The results are impressive. Three hundred films have been produced during these ten years. One hundred of them are short documentaries, two hundred fiction. Tue Steen Müller talked with the Popovics at the school in Belgrade.
The name, Kvadrat, derives from the Serbian word for frame. There is an official appendix to the name – the Centre for Visual Communication – but that is also the only official feature about this place that for a decade has been the second home to young people making their way into filmmaking. And Life. When I visited Kvadrat in December 2000 and again in April 2001, it was a natural consequence of the familiarity of the place that a dog and several cats occasionally entered the editing room from the porch – as did young students and filmmakers who came to work with the Popovics. This is the story about a place where filmmaking has made daily life tolerable for young people isolated from the rest of the world.
Zoran Popovic: We wanted to give a simple name to our film school. We wanted to keep it small and operational almost as if it was a film crew. When we started, the idea was just to provide an opportunity for young people to learn about films and to watch other films than American Hollywood productions. You can only learn filmmaking through filmmaking. You have to produce something to learn filmmaking. That is why we connected the workshop idea to the school and focused on the production dimension.
Svetlana Popovic: We wanted to make Kvadrat into something absolutely informal. In the beginning of the 1990s, our social structure was always insisting on things to be formal. If you wanted to learn and become a good citizen you had to go to a traditional school and get your diploma.
ZP: When we started the school there was only the state faculty of the dramatic arts. Now there are other film schools that have inherited the old approach where you have to choose from the very beginning if you want to be a director, a cameraman, a producer or an editor. That is where we differ, as we don’t expect the area of specialization to be chosen from the very beginning. We want them to try out what filmmaking is about in general and then decide.
TSM: How long are they here?
ZP: We have three different levels and you don’t have to go further than the first or second if you don’t want to. After three levels we still work with them, even if they attend other schools or go abroad. Basically the study programme lasts for two and a half to three years.
The first basic level (four months) is about how to make a long feature. We teach all the basic elements of production, direction, camera work, scriptwriting and editing. At the second level (six to seven months) we deal first of all with direction and working with actors.
At this stage we introduce the documentary, which may seem easier but is much more difficult. We made our first documentary workshop in 1994, and we made it exclusively with students who had passed the second level. In documentary filmmaking you have to deal more with visual problems than in fiction, because reality gives you only an impression of the events. The reality has to be created through images of the world – which requires a high level of visual thinking.
The first documentary workshop was held outside Belgrade from 1994 to 1997 and was funded by the Open Society Fund (Soros). We wanted to give the students an idea of the documentary by letting them meet and understand a life that was new for them. Most of them had never been outside the capital.
At the third level (seven to twelve months), we again deal with the visual elements. After each level they have to complete a film.
TSM: How many students do you work with?
SP: We deal with five to seven students in a group and usually we have two or three groups on the first level, two groups on the second and one on the third level with four or five students. The students themselves decide whether they want to continue, but of course we encourage anyone with obvious talent. They pay to come here, but not all the costs, and we are still partly funded through the Open Society. The school is open every day including weekends. Most of the students are studying something else as well, and they are sixteen years old and above. The average age is around twenty.
ZP: In 1991-92, we discovered that the interest from the young people was so great that we could make our small workshop into a permanent school. Our most important objective was to give them the possibilities that we did not have when we were studying at the state university – the only place at that time where you could learn something about film. Our aim was that they should learn something different – alternative filmmaking was one thing, the model of a production workshop another and the idea of making collective work a third, maybe the most important. The specialized film schools tend to create lonely individuals. Enabling groups to function is an integral part of filmmaking.
SP: The overall thinking is very important. We are a very small society and we are very poor so you have to help the youngsters develop something else, something different. We tried to make this little place into a kind of shelter. We felt that we had to help them express what they feel and think about things that are not necessarily about war. That is why many of them have made films that are very important and essential from a personal point of view. Everything else was so cruel and depressing. Some of the films were very well accepted and gave them an opportunity, even during the NATO bombing, to travel to other countries, show their films and see films by colleagues.
Showing films here has a double meaning because it is not only connected to the ambition of young people to communicate through the making of films. Making films here is a way to survive for young people. Our school started at the beginning of the crisis in this country, and we shared with those young people the experience of war, crisis, sanctions and bombardments.
ZP: During these past ten years there were three ways of surviving. One was to live by sleeping till noon or even longer, another to live through the night, the third to live through filmmaking!
TSM: How do the films get out to the audience?
ZP: We want to give them the possibility of facing the public. Whenever the films are done, we make a special screening in a small theatre open to the public. Usually it is very crowded. Through these screenings we give them a chance to see how their films really work in front of an audience.
Many of our films have attended festivals abroad and won prizes, and sometimes we have had to encourage students to send their films to foreign festivals, because they don’t really believe in themselves and their work.
Zoran and Svetlana Popovic attended the EDN Pitching Forum in Thessaloniki, Greece in March earlier this year. They pitched a project that received a lot of positive international response. The project has a kind of ”Seven Up” appeal as they want to describe what has happened with young people during a period of fifteen years. The couple filmed young people in 1985 and in 1990 and now they want to go back and see what has happened to them and their lives, since Yugoslavia does not exist any longer, after Milosevic. This project is their own, but right now they are more preoccupied with a film that Kvadrat is doing under the title Belgrade Sound.
What is that about?
ZP: During the summer we made a documentary workshop in Belgrade with some of our older students. The project that came out of this workshop is the one that we are currently editing. It is a collective work about the spirit of Belgrade during those past ten years of crisis. You have to know that the Belgrade spirit was always cosmopolitan. Belgrade has always been preoccupied with absorbing elements from other cultures and has preserved this ability even during these cruel times. We want to capture the search for identity through music performed by people who are in a way separated from the world – but through the music they participate anyway. So in the film you will see and hear people who are connected to Irish, Reggae, South American, African and other kinds of music. It is of course also about politics. Some years ago we made the film Concerto Politico that reflects how people took to the streets to fight the regime with drums and whistles. Music has a political meaning.
Adriana Stojkovic is one of the talented filmmakers who attended the Kvadrat school. She has won international prizes for the film Home and also takes part in the “Belgrade Sound film”. When asked whether Kvadrat has been important for her in her film life, she sends a warm smile to the Popovics and says, ”They taught me about life.”