Interview: Ivana Mladenovic about “Ivana the terrible”

19 September, 2019

Ivana Mladenović returned this year to Locarno Film Festival in Cineasti del presente competition with Ivana the Terrible, her second feature film, three years after she played the role of Solange, the protagonist of Scarred Hearts, Max Blecher’s novel adapted to screen by Radu Jude.

I met with Ivana on a terrace with a view of Piazza Grande, the iconic Renaissance square that hosts outdoor screenings for almost 8,000 people every night. Keeping the aesthetics adopted in Soldiers. Story from Ferentari, the Serbian-born director reconstructs with humor and self-irony a life experience by inviting family and friends to interpret themselves. The adopted perspective is far from a confession since the protagonist/director avoids addressing the first person and shows interest in the duality generated by such a structure. The Friendship Bridge separates hometown Kladovo from Drobeta Turnu Severin, and implicitly an Ivana of expectations from the authentic ones. The film develops progressive ideas such as women emancipation and the right of refusing to perform in order to like or indulge, amid the character’s emotional turmoil.

The film is inspired by personal events. How was it to relive those moments while developing your film?

In a way it was therapeutic, only it happened in several steps. The first one was when things did happen for real, although you can’t really figure out what’s real and what seems real from your point of view. As Andrei says in the car: “Whenever you want to talk about your family, you have to realize that you are talking about your family from your point of view, as you perceive it, not as it actually is” – so this whole story has passed through my filter, and my point of view on what happened, once written, has begun to change. I realized that some things are strange, that in fact every person first seeks medical attention when something is wrong with him. Rehearsals were another step: although the characters didn’t reach from the beginning that level of emotion I considered to be genuine, I managed to get it while shooting.

You mention in credits that the director “was directed by”. To what extent have you left yourself directed?

When I went to Kladovo, I asked Andrei Rus and Ana Szel to come as well. She had already made a film with her family, The Belly of the Whale (dir. Ana Szel and Ana Lungu), presented at Locarno in the same section ten years ago; an autobiographical film of a similar concept where herself, her daughter, family and friends are playing themselves. I’ve left myself directed by them because I personally couldn’t do it … Andrei and Ana are my long time friends, they know me with good and bad, and I was confident they would do their best to show it in the film. In writing it’s quite easy to present the “negative” things – but while shooting, you tend to hide, you want to make the character much better than it really is.

Just like Ivana the Terrible, your debut film Soldiers. Story from Ferentari, is also a self-fictionalization, a personal experience adapted into a film – Adi Schiop’s book. What was the most difficult thing for you in this process, was it difficult to reveal yourself?

Just like Soldiers, this film also doesn’t fully reflect reality. I decided to continue with Adi because I enjoy working with him. He is more cynical and the way he relates to reality is much more interesting and funny. I didn’t want a serious movie. The process was strange because at one point, while rewriting the things that happened, they started to get further away from reality and even if it’s a personal experience, you no longer feel it’s about you. By reliving them several times (reality, writing, rehearsals, and shootings), things get easier and make you evolve or change. But in the end you realize who you were. From this perspective, I find what I did to my character quite funny. The hardest part was getting my family and friends involved in this experiment.

Working with your own family can sometimes be a challenge. Did they contribute in any way to the creative development of the project?

Not really, they did what they were told to do. They laughed a few times, they thought everyone would make fun of us. But then it seemed they didn’t care anymore. They were very shy at first, especially dad, but over time they got into a big competition – which one is better on acting. I also had to deal with this situation where they didn’t understand the seriousness of the project. They took it as a hobby, and this mostly affected the shooting order of the scenes. We had pretty expensive equipment and they didn’t understand why they had to shoot at a certain time, in a certain order. At one point my dad disappeared and I had to look for him for three hours. Or, when they saw they had few lines, they thought rehearsal wasn’t necessary, but then they became ashamed and felt stupid for failing.

Choosing non-professional actors, was it conditioned by the nature of the project?

It’s an option I also proposed for Soldiers, only that here I went a little further with this concept. In Soldiers only Adi, the writer of the book, plays his own self. Here almost all people play as actors. What would it have been like if I was playing my own self and my family was made up of actors? Although there are many quarrels in the script, I needed to bring out the warmth and love that exists between us, without writing sequences to show just that. It seemed like there were more chances for things to happen naturally and look believable if there was a real family involved.

You mentioned the truth and yet we talk about fiction.

Adi (Schiop) says this was one of the most frequently asked questions about the book: how much is truth and how much is fiction. People are especially curious about this, but I think the moment you turn on the camera it becomes fiction, even though most things have actually happened in the past. Here people repeat their own lines for months and learn them by heart.

It went on a track I didn’t think of. From the beginning, I thought of it as a fiction film, but we received requests from documentary film festivals, too.

Ivana tries to hide the relationship with the younger boy and at the same time she presents herself to the family and the community as a progressive person, without confidence issues. Then she criticizes her grandmother for being religious, even though she herself wears a cross around her neck. What do you say about these minor inconsistencies of the character?

I think there are many details of this kind I still have to rediscover about myself. I often feel that I am just as my grandmother, though it’s her I argue with most of the times. The film explores this struggle between what you were or what your parents and grandparents created for you and your desire to change, this resistance of not becoming like them. And this is exactly the thing that creates the humor and paradox of this character – which is why I have put her in all these conflict situations – because she would very much like to be open, but it’s harder to take responsibility, it’s easier for her to criticize when she is not accepted. I think it’s rather an image painted by the others, she is invited by the town hall to be the citizen of honor, the model, when the question is how much does she really deserve it?

What made you introduce this idea of friendship between nations when such initiatives are considered demagogical?

We thought crossing from one country to another, and how Ivana changes in relation to the two, is important. One thing the two countries have in common is that both citizens want to emigrate. In my case, I didn’t go very far, just crossed the Danube and got to a country that is very similar to Serbia. But, indeed, I think that between Serbia and Romania there is a pretty great friendship, especially in Kladovo, where people practically make a living on tourism. During Ceausescu’s time we got medicine for Romanians even though it was illegal, it’s a historical collaboration. Maybe there is a bit of irony when you watch archive footage from the inauguration of the Iron Gates with dictators Tito and Ceausescu next to huge crowds of people, if you compare it with the present, with this small festival. But I really believe that people do care about the friendship between these two nations.

Moreover, your character is at the crisscross of the two cultures, but doesn’t fully belong to any of them.

Yes, I believe most people who leave their home country and go seek their happiness elsewhere, as my father said in a previous short film, go through the same thing. Everyone gets to a point when they’re in doubt, ask themselves if they have made the right decision and wish to go back. This kind of decisions lead to some inner changes. The questions Ivana asks, the nature of the conversations and the interactions are different when she is with her friends in Bucharest than when she is with her family. I didn’t find it necessary to bring out the contrast between the capital and the province visually, but rather show who Ivana has become through the dynamics between the characters.

In arguments, the camera focuses mostly on Ivana’s reaction and parents sometimes appear in the background. Then there are characters who are looking right into the camera …

Indeed, the choice of many visual options was dictated by the need of getting a good acting moment. Because it’s not an improvisation, they’ve learnt their lines and they aren’t always great. So often the style is influenced by their acting abilities. But the visual structure turned out like that because we didn’t want it to have a certain form anyway, we seek the truth through mistakes, to look as authentic as possible, as close to documentary. Just like in Soldiers. I think all these things bring more authenticity and give the impression that they are real people, and if they look right into the camera, that’s ok. I think that even in fiction you seek the truth, and in documentary you rather look for drama. Well, the two of them happened to run across each other in this film.

And in terms of mood board, what has inspired you? I felt there’s a bit of Nano Moretti’s style.

No, frankly, as visual inspiration there were some postcards from the 80’s that were sent between the two countries, it’s the same with the archive footage, as well as the credits which is taken from an archive propaganda film. There are many Romanian-Serbian co-productions from the time the Iron Gates were made. The idea was to present something from our parents’ times compared to what happens now. The only reference was that we wanted to get a similar humor to Milos Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball (1967), but the hardest part was handling the humor. I didn’t want to laugh at the people living in a provincial town, the humor had to have a certain limit. Not to laugh at them, but to laugh with them.

Interview taken at Locarno Film Festival, August 13, 2019.

Ivana the Terrible won the Special Prize of the Cine + Jury.

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