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“There Was Almost a Competition to See Who Could Spit on the Film More”: Ognjen Glavonić on The Load

Leon Lučev in The Load

A road trip movie where the destination is clear but the intent is hidden, Ognjen Glavonić’s The Load is something of a taut genre film with political subtext. Set in Yugoslavia during the 1999 Kosovo War (that ultimately concluded with the catastrophic NATO bombing that went unapproved by the UN Security Council), The Load goes micro in its study of a truck driver who’s trying to make ends meet by driving unknown cargo from one destination to another. What he’s transporting, he doesn’t bother to ask and he certainly doesn’t want to know. 

Drab and dreary, war-torn and ravaged, The Load, in its period details and zombified locations, is a study of political nobility and citizen isolation. It’s also, in some circles at least, believed to be a film destined to spark intense outrage and heated debate. Premiering at Cannes in 2018, The Load has been both praised and scorned, but it’s to the film’s credit that the lasting impression is one of palpable human emotion, of fathers and sons connecting over multiple generations, heirlooms, and wars. 

As the film opens today courtesy of its distributor, Grasshopper Film, I spoke with Glavonić about the eight-year history of the project, shooting inside a truck for long hours, strenuously modifying the period details, and the controversy the film has prompted in Serbia, sight unseen. 

Filmmaker: The Load is your first narrative feature, but it has been billed as a companion piece of sorts to your earlier documentary, Depth Two. Was Depth Two a proof-of-concept for The Load? Or were they birthed under different circumstances?

Glavonić: Depth Two definitely grew out of the preparation and research I had done for The Load. The idea for Depth Two came when I was struggling for two or three years to find money to shoot The Load (for which I already had a script). I was further researching the crime and events, and I didn’t want to stick my findings into the screenplay I had already written, which was basically about a day in the life of a guy who is only a part of that machine. I had been reading the transcripts from the trials, started visualizing images of the events themselves and realized, “Okay, maybe I can do this other film, Depth Two, a documentary with no money, without getting myself involved in the producing and financing minutia.” This kind of thinking came out of worrying that The Load might never happen. Making Depth Two was thus a good way to prepare me to work with the same crew, to go to the same locations, to find the visuals, etc. The DP on Depth Two, Tatjana Krstevski, went on to be the DP of The Load, the editor was the same, the producers were the same, the sound guy was the same, etc. It was good preparation.

Filmmaker: And Depth Two’s festival run helped to finance The Load

Glavonić: It helped because before Depth Two, I didn’t have much of a reference [to show funders]. There were open calls for financing from [my country’s Film Center] and I was never getting any of them. But after Depth Two played at the Berlin International Film Festival, it raised interest from other financiers. So after Depth Two got shown to the world, we quickly financed the gap we were missing to start production on The Load. Even if Depth Two grew out of the desperation that The Load might never happen, it, in turn, actually helped finance and get it made.

Filmmaker: If The Load had never received the greenlight, would you have still have sought to make a narrative feature of some sort?

Glavonić: Over the eight years it ultimately took me to make The Load, from time to time I’d write down some different ideas, but they’d never turn into a script. And because it was to be my first narrative feature, I was stubborn. I wanted to do it in spite of all the problems I faced. Maybe it would have been easier to make a different film, as the reason I had trouble financing The Load was due to the way the subject matter was viewed in my country. But I actually don’t think in terms of “will my next project be a documentary or a narrative?” I’m searching for how I can speak about these things through cinema and if I use elements of documentary or fiction, so be it. I love films of all kinds.

Filmmaker: Depth Two takes stories of the period and layers them over war-torn images of the present. It’s the ghost of the past haunting its modern environment. The Load is more immediate, a period piece where the audience is in the thick of it (or on the outskirts of it). Do you see the two films complementing each other that way?

Glavonić: Both films are about time (and not only the time in which the stories themselves take place). Every film is a time capsule and I’m always thinking about how they’re going to be perceived in twenty, thirty or fifty years (if anyone still watches them, of course). Even though The Load takes place twenty years ago, I wanted to find what the story told me about the world I currently live in. Production on the films took eight years (the world was quite different eight years ago) and yet they’re more relevant today than when I had the idea to make them. The crimes that grew out of the rise of nationalism and populism in my country thirty years ago are now everywhere. These forces are getting stronger. The Load was about this transfusion from one generation to another. In the case of my country, it’s the story of my grandparents and my parents (who each had their own wars) and it came out of this fear of not knowing what would become of the next generation.

To your original point, shooting Depth Two helped me realize  that I didn’t have to use the “real” locations on The Load. We shot on real locations for Depth Two, where people had been killed and buried in the very ground we were standing on. Each location possessed its own mystery and its own history. Each location had a secret. Each location had these kinds of ghosts present. If we could find that context and the structure and the form and the shape of the film, then it wasn’t only about this one story, about this one crime, but about something much more.

For Depth Two, it was only the three of us on location. We’d travel by one car and sneak in and even shoot in Kosovo, where the crimes and killings happened. But when we were shooting The Load, we realized that we were not going to receive the necessary permits to shoot there (or we wouldn’t get them for more than one or two hours). We’d have the sixty of us in the crew with multiple trucks and five buses and it was kind of impossible. I soon realized that my knowledge of these locations [didn’t help me]. I should also admit that with Depth Two, not every location we show was connected to the crime. We’d go by car from one place to another and then we’d see something by the side of the road and stop and shoot there because it felt like a “real thing.” For example, Depth Two has numerous shots of my hometown that are not connected in any way to the crime or the story we were telling, and you as a viewer, would never know that. It’s not about manipulation, exactly. It’s just that the presence of death (or something that is not inherently good) can be found almost everywhere.

Filmmaker: Was production on The Load somewhat secretive in nature?

Glavonić: We had to create a fake name for the film (and a fake synopsis for the shoot) because the subject matter was not very welcomed in my country. But the shoot itself wasn’t very secretive because each of the locations involved us telling the local people what we were doing and what the film was to be about. We didn’t want to trick them, as that would have put dirt on the whole thing.

We were primarily shooting in open locations and as we’d arrive, we’d enter like a circus, with ten production trucks and the whole deal. Locals would gather and the police would come by and TV stations would inquire about interviewing our crew, etc. That’s the reason why we had to create a fake name and synopsis for the production. 

Filmmaker: The Load is technically a period piece. What consideration and adjustments had to be made to keep everything within the image of a specific time? I’m reminded of the man with the clunky old video camera at the wedding reception, for example, as being pretty period-specific. 

Glavonić: None of the period details were easy, especially because we didn’t have much money. You have to understand that the most difficult part of this film was that it’s a road movie that’s set in the past. When you have a road movie, you tend to see a lot of cars, right? I needed every car that appears in this film to be older than 25 years. Because even in 1999, where the film is set, the cars have to be a little older than that. They shouldn’t be brand new, you know? That was the most difficult part of the film and it was especially crucial in that wedding sequence, because there we needed approximately fifteen period cars. We took a lot of care on these aspects: the period aspect, the road movie aspect and the war aspect. It pressured us into knowing what exactly would be visible and what exactly would be left out of any particular shot. I only shot three or four shots a day. I’m very obsessed with details and we had a lot of eyes watching everything like that.

Filmmaker: How did you shoot the shot-reverse shot sequences with Vlada and the young hitchhiker? Are you toggling between seats with your DP wedged in there and you in video village observing on a monitor?

Glavonić: What I learned from working on documentaries was to always create a book of rules pertaining to what not to do. On The Load, I knew that when a character was driving, the camera had to be inside of the truck with him. I never wanted to shoot through the window or through another car. The other rule was that we were never going to fake the truck. It had to be a real truck. In the end, we bought two trucks that looked exactly the same. One we used for the real driving and the other we used for the front portion/cabin section of the truck, which we ultimately put onto a third truck! A cameraman was always inside of the cabin. When we were shooting the reverse shot of Pavle Cemerikic, the hitchhiker, like when the camera is positioned in the driver’s seat and POV of the driver, that cabin is in motion, yes, but it’s been put on another truck that is the one doing the actual driving. You don’t have a driver in that cabin, because the driver’s seat is being occupied by the camera. Everything had to be prepared like this. We also opened up the roof of the truck so that we could put in glass that could be opened or closed. We let just enough light seep in so that we didn’t have to resort to fake, artificial light. I was always either in the back of the truck or in a nearby van with the DP and two other people and the video monitor. We communicated via walkie-talkies and that’s how I directed the actors, actually: the sound guys were inside the cabin with the cameraman and we would communicate via these walkie-talkies.

Filmmaker: And the van you were in was trailing behind the truck encompassing the actors?

Glavonić: Either behind it or in front of it. If we were in front of it, we’d rely on the rearview mirror to see everything going on [with the actors]. I deliberately chose locations (like the forest or the roads or the mountain) where we didn’t have to return to a starting position to reset and check continuity. We could drive for half-an-hour and the outdoor sights wouldn’t change much [laughs]. We could just drive and record. In the edit is where I found the good shots.

Filmmaker: And you had written out a separate script exclusively for the sound?

Glavonić: It wasn’t exactly a script. When we started working on the sound design, I realized that I had to work on the specific sounds of the truck, and so what we came up with resembled a script, but it was only ten pages, from scene to scene, of how the sound should behave, if you will.

To put it plainly, I knew that there was going to be a guy in a truck for half of the film and not much was going to be happening. That’s why the sounds (and the feelings they generate) are important. They should give us feelings of isolation, and if you abide by the rule that the camera is always inside the truck, the off-camera space is very important. The information we get about this world is mostly through sound or through what Vlada can see through these windows and small mirrors. Without creating tension through action or drama, the sound was something that you don’t pay much attention to and yet it should create a kind of feeling, like a horror film.  

Filmmaker: What about the example of when Vlada listens to the hitchhiker’s music via the sharing of headphones? The viewer doesn’t get to hear that music.

Glavonić: Yes, the whole film is about the withholding of information like that. Vlada doesn’t know exactly what he’s driving in the back of the truck and he’s trying to internalize everything; you can never really trust the person next to you. These details connect throughout the film and hopefully resonate for the viewer. For example, by the end of the film, you do get to hear that song. 

Filmmaker: How did the intentional withholding of narrative information like this enhance your intended effect?

Glavonić: The film was always about the story of this main character. He’s driving because it’s his new job, but he doesn’t have clear information as to what he’s actually transporting. He has a feeling as to what it is, but he doesn’t actually know. In a way, he doesn’t want to know, because it would ultimately stop him from providing for his family. My challenge was then to have each of these throughlines communicate with each other.

Filmmaker: When you open the film up to go beyond and outside the truck, the sequences have a more choreographed feel to them, i.e. when Vlada phones home and everyone in the parking lot is making considerable noise and, almost by chance, celebratory balloons fly out of a trunk and toward the sky. How did you block the exterior sequences before shooting?

Glavonić: When we started shooting the film, I had a shot list made up, i.e. “on this day, I will shoot this and on this day, I will shoot that,” and so on. I knew that a few of these scenes would be very difficult in that they would require numerous extras and choreography and staging.

For the wedding sequence, as you mentioned, I knew that I would need more days. By the time we arrived at this scene, I had already changed the way I was working, because after the first two days of production, I realized I wasn’t shooting more than a few shots a day. We were shooting at the end of February/early March and the days were very short. I started creating the film on set, which is what I always wanted to do—not to film the script, but to create the film while on the locations themselves. While the wedding sequence was heavily choreographed, there was nobody else around and so we had 360 degrees of space just for us. In a way, this made things very easy. I could put the telephone pole wherever I wanted, etc. We had to practice for a bit, then we’d shoot. On that day, we only did two shots and they both ended up in the film (they’re approximately two minutes each). 

I should also say that two of the most difficult scenes are not in the finished film. We spent one day for one shot and one day for the other scene. Neither are in the finished film. They weren’t bad, but yeah, it happens. 

Filmmaker: Are there historical references and specificities in the film that you hope viewers pick up on? I wouldn’t advise they go in without at least a passing knowledge of the Kosovo War.

Glavonić: Yes, but if the viewer isn’t from my region and they miss some of those details, hopefully there’s still enough that can be enjoyed. Some of the film’s details relate to what was then Yugoslavia, to the old country, and about the social experience. The film takes place in a moment where one country and one system of values collapsed and the new country was not yet born. The new system of values did not yet exist. The film lives through the moment of the last war that happened in my country, and that’s why all of this is about history and time. These details might only be detected by people who are knowledgeable of my country’s history, but I’m not sure. I tried not to be too “in your face” about it, like “See this? Now this is very important.”

Filmmaker: I think the viewer internalizes that. The film even opens with hints of those atrocities reflected on a car window and it’s a subtle way of getting across what you’re now verbalizing.

Glavonić: It shows the normalization of war, certainly, and when you finish the film and eventually forget the story, hopefully you remember some of these images or small details. They might stay with you longer than the film itself.

Filmmaker: How has the film been received back home?

Glavonić: There was a big attack on the film (and on me and on the crew) when it was announced that The Load would premiere in Cannes. Colleagues, tabloids and even politicians took it upon themselves to create this narrative that the film was anti-Serb, that the film was about a crime that didn’t happen and lies like that. They created a narrative that the film shouldn’t exist, even though they themselves had not yet seen it. Their negative campaign lasted for six months until we had the local festival premiere in our country at the end of November 2018. But from May to November, there was almost a competition to see who could spit on the film more and who could say worse things about it. They never saw it! I have a thousand or so pages from Twitter/Facebook/Instagram of people saying awful stuff. There were even two or three reviews of the film by critics who didn’t see it. The union of police were writing to the president and wanting to censor and block the film from being shown. There’d be a campaign from one tabloid every single week for twenty weeks, all for a film they couldn’t bother to see. They were imagining stuff, like, “Oh, they must be being paid by the Muslims” or crazy, crazy things like that. I think someone should make a film or write an essay about how the imaginations of these nationalists work, how they shame something they don’t even have the time to see.

When we finally announced that the film would be screening [locally], the chatter stopped, because everybody could go and see that the previous chatter was all bullshit. We had a great premiere, like six sold-out screenings. However, when we were discussing distribution plans last December, we realized that their shade campaign had actually worked, as now cinemas were afraid to take on the film. Cinemas around the country didn’t want to take the film, because they were afraid that there would be neo-Nazi groups or right-wingers trying to block the screenings. Since most of the theaters are publicly-owned, the theaters were worried that they wouldn’t receive money from the Ministry of Culture in the future if they chose to screen the film. Due to the party that’s in power, they were afraid that they would lose their jobs if they screened the film. In the end, economically, the negative word-of-mouth succeeded and that’s why a lot of people still haven’t seen it. It’s playing in Belgrade for one or two weeks and that’s it. Around Serbia, only two or three towns showed it for more than a week. The rest have been one-off screenings. And in the second biggest city in Serbia, the cinema didn’t want to rent the screening room to us. We were willing to rent it outright for a single screening and they didn’t let us. We took to some guys from outside the city who went on to organize a screening that was full, but then…nothing. 

It’s very sad. I’m sad that many people haven’t seen the film in theaters, even if, yes, they can now find it online (piracy is big in my country). The film is worth seeing in a cinema and, really, with a community. I think it would be especially important in Serbia. Maybe we’ll try again to organize a screening in Serbia, but the problem is that even the cinemas don’t want us to. With that said, the film has played more than 80 festivals and has received 25 awards. On the festival circuit, forty or fifty thousand people in total have seen the film and I’m very happy with how it’s been received.

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