The filmmaker examines themes of migration, tolerance, identity, and belonging in her first feature film, Evaporating Borders.
Filmmaker Iva Radivojevic is an introvert with a roving curiosity about other people, places, and things. Before studying film and media studies at New York’s Hunter College, she trained in 3D computer animation as an undergraduate. Finding the labor-intensive process of animation a bit stifling, she decided to join her love of travel with her love for photography and begin a video blog called ivaasks where she posted short documentary stories of random people she’d meet on her various journeys.
Named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 Faces of Independent Film this year, Radivojevic recently completed her first feature film, Evaporating Borders. The film is a gorgeously photographed personal essay film offering a series of interwoven episodes about life as an immigrant on the island of Cyprus. But this film, unlike most of her earlier work, is the culmination of a vested personal interest as well. Evaporating Borders, which is narrated in Greek by Radivojevic, dissects the experience of asylum seekers in Cyprus. The film presents a series of vignettes: an Iraqi PLO activist makes a new life; Neo-Nazi fundamentalists attack Muslim migrants; activists and academics organize an antifascist rally in response; and North African immigrants who die mid-journey in the waters of the Mediterranean. Through this mosaic of stories, the filmmaker investigates the effects of large-scale immigration on the sense of national identity in one of the easiest ports of entry into European Union territory.
Born in Yugoslavia, Radivojevic is half Serbian and half Croatian. During the Balkan Wars, she, her mother, and her sister sought refuge on Cyprus as immigrants. Through a very personal lens, this film evocatively weaves together themes of migration, tolerance, identity, and belonging. Executive produced by Laura Poitras (My Country, My Country and The Oath), the film had its international début in January at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, followed by a North American début at SXSW. I recently sat with Radivojevic in Greece, where we were both attending the sixteenth Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival. Evaporating Borders will return to North America for the Sarasota Film Festival and Toronto’s Hot Docs in May.
Pamela Cohn You’ve been a New Yorker now for 15 years. What enabled, or encouraged, you to stay?
Iva Radivojevic After my mother bought me my first camera and I started to make longer pieces, editing was a great creative discovery for me. I really loved that way of sculpting a story. When I finished my undergraduate work, like everyone else I was wondering what I was going to do with my life. But in my case, I really needed to land a job because I wanted to get papers to stay in the US. I got a post with a company that trains editors and teaches practical editing. I also traveled whenever I could and would take photos on my journeys, meeting people who would change my life by sharing stories that were beautiful, stories that I wanted to re-tell. The films were one minute long, two minutes, or five minutes, it didn’t matter. I would post them for this invisible audience out there. That was the beginning of ivaasks.
PC It was a great way to build an organic fan base, finding those people who like what you do and have a way of seeing your work regularly. What do you consider your first full films?
IR The first short film I made was as an undergraduate. It was an animation and it got into a small experimental festival in Spain, the first acknowledgement. And then, seven years ago, I discovered that I had a brother I never knew about and decided that I would go ahead and make a very personal film with myself at the center. I hadn’t been back to Yugloslavia for eleven years and his existence had been hidden from me.
PC This was a child your father had with someone after you and your mother and sister left for Cyprus?
IR Yes, and nothing was ever mentioned about it. He knew about us, but we didn’t know about him. Upon my return, my father told me about him and we met. Because it was so emotional, I didn’t know how to discuss it or to express anything to my father. Making this ten-minute film was incredibly cathartic and my relationship with my father became that much better as a result. It screened on PBS with the title Eleven Years of Absence. It’s not a great film but it was a milestone for me in terms of many things.
PC Why further study film in school? What did that give you besides an advanced degree? You already had a very strong work ethic and the tools and you were making films regularly on your own.
IR I just found that film was the only way I could really express myself. Now, I’m a decent communicator, but I wasn’t when I was young. Because of my editing and teaching job, and because I was trying to get my visa and have a means to stay in the US, I knew I had to embed myself in an environment surrounded by other filmmakers, by a supportive community. I wanted to live film and I wanted it to become what I did. I also had an amazing education at Hunter where we were trained in critical thinking and came at film in a full way—as a discipline, as an art form, and as a course of study. And of course we watched tons of films and that habit has never left me—I’m a junkie now. I disappear into these worlds as I disappear behind my camera lens when I’m filming – my alternate universe, my paradise. The master’s program wasn’t just production-oriented. It was the theory and reading and talking about cinema that informed the way I wanted to make films and I’m really grateful for that background. I wanted to go deeper than just trusting my eye; I wanted to understand what it was I was trying to do, to be more conscious, I guess. Film is a lot more than just working on a visual plane. The program also has a very left wing theoretical stance. Most of the professors come from an experimental background and talk a lot about pushing form. We would read Jill Godmilow, who came in as a guest professor, as well as people like Zelimir Zilnik and other groundbreaking directors. That, in fact, was how I first met Laura. We didn’t really study a lot of mainstream work. I would mention Harun Farocki, for instance, to some friends who were attending other film schools in New York City at the time and they had no idea who he is. That exposure was really essential for me.
PC Evaporating Borders is an ambitious and very mature work for a variety of reasons, but the way in which you traverse the intellectual, as well as emotional, territory is commendable. The work is very controlled, very precise in tone and in its goal to portray of a state of mind—that of a migrant population living in a place where they’re not wanted, whose very presence is problematic for the native community. I think that in essay films more than other types of films, we really need to know what is at stake for the filmmaker. Otherwise, the film can be a very exclusionary experience—so deeply personal or obtuse that it becomes either claustrophobic or just boring. You set yourself a huge challenge.
IR When I was younger, I was a very shy person and private. It’s quite a transformation for me that my first feature is as personal as it is. I am narrating this film from my point of view. But who is the film talking about, how are they being talked about and who is talking about them? These are the questions I kept going back to because it had to be very transparent given the subject matter. The viewer needs to recognize who I am and from which perspective I’m approaching the story. They can question me, scrutinize me, agree with me or not, but you know where the voice is coming from. No absolute truths are being presented or imposed on the audience. We all connect to vulnerability, but it’s very difficult to go there, at least it was for me. I would show cuts to friends for feedback and they’d tell me that they understood what it was I was trying to say but that I wasn’t being direct, that I wasn’t really coming right out and saying what I wanted to say. I was more interested in making it pretty and poetic, really trying not to expose as much of myself as was required. I’m prouder of the film because I did go further in this regard than I wanted to and audiences are connecting with it in ways I know they wouldn’t be if I had chosen to hide myself more. I saw Alejandro Jodorowsky speak at SXSW and one of the many brilliant things he said was that he wasn’t trying to go out and grab audiences to come and see his films. It’s an experience. He said, “I want to invite you to this experience, invite you to feel my heart and what’s inside it. I invite your heart to beat with my heart.” I was like, “Oh my god, Alejandro, yes, that’s exactly it!” (laughter) I want people to engage with my work the same way, to feel invited into my world.
PC You told me that you’re learning so much about what you did from the audiences who are watching the film now—people who don’t know you or who aren’t likely to meet you in person outside of the Q&A. Can you describe the insights and reflections strangers are bringing to something you’ve made?
IR As I mentioned before, vulnerability is an issue for all of us, in any relationship in which we’re engaged, whether it's romantic, familial, or friendly. There’s fear. Because I am vulnerable in presenting this film, it’s teaching me that it’s a good thing to be this open to whatever comes. It also brings about more good things if you begin at this basic level of truthfulness and connection. I always forget to mention this in interviews, because most people ask about the structure of the film and not so much about the personal content, but . . . Agnès Varda. She’s a genius, so brave. I watched The Gleaners and I during the making of my film. She encouraged me to be brave, too.
PC Varda is a mini-goddess. In terms of the visual language you’re using, the element of water is so prevalent in your story and an apt metaphor to describe the stillness on the surface of your filmmaking—unbelievably still, like a series of photographs. But there is also the realization of turmoil; these waters are quite treacherous.
IR The framing and composition, and the stillness of a lot of the composition, goes back to illustration and drawing, the very first ways in which I expressed myself artistically as a kid. I had one illustration professor at school, the brilliant Melanie Heim. She would show us Tim Burton films and the early Batman films to teach us about framing and composition, negative space, color palette. It was an incredible exercise to study a film that way. All those things enter my subconscious while I’m shooting. A lot of the shots, including the opening one, are of windows. From the beginning, I’m suggesting that we are looking from a very particular point of view. I’m also speaking about borders, boxing things in, limited vision, and limited understanding. Sometimes we’re peeking through a window at something that’s supposed to be hidden, that doesn’t have an open existence.
In regards to both the physical and metaphorical uses of water: the immigrants cross the sea. Many of them drown in that sea and it is treacherous. But there’s also the fluidity. I read all kinds of inspirational stuff while I’m filming and during the making of this film, I was reading Bruce Lee’s autobiography. He talks about being fluid like water. When you trespass across borders, you somehow lose your identity; your existence becomes more fluid since you need to blend into different situations. You are not fixed in any way. You need to flow, adapt. We have a new world. Things are changing. It’s a multicultural world and we need to address that in very practical ways.
PC Your gaze is much more liminal than it is direct and I think that’s why these head-on encounters, when they come, are so strong. Close-up portraiture of faces in film is something I like a lot. The few talking heads you have are always men who say things that are, we understand, offensive to you. But you’ve made the commitment to listen because you feel it’s important to note that many people think and feel this way. You made them confident enough to speak plainly for your camera by appealing to their vanity.
IR (laughter) There is something that I dislike about talking heads. But it’s interesting to think of it in terms of portraiture. The idea is to feel like it’s you sitting there meeting this person for just this one encounter because you really have to see that these things are coming out of someone’s mouth to believe it. Not for the purpose of slapping it in to make a point or a counterpoint to what it is I’m trying to say. That would be, somehow, very tricky. But the palette and lens and the framing, as well, are also essential to getting it right. All of it has to have an appropriate emotional response, a connecting point between the viewer and the person on the screen.
PC You’re showing people at their most vulnerable. They are deeply threatened, so with profound gravitas, they dress up in their uniforms and colors and organize and march and chant for all they’re worth. It’s when you listen to what they’re saying and the fervent hatred with which they’re saying it that it becomes quite chilling. The pageantry of it all takes on a very sinister air.
IR Well, in those instances, you can see that I am the camera, that the camera is a character. In one of the first Nazi protests I filmed, it was a very powerful point for me because it’s so intense, the singing, the praising to the leaders. Your hair should stand on end because mine did when I was in the middle of that, and I wanted to share what that feels like. Otherwise, it’s hard to really comprehend the intensity and the seriousness of the situation.
PC You decided to write and speak the narration in Greek. Someone might have mentioned that if you did it in English, the film would, perhaps, be a lot more marketable. I don’t speak Greek, so your voice sounded beautiful and mysterious ancient and rhythmic to my ears. Here in Thessaloniki, the Greek audiences are commenting on your accent. I’m not at all sure I would have engaged as much if you had spoken in English. You could have spoken in Serbo-Croatian, for that matter.
IR It had to be Greek because it is Cyprus and I’m approaching it as an immigrant to Cyprus. My accented Greek is another layer of admitting who I am. I know this culture and I can exist in it because I speak the language, but there are ways I will never fully belong. I’ve made other films set in different countries like Italy, the United States, Morocco. They all have narration—not by me—in different languages. The one in Italy is narrated in Farsi; the one in the US is narrated in German; the one in Morocco is in French. Different languages have different melodies. I have a film shot in the Southwest United States that is narrated in Japanese. The sound of those languages and how they correspond to the images is important to me. It also adds an abstract element in a basic way, just like you would add sounds to the track or certain music, color correcting in a certain palette – to me, that voice speaking in that language is another layer.
We will do an English version for Evaporating Borders and it will make the film a different experience. There is something that slows me down when I’m speaking Greek, more patient and contemplative that better carries the pace of the film. I am much more conscious of what I say and how I say it in that language. I have no issues communicating, but it is a second language and I have to be more patient for the right words to come.
Ultimately, the human rights story should take precedence, what is happening to people in a certain place that could stand in for many other places. But this film is also a form of expression, my cinematic expression. The English language, in this instance, does not really enhance this expression the way the Greek does. The texture and rhythm is right. But it’s also an insider thing because this film is made for Greek-speaking people; it’s made for the Cypriots and all the things that play into this identity embedded in the language.
PC What took you by surprise when you were shooting, when you were deep into your process of capturing imagery?
IR Actually, the surprising moments came more in the editing process than in the shooting. The surprises I found were when the language and the rhythms of the imagery got caught up in one another in a dance between the two, something that’s so right when you discover it. In stream-of-consciousness work, the questions are: At what points do I stop and start another thought? When do I continue down a certain path or veer towards something else? I also love interrupting the viewer or the listener with something else, cutting you off at certain points. In a way, it’s to keep you alert, in a constant state of discovery. Brecht talks a lot about this process of alienation in his writing about theatre. Just when you think you know where you’re going, things change. Ideally, you become ever more engaged and connected. This frequency of disconnection somehow enhances the connection. When I don’t know how to say something, I must discover a way. For me, figuring this out is the absolute joy of this work.
For more on the work of Iva Radivojevic, please visit her website.
Pamela Cohn is a filmmaker, curator and freelance arts journalist currently based in Germany and Kosovo.