Ognjen Glavonić on “The Load”

Ognjen Glavonic by Anne Colliard

Ognjen Glavonić, writer/director of “The Load.” Photo by Anne Colliard.

There’s a scene early on in Serbian writer/director Ognjen Glavonić’s profoundly tense narrative feature debut, “The Load,” that is worthy of Hitchcock. A police car gradually appears in the side mirror of a truck driven by Vlada (Leon Lučev), who has been assigned to transport an unidentified load from Kosovo to Belgrade during the NATO bombings of 1999. For a moment, it seems as if Vlada will surely be pulled over, until the police car veers suddenly onto a separate road, just as it did in “Psycho.” This isn’t the only parallel between Hitchcock’s horror landmark and Glavonić’s masterful picture. Both films center on characters whose repressed guilt fuels their paranoia, as their narratives spiral off into unexpected directions, eventually leading to buried corpses wrapped in plastic. Serbian president Slobodan Milošević’s genocidal “cleansing” required the involvement of the police, military and numerous citizens—like Vlada—to aid in the concealing of its evidence. As Vlada befriends a young hitchhiker, Paja (Pavle Čemerikić), he begins to face the horrifying truth of his complicity in the sort of atrocities that his own father fought to prevent in WWII.

“The Load” is one of the best films I’ve seen thus far in 2019, and after awarding the film four stars at RogerEbert.com, I had the privilege of speaking at length with Glavonić via Skype about his personal connections to the material, the challenges he faced in making the film and the extraordinary relevance of this two-decade-old story in our modern era.

Your film brilliantly demonstrates the power of suggestion, conjuring potent imagery in the viewer’s mind by leaving it offscreen.

When I make films, I always think about who am I communicating with, and this sort of communication happens most effectively when you respect the other side—when you respect the audience’s imagination, emotion, curiosity and ability to finish the story. I respect their ability to understand, to research, to create their own images and to find something in themselves. I have no intention of treating viewers as if they were below me, and acting as if it were my job to judge them and teach them a lesson. I want to place myself in a position that is equal with that of the people watching my film. People have called my movies minimalistic, and I consider them reductional in a creative way that opens up a more active place for you, as a viewer. A film like “The Load” doesn’t have merely one theme or one meaning.

It’s not only about my idea for the movie, but the ideas that my movie awakens in viewers and what comes out of this communication. It’s not about the images I create, it’s about the images that you create through living with the film for an hour and a half. The images and the stories that you create last much longer because they sprang from your own feelings. When I try to remember the films that I saw fifteen years ago, I remember the feelings I had while watching them, and I remember how they worked on me. I don’t remember the story. I think the story dissolves and disappears in you, but you remember bits and pieces and images, and these are the things that linger and become a part of you. The story is only there as a backbone for these images and details. The story is the skeleton and everything else is the soul. It is there to hook you into becoming a part of the shared experience.

What particular directors left an impression on you during your formative years?

When I was growing up, I watched a lot of films when I was sick, from ages 11 to 15. I watched everything, but I was not interested in cinema that much. In high school, I got interested in music, and until I was 19, I was only interested in music. Like cinema, music is very suggestive and not dependent on narrative or length—at least the music I loved, which was mostly Atmospheric Black Metal. I listened to a lot of Scandinavian bands, and since I didn’t understand their language, their music invited me to use my imagination and dig deeper into myself. When the band that I had broke up, I realized that I couldn’t be dependent on other people to create my stuff. After finishing high school, I had no plans to make films and began studying law. I ended up not liking law, and that’s when I began watching more films. The first directors who influenced me were Kubrick and Lynch. Their films were the hook that led me to discover the work of people like Buñuel, Jarmusch, Malick, Bergman and Tarkovsky. I remember being really impacted by certain images of Robert De Niro in Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America.”

My generation was the first to have fast internet in Serbia, and I am from a town that didn’t have a cinema, aside from one that screened Hollywood films. Only through piracy was I able to watch the films that interested me. At that time, I didn’t have any friends or family who were making films, so I was really going through this discovery of cinema by myself, and I didn’t know how established the filmmakers were whose work I was experiencing. I considered them all underground figures. All art lies in suggestion that treats those who experience it as equals. It gives you space rather than spoon-feeds you, and that’s what I’m interested in. Schools try to destroy this idea by preparing you to be in a chain of production to earn money. For me, the most important director is Tarkovsky, in how he demonstrated that it’s possible for a film to have multiple meanings.

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Leon Lučev in Ognjen Glavonić’s “The Load.” Courtesy of Grasshopper Film.

How did “Depth Two” inform “The Load” and vice versa? The documentary’s final shot of a seed underground seems to foreshadow the motif of trees in your narrative feature.

“Depth Two” grew out of the research that I was doing for “The Load.” I had the idea for “The Load” since I was 24, when I was in my third year of university. That was when I first heard about the existence of these mass graves ten miles from my home, and for me, that was a shock. 750 bodies of civilians were buried, 75 of which were children younger than 16. I read the testimony of a driver who didn’t know that he was transporting corpses, and I found a twenty-page list of objects that were dug out of the mass graves, some of which are included in the film, such as the lollipop and marble. My initial idea for the film was that it would be about a driver who doesn’t know what he has been assigned to drive in his truck, and through these objects, he learns the truth. I spoke with my parents and professors, family and friends, trying to learn more about the crime, which turned out to be the elephant in the room. Nobody knew anything about it. I realized that this silence and lack of knowledge and curiosity is what my film should be about. It’s not about learning the truth but what you do with the truth when you learn it, and why you didn’t know it until now.

Nobody around you actually wants to know the truth. This mass grave near my home is a police base, and it is a place covered with lies. It was my intention to turn it into something that future generations could learn about. I wanted for us to learn about our history, particularly the generation of my parents, so this place became a very big fixation, and I researched it a lot. When I finished university in 2011, my friends and I founded a production company in order to produce “The Load.” At that time, there were no digressions in the script about kids or monuments or trees or the “old country” of Yugoslavia. Financing the film was a big problem because its subject is still taboo. For years, the commission and film center that finance films in Serbia were not giving us money, and I began thanking that the fiction film may never happen. All my films before “The Load” were shot with no more than a few thousand euros, but we knew that we needed a budget for this feature.

Even though the war is in the background, you still need pyrotechnics and special effects. It’s also a road movie, which requires a truck, fuel and hotel—shooting outside of your city is very expensive. On top of that, the film is a period piece set twenty years ago, so everything has to be different, including the billboards and the cars on the road. In the end, we shot “The Load” for $250,000, which is a low-budget, even for us. Though we were initially going to show the whole scope of this event—which lasted for months—in one character, after reading the hundreds of pages worth of testimonial transcripts, I found that there were so many individual stories that burned an image in my head, such as the one about the truck that was found in the river. Then I had the idea of making a film that could help us look for locations where this crime happened, enabling us—the cinematographer, the editor, the producer, the sound guy—to not only go location scouting for “The Load,” but learn everything about the story. I wanted everyone around me to know that they’re a part of something that’s true, and that is still considered a taboo to say out loud. This also helped me avoid getting into daily political quarrels, while losing energy in the process.

“Depth Two” contains footage of the locations juxtaposed with audio of the testimonies. My editor [Jelena Maksimovic] and I worked together for a year in shaping the film. Since we were working with 400 hours of testimonies, the first cut ran five hours. Then we decided to take out anyone who didn’t see the crimes with their own eyes. Everyone who you hear in the film actually smelled the corpses. The explanatory details contained in the documentary are what I decided to take out of my narrative script. “The Load” benefited from this approach because I’m not explaining or trying to prove anything in the film. Vlada listens only to what concerns his trip. He’s not going to listen to information just because the audience doesn’t know it. Then I began including information about myself, because when you spend seven years with a story that you’ve only heard about, rather than witnessed, you need to make it your own. “The Load” needed to have some of my own feelings, dreams and fears regarding the bombings. I was 14 years old when the bombings occurred, so I remember them very well.

All of the scenes with kids in the film that involve the fliers, the lighter, the punk music came from my own experiences. This film became less about the crimes as observed by this driver, and more about what they mean to the next generation. When I decided to include Yugoslavia and Vlada’s grandfather, that’s when the tree came in. I wanted to show this intergenerational transmission, the question of what remains and, through this tree, how much time you need for some things to be visible and in the open, so that they can finally be spoken about. You can’t say that the tree or the monument doesn’t exist any more than you can say this mass grave doesn’t exist. And yet, unfortunately, at this present moment, a majority of people in my country still say that these crimes didn’t happen. For me, the tree was connected to the monument, which connected to the mass grave, for which there is no monument.

In “Depth Two,” you see the real police base where the mass grave was found in tunnels that were previously used to grow mushrooms during WWII. That was what inspired me to end the documentary with footage of mushrooms and plants growing after the war, signifying the life that still grows after everything was destroyed, which gave me the idea for Vlada’s story about the tree that concludes “The Load.” When I put this tree at the end, I realized that Vlada’s journey must ultimately lead him to open up to his son, Ivan. Everything that he sees and does on the road has to open him up to all these memories of his own father, of his childhood, of his own ex-country that is now being destroyed and killed through this war, through this crime that he is enabling. It was a country built on anti-fascism, and we follow the character during the day when he realizes he is part of a f—king crime that is fascistic in nature. This realization is what causes him to open up to his son. Just as a tree consists of a root and branches, “The Load” centers on a main character, but has all these other stories of equal importance that branch off in separate directions. The film became this tree, in a way.

The lack of a score makes the songs performed by characters stand out all the more, with lyrics evocative of a Greek chorus, such as the woman at a wedding who sings of “dawn without a sun,” or the woman who escapes the police base, singing to herself about the absence of god.

“Depth Two” had zero music, but “The Load” was originally supposed to begin with one playing on the radio of the van. I had an idea of a shot that would be filmed by a drone at the top of the mountain, but it ended up being impossible on a technical level. I had many other songs from the 80s and 90s throughout the script, but I didn’t get the rights to them. This benefited the film because it allowed the sounds both inside and outside the truck to be heightened. It’s a strange film because it has elements of different genres—a road movie, a thriller, a mystery, even horror—and in knowing how I was going to compose shots, it was clear that a lot of crucial information would be conveyed to viewers through the sound. In most road movies, the director will use music from the radio to build suspense, tempo and rhythm, as well as keep the viewer entertained. I figured this wasn’t needed since we are spending time with a character who is not comfortable. My aim was to engage the audience’s imagination by creating tension through the withholding of information and music. When you create tension in this way, it is more honest, more primitive.

Looking back at older works of cinema from people like Hitchcock, they weren’t preoccupied with superficial elements that are of added value. They were figuring out how to engage with something in a way that is minimal and doesn’t require lots of money. For the songs that we used in the final cut, I wondered whether we should translate their lyrics, since they might seem too on-the-nose. The lyrics in the last song that Ivan plays are important, though it is also the only one that was recorded ten years after the period in which the film is set. The other songs were chosen because they are a part of the world that we are living in. The melancholy, nostalgic song performed by the woman at the wedding felt natural to me, since it’s the sort of music that would fit at the beginning of such an event, when guests are first arriving, rather than during the dancing and cheering that occurs through the next morning. The song sung by the woman who leaves the police base is by the most famous singer in our country, who was also the wife of a war criminal. People in Serbia know whose song that is, and for them, it has a different meaning. I think that song is very feminist in the right way. Whereas the rest of the film is dominated by men, this moment offers another perspective, another energy, while preparing us for what will follow.

Vlada cannot see that there is a hole in the fence of this police base, which is how the woman escapes, illustrating that there is a way out. You can speak, you can talk about it, you can do something with the truth. At the wedding, Vlada sees a man recording the wedding, and realizes that he is being captured on camera. When he has a drink before heading out, he leaves traces of himself behind in the form of fingerprints on the glass. This is perhaps what makes the film relevant to today. It is about the degree to which we are collaborators in the hell we are currently living in. In what way are you a collaborator with Trump? Are you collaborating with Bolsonaro? Are you enabling the destruction of earth in the next couple decades? Vlada is a collaborator—maybe he doesn’t know, but maybe he doesn’t want to know—and through all the film’s details, he sees the living traces, literal fingerprints, of the crime. Facing the truth of his role as a collaborator opens him up to the new generation, to his son, to becoming a cameraman and trying to make a change. All of these story levels are there for different reasons, and the biggest problem I had was figuring out how to make them communicate and correspond with each other, and then communicate with audiences in a way that is not obvious. This approach won’t work for audiences who come to the cinema to forget, to turn off and not to turn on.

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Pavle Čemerikić in Ognjen Glavonić’s “The Load.” Courtesy of Grasshopper Film.

Tatjana Krstevski’s cinematography is among the year’s very best. Take us through how you went about rethinking the film’s mesmerizing pre-title sequence, from the opening shots of the van and Vlada gradually being revealed (like the graves) through the window, to the choice of camera movement when the dog materializes.

Tatjana and I are both from Pančevo, a small town next to Belgrade, and we’ve known each other for a long time. She shot two of my student films as well as “Depth Two” and “The Load.” For two months prior to shooting “The Load,” we tried different lenses, and decided on two of them—one wider, one tighter—that we’d use for each scene, so I could choose the best take during the edit. I initially prepared a shot list that scheduled ten shots per day, and I quickly realized that it would be impossible, so ten shots became three shots. I realized I could capture the dog running past the window in one shot, since it would open the space. As the viewer’s eyes follow the dog, they will see the truck for the first time in the distance. Rather than use a drone for the opening scene, we decided to show it all in a wide shot, with CGI and smoke added in later. Something that you don’t learn in film school is the importance of shooting with two different lenses. If you shoot with a long lens, and something feels wrong, change the lens. For me, switching to a tighter lens would usually correct the problem, especially at the wedding. It was difficult to figure out how make the balloons in the background be present without having them stick out like a finger in your eye.

This film is about feelings rather than story, and I wanted the audience to feel as cramped as the characters in the truck. When Vlada is inside the cabin, we have to be there with him. We are not going to be shooting outside or through a window, and whenever the truck is moving, we are moving as well. I also wanted to shoot it with no additional lights, which is a problem when you are in a real truck, so we decided to make bigger windows for the car. We also used the window on top because it was never going to be seen, and we cut a hole through it so Tatjana could control how much light falls on Vlada’s face and hair. Leon luckily knew how to drive a truck, but because some shots are of him and Paja in profile, talking to one another, we found that we couldn’t shoot Paja from Vlada’s perspective, because then there wouldn’t be any room for the driver. So we built two identical trucks, one that worked and one that didn’t. We cut the cabin off the latter and placed it on the back of the former, and that was the only way we could shoot the camera angles that we needed of Paja.

Our biggest challenge was maintaining the feel of a single day over a thirty-day shoot. The first days we shot were foreboding, with a gloomy sky and fog, and by the time we wrapped filming, the trees had become green. We were shooting in March, and the second half of that month has a completely different atmosphere, so we had to shoot a lot of stuff only in the golden hour. We would prepare the shot for the whole day, and then shoot it in one hour. It was very stressful, and required us to keep the visual look of scenes consistent through color grading. I think it ultimately works because when Vlada arrives home at the end, it feels like spring, and you can see the sun. All the shots of Vlada inside the truck are static, whereas the shots of him outside were filmed over-the-shoulder.

I love how you linger on characters existing on the periphery of the narrative, whose vignettes rhyme in intriguing ways, with young thieves stumbling upon a relic of history, leading to an anarchic act of older kids outside the wedding, and culminating with a young man dreaming of forming a band, thus poignantly reflecting your own coming-of-age.

Yes, all the stuff that the kids are doing are what my friends and I did when we were kids, such as when Ivan and his friends burn the NATO fliers in that particular shape. The film explores how people rebel against something that is out of their reach—that is so much stronger and almost invisible. How do you fight it with a youthful, impotent rebellion? As kids, it helped us vent. It’s easier for Ivan to express his feelings because he and his peers aren’t comprised. They are not collaborating with the system because they don’t have to, so they are open in saying, “F—k you, I’m going the leave the country and I don’t care about the consequences,” even if it’s expressed merely by stealing a can of deodorant from the wedding. We rebelled by continuing to live our lives and not letting this war and this darkness influence us. We played football and dated girls and did stupid things like burning fliers. All of the film’s digressions are about these kids, except for the first one, which follows an older guy to his meeting with a woman in a café. In the script, they are identified as Paja’s parents. Originally, there was a scene where Paja opens his big bag and you see that it is filled with photographs that he subsequently burns. I cut that out of the film because I didn’t want its contents to be revealed.

This first digression prepares you for the others, and every one after that feels very natural. The camera stays on these kids, and you feel their surrounding world. I hate films that are very dependent on the narrative of the main character and treat the other characters as lesser beings, as if they are only there for the main character to dominate. This kind of narrative dependency is very nationalistic or fascistic to me, which is partly what influenced these digressions. You leave the main story and you follow people who have their own secrets, mysteries and problems that are separate from Vlada’s. Since people kept comparing the premise to “The Wages of Fear,” it was important for me to destroy these comparisons by loosening the tight plot of this genre film. In the end, it offered me a way to highlight this younger generation as well as the theme of what one generation leaves to another. What do these kids acquire after this war is over, after the break-up of the country, after all these crimes are hidden and all this unspoken hatred is left for them to inherit? They are going to end up dealing with the same problems because there is no communication, honesty or truth in how people relate to one another.

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Leon and Ivan Lučev in Ognjen Glavonić’s “The Load.” Courtesy of Grasshopper Film.

Was it important for you to cast a real-life father and son, Leon and Ivan Lučev, as Vlada and Ivan?

It was a happy accident. The actor who played Paja was originally cast as Vlada’s son, and I had another actor playing the hitchhiker. One month before the shooting of the film, the parents of the actor cast as Paja called me and said that they wouldn’t allow their son to be in the film because of its taboo subject matter. Switching Pavle Čemerikić from the role of the son to playing Paja was the best possible decision. When Leon started working on the film in 2013, his son was 12 years old, and by the time we began shooting the film, he was 15, and already seemed like a man, so I cast him. His name really is Ivan, and that’s why I named the character after him. I wasn’t thinking of Zivan, the subject of my first documentary, “Zivan Makes a Punk Festival.” As I was growing up with “The Load” over seven years, the world was changing, and I started to notice things happening that I’d already lived through. Our country was like the avant-garde of this nationalism, so I’ve lived with it all of my life. It started with intellectual, economical, religious, political elites, and they used it as a tool to protect their own positions of power and money and push everyone else into despair, hatred and ultimately war. It destroyed one country that was multicultural and multinational, and now we live in something that separates.

Every nationalism, every fascism, every populism ends in mass graves of “the other,” whomever they might be—Mexicans, Jews, etc.—and my film illustrates the end of this process. This is the finish line for any effort to separate us into “us and them.” “The Load” takes place after our country’s system of values has been broken, which is ironic considering that this country was created in a war against fascism where a million of our citizens died. Then, fifty years later, the sons of the fathers who gave their lives betray everything that the previous generation fought for. The story is a tragedy not only because of the actual crimes, but who committed these crimes. Yugoslavia was very important in my film because when you look at their anti-fascist response, it can give you some lessons on how to fight the fascists of today. When you see their monument, you realize that when these people get power in their hands, it requires a different form of communication, one that involves weapons. They are not going to speak your language because they don’t want to communicate like we are communicating now. We needed Vlada’s story from the Second World War because it’s unfortunately happening again in cycles, which is reflected—as you noticed—in circular details like the lollipop, the monument, the marble. It was not intentional, but there is a reason why those objects are shot in detail. I wanted to engage in this history in order to say something about the world today.

As Paul Schrader once told me, cinema can serve a functional role in “solving real-life problems with metaphorical stories,” and your film offers artful proof of that. Zivan’s efforts to start a punk festival seems to reflect not only Paja and Ivan’s musical aspirations, but also your decision to found a film festival in your hometown of Pančevo.

I agree with the notion that films can have an important function while also being works of art. If you speak about nationalism or fascism in an attempt to change the world, you have to understand that all of these forces are inside of you as well. Making this film was a way for me to fight it inside of myself, and through that, I became a better person. For me, that’s enough. If my film helps anyone else have a clearer understanding of the world, that is good, but my work is always personal. It is very important that I kill this fascist inside of myself. Fascism is not “the other,” and it can infect anyone. As for Zivan, I made a short documentary about him in 2008 for a school exam. We had to shoot a documentary portrait, and I decided to make mine about a guy who was a strange poet and only talked about punk. His story is a tough one, and you could always sense some darkness behind his preoccupations. In making the film, I got to know him much better, as well as his whole family. We became friends, and the short ended up being the most successful film I made while studying. It won two prizes in Serbia, which made Zivan very happy. He was finally getting recognized, and began pushing me to make another movie, which I decided to film after I finished university.

After four days of shooting “Zivan Makes a Punk Festival,” Zivan got sick and was hospitalized for half a year, so I edited the footage over the next couple years. I was producing “The Load” at the time, and really needed something to create. Watching footage of Zivan every day, making a festival in his village for no money in order to make a difference, got me thinking that I could do something similar in my hometown. It is very noble for him to sacrifice everything in order to give something meaningful to other people. Even the people who might not love or understand it can at least acknowledge his enthusiasm. So my friends and I founded the Pančevo Film Festival after discussing the idea amongst ourselves. There was always this question of who would watch or play the films that we made, since they were very different from the ones being made in my country, which are mostly commercial copies of Hollywood B movies. Our idea behind the festival was to show films that no one else was screening in Serbia, and that could help viewers in understanding and embracing other diverse work. The festival is free and attracts mostly younger people. We have a jury of fifteen high school kids, and they learn how to watch the films. Whether or not they love them, they will at least have a chance to see a different kind of cinema in a theater, not on their laptops.

We’ve had five editions of the festival, and we’re now planning for our sixth. It is very hard to pull off because we don’t earn money. We don’t sell anything, which is a very communist idea—but very noble, as communism is. There are five of us making this festival happen, and since there is no open call for our films, we select them by attending and networking at film festivals. I go to thirty festivals a year, and when I bring the films that I like back to Pančevo, I can sense that the people in town are grateful. It’s really important for them to have this kind of meeting with “the other,” to meet other languages and other film language, while getting to meet directors and speak with them about cinema. This town has never had a film festival before, and the screenings are almost always full. You were right when saying, in your review, that Zivan inspired this festival with an enthusiasm that is infectious. It changes you, and when every door is closed to you, it is the only capital you have. You may not think you can make a film or a festival without any outside support, but I think that today, you can. You just need a group of friends to push you into making it a reality.

“The Load” opens Friday, September 6th, at Chicago’s Facets Cinémathèque. For tickets and showtimes, click here.

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