Slovenian director Matjaž Ivanišin’s second feature Oroslan was an unobtrusive highlight of last year’s Locarno Festival. It is the gentle, documentary-inflected tale of the death of an unspectacular man and the tiny ripples it sets in motion in the surrounding community, shot in rural Hungary on fluid, time-blurring 16mm. With the film about to receive its U.S. premiere at Locarno in L.A., I spoke to Ivanišin about its literary antecedent, setting, and his method of introducing real life into fiction.
NOTEBOOK: I remember when I first saw the film, I was surprised to see in the closing credits that it’s actually a literary adaptation, based on Zdravko Duša’s short story “And That’s Exactly How It Was,” as I’d imagined the film was much closer to being a documentary of sorts. Can you perhaps start by telling me a bit about the story itself and why you wanted to adapt it?
MATJAŽ IVANIŠIN: The story was originally written for the program of a production of The Weir by Connor McPherson at the Slovenian National Theatre in Ljubljana, where they sometimes commission people to write texts on the themes being addressed in the plays they put on. It has never otherwise been published. So they asked Zdravko Duša to write something about the sort of storytelling used in The Weir, which is very dialogue-heavy. He thought a lot about what to write and then decided to not write anything about the play, but rather to share the story of something that happened to him, his memories of the day of the death of his brother. When I read Duša’s story, I was very moved and felt that it contained something special. I returned to it after a couple of months and still had the same feeling, until at some point I felt like I should do something with it. I also began to read the story through the prism of my own personal experience, because there was also someone similar to the character in the story in my own family. So that was the starting point.
NOTEBOOK: And how did the adaptation proceed from there?
IVANIŠIN: When I was thinking about Duša’s story, I thought that it would be very difficult for me to film it in the specific place it’s set, which is the villages around Tolmin, close to the Italian border with Slovenia. I felt that I needed to create a little bit of distance to the story to get closer to its essence. So I was trying to look for a totally new place where the film could be set that still retained many of the elements of the original setting. The idea was always to create our own representation of the story, both retelling it and representing it through the medium of film at the same time. We ended up in a region called Porabje, in Hungary, which has a large Slovenian minority.
As we never see Oroslan, the film’s protagonist, because he’s dead more or less from the beginning of the film, I was thinking about how we could feel his presence in other ways, in the faces of the people still living in the village, in his house, the region, the landscape, the memories of those who knew him. I also wanted to explore the idea that Oroslan remains alive as long as he is still present in stories, memories, anecdotes, as long as people still remember him.
NOTEBOOK: What was it about Porabje that made you want to use it as the setting? In the absence of an obvious protagonist, it functions like a character itself to a certain extent.
IVANIŠIN: It’s hard to put into words actually, it was similar to my feeling about the original story, in terms of the fact it stayed with me and that was what I was ultimately looking for. When I went to Porabje for the first time, it was interesting, but it became even more interesting in my head the next day, the next week and so on. It was just a feeling, it was about the atmosphere of the place, some of the faces of the people living there, many different things, I just felt it was right for the story I was going to tell. I was there around New Year the first time and the next time in the summer, more than a year before we started to shoot, so I already had a sense of the changing atmospheres there in different seasons, as you see in the film.
NOTEBOOK: Can you tell me a little bit more about the character of Oroslan, who is a very unusual protagonist in that, as you said, he is never seen, dies around ten minutes into the film and is thus entirely defined by what other people say about him. What was the idea of building a film around an empty space and did anyone in particular inspire his character? What does his name mean?
IVANIŠIN: To start with the last question, Oroslan means “lion” in Hungarian, although we used the Slovenian spelling, it would normally be written a bit differently, with an extra z. And Oroslan is a nickname, rather than an actual name, as I didn’t want to use a standard name with a first name and surname. In terms of what inspired his character, Oroslan is a total construction, but every little detail, every small part of him is based on someone from real life. So there are lot of different people in Oroslan, nothing is fictional there.
NOTEBOOK: So he’s a composite figure made up of elements of different people you’ve known in real life?
IVANIŠIN: Well, some parts of his character come from the original story by Duša, who was writing about his real-life brother, and then I started looking further once I moved the story to Tolmin to Porabje. I work in such a way that if I set a film in a particular place, I have to leave one door open to that region, so that the people from there can enter the story, with their own stories, their own sensibilities. So we worked with a lot of elements from the region as well as with the people there, who described others from the region in turn, so Oroslan as a character is combination of those two elements. Oroslan as he is in the film never existed, but every little part of him existed at some point, in different people. He’s an entirely constructed figure on the one hand but everything about him was at some point here on the other, walking, living, talking.
NOTEBOOK: Aside from the structuring absence of Oroslan himself, the film is put together in an equally unusual way, which breaks down more or less into three parts, starting off silent in the first part, gradually becoming more verbal in the second and then consisting almost purely of dialogue in the third. Was that structure clear from the start or did it emerge via the editing? And what was the relationship between script and improvisation?
IVANIŠIN: The three-part structure was there from the beginning. The first part was scripted, the second part also, but to a lesser extent, and the third part wasn’t scripted at all, we just knew we would be doing interviews with people and had some idea of the kind of subjects they were going to talk about.
As far as the first part is concerned, I really love filming working processes, observing how people work or how they do something. I wanted to show all the events that follow Oroslan’s death as a kind of working process. It was about showing what actions occur as a result of someone dying, when there’s not a lot of time to sit and talk because first one thing must be done and then another, there are so many different actions needing to be carried out. And in the second part, I was then trying to show these actions slowly transforming into words and how these words slowly create the story of Oroslan’s death, of this event, of the day of his death. It was also about trying to place the story of his death close to stories of other things, let’s say, for example, to what’s being said by the guy who’s talking about football.
NOTEBOOK: In the sense that every story necessarily touches other ones?
IVANIŠIN: Yes, that’s right. If the first part is purely about Oroslan, the second part is as if you and I would meet and chat a little bit, talking about this and that, relating various anecdotes, until at some point I would tell you the story of what happened to Oroslan too. And in the third part, I was trying to observe how this one story of Oroslan is then filtered through the memories of all the different people that knew him, that it’s actually made up of countless other stories, anecdotes, details about his character, about his life in this community. And so I just went there and asked people if they would like to speak a little bit about people they knew. In the original story, the brother was an epileptic, so I talked to them and asked them if they’d ever known anyone from around there who was epileptic, if they had any memories of that person, and that’s how I arrived at the stories they tell.
NOTEBOOK: The last part is the one that seems to draw most heavily on documentary conventions, as the stories they tell are presented more or less as talking heads. The people delivering the monologues are very convincing, can you tell me more about how you worked with them?
IVANIŠIN: Well, I worked with people from the region for the whole film, but in the first part, say, I didn’t want them to represent themselves. It was more about their presence, their inner life, as it were, which carried over to the situations I put them in, where they weren’t being themselves like in a documentary but rather playing fictional characters. But in the third part, I wanted to observe them more as they actually are and enable them to include more of themselves. I always like to watch someone describing something and the whole idea of Oroslan is about the need to tell a story, about how stories are told, and the third part is entirely that. They were included in the process because each and every one of them can be a storyteller too, and so it was important for me to just create an atmosphere where they felt comfortable to share their stories.
NOTEBOOK: So what they’re saying is not invented, it’s more that they’re talking about something at least inspired by their own experience?
IVANIŠIN: Yes, a combination of the two really, we discussed beforehand what they would be saying and then they did it.
NOTEBOOK: The film is shot on 16mm, which obviously is a different materiality, highlights colors in a different way, and can also index past times, although not exclusively, of course. Why did you take the decision to shoot on film for this specific work?
IVANIŠIN: When my cinematographer and I talked about it, we were clear that we didn’t want the film to look retro. But we did want to make it difficult to place the film within a fixed time period and also to create a degree of distance to the things we see. This was meant to correspond with what we were trying to do with the process of storytelling within the film. In terms of the original story, I was very interested how we could go about paring things down as much possible, working via reduction, abstraction, condensation. Using 16mm was just one part of this, not least because you obviously shoot less material if you working on film. We also thought it might add something to the film, this organic 16mm look that generates a small distance to what we see. It wasn’t about some romantic or nostalgic feeling about the medium.
NOTEBOOK: You've always moved seamlessly between fiction and documentary in your filmmaking, so where do you go from here and how do you grasp those categories in general?
IVANIŠIN: They’re not so important for me really. But I think for the next project, I will move a little bit more towards fiction, but starting from documentary situations, which will be transformed by or mixed together with fictional elements. I am not so much into observing things per se, I love to create fictions, but in such a way that life somehow enters the fictional process. I think that construction is a way of getting closer to the people watching, albeit not in a one-to-one manner. It’s not about just observing how things are and pretending we are capturing their reality, but rather representing or reconstructing them in such a way that they can be felt in turn by the audience as being something close to their own feelings or experience. I always had the feeling that reality is too complex for me to capture if I show it as it is, without having undergone any sort of reduction or abstraction. And then I feel like I can’t do anything with it.
I like to put my films together in such a way that something from a region, from people, from real life, can enter them. And I'm always listening out for the things that are around me at the moment that we’re working. I try to leave one door open for them, for such unplanned things or “mistakes,” if you will. That’s what’s necessary for my films, the things left to chance.
Matjaž Ivanišin's Oroslan plays at Locarno in Los Angeles, running February 13 - 16, 2020.