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“A Shifting Metaphor for a Lost Dream of Society”: Srđan Keča on The Museum of the Revolution

An elderly woman with white hair tied back in a bun stares to her right. She is illuminated only by the light of a fire that exists out of frame; her surroundings are pitch-black.A still from Museum of the Revolution

Investigating the death of a utopian vision coalesces with a survey of a “developing” dystopian hellscape in Museum of the Revolution, the sprawling, meditative effort from filmmaker, researcher and educator Srđan Keča. Through a series of charming vignettes that are nonetheless thick with human despair (and radical joy in the face of it), Keča’s documentary examines the crumbling remains of the titular edifice in the otherwise rapidly evolving city of Belgrade, Serbia. Construction of the building originally commenced in 1961, and the never-formally-erected Museum of the Revolution was conceived as a grand tribute to then-socialist Yugoslavia. Yet the project was quickly abandoned soon after due to the country’s impending economic collapse, and only the basement of the building ever made it off of the blueprint.

Over 60 years later, the derelict space now houses many of the city’s outcast and downtrodden; Keča specifically follows homeless elderly woman Mara; young single mother Vera, who washes windshields while cars pause for red lights; and her hilariously precocious, elementary-aged (though not currently enrolled in school) daughter, Milica. While their days are spent toiling for scraps and nights looking for a safe place to sleep, their matriarchal and multi-generational bond persists despite their oppression.

In spite of the film’s title and the framing device of the museum, Keča’s film is practically devoid of broader context as to the history of the edifice, the city it’s located in and the people who reside there. Instead, several long takes depicting  everyday conversations and interactions between the women present the director’s overall thesis: the rapid development inherent to capitalist societies leaves less and less room for vulnerable populations, and the only recourse is to resurrect visages of the past that at least hoped for a better future for all citizens.

I spoke to Keča ahead of the doc’s limited release. We touched upon its original execution as an installation piece nearly a decade ago, the politics of Vera and Milica’s Roma identity and how the current state of Serbia and other countries boasts one of the “most corrupt possible systems.” Museum of the Revolution opens May 19 at DCTV’s Firehouse Cinema in New York City before screening at the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival on June 4.

Filmmaker: I know this film is a continuation of a 2014 installation you created in the Pavilion of Serbia in Venice. How did your relationship with the physical museum change over the course of adapting this into a feature-length film? I’m assuming you had to travel back to the edifice to get more footage. 

Keča: It was a quite a long process, because when we started making the installation piece, it was concerned mostly with the space itself. But, of course, we met the people who lived there. One of the first people we met was Mara, the old lady who appears in the film, way back in January or February of 2014. Over the next couple of years, myself and Radisa Cvetkovic, the assistant director, kept going back there. We often went without a camera just to visit Mara, so that was kind of an evolving relationship with the community there. Then I had the feeling that there was more there than the installation piece [covered] that had to do with looking at and using that space as a springboard for a film that was not necessarily literally tied to the space itself. The metaphor of that space felt very rich to me. I was trying to find a way into the story. 

The film really began one January morning when I saw Milica and Mara play together. I’d known both of them before, but I’d never seen them play together before that point. Basically, we started shooting the next day after that, and those are the first scenes in the film where we actually [see the characters]. 

How the relationship with the space evolved in the film was also a journey. I thought at times that the film would be more tied to the space, and that the spatial configurations of the city itself would play a bigger role in the film. Where we eventually landed was this idea that the space itself was a shifting metaphor for a lost dream of society, a never-fulfilled dream that then served as a kind of safe haven for the protagonists. A metaphor for the refuge that they found not only in the space, but in each other from the transforming hyper-capitalist city around them. An important data point for context is that Serbia has consistently had one of the highest levels of inequality in Europe, and that’s 30 years after socialism.

Filmmaker: It’s interesting that you’re speaking about context now, because the film begins with striking orange-tinted archival footage, and it’s the only use of such footage in your film. Can you speak about why this specific piece of footage struck you as the best for opening the film, and why you chose not to implement more archival materials or contextual elements in the documentary? 

Keča: There’s a broader aspect to that, which is that when you come from the part of the world that I come from and you’re trying to make a film that speaks to kind of broader audiences, you can either go the way where you get bogged down by providing more context and it’s never enough, or you can say, “Here’s an invitation to maybe learn a little bit more about this.” But the film itself isn’t that, it has a shape that is self-contained in a way. You can watch the film without that context and still get something out of it—hopefully a lot. At the same time, there’s a sense we try to build that there is context to all of this but not necessarily reveal what it is, because you can really go down rabbit holes. 

With the archival footage in the beginning, the sense we tried to build was that there was a dream and not be too specific about what the dream was. You can get a sense that it was a socialist dream, that there was a space there that was supposed to contain those dreams—that vast, empty space in the first shot of the archival footage. We tried to get shots that had this dreamlike quality from the archives, and they’re actually some of the first shots of the construction of a new Belgrade. We try to use that as a hint to building this dream, then just make a really hard cut from that to today.

Filmmaker: I know you met Mara first, but how did you incorporate the other two women into the dynamic? How long did it take to establish trust and have the camera feel non-invasive among their everyday activities? I know that you captured them playing first, and that feels very natural, but I’m wondering if establishing the camera as a presence took time, or if it was a natural development. 

Keča: I think it was pretty natural and relatively seamless, because we had already shot in the space there. Sometimes we would come back there with a camera and not shoot anything, and it was like that throughout the shoot of the film. There were many days when we wouldn’t shoot a single frame, just because things weren’t of interest to the film itself. We had a very clear separation of what is of interest to the film and what is of interest to life and being together with the protagonists. Us spending enormous amounts of time together led to that relationship of a seamless transition from not shooting to shooting. 

I knew from the get-go that I wasn’t interested in all of the peculiarities and specificities of their lives. There is a way that the film incorporates some of those, but in a very touch-and-go way. We just touch upon certain things and then the film keeps moving, because if we had gone deeper we would’ve then lost the broader perspective of the film. It was a question of how to balance that. We did most of that in the shoot, so it wasn’t a decision made later in the edit to not incorporate certain things. I think that contributed to that relationship of trust, understanding that we were not going to be invasive.

Filmmaker: What was the editing process like in general? How many hours of footage did you capture with the three women? Did any aspect of the film shift or change in the edit at all, or was it a very clear vision and you just assembled the footage in your head? 

Keča: Both. We had about 120 hours altogether in the edit, so there was still a lot. I forget the count, but we had something like 65 days of shooting. Like I said, a lot of those days would be us not shooting anything at all. Some days we would even show up without a camera, just because stuff was happening and we wanted to provide some support. During the shoot, I was working with a kind of paper edit, essentially. There was a narrative I was going for with the film, and it didn’t end up being exactly that, but it’s pretty close. Some important things did shift later on because of how things unfolded in the protagonists’ lives. But it wasn’t a film where we were just following the action and seeing where it goes. I understood at some point that we were going to have a very small number of sequences in the film, and that those sequences had to tell a story in a way that didn’t rely so much on actual events. There had to be a story that’s a level above the actual events in their lives, a higher level of abstraction. 

In the edit, most of the work was really understanding how to cut the footage. There are a lot of long takes, patient observation that we didn’t want to go against. We were also trying to identify opportunities to open the film up a little bit to more essayistic passages. Sound was a big thing while we were cutting the film. Hrvoslava Brkusic, the editor, is also a sound artist herself, so we were incorporating a lot of sound work in the edit, and working with 20 to 25 tracks of sound already in the picture edit, to build these layers of soundscape that are the connecting tissue of the film. We were trying to understand how the film moves, to clarify the language and not have moments where we step too far outside of it.

If we step outside of it, then that step feels very important. The way that we were filming was a kind of all or nothing approach. My editor said at one point that we were essentially editing a fiction film where you only have one take for every scene [laughs]. The way we were thinking about things during the shoot is that we’re going to essentially do takes of a certain emotion, and if it fails, we do another one. In a way, selecting the footage that would go into the film wasn’t such a big problem, but understanding how to work with the footage was actually a lot of work.

Filmmaker: I noticed that you have a writing credit in the doc as well. Is that because you were following a kind of narrative structure during the shoot? 

Keča: I don’t think about credits too much, but this was very much a written film. Not in terms of the dialogue itself—I would never input dialogue to the protagonists at all. But there was a sense of, “Well, this is the story we want to tell,” And the story is separate from the protagonists and the things that were happening in their lives. It tries to tell this broader story of the city and society through focusing on the protagonists. It’s something between how you would work on a fiction film with takes and everything, and how you would work on a more conventional observational documentary where you just follow events unfolding.

Filmmaker: The cinematography is striking, and each shot is very lush and textured, even during nearly pitch-black night scenes. What camera did you use, and what external light sources, if any, did you utilize? 

Keča: There weren’t any external light sources, ever. We were a really minimal crew—just the two of us—and I think that also helped contribute to the intimacy [of the shoot], despite the fact that we were two men [laughs]. I mean, I would sometimes stop and say, “This is kind of a strange situation.” You have these two men who are working with a community, but the focus is on three women, essentially. But somehow it didn’t feel like that mattered very much in those moments.

But yeah, we were a really small crew. The assistant director, who was also the sound recordist, is one of the kindest and most wonderful people I know, ust a very close friend. Then on the post-production side, it was also like a family, a group of friends working on this film, so it all felt very tight-knit. I felt like I had to do the cinematography myself, because this is the kind of film where the smallest camera movement matters a lot. I’m kind of sensitive to these little movements of the camera, because I feel they reveal a lot about the relationship that’s there. So I was like, “OK, I’ll hold the camera and take ownership of the fact that we’re filming with the protagonists and this is my point of view.”

The technical stuff is, in a way, almost irrelevant, but there are some shots in the film that are actually back from the installation piece. A couple were shot with a Blackmagic cinema camera, which is ridiculous because it’s a terrible film camera for low-light conditions, but that’s what we had. Most of the film was later shot on a Sony F5, which is an unpopular camera because it’s considered very TV-like, but I actually loved it. I think you can  push a lot of cameras to look “cinematic.” It’s really more about finding the right distance, the right feeling in the moment, the way that the camera moves and reveals the way the cinematographer feels about what they’re filming. I think that’s where the intensity of the cinematography comes from, hopefully not just from the prettiness [laughs]. 

Filmmaker: To me, the film has a very clear anti-capitalist viewpoint, which is obviously rooted in the political history of the region you’re filming in. However, I think the story of these women also feels universal. Many of us live in or visit places that have large swaths of people struggling to survive in virtually the same way. What do you hope this film communicates about the current state of Serbia and the global reach of capitalism in general? 

Keča: There’s definitely a universal strain to the film, even in the two opening quotes. One is from the architect of the Museum of the Revolution, where he says that this museum is supposed to safeguard the truth about us as a people, and that it cannot be built by conventional means. This prompted me to think about the film as a way of preserving that idea: “Here’s the film as a museum.” The second quote is something that I found in a John Berger essay about poverty. It’s a Chinese proverb that says, “The wind got up in the night and took our plans away.” That proverb reveals so much about precarity in general. I connected that to the precarity of historical flows that we’re very used to in the Balkans. Pretty much any direction that’s been taken within the last couple decades, there’s a discontinuity and then a reset. Those discontinuities are often very violent, and the period in between is often violent, too. Then there is also a sense of the protagonists themselves living that structure in their lives. Every other day they would essentially have to completely change plans about how they’re going to live, what they’re going to do, etc. That structure of precarity is something that is universal worldwide. 

But as far as the more specific stuff related to Serbia, I think the strain of capitalism in Serbia— I would call it authoritarian neoliberalism—is very present, and not only in Serbia. Hungary is another example of that, where you have an authoritarian system in place or something that you could call a regime. Yet it is not totalitarian, it’s authoritarian with neoliberal, free market ideology. The combination of those two is one of the most corrupt possible systems. It moves society into this spiral of rising inequality, which I think is something that the film addresses. 

Going back to the idea of these discontinuities, it is something that is very familiar to people who grew up in working class families in Yugoslavia and now in Serbia. The protagonists live an extreme version of that in that they’re completely unprotected from the rest of society. There’s another aspect that I would like to mention, something the film deliberately doesn’t address directly, which is Milica and Vera being Roma. They’re part of this population that is not only discriminated against, but whose representations in films and media from all over Europe—specifically the Balkans, with some directors who I shall not name [laughs]—have been exoticized. So what I wanted to do is to try and represent them in the same way that I would represent my own family, to be very close to them and give them a sense of intimacy and warmth, and also focus on the women within that community. There’s a way that they’re isolated, both within their own community and in the way that men are the ones mostly interacting with the world. Women are usually given these small domestic roles, but in this situation where Milica’s father was in prison, they took on a more public-facing role. Their interactions with the more visible parts of the city are limited to the exchange of money when they’re wiping windshields. In every other way, they’re invisible or dismissed. It was important for me to show the way that they’re isolated and to film in a way that represents that sense of being separate from what’s happening in the city. For example, in the concert scene and every one of those passages in the film that opens into more essayistic sections, we never see the protagonists because they’re not really there, in a way. They’re made invisible by the city, and then we return to them. 

Filmmaker: I’m so glad that you brought up their Roma identity, because my closing question was about how you navigated that. I also think it’s true of most developing metropolises that these populations are intentionally hidden and made to feel like they can’t interact with the city at large. There are no resources for them. 

Keča: I intentionally did not want to point the audiences to the specificities of the Roma population, because what I’m trying to do is counter the other representations that already exist. Part of that is making the film feel a little bit more like a universal experience of poverty, but another part of that is to say, “Well, what if we just didn’t look at them inside this box Roma identity?” I think the Roma identity was essentially built by these outside representations, and it’s very unfortunate. What I’m trying to say is: let’s rebuild it from scratch. What if we just looked at it without all of these other narratives in our minds?

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