After provoking heated debate at festival screenings around the world, A Serbian Film came to the attention of the British public in August, when it was pulled from FrightFest following a decision by the BBFC to cut it by nearly four minutes. UK audiences will now be able to see the film, albeit in its censored form, in theatres this month. The only opportunity to see it uncut was at an invitation-only screening in October, organised by the Raindance Festival to circumvent the BBFC’s ruling. The issues surrounding the censorship of the film have been discussed at length in our blog since FrightFest, but it is worth pointing out that the BBFC’s decision is symptomatic of a general reluctance among certain British institutions to consider film as art. It is because the British censors can only see cinema as entertainment that their understanding of A Serbian Film remained shockingly literal, and that they misconstrued the film as a violent spectacle, instead of seeing it for the denunciation of violence that it very clearly is. It is profoundly worrying and dispiriting to see such levels of cinematic illiteracy among the people entrusted with judging what the adult British public may or may not see.
A Serbian Film centres on Milos, a retired porn star with a wife and son, who struggles to make ends meet. One of his former co-stars introduces him to Vukmir, a mysterious filmmaker with powerful political connections. Vukmir is willing to pay Milos an astronomical fee to star in his new project on the condition that he agrees to shoot the film without seeing the script. Soon Milos is caught in a nightmare that drags him further and further down into the most revolting horrors. A Serbian Film contains extreme imagery and is certainly not for everyone. But those disturbing images and situations are the expression of a deeply felt anger against the moral corruption of authorities and the grotesque, absurd hell to which they subject the people they rule.
Virginie Sélavy talked to director Srdjan Spasojevic about censorship and the true meaning of exploitation and pornography.
VS: How do you feel about the fact that the film had to be released with cuts in Britain?
SS: Of course I cannot be happy about it, but then I can’t be too stubborn, and this is the only way for audiences here to see it.
How was the film received in Serbia?
Serbia is a very specific place, so we had lots of problems there but of a different kind. In Serbia we don’t have ratings, there is no law forbidding anything from being shown in a film and there is no law forbidding anyone from buying a ticket. But it’s a conservative country, and after all those years under a hard communist regime we have a kind of self-censorship. We tried to release the film theatrically in Serbia in February, but no one wanted to have anything to do with it. We couldn’t find any distributor or a theatre willing to screen it. So you don’t need any law for that. But after lots of festival screenings, and great reviews, and some awards, they softened, and we had an uncut theatrical release in September.
How did Serbian audiences react?
It’s the same as in other countries. There were different reactions, because there is no film that is for everyone. Some people liked it, some people hated it. Some people understood it, others didn’t. The biggest problem, especially in Serbia, is that part of the audience doesn’t know how to watch the film. They think that everything they see is something we promote, that I would like to do in my home. They don’t understand even the basic things from the film: you have a good guy and bad guys; the bad guys are doing bad things and the good guy is fighting against them. They don’t understand because the movie language that we use in the film is actually closer to that of Western films than to our own.
I think that was a problem here too, the censors didn’t seem to understand the film. They seemed to think that the violence in the film was meant to entertain and titillate.
Censors don’t try and don’t need to understand a film. It’s about following the rules in a purely bureaucratic manner. They’re not concerned about the meaning of the film, they’re just concerned about formalities. The BBFC ordered 49 cuts, and the problem with the version shown in the UK is that it’s been cut only by removing the shots that they marked, without re-editing, or without adding material to fill the gaps. I think half of these shots could be saved by re-editing them. For some shots, the problem is the meaning, their place and their combination with other images. But if you put them somewhere else, they would be OK. There was a problem with shots that, as they say, involve children in sex and violence. It doesn’t even matter to the censors that the film fights against the bad things that we’re talking about. Of course, it shows a lack of freedom of speech, but it also covers up crime. The film is a statement from the victim, but they’re not allowing us to talk about what happens. It’s not my fault, it’s not the victim’s fault that these things are bad. It’s my testimony and they’re forbidding me from telling it, because it’s too hard to watch. Well, I’m sorry, they should prevent the crime, not censor me. So we’re really not happy about this version, because the cuts were made in that way and the numbers are not justified. Four per cent is a big number. People from the Western world should understand four per cent – would you like your pay to be cut by four per cent? There’d be riots on the street. But for a film from Serbia, it’s like, OK, fine…
The extreme imagery in the film seems to come from anger, and this anger is directed at the state. The violence is committed by the state, essentially, and the authorities are responsible for the most immoral treatment of humans in the film.
Authority in general, yes, because first of all this film is an honest expression of the deepest feelings that we have about our region and the world in general. Concerning our region, the last few decades have been dominated by war and political and moral nightmares. The world in general is sugar-coated in political correctness, but it is actually very rotten under that faÃ§ade. So we’re talking about problems in the modern world, only they’re set in Serbia. And it’s a struggle against all the corrupt authorities that govern our lives for their own purposes. So yes, there is anger in the film.
In the end, a new director takes over from Vukmir and continues the film, and this shows that what we’ve seen cannot just be attributed to one madman, but is part of a whole system.
Absolutely. Vukmir is just one of them. In a way, Vukmir is an exaggerated representation of all those corrupt authorities. The last scene that you mentioned is a culmination of some of the hard scenes in the film that are literally drawings of our feelings. Extreme scenes, such as the one with the baby, are absolute literal images of how we feel. I never thought, let’s make a shocking film, let’s make it controversial, let’s break the world record. That was never on our mind. We just wanted to express ourselves in the most honest and direct way possible. You’re raped from birth and it doesn’t even stop after your death: that was the point of the ending.
There has been a lot of talk about the violence against women and children in the film.
You cannot fight against that kind of violence if you don’t say anything about it. You will not prevent it if you say, for instance, ‘in this company you have to have 50 per cent of women managers’. Fine, but that will not solve the problem of domestic violence. In Serbia, in some rural parts of the country, we have big domestic violence problems. Women and children are treated like men’s property. Men can do whatever they want with them. Of course there are problems of that type all around the world, but in some regions it’s almost a tradition, and the written law is not helping, because in reality no one does anything about it. We wanted to talk about all the problems we experience. We wanted to face the demons of our time, including violence against women and children. Unfortunately, many people who say they are fighting against those problems and claim to represent women and children find this film too offensive.
At one point, Vukmir explains that ‘victims sell’ as a reason for making the film, and tells Milos he’s not a victim. But in fact Milos is a victim too, right?
Vukmir is a true believer in the things he does and of that society and industry. He is also an exaggerated representation of the new European film order. In Eastern Europe, you cannot get your film financed unless you have a barefoot girl who cries on the streets, or some story about war victims in our region. But of course, you should never go too deep, or show tough scenes, or point out the problems. Just say, it’s a hard life, we experienced war, we don’t have anything to eat, we don’t have any love, any family. And if you do that, you’ll receive $5 million. And that’s the only way you can get your film financed in Eastern Europe. So Vukmir represents that. He believes in this system, but he’s passionate, he’s going all the way, he wants to show a real victim. Also because the Western world has lost feelings, so they’re searching for false ones, they want to buy feelings. It’s like they’ll feel more human if they see victims and feel sorry, ‘oh we’re still human, we can feel sorry’ – but that’s a lie. That’s what Vukmir does, and he really believes that Milos is not a victim because he adores him, he’s his hero. He really believes he’s doing the right thing, that he’s a supporter of our region’s economy.
So it’s also a film about the perception that Western Europe has of Serbia.
Yes, of course. And we’re talking about those problems through the moving picture industry, because I don’t want to start about politics, it’s too complicated and crazy. European film funds and festivals, some of them, are looking for those kinds of films from Eastern Europe because it’s a problematic region with war and suffering. And that’s exploitation. Those films are real exploitation. It’s spiritual pornography.
There was a Serbian film called The Life and Death of a Porno Gang in 2009 that used pornography as a metaphor to talk about Serbia. How do you explain that?
Concerning A Serbian Film, it’s not about looking for a metaphor to present our way of life or my feelings. It came naturally, because after all these wars in Serbia, we have started to experience our lives as pure exploitation. In the kind of job you have to take to feed your family, you’ll end up being viciously exploited by your employer or the rulers. So pornography is used as an image for everyday life, it’s normal. If he did anything else, Milos would still end up with the same kind of problems. Anything in our lives and our culture is pornographic. I think the same thing happened with The Life and Death of a Porno Gang. It was probably the same idea, the same expression of the problems, although the approach and style were different.
The content of the film is so extreme that you expect a lo-fi, trashy kind of film, but it is in fact very well-made and stars famous, well-respected actors. Maybe it is this contrast that has made some people uncomfortable.
It was not the plan to combine those things. For me it was just a natural way to make the film, because that’s the kind of style I like. I was most influenced by American auteurs of the 70s like Friedkin, Peckinpah, Cronenberg, Carpenter, Walter Hill and others. Maybe you’re right, maybe some images are stronger and harder because the style is… nice. That’s a problem, because it’s almost a pattern in filmmaking. If you want to make a violent film, it has to be done in a dirty, documentary style. If you want to go to festivals, you have to have lots of long shots. In art, you’re not supposed to have patterns, and calculations of that kind.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy