Interview met Dalibor Matanić
You lived through the three decades depicted in the film – how did this affect the way you approached it?
The main trigger for this film was something my late grandmother used to say when we talked about girlfriends: “…as long as she isn’t one of them…” She meant that I should avoid Serbian girls. My grandmother always gave me unconditional love and support, so I was rather confused by her attitude. I have personally witnessed national, religious, political and social intolerance, which is deeply engrained in many generations, and has caused so much misery and pain over the years. I wanted to see whether it was possible to place love above everything else in an environment like that, whether it was possible to plunge into the purest, most essential human state. In other words, I wanted to deal in a cinematic way with that chilling statement uttered by someone so close to me.
What prompted you to tell this particular story – and what prompted you to tell it now?
The issue of inter-ethnic hatred will never cease to be topical. Five or six years ago, when I started this project, the social environ- ment was calmer. Sadly for us, and luckily for the topicality of this film, hatred is something we witness almost daily, not only in the Balkan region but also everywhere. If it is not hatred for another nation, then it is hatred for another religion, or a different political strategy, a different sexual orientation, a neighbour with a better car, and so on. There are many reasons for intolerance, because it is much easier to express a negative feeling than a noble one, such as love or compassion. I want to bring those who hate face to face with this film; because this film expresses my attitude towards the world, and my conscience is clear. I want them to take a look at themselves in this cinematic mirror and ask themselves if they are really so happy to be caught up in hate for someone – anyone.
Did you research inter-ethnic tension for the script? Or was it a more personal dialogue between you and your own experiences?
Several marriages in my family were inter-ethnic, and they broke up partly because of it. I always notice things around me, sometimes unintentionally, but they always find a way to get under my skin. One can accidentally witness other people’s unhappiness, and see how it is rooted in mass conformism, or human weakness which makes people live like sheep, safe within their own flock, unwilling to lift their heads and rise above their everyday existence. Having observed the world around me, I tend to analyze both the noblest and the basest human urges and I tend to tackle painful topics.
The same actors play the three couples – Ivan and Jelena, Nataša and Ante, and Luka and Marija. How did your actors respond to these three very different stories?
It was a challenge for them, naturally, and they were great: hard-working, brave and open-minded – very willing to explore. We searched for subtle differences between the characters, while at the same time underlining the idea, through their identical faces, that our three different couples all share one love. I adore working with actors and I always try to give them ever more difficult tasks, knowing that, no matter how hard those tasks can be, they always enjoy such a process.
You also use the same actors to play the supporting characters in each story.
Many elements in this film are meant to function on a subconscious level, from repeated visual motifs, to the use of the same actors and locations, so that the historical moment can be seen, not as part of a linear story but as part of a recurring cycle. The world keeps changing but every now and then the ghosts from the past can surprise us nastily, just when we have started to believe we are living in a modern, progressive time. The supporting actors were also aware that, in following three couples across three different decades, we are actually following one energy; one romantic urge that challenges itself and tries to raise itself above history.
Filming the recent past is notoriously difficult – harder in some ways than shooting a film set in the 19th century. What practical challenges did you face?
We were fully aware of the problems that can arise when you want to recreate three not so distant decades, but the location we chose for filming was ideal, since it somehow got stuck in time. You cannot clearly define the years there, you have a feeling you are in the present day, but there is a certain dormant quality in the air, which gives you the impression that you are also in the past. Aside from the ruined factories, deserted pastures, empty houses and above all the absence of people, what shocked me most were the places that still look exactly the same as they looked during the Homeland War. And sadly, you can still smell the intolerance in the air. You can still feel the human tragedies woven into the empty facades. We knew immediately that we had brought the camera to the right spot.
How did the natural landscape influence the film?
The sentence I repeated most during filming was “Enjoy yourselves!” I think it is a true blessing to take the camera into the natural world, to feel its primeval, unsullied rhythm – it is such a powerful contrast to the frenetic pace of modern life. Asking questions about whether love can overcome every obstacle, we went deep into an unspoiled environment, found our inner tempo with the camera and plunged into characters and images. With its defiant, raw beauty and tranquillity, nature itself influenced our photography to a great extent, particularly when we filmed people. Surrounded by centuries-old splendour, we delved into characters, searching for their inner beauty. When you are waiting for the sun to rise above a magnificent mountain at five in the morning, you have enough time to ask yourself what else you can do in your life to make everything and everyone around you happier and more optimistic.
The Irish writer James Joyce once said: “History is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake”. Do you agree?
Joyce spent a part of his life in Croatia. Maybe that statement was partly motivated by his Croatian experience (laughter). I always say that film is not only an entertainment, as some would want; it is also a powerful tool. We just have to raise our standards and question the times we are living in. Having realized that so much misery comes from the past, I have decided to take a stand against it as a filmmaker. Every time an echo from the past stops our young couple, we stop our film and give a new chance to a new couple at another point in time. Art enriches the present day in the same way it enriched the past, and it has to be brave and defiant, and stand against worldly and material ways of viewing life. At the end of the day, there are no nations, no politics, and no material wealth, but just the highest human principles. Love is one of them.
How do you think the film will be received in Croatia, and in the Balkan region?
All those who have let their lives be dominated by intolerance and evil will hate this film, but they will have to face it. That confrontation is exactly what I wanted. And while they are looking at themselves in this cinematic mirror, let them remember every second they have wasted, sending negative energy out into the world. I think it will be very interesting. Unfortunately, intolerance doesn’t go away, which makes this film inevitably topical. However, deep down inside I feel optimistic about the humaneness hidden deep inside the majority of people, and I think that those who are capable of love will love this film. And finally, where do you go from here? The High Sun is just the first part of “The Sun Trilogy”. My next project, The Dawn, will question the strength of emotional bonds on one side, and greed as one of the oldest and basest human urges, on the other.