It is hard to tell what Petra Seliškar’s documentary on the Slovenian poet Ježek is really about, but that might be the whole point.
Nothing in the narrative or the narrating tools guides the spectator through My World Is Upside Down. You kind of get the drift: The documentary centers around the work as well as the interpretations and self-interpretations of Frane Milčinski – popularly known as Ježek – a Slovenian poet, satirist and writer active in the mid 20th century. It is, however, a guessing game, especially if you are not familiar with Ježek beforehand. It seems that either the director Petra Seliškar knows more about Ježek than she remembers to convey, or that Ježek is the kind of person you never get to know much about. His work becomes what defines him, or rather what clouds the person behind it.
«His work becomes what defines him, or rather what clouds the person behind it.»
See through walls
With a jesting and slightly unsettling expression in his eyes, Ježek looks straight at the audience in the opening scene while speaking about his predilection to see through walls. The «human anthills» behind the walls are fascinating, he confides, but adds: «Sometimes I get scared (…) I see incredibly thin walls separating happiness and pain, good and evil, life and death. I get frightened for you folks.»
Ježek’s furrowed, folded face then cracks open in a smile: «But I so enjoy looking through walls.»
The structure of the film is held together by bits and pieces of Ježek’s performances – more specifically footage from his staged performances and from what seems to be interviews conducted in his home in the 1980s, in which he speaks of his work (and life), but in a way that is as performed as the interventions on stage. These Ježek moments are mixed with archival footage of skinny laboring people – laboring in the fields, in the trash – and of people waiting in lines outside bureaucrat offices or peeking through fences surrounding construction sites.
Perhaps the film is more about what Ježek saw when he looked through walls and less about what Ježek himself might have looked like if someone had looked through his wall. In the interview pieces he tells a few things about himself – carefully staged stories, though – for instance about how he spend his youth vagabonding through the holidays with a guitar. Such «poor artist» stories obscure the fact that some can chose this lifestyle while others cannot escape it, and yet others can rarely enjoy the freedoms of a «vagabond – king of the world» (as Ježek wrote on his guitar), but have to settle with the toils.
Through most of the film the latter, namely women, appear only among the nameless masses in the archival footage. Ježek’s fictional heroes are always boys and men (or Man), and the first several of the present day musicians/bands reinterpreting Ježek’s music and lyrics in the documentary are men – one of them with a women choir in the most traditional sense: passive, dismissive, in the background, repeating the words of the male lead singer.
Halfway through the documentary a scene incarnates this very precisely: Ježek is walking out of an empty theater singing something profound about happiness not being the fulfillment of desire, but rather a form of desire, and in the background a cleaning lady sweeps up the remains of the spectacle.
«Through most of the film the latter, namely women, appear only among the nameless masses in the archival footage.»
The table turns surprisingly, however, when Josipa Lisac sings «Prisoner’s Ode to the Bedbug». Following her comes a range of women singers interpreting Ježek’s works. One of the most memorable of these is the Bernays Propaganda version of «Darwin nima prav» (Darwin is wrong), which is also one of the most outspokenly political Ježek lyrics presented in My World Is Upside Down:
«No, no no no no no no no no, Darwin had it wrong […] Man is not one, there are two kinds of Man […] the first is in debts, the other has gold, honor and power […] no no no no no / Darwin was wrong!» The film cuts from Bernays Propaganda back to Ježek’s clown performance of this piece, and he says: «But here is the question; when will Darwin get it right?»
An ordinary clown
Ježek claims he never had «artistic ambitions» and that he is no artist. «I am just a kind of utility service, something available for people’s daily use […] an ordinary clown for ordinary people,» as he phrases it.
When the works of this ordinary clown – who witnessed the horrors of the 20th century, including spent time in Gonars concentration camp – is re-interpreted by 21st century indie rock men seemingly deprived of self-irony, the words about ordinary concerns that Ježek’s performances make float in the air drop flat to the ground. The documentary seeks to show how the legacy of Ježek lives on, but unwittingly also shows how it cannot in an age of self-absorbed sincerity. There are always cracks of course, even in the 21st century, and in My World Is Upside Down these cracks are opened through the accordion of Kimmo Pohjonen and the post punk rage of Bernays Propaganda.
«The documentary seeks to show how the legacy of Ježek lives on, but unwittingly also shows how it cannot in an age of self-absorbed sincerity.»
In the beginning of the film Ježek articulates how his repertoire «occurs» and speaks of the «hours and days of useless thinking and sleepless nights […] endless sleepless nights,» and then summarizes: «Yes, sometimes it’s hard, very hard,» followed by: «And sometimes it’s very easy.» No more, no less. That could be one of the boldest pursuits of a film that is not really about anything in particular: Claiming a space for useless thinking and sleepless nights, until that moment arrives in which a tiny spark suddenly produce something. Or as Ježek puts it: «As if two thoughts met and waved at each other».