A Blank Space Is Never Blank:
An Interview with Dane Komljen, director of All the Cities of the North
By Ela Bittencourt
Dane Komljen’s first feature, All the Cities of the North, has no narrative in a traditional sense. Instead, it focuses on two men living at an abandoned resort, inside a barren apartment that resembles a white cube. The film follows the men’s daily routines, which at first consist mainly of securing food, hygiene, and warmth in inhospitable surroundings, and evolves to shooting a film. The men never speak, but in voiceover a male voice offers a poetic account of the construction of the International Trade Fair in Lagos by Serbian architects, a project meant to symbolize Africa’s economic potential in the 1970s. Some of the Trade buildings were never used for their original purposes, yet they provided a basic architectural template for the local population to adapt. Like the layers of a matryoshka doll, the stories in the voiceover each add complexity to the dreamy portrayal of the men, who live like outcasts or pioneers, surrounded by a forest and with wild animals grazing by.
Komljen’s story proceeds by association—there may not be an obvious link between the still images that we see of Lagos and the white cubes presented in the film, but both are indeterminate spaces that serve multiple functions, and which invite human imagination, as well as a sense of wonder. In Komljen’s film, the white cubes serve not only as shelter, but also as the setting for a film shoot, as we see Komljen and his crew on a boat, capturing images and sound. But while the film is self-referential, it’s also whimsically elusive. Treating the film within the film, or his own presence, as just one of the narrative threads, Komljen weaves in stories as diverse as that of the creation of the modern city of Brasilia and of a Serbian epic hero, Prince Marco. This gives All the Cities of the North an eerie quality that can perhaps best be compared to One Thousand and One Nights—we are in the presence of a storyteller who seduces us with his tales, while also reflecting on how much our environment is in constant flux, subject to our most primal fears.
Reverse Shot: I would like to begin by talking about the location. Did you know it before shooting?
Dane Komljen: I did. I imagined a film being shot there only a year after visiting it. I saw two bodies in a white cube, inside a blue tent. That’s how the film started. I think in the three years before we began shooting I went there seven times.
RS: How much script did you have at that point?
DK: Everything that you see, or rather, feel was already in the script. I wrote it as a series of situations. And I had five monologues. The texts were very precise from the start, since I am less interested in the rhythm of casual conversation and instead want you to feel the beauty of the language. The same way the written text comes alive.
RS: At the same time it is a fairly silent film. People only ever talk in voiceover, when at all. Who are the two actors we first meet?
DK: Boban Kaludjer is a firefighter in my hometown of Banja Luka. And Boris Isaković is a famous actor in Serbia.
RS: We see them working on a construction site.
DK: That scene is a fiction. I shot the film in a very underdeveloped area of Montenegro, on the border with Albania, by the seaside. The area continues to be underdeveloped, but now it also has a lot of construction and migrant workers. In winter they do construction work all over the place. But my film is not a study of a milieu, or an observational film. I just wanted to step outside and invite the construction workers, their faces, into my film. And I knew from the beginning that I wanted to film in January, because of the light. In winter there are more clouds, the light is more diffuse, and most of the time you don’t know where it’s coming from. There is a lot of wind, so the light and the weather change all the time. You see clouds move and the light changes.
RS: I recall when a character takes a piss outside and we see his shadow on the wall.
DK: The way light disappears is singular, and I wanted that in my film.
RS: It seems that the space was incredibly freeing for you. You took it as a blank page.
DK: But that’s the thing, a “blank” page is never blank. There is always a texture or something written on it, a fold or a stain. Things are never made pure.
RS: Tell me more about the physical space.
DK: It is a tourist resort that was shut down in 2000. There is a small forest there and the sea is just on the other side of it. You don’t get to see the sea in the film, but you can hear it. The resort was built as a series of bungalows together with a hotel, which you see getting destroyed in my short film, Our Body. By the time I discovered the place it stood empty. It is so pared down, basically just white cubes. My idea was to make a shelter out of this place, and then the film itself also became a kind of shelter.
RS: I was intrigued by how you link this space in Montenegro, the white cubes, to other places. For example, the city of Brasilia, which is featured in your recent short All Still Orbit.
DK: For many years I was fascinated with the story of Vila Amaury, a workers’ village built during the construction of Brasilia. The village was then submerged under an artificial lake, Lago Paranoá. I went to Brasilia for a month to do a photo-video installation about Vila Amaury and then spontaneously decided to make a film about it with my partner, James Lattimer, which turned into All Still Orbit. The second story we used was about a saint, Dom Bosco, who was said to have dreamed of the region Brasilia was constructed on as a land of milk and honey. Oscar Niemeyer’s modern city was basically said to be a reincarnation of Dom Bosco’s dream. We found it fascinating that you need a fantasy to build on, even for a city that is an expression of rigorous modernism. You can’t just start from nothing. Everything needs legends and history, a pre-existing context.
RS: Brazilian artists, such as writer Clarice Lispector or video artist Ana Vaz, have been fascinated with Brasilia as an imaginary futurist city that is also somehow a city of ruins. How did you experience it?
DK: You cannot really discover Brasilia like any other city, because the distances are so big. You cannot walk to a building. And then you start to think that perhaps the idea of getting from place to place by foot is very Eurocentric. But my impression was that there exists a friction between the city that Niemeyer envisaged and the actual city. Certain public spaces, such as the Museum of Contemporary Art, seemed abandoned. This reminded me a lot of Belgrade, where you have the same situation, the same institution being shut for years. There is this beautiful amphitheater in Brasilia, a space where the community was invited originally to debate ideas, and which no one visits. And then there were shopping malls full of people. So the city is something different from what it was intended to be, which is also interesting. Its inhabitants have inscribed themselves into the space, into the environment.
RS: Another “inscribed place” you reference is the Trade Fair building in Lagos, Nigeria.
DK: The Lagos Trade Fair building was designed by Serbian architect Zoran Bojović. He invited four other architects and all the architects were given the same seven basic construction elements to use in making the individual buildings of the Fair. The Fair was built in the suburbs of the city, between 1973 and 1977. But in the end, only the central building was actually used. Then the local people built around it. If you find it on Google Maps today you can see how the new buildings have been inscribed into the initial space. So you have this utopian project, beautiful yet useless, but then people end up using it. It’s like “over-writing,” you have a text and then you write around it. It’s not necessarily a quotation. It becomes something new, although the old elements are still there.
RS: One layer of your film concerns how we construct space and how space constructs us. Another is the open, undefined relationship between the two men living in the white cube, into which they invite a third person.
DK: I keep this part very minimalist, like the white cubes, but you can read a lot into it. The openness of their relationship is utopian. For me, it’s about the fact that you can’t demand everything of any one person. It is the quickest path to destruction for any community, even if it’s just a community of two.
RS: In that sense, socialist utopia was a very particular communal dream.
DK: But one single dream is not enough. You need more dreams, or else the dream becomes a totality.
RS: What about the third layer, which is about filmmaking? For example, in the film you also show your crew filming.
DK: There is a scene in The Long Day Closes by Terence Davies where the boy asks his mother to give him money to go to the cinema even though they’re very poor. It’s raining outside, and you realize that some of the people in the auditorium are just there not to get wet. Because cinema is also a space of shelter. Films can embrace everything. A camera is not really interested in anything, it`s a disinterested entity, it doesn’t care about what one feels or wants, but that’s fine—it has the power to embrace whatever is in front of it. A camera’s not a demanding machine, in a way. It’s very inclusive. For me, it seemed logical to include cinema in my film. The fiction also becomes stronger because it acknowledges me as being part of it. I am one of the fictions, this film is one of the fictions. It was about creating this open space and stretching it as far as possible, moving step by step, adding new elements one by one. At one point, it became inevitable that the making of the film itself should come into view.
We shot with two cameras. I was only talking with the DP handling the first camera, without in any way checking the images he was taking, and the second camera was filming everything, I didn’t direct the second camera at all. We shot from the script half the time, but then the actors would also propose what else to shoot. We always had time left to get lost.
RS: What was the editing process like?
DK: We shot for four weeks and ended up with 150 hours of footage, so there was a lot of editing. The structure of the film as one can see it now did not exist in the script. The film is constructed as a walk. It starts with the men inside the tent, then it moves outsides the bungalow, and then finally outside the complex itself. That’s the most “documentary” part, if I can use that word. Because what is a documentary? I don’t start by saying, “I want to make a fiction or a documentary or an experimental film.” I just know what images I want to see.
RS: Your shorts have been described as being somewhere between a documentary and a fairy tale. And in the feature, you do include a myth—the story of Prince Marco.
DK: It is a Serbian national myth. Prince Marco is based on a historical figure. The lines come from an anonymous epic poem dating back to the oral tradition, but I rephrased it to make it more contemporary. In the original poem, Prince Marco is a big strong guy and he’s always right, justice always on his side. But I turned it into a story about two men on their horses, a story about beauty, love and solidarity.
All the Cities of the North played Saturday, October 8, at New York Film Festival as part of the Projections section.