by Gojko Dimic
This year’s IFFR is the birthplace of many great international films which are full of excitement and cinematic explorations of world’s topics. One of those films, Merry Christmas, Yiwu by the Serbian director Mladen Kovacevic, had its world premiere in the Bright Future Main Programme. His fifth documentary follows the ordinary lives of Chinese workers in one of the busiest places in the world, the city of Yiwu. A home to over 600 factories that produce most of the world’s holiday decorations and a home to countless workers trying to live their lives in the midst of this global enterprise. I talked to the director about his fascination towards the everyday and ordinary life, shooting a film in a foreign country and what relevance the story of Yiwu has in the 21st century.
Desistfilm: How did you discover the story of Yiwu and what drew you towards wanting to make a film about it?
Mladen Kovacevic: I actually heard about the story from a Chinese journalist that I’ve met and from that moment on I started researching and organizing the shoot but it didn’t begin with Yiwu. I wanted to make a film about China but not the curiosities of China as most people do. I wanted to make a film about a very real, ordinary China and I also knew a few more things that I needed from a story before I actually start making the film. I knew that I wanted this story to be cinematic and explicit so it could be told in a very observational and organic manner without too much manipulation and too complicated narratives and of course a story that has an emotional relevance to the western world. So when I heard about this city that has more than 600 factories that produce Christmas decorations, which is almost two thirds of all the Christmas decorations for the entire world and its relation to Christmas and New Year’s, which are the most intimate family holidays of the west I knew that this is the story that has emotional relevance to us and it sets you in the right state of mind to actually explore these ordinary lives of Chinese workers because that was the initial idea, to explore their lives in one of these environments.
Desistfilm: You’re a Serbian director who made a film in China. Serbia and China do have an interesting political and economic relationship. Was that in any way beneficial for the making of the film?
Mladen Kovacevic: Production wise absolutely, because we (Serbian people) don’t need visas for China so it made it much easier in every sense because we skipped the whole ordeal of getting the permits, it was just easy to go to China and shoot. But, once we got there, we were just westerners to them, the same as any other westerner. Maybe, the older generation that remembers Yugoslavia that knows some of the Partisan films, they would have some special sentiment towards us but in the end, we’re just westerners.
Desistfilm: I imagine shooting a documentary in a foreign country can be a taxing job, especially because of the language barrier. I remember watching another great documentary “Honeyland” and the directors spoke as well about shooting subjects which spoke a language that was different to theirs. They said that while shooting, they were just paying attention to the visual aspects of the film and that they discovered the truth of the film only in the editing room when they found a translator. That language barrier helped them create a more unique film. Were there any fears because of the language barrier and did your perspective on the subject change at all in the editing room?
Mladen Kovacevic: Perspectives on the story change anyway, even if you understand the characters because its developing, we’re not talking about scripted films. You kind of discover these fragments of the story and the whole point is to actually be aware of everything that is happening and to build slowly this kind of narrative. With this kind of observational style of filmmaking, it was beneficial in a way and the reason why is because these characters were more comfortable to display their intimacy, they were aware that we wouldn’t understand them right away. After the cut of every shot what was being said was being translated to me by a translator who was there all the time, more like a director’s assistant then a translator. It did happen that, because China has more than 200 dialects and some of them are completely different languages. The translators couldn’t understand at all what the characters were saying so the characters would then try to describe to the translator what they were talking about, and then they would describe it to me so it was like second hand. Only after I got the final translations from the actual translators, who would speak these languages, we would discover some detail in the dialogue.
Desistfilm: When it comes to the subjects of a documentary I always find it interesting how a director approaches them. Were people whose stories you ended up following arranged in advance or was it more spontaneous sort of discovery on set?
Mladen Kovacevic: In this specific case, because we had the setting and then we were looking for the characters. We would walk into the factory and then I would walk with the translator and you kind of start observing and because I’m not interviewing them like usually happens in documentaries, it was important that they already had some relationship there which we can explore. When I say relationship I mean friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, sisters etc. and you see people who are chatting to each other and they who have some sort of relationship, even if there’s some tension there happening. Then, you approach them and you start speaking about their lives in general and very specific things, for example what they were doing yesterday or what they’re doing tomorrow. In that way you can see if their personal narratives fit into the bigger narrative of the film. We were coming back to China three times to do the film and of course when you go back to those characters, when you continue the shoot, then you know them better and you kind of follow their own personal developments throughout the experience. It’s tricky as well because you don’t want characters that are exhibitionists that love to be in front of the camera, because then you kind of miss the nuances of the ordinary simple life. You want people that are maybe slightly reluctant but you see the potential for them of eventually relaxing and opening up. That is how you slowly get to the theme of the film which is the ordinary simple life of these workers.
Desistfilm: One reoccurring thing I noticed in the film were those short dialogues between the subjects of the film. We don’t hear or see them, you chose for them to appear as text. I enjoyed them because they were scattered throughout the film in very strategic places where the audience is given some time to contemplate what was seen previously. Were those conversations already captured on film and you used them as an aesthetic and dramaturgical tool or did they happen off camera and that was just a way of putting them in the film to help the narrative?
Mladen Kovacevic: Those were transcripts of the dialogues. In the process of making this film we would first get the transcripts every evening after the shoot and later on we would get detailed subtitles. There were a few of those scenes where I realized while I was shooting that I was relying on what was written in those transcripts. It was slightly shortened and digested compared to the actual dialogue scenes. So I decided that I should do that. Why don’t I just use these original transcripts that were given to me by the translators and not actually go and show the entirety of those scenes especially because we don’t cut too much and the shots would be too long. I just decided to put the transcripts of the dialogue on the screen as they were sent to me and they would become a part of the film.
Desistfilm: You show the audience all different aspects of the workers lives. You explore their family dynamics, relationships they develop, the heartbreaks they create and even their hopes and aspirations. It was done very subtly. Was that the thought process behind it all?
Mladen Kovacevic: That was the whole point, the ordinary lives of these people. Because they are in a way stuck in this film setting, everything they do, their routines, their personal dramas, any intimate moments were all related to the theme of the film. They are simply there, they are on a film set. Even the apartments where they live are usually the workers dormitories inside of the factory and if not, they are staying in houses right next to the factory. You are constantly in this setting and the dramaturgy didn’t have to be forced. Everything that was happening was just adding up to the bigger picture of what this film is.
Desistfilm: The film is quite emotional at times. I witnessed first-hand, at the premiere, the effect it had on two younger people from China. The guy who was seated next to me was really moved by the film and he experienced it in a way no westerner could. He even talked to you about it and I was wondering how did that make you feel?
Mladen Kovacevic: I wasn’t sure how a Chinese person would react to the film. Not because I was worried, I just wasn’t sure what their reaction could be when they see it and the fact that they did see it and that they found it more emotional than the westerners did for me really was a big compliment. You’re never 100% sure, unless it’s your mother tongue, how those nuances of the dialogue come about and what’s the actual impact of those scenes. Them saying that my film really showed the real lives of the Chinese people means that we didn’t diverge much from the initial idea of the film.
Director: Mladen Kovacevic
Writer: Mladen Kovacevic
Cinematography: Marko Milovanovic
Editor: Jelena Maksimovic
Sound Design: Patrik Strömdahl
Music: Olof Dreijer
Producer: Iva Plemic Divjak, Mario Adamson, Ruth Reid, Jasmina Sijercic, Heino Deckert, Thierry Detaille
Sweden, Serbia, France, Germany, Belgium, Qatar,2020, 94’