In Mila Turajlic’s doc The Other Side of Everything, a Serbian apartment divided under communism is a symbol of a difficult past lingering in the present.
Director Mila Turajlic had a film waiting to happen in the story of the apartment her mother Srbijanka grew up in. In the 1940s, under communism in Yugoslavia, large flats owned by the wealthiest citizens were divided to accommodate less fortunate families. Now, neither communism nor Yugoslavia are even in place anymore, yet some apartments such as Srbijanka’s are still divided. Turajilic’s mother lives in one half of the flat and only remembers the other. More than a simple metaphor, this division is a symbol of the way Serbia, and the other countries that constituted Yugoslavia, bear the traces of the past and are still trying to deal with their uncomfortable story.
Yet the film goes beyond a mere description of the situation and, as it progresses, centers on Srbijanka. A public figure who protested nationalism, both at the time of Slobodan Milosevic and today, she never even considered leaving the country, the way many others did. Through electric interviews between mother and daughter, The Other Side of Everything questions the pros and cons of staying in a country that is falling apart, and the very nature of resistance.
Back in Toronto, Elena Lazic — herself a daughter of the diaspora from Ex-Yugoslavia — interviewed director Mila Turajlic about confronting her mother, making a difference, and the wounds that won’t heal.
The Seventh Row (7R): What pushed you to make this film about your mother?
Mila Turajlic (MT): When I started on this project, I did not think of it as a film about my mother at all. I thought it would be the story of this apartment. Through the story of this divided space, we could tell the story of Serbia — mostly through the 90s, but also as it is today.'Through the story of this divided space, we could tell the story of Serbia.' - Mila TurajlicClick To Tweet
I wanted to use this very peculiar space as a microcosm for telling a wider story, because I felt that this story had never been told in the way I had lived it. Everything I’ve ever seen about the breakup of Yugoslavia, the 90s in Serbia, and what was happening in Serbia during all this time, never corresponded to what I had lived. The narrative was shifted by the media — in one particular way by the Western media, and obviously in a completely different way by the Serbian media. I felt like our side of the story had never been told.'The narrative was shifted by the media. I felt like our side of the story had never been told.' -TurajlicClick To Tweet
I interviewed my mother because she’s lived in this apartment all her life. She is one of the very few people left alive who remembers what it was like before it was divided. The problem was that the more I interviewed her, the more her story started coming to the fore. And the more I realised that, when I was asking her about family, about roots and heritage, what I was really asking her was: why did we stay? Why are we still here?'It was really about this dilemma: do you stay or do you leave? And if you stay, how do you stay?'Click To Tweet
It was really about this dilemma: do you stay or do you leave? And if you stay, how do you stay? Do you stay in an engaged way, or do you stay closed off from what’s going on? Being her daughter is very much a confrontation with her decision to stay and fight.'Being her daughter is very much a confrontation with her decision to stay and fight.' -Mila TurajlicClick To Tweet
7R: Why did you make the film now?
MT: Making the film took five years. The film has an added level of meaning now because in the last two years, the political scene in Serbia has dramatically changed. We’ve seen what I feel is a big regression towards the past and towards nationalism. So with the film coming out now, I think it gains in resonance. This cycle of nationalism and division returned just as the film was finished.
7R: How did your mother feel about you filming her and telling her life story?
MT: She didn’t realise that she was telling her life story. At all. She’s been a public figure for a very long time, so she’s comfortable giving interviews. She’s also been a professor her whole life, so she’s used to holding lectures.'She didn’t realise that she was telling her life story. At all. She’s been a public figure for a long time.'Click To Tweet
The biggest challenge for me was to break those two modes of communications. I needed to get to a stage where she was not treating me as a journalist or lecturing me, but really talking to me intimately way as a mother.'I needed to get to a stage where she was not treating me as a journalist but talking to me intimately as a mother'Click To Tweet
Bringing her into this space, where we could have an intimate mother-daughter conversation, was the hardest part. It took a very long time. We had to go through everything she thought we were doing, before I got to what I wanted us to be doing.'We had to go through everything she thought we were doing before I got to what I wanted us to be doing.'Click To Tweet
I think the only reason she did all of this is because I’m her daughter, and she couldn’t say no to me. Honestly. And I abused that. I really did.
7R: You would think someone else would have already made a movie about her.
MT: A few people said they’d love to tell her story, but I don’t think she would have accepted. And honestly, if she’d realised to what extent she would be in my film, I’m not sure she would have accepted, even from me.
But this all developed over time. That the film ended up being so much about her kind of crept up on both of us, I think.'Your film is the 1st time I heard a real resistance movement existed. It changes my whole perception of the conflict.'Click To Tweet
7R: At the end of the film, you have this very moving conversation with your mother where she explains that she never considered leaving; that she always wanted to stay and try to make a difference. You ask her if you need to do the same — to also try and make a difference — and she tells you that it’s your choice alone. Do you think that this film could make a difference?
I can give you my answer. I think it does. My family comes from Ex-Yugoslavia, and all my life I had this idea that when Yugoslavia broke apart, no one within the country was against that, or even thought that Slobodan Milosevic was bad. This is why, when I was little, I had a sort of disdain and shame for my roots: I never bothered to really learn the language. With your film, it’s the first time I hear that a real resistance movement existed within the country. It changes my whole perception of the conflict and of where my family comes from.
MT: I am so happy to hear you say that. And if the film does only that, it will already mean a lot.
There is this need in me to tell people: there were voices of reason, even in Serbia, against the war. My whole approach, regarding the archive of the time, was to really look for those moments where you can hear those voices. Whether it’s Vinko Hafner [then a delegate of the Slovenian Communists] telling Slobodan Milosevic to think carefully of the disastrous consequences his proposals could have for the country [during the last congress of the Yugoslav Communist Party of Yugoslavia in October 1988], or the mothers protesting outside parliament saying “stop this madness, bring us our children back.”'There is this need to tell people: there were voices of reason, even in Serbia, against the war.' Click To Tweet
A lot of the footage from the 1990s is emotionally very powerful. But I didn’t want to do any of that. I really tried to be as minimal as possible, and focus on this one objective: to show that there really were voices of reason in a time of public hysteria. If I manage to tell the story and you go, “Oh, there were!”, that’s great. If this helps in some way, if not to rewrite the narrative of Serbia, then at least to add to that narrative and to make it more complex, I’ll already be very happy. It wasn’t my intention, but if the film does that, that’s great.
The youngest person who’s seen the film so far is my cousin, who is in the film. He is now 24 years old. He told me that when my mother in the film asks me if I will do something, he felt like she was speaking to his whole generation. And I realised that, yes, she is!'When my mother in the film asks me if I will do something, he felt like she was speaking to his whole generation.'Click To Tweet
She is asking us all what we’re going to do. She is making each one of us think about what it takes to do that: am I engaged enough? Could I be more engaged? Do I dare? Do I want to spend my life like that? Do I want to pay that price?
For me, that’s definitely the most emotional moment of the film. It is definitely what the film has become about. I’m really curious to see if it will speak to that generation. When my mother asks if I have what it takes, I know that the answer is no. But if this film does a little difference, I’ll sleep a little better.
7R: Well, I am 24 years old. But my parents left Yugoslavia. In the film, you’re upset at your mother for staying in the country. But there is a real guilt for having left. You get a better life in France, but you never really feel at home there — even me, and I was born in France. So seeing this film was important for me, and I think it could be important for my parents.
MT: That’s interesting, because I keep wondering who will be the audience for this film. I am really looking forward to showing the film to diaspora audiences, because I love the discussions afterwards.'It couldn’t be a happy film with a happy ending, because so much has been lived. Nothing is resolved.'Click To Tweet
7R: The film is rather matter-of-fact and restrained. But the sequence at the end, where you open the other part of the apartment, is quite artful and emotional. It’s like a real-life metaphor of what your mother has always wanted to do but never been able to: go to the other side and unite everyone. How did you convince her to open the room?
MT: Well, life happened. The last person living on the other side died. At the same time, this process of restitution began in Serbia, where people whose properties were taken started applying to have it given back to them. There’s a scene in the film where we argue — my mother, my sister, and me —about whether we should ask for our property back or not. It became a very complex issue for us, emotionally, because when this woman died, we had to act fast. If we didn’t open that door, we would have lost that part of the apartment. It would have been taken by the municipality. At the same time, we were all very ambivalent about whether it really belonged to us. I didn’t build that house with my money, you know.'You can see the way history plays out in our lives: it leaves traces, and we can’t really erase them.'Click To Tweet
We let a year go by before we made a decision. What’s really ironic —and I only realised this afterwards — is that we opened the doors on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. The symbolism of this Berlin wall finally coming down in our house! It was just so strange. But it wasn’t a triumphant moment for any of us, and that’s what I think makes the scene so complex. There were really mixed feelings. It didn’t feel like our home anymore. I think you can really see the way history plays out on our own personal lives: it leaves these traces, and we can’t really erase them. The scars are always there.'The symbolism of this Berlin wall finally coming down in our house!' - Mila TurajilicClick To Tweet
I liked to end on a scene that is so complex. There’s no easy or happy resolution. It’s not like, “Yay, my life is whole again!” Someone said to me, “It’s a very depressing film.” But no, that’s just how it is. It couldn’t be a happy film with a happy ending, because so much has been lived, and nothing is resolved. All the weight of the divisions of the Balkans is still there. It just felt like the right scene to close the film.
Read all of The Seventh Row’s TIFF ’17 reviews and interviews here >>