“Acceptance of The Other”: Iva Radivojevic on Evaporating Borders
Using the island of Cyprus as its setting and object of pointed criticism, Iva Radivojevic’s Evaporating Borders views the third largest island in the Mediterranean as both a place of familiarity and disconnect. With immigrants currently making up 25% of Cyprus’ residents (the majority being Greek and the minority Turkish), an intense feud has developed between the “natives” and the refugees who live in fear of their welfare benefits being confiscated by the government. As rallies and protests broke out magnifying the separation between the communities, Radivojevic, with camera in hand, took to documenting the experience in the form of a visual essay, a lyrical, memory-driven experience that doesn’t hide its own personal point of view.
As well it shouldn’t. As Radivojevic, a former 25 New Face of Independent Film, noted in a personal New York Times article introducing her 2013 Op-Doc, Hail, Hail, Freedom in Cyprus, “In 1992, when I was 12 years old, my Croat-Serbian family left Yugoslavia to escape ethnic unrest. We relocated to the beautiful Mediterranean island of Cyprus, only to find ourselves in another ethnically divided land.”
As the film opens this week in IFP’s Screen Forward series at the Made in NY Media Center (tickets can be bought here), I spoke with Radivojeic about subjective viewpoints, the dehumanization of The Other, and the happy accidents involved in finding appropriate documentary subjects.
Filmmaker: A much shorter, five-minute version of this film, Hail, Hail, Freedom in Cyprus, debuted as a Op-Doc for The New York Times in April 2013. How did that opportunity come about?
Radivojevic: I had already been working on Evaporating Borders, so that was already underway. The financial crisis hit at that time, and with Cyrpus being covered in the news, it went from being a place that nobody knew existed or knew where it was to suddenly being all over the media. We used [this moment] to talk about other issues on the island, and so we pitched it to The New York Times.
Filmmaker: How did Laura Poitras, listed as the film’s Executive Producer, get involved?
Radivojevic: I met Laura while I was completing my MFA at Hunter College. She was a creative consultant on a short film I did. We stayed in touch, as she really liked my work, and I told her about this new project I was working on. She really liked it and suggested that she become an Executive Producer. That was pretty early on in the process.
Filmmaker: And the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective?
Radivojevic: I’m a member of the Collective and had workshopped the film there a couple of times. It’s very beneficial to have a community that supports you and can give you insights that you appreciate and respect. It can help guide your film a little bit.
Filmmaker: The film is both observational and methodical in the way it goes about telling its story. What specifically made you wish to create a visual essay?
Radivojevic: I think we all have different ways of expressing ourselves. Activist and journalistic films are important, but it’s not the way that things come out of me. Since I grew up in Cyprus, I knew that my perception would be skewed due to the experiences I had. I thought it was very important for me to address that, to be very transparent in noting that this is a very subjective point of view. I’m not coming into it with a clean slate, and knowing that, the viewers can choose whether or not they want to agree.
Filmmaker: Why did you choose to narrate the film in Greek?
Radivojevic: I made that decision because, although it’s not my own country, I did grow up in Cyprus. I speak with an accent (the same way that I do when I speak in English), so it was important for me to identify myself as both an insider and an outsider. I think that once you speak the language, you have a better understanding of the culture. There’s something to be said about the melody of a language. It’s like adding a piece of music to the film. There’s a texture to the language and how the language sounds can play a big role. Greek also added a layer that I don’t think the film would have had [without it].
Filmmaker: How do you craft a narrative through text that is not necessarily referencing the narrative we’re provided with via the visuals?
Radivojevic: I make notes as I’m shooting, writing down my thoughts and experiences, and when I’m editing, the actual text comes through. I wrote out the film as a letter to a friend, and then from there I created a collage of the images that correlates with that. The origins of the story happened at the same time I was filming.
Filmmaker: The film personalizes Cyprus while also keeping it mysteriously foreign. There isn’t an overabundance on frenzied movement within your compositions. There are a number of exterior and establishing shots meant to familiarize us with the area. What were you looking for specifically while shooting?
Radivojevic: I shot most of the film myself with a 5D, with my line and field producer who was doing sound. We were investigating the situation at the same time (our instinct was to shoot whatever was relevant to the topic we were going to discuss), so when we began editing, if I didn’t have the scenes that I wanted, I would reach out to a few friends in Cyprus and have them shoot additional scenes. They contributed some of the footage, specifically one friend who had been shooting the woman in the film that closes the gate, who everybody seems to love. She was a neighbor that he had been documenting for awhile. For the most part, however, the shooting process just consisted of the sound person and myself.
Filmmaker: How did you find your “visitors” for chapter two? Were you searching for refugees to interview, Cyprus residents seeking asylum who had felt misplaced?
Radivojevic: Everything was very serendipitous. Since we started the film as an investigation, we were finding people in situations and discovering new ideas. We didn’t know that these people existed and we didn’t know if we were going to receive access to these reception centers. It just sort of happened as we were searching.
Filmmaker: How did you meet Yassin, the 18-year-old skater boy who you get to know through a series of interviews?
Radivojevic: He was hanging out in a sort of social space where anarchists and those who don’t conform hang out. I found him very interesting, and in talking with him I realized that we had many similarities. I knew he would add something to the film that the refugees seen in the film couldn’t add.
Filmmaker: One scene I found particularly striking was when you were attempting to interview a fruit stand worker. While on camera, the man is confronted by a Turkish immigrant and asked for money. Disgusted, he then rants about how the government is giving handouts to immigrants who come here to have lots of children and be lazy. Was that moment planned?
Radivojevic: That was a very happy accident and completely unplanned. The man was a very nice man, but as you speak to people, things start to emerge and people are exposed. We’re all guilty of this and I’m not trying to point fingers. I’m trying to provide a self-reflexive moment for the viewers and for myself, to see how we participate in these moments and how we’re as guilty as the guy who snaps at this beggar woman.
Filmmaker: In the film you mention a meeting you had with a Romanian priest who attempts to save unwilling female sex workers. We never see the priest you’re referring to. Did you have footage of him and chose not to use it to protect his privacy, or was there another reason to withhold his identity?
Radivojevic: Some of it has to do with the fact that these people do not want to be on camera. Other times, I encountered people and heard their stories, but didn’t have my camera with me. They were still important stories to share, and so I found a way to incorporate them in a somewhat more subjective way. The Romanian priest wanted to remain anonymous. One of the first refugees that we meet in the film didn’t want to be on camera, and that’s why you do not see her face. We had to find a way to work around this.
Filmmaker: The film shows you on the scene of multiple rallies organized by Greek-Cypriot groups — such as The National People’s Front — that are anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant, marching throughout the community. Were you attacked while filming these rallies and protests? One moment in the film shows a police officer lunging for your camera.
Radivojevic: That was a rally where the neo-Nazis were coming to this one specific, social place where anarchists usually get together. They were trying to protect their own space. There were police and swat teams there as well, and it was actually one of the neo-Nazis who went for my camera with a baseball bat. I didn’t get hurt and I don’t think he wanted to really hurt me. He wanted to scare me. The camera is OK, as am I.
Filmmaker: One character talks about the dehumanization of The Other, that they have “created an enemy and around it we organize our identity.” Could you speak a little bit about that idea?
Radivojevic: He puts it really nicely in the film. The way I see it is that we all have an identity we construct that is very firm and inflexible. Anything we encounter that is foreign and challenges our identity is something we view as an attack on our identity and our beliefs. I think that the acceptance of The Other and the acceptance of difference is the most important way to go toward a more harmonious existence. We’re all very different and we’re all very different people, but to accept the differences would be a major step. We constructed this identity and we created this imaginary fear of things being taken away from us. When there’s an attack on our identity or our ego, we feel that what we’re presenting is dying. That fear is imaginative and needs to be resolved. That’s where the film’s title comes from as well. To evaporate borders is to evaporate those lines and the constructions created in our own lives. Does that make sense?
Filmmaker: It does. One character states that Cyprus is one of the worst places for migrants to live, even though they are looking for safety outside of their original homeland. What’s your personal take on this belief?
Radivojevic: The film uses Cyprus as an example for things that are happening all over. I don’t need to single out Cyprus as one terrible place, because things were pretty bad in Greece and Italy, and the Neo-Nazi groups are rising up all over in Bulgaria and Sweden. From my experience with speaking with the refugees, wherever they set foot into first is where they find more resistance and trouble, as that’s where they have to be documented. But Cyprus certainly has very racist institutions with xenophobic policies.
Filmmaker: Had you always wanted to tell your story segmented into multiple chapters?
Radivojevic: I was watching a lot of films at that time. I was watching a few Jim Jarmusch films that were divided into sections, and I was watching a lot of Michael Glawogger. The story I’m telling is such a complicated story due to the island’s rich history and the fact that it was divided, has migrants, and so many other things we could talk about. The only way that I could really make sense of it was to compartmentalize it. The island was divided, and the society was divided between the refugees and the society. So it made sense to divide the film to echo everything that’s going on within the island.
Filmmaker: Some of your recurring visuals become a kind of iconography. The ferocious Mediterranean Sea, the pair of fishermen, the flock of flamingo…Were you looking for motifs of a kind?
Radivojevic: The flamingos are migratory birds. They come to Cyprus every winter, and of course no one pays attention to them because they go and they come back [on an annual basis]. That serves as a good comparison to the refugees in the country. That was important to me. I don’t know, maybe that’s also my own sort of wink at Chris Marker who uses his cats in his films. I have flamingos! And the water in the Mediterranean is significant because 1) that’s where the migrants end up 2) the water is fluid and it changes. There’s a quote by Bruce Lee, something along the lines of “You need to be like water, fluid, in order to adapt to things.” That applies to Evaporating Borders as well, because there are no borders in water.