by Vladimir Seput

Since 2010 Dane Komljen has created a distinctive body of work that slowly and exquisitely observes human bodies and spatial transformations, intertwining them with history, memory and dreams. His unique and innovative approach to filmmaking has been widely recognized and his work has been screened at major festivals. At the beginning of December, Institute of Contemporary Arts in London organized a retrospective of his work made since 2010, consisted of seven shorts (I Already Am Everything I Want to Have, 2010; Bodily Function, 2012; Tiny Bird, 2013; A Surplus of Wind, 2014; Our Body, 2015; All Still Orbit, 2016; Fantasy Sentences, 2017) and his riveting feature, All the Cities of the North from 2016.

Desistfilm: ICA in London organized a retrospective of your work which was a good occasion to see them all in chronological order. What are your thoughts on your body of work when you see it like this, as a whole? Do you see significant changes from the earlier films towards your first feature All the Cities of the North?

Dane Komljen: I definitely see that there are changes but there is also a line that is being drawn from the earliest things I did to All the Cities of the North. I think it was not something that was done with intention, but I can see how I was moving step by step from one film to the other. Now when I think about those films I am aware that I wanted to change with each new film that I made, I was always trying out new things and when I watch my first films today I don’t have a feeling that I made them, many things are different now and the really old work seems distant to me. I can see how I could have ended up making a different kind of cinema than I do, but I also understand why things developed the way that they did.  Maybe it was this need to explore that took me to this point. That being said, for me these are big sentences since I don’t feel much certainty about anything in general, including my own films. I’m really grateful that this retrospective is happening because it marks the first time that my work has been shown in London and I see it more of an invitation to discover what I’m doing than some kind of homage. That’s the only way it could be read at this point, at least for me. It’s great that the work was shown here, that people had the opportunity to see it.

Desistfilm: Did you make any selections of the films?

Dane Komljen: No, these are all the films that I made since 2010. Back when I was in Belgrade in film school, we were working a lot and I Already Am Everything I Want to Have was the first film that traveled and from that point on the films kept being shown around the world. I already am who I want to be was the step out of the film school. I can see a certain trajectory in all the films shown here. From the teams that worked on them to the themes that they deal with. Somehow the films shifted from being very human-centered to being more open in a way, including spaces themselves, plants and animals, I personally find it interesting how they became decentered in such a way.

Desistfilm: It seems that nevertheless specific topics are present in your body of work, such as position of the human body in space, relationship, dichotomy of natural and urban space, the role of memory. I would like to know more about the way you work, the way you approach your films in the beginning.  How does your writing process start and how much is written before the shooting starts? 

Dane Komljen: I think it’s always written up to a certain point and then there’s also intentional blank spaces to be filled during the shoot. Apart from my feature All the Cities of the North, only two films shown here, I Already Am Everything I Want to Have and Bodily Function, had a script. When I was working with shorts, I wasn’t working with scripts, the writings were more statements or intentions in order to get funding. Two films are never made in the same way and when you go to the funding bodies, it is of course necessary to offer them some sort of ideas of what’s going to be made. For All the Cities of the North there was a sparse script. Since the film involved two actors we would plan the shoot in such a way that for half a day it was pre-written, pre-taught and for the other half we would leave time for playing in that particular space. I think that this sort of opening of the situation while at the same time not completely going to improvisational side is what interests me, this tension between different modes of image making. On one hand, for me it’s always necessary to articulate in a more or less clear way what I want in the film, but on the other hand it’s also essential to forget that, and to just be aware that such a situation is only the starting point. When I’m making the film, it’s important to remain curious within the particular context.

Desistfilm: Your films are aesthetically very compelling and the framing of your images seems thought through. Characters are often slowly going in and out of the shots, in and out of the environment, of the visible space. How much do you reflect upon the visually components of each shot? 

Dane Komljen: Those things that you just described is cinema, being with cinema. It’s not possible to separate what excites me in images and how I want to make these images. I wouldn’t say that those things come with preparation. I am not trying to figure out how something will be shot, how it is going to fit in the frame, is the body closer or farther away. I am just trying to be attuned to things like that, that is the material of the film itself, and I would never want to try and translate it consciously. When I am preparing something there is a certain amount of discussion about it but I am also trying to remove myself from controlling the films too much. I don’t want to slip into an overtly coordinated environment, into vectors and directions. I know I want to move in a particular track in terms of the images, what is seen and what is not seen, how long it’s seen for and how it’s seen. I have an idea of where that should go but it is equally important to experience the tension of the possibility of stopping that, giving up on it, even losing it or giving it to someone else, to someone else’s way of looking. That’s where these things come from. They can seem controlled because when I think about the films that I want to make I think in images exclusively. I have certain images that I’m looking for and those might not be the images that I will end up with. It’s not an idea of an image, but an image that I’m going towards, like something that I haven’t seen that I would like to see because for some reason I’m drawn to it. I don’t think in terms of success and failure, I am not going to reject something because it is not what I set out to look for, to do something else from what was initially planned doesn’t seem like a big deal for me.

Desistfilm: Since we are talking about visual aesthetics in your films, it seems to me that there’s also a painterly quality to your work, specifically to the image of the body in your films. I’d like to know more about your inspiration outside of cinema. Could you tell us a bit about that? In the I Already Am Everything I Want to Have there is quotation of Guy Debord, and you are working with Aimé Césaire’s Return to my Native Land (Cahier d’un retour au pays natal) in Tiny Bird. How do you choose particular texts in your films and how do they interact to your process of image making or image thinking?   

Dane Komljen: I never tried to paint or sculpt, it was simply not the thing for me because I was always a film kid, going to video stores and getting VHS, that’s how it all started, exploring and seeing different things. With the internet I could see things that were much crazier than what I was watching up until that point, and that was really important. I never even had a slight sort of getting lost in this other visual context, but it is something that I became more curious about in recent years, it’s intriguing to think about things that I could do in a different context. Also, literature was always important for me. In terms of using writing sources, I never restrained from dealing with theoretical books.

Desistfilm: Specially in All the cities of the north there is an intercrossing between cinema, literature and theory with Simone Weil and Godard…

Dane Komljen: Yes, even though I am not trying to use quotes in some kind of Godard way, I think the way that the pieces of others work in his films is completely different from what I use, I don’t think that literature appears in my work as something that is a world onto itself with strictly defined traits. It’s more about the mixing of the worlds, blending the world of literature with the architecture and the notion of space. All these worlds are combined together in the image and it might be that the films with those references are more about the idea of co-existence, not just of bodies co-existing but also how we can co-exist with ideas.

Desistfilm: Co-existence with nature and with each other seems rather important in your films. Ideas of family and friendship are often present in them. You grew up in Yugoslavia, a country that doesn’t exist anymore and since then you lived in different places. Do you think that certain elements of your biography are present in your work, particularly the idea of one’s re-invention in a different environment? Characters in your films sometimes talk about the need to adjust, to find new ways. Is the notion of displacement or self-imposed exile something you are interested as a filmmaker?

Dane Komljen: I think it’s there, but I noticed that since I started to move around more that the way I see and what I make images of is different than before. It seems to me that I made heavier images before, that’s the main difference. And the story of the end of socialist Yugoslavia is something that is consciously there in the films because I was trying to sort out that history with my films. The notion that there was a territory which was brought together with a set of ideas and then those ideas were completely overturned is an important problem for me. I think that it’s worthy to think about the ways that we can co-exist and the way that communities are shaped and re-shaped and I can see how this problem is situated in my own experience. However, I don’t think that it’s related to the notion of re-invention. That might be more present in the next film, which is about walking and movement but also about transformation. It will clearly be about this idea of transforming and re-inventing yourself as well as being with others.

Desistfilm: The thrive of modernism somewhat coincided with the times of Yugoslavia. Since you are dealing with some of those issues in your work, would you say that you are also working in the realm of political cinema?

Dane Komljen: That’s a big question, I honestly don’t think art and politics are the same thing. Maybe I am not making a lot of friends with such sentences but to me they are simply separated fields. There’s too much art that tries to match political results and I’m not sure that those things work for me. I think that art is always political but in more complex ways than as a statement or an agenda. Of course, there is a lot of space for hybridization of the two but I don’t think that art is politics even though it can be political if it wants. When it comes to my work, I don’t think my films propose political ideas, it’s just the questions that are important for me. What art is doing and what cinema is doing is about asking questions and in that way it is political because it’s crucial which questions are being asked. I was interested in the idea of modernism because it was somehow pronounced as something behind us and it wasn’t really clear to me why do we think that those things don’t work, maybe just because they weren’t given enough of a chance. Dealing with those issues in my films was really on the level of question and doubt and not resolutely stating something.

Desistfilm: You said you are working on new projects, is it going to be a feature film?

Dane Komljen: There are two films in preparation. Desire Lines is the next feature film project but the other one, A Treatise on Limnology grew so it will also become a feature. On that one I am working with James (Lattimer) but I think that will be shot before because Desire Lines is a bit complicated with the budget. It needs to go step by step, I would like to do it as soon as possible but the way I see it now, it will still take time to get there.

Desistfilm: Is there a significant difference between working alone and working in partnership with someone?

Dane Komljen: I think it’s more complicated to work with someone; ultimately it’s more productive to work on your own. James is my partner so we share things and the things that we share are those that we are working on. Our collaboration started with Our Body, with me showing him what I was editing at the time and then he suggested the things that can be done with the footage. That’s how it went and it was something that came quite easily. With bigger projects a lot of discussions and decisions need to be made so it’s simply slower, it’s important that everything is talked through.

Desistfilm: Somehow the idea of working through partnership and love visible in your films became present in the actual process of making them?

Dane Komljen: Yes, at the end I don’t keep things separated. Collaborating with people that you love and care about is certainly not easier because it’s difficult to set boundaries since that wouldn’t make sense. But it’s not about making it easier for oneself and that challenge interests me. I also enjoy collectives and the idea of people making art together, there’s something really stimulating about that. You cannot escape that, the way I work changes from film to film, something is more collaborative and some is less but even when I was doing things on my own, filming images and adding sound later, I would still need help with certain things. In the end, cinema cannot exist without people working together and I don’t think it can exist outside of people watching it together. For me, the essential issue is not the question of materiality of film, celluloid versus digital, but rather is it a somehow shared experience. I always like to listen to filmmakers talking about their work, cinema is also the words that remain, the ideas that persist. Few days after the experience of cinema something might come to your mind, it stayed with you and you can tell it to someone and that communication shouldn’t be taken for granted. It was there from the beginning and it’s still there, equally powerful. We are all in cinema and we witness it together.