One of the most idiosyncratic and visionary auteurs of European cinema, Fred Kelemen presented his most recent film Sarajevo Songs of Woe as a world premiere at the 32nd Warsaw Film Festival in October (Free Spirit section). Conceived as a triptych, the film tells, though barely scripted, fragmented tales of hope, despair, love and death revolving around Sarajevo, but, gradually, opening up to something wider and more universal. We sat down with Fred Kelemen in the café of the Warsaw Cinémathèque one day after the world premiere of his film.
How much do you care about audience, in general?
I care about people, so I try to make films which are not hermetic, and I think a lot about what I transport and how. I’m therefore very aware of the communicative aspect of the whole process. However, I’m not having a certain audience in mind, but the fact that human beings are watching every film, with whom I have to communicate. I know that individuals are very different: some will relate to it, some will not, some will be more open and ready to accept unusual forms, some will encounter problems with those forms. That’s normal. Not just in art, but in life, as well. It’s a matter of different perception.
It’s always important when an artist makes a suggestion to the audience. Then the audience can decide whether to follow or not. Cinema doesn’t have to stick by the rules, every film should be an invitation to a journey to an unknown, but somehow familiar, planet.
Where does the “woe” reference in the film’s title derive from?
When I was editing the film, I had the feeling that the 3 parts of it were 3 different songs. They have a musical structure with a certain rhythm and repetition. It therefore possesses a certain musicality. Film is closer to music than to literature, in general. So, for me these 3 filmic songs, which are related to Sarajevo, but, beyond that, to us and are not comedies, but are songs of woe. Another word for woe would be “elegy”. I also like the sound of 2 “s”. “Woe” is, as well, a word appearing in the quotation at the beginning of the film.
What’s the source of this quotation?
The Tanakh of Hebrew Bible. It can be found in Kohelet, or in the Christian, so called Old Testament it has the title Ecclesiastes. It precedes the Book of Jeremiah, as well called the Book of Lamentations, which inspired the title of the film. There, Jeremiah describes the situation after the Fall of Jerusalem. There is an analogy with what took place in Sarajevo.
In what sense?
In the sense that Jerusalem was occupied by the “barbaric” people and the once proud city was completely destroyed and violated. Jeremiah wrote these songs, this particular book, lamenting about the Fall. A similar situation happened in Sarajevo. Before the war, it was a multicultural city, where people of different ethnicities and religions lived together, it was very alive. The 90s wars destroyed this diversity. I was there very often, because I was teaching at the Film Factory, so I was very much in touch with the town and its people. I could see and feel the woe of the war. For me there is a very clear relation, that’s why I chose this particular title.
Sarajevo is a very special city for you, then, I assume.
Yes and no! It serves as an example for our life, because this kind of destruction of cultural diversity can be seen everywhere nowadays. The whole world moves towards a more conservative, even reactionary, intolerant, nation-centered, anti-humanistic, even fascistic, way of thinking and acting. So, what happened in Sarajevo some decades ago, is now happening almost all over the world. What we can learn from Sarajevo is exactly how to deal with a situation like this, how necessary it is to go back to what has been destroyed during the war: not just places, but also attitudes and human relationships. My film talks about this very much, of course, and of the fragility of all what is tender and beautiful.
Although it does so in a very minimalistic way. It’s barely scripted. Music and sound, on the other hand, play an important role, as if they’re characters themselves in your films. Why is that so?
In all of my films I create these soundscapes. I make very precise collages of sounds by also recording sounds myself. I use the original sounds, as well as the additional sounds, which I record. In Sarajevo Songs of Woe there is only music in the middle part, a pure score. The music was composed by a friend of mine, the Israeli composer and musician Zoe Polanski. A good score adds something to a film and the images, it doesn’t just illustrate them.
Was your latest work shot exclusively in Sarajevo?
Yes, in 2014 and 2015.
Did you encounter any difficulties?
Not so much. The 3rd part was organized from Berlin. I asked a friend of mine living in Sarajevo to visit some locations, for example the Serb Orthodox Church, and enquire whom one should talk to, in order to get a permission for shooting. She went there, talked with the priest and he gave us permission to do the shooting. That was the most difficult. The initial idea of the film was the man standing in a corner observing the kids in the playground discovered by a slow camera movement backwards. Then I thought “who is this man?” Is he really dangerous for the kids, as the shot would suggest, what does he want there? From this filmic moment and thoughts I developed the film. I shot the 1st part in 3 days, the last in 3 and the middle one in 6 nights. The post-production took much more time, because it was done without funding and with the help of friends. I’m happy I could finish the film.
You’re also a friend and associate of Béla Tarr. Would you say that this encounter has contributed to the formation of your own cinematic approach?
Absolutely. Everybody has a path in his life. On this path you meet people, maybe in person, maybe through their work. Some of these are closer to you. The closer ones of course constitute an influence to you. They stabilize your way. Béla was one of the people, who somehow stabilized my way. When I met him, I had already done some short films and I was in a period of quest, in an effort to create on the level of film the flow that you experience in music, in my case especially in the music of Bartók. I was listening to it when I was very young, and it influenced my idea of time in film. When I watched Béla Tarr’s first film, I felt very close to his vision. Later on we became friends, although we’re different people - not twin brothers- and associates. We definitely share a certain vision of cinema.
Is there still space for this sort of visionary cinema?
I would definitely say yes. Maybe it’s a space that is difficult to find, but, in my view, it has to be created. It’s getting smaller and smaller, but the people who work in this field of film art have to defend it and make it grow again. It’s not given freely, you have to fight for it day by day. But it’s the same situation with other things. The democratic idea is shrinking, as well, you have to fight for it, too. If you fight only when you’re sure that you will win, this is no reason why you should fight. You do so, because you believe in something, you cannot give up, and, of course, face the risk of losing.
Was this project a risk?
In Sarajevo Songs of Woe, the warm heart of anarchy is beating. That’s why I like it very much. Even if the film is not shown anywhere anymore, it’s not a risk. If one lived in a world, where the head of an artist would be cut off from him because he wouldn’t create conformist or “successful” art, that would be a risk. But we’re not living in such a world yet. So there is no risk. There is just the cowardly fear of the visionless pragmatics and conformists
Fred Kelemen may be reached through his personal website at http://fredkelemen.com/
I would like to warmly thank him for our thought-provoking conversation, both on and off the record, and for the stills of the film accompanying this post.