – Molodist IFF official facebook page, Filmski Centar Srbije www.fcs.rs