Foreplays is a column that explores under-known short films by renowned directors. Dušan Makavejev's "Hole in the Soul" is free to watch below.
Part of the series "The Director's Place," produced by BBC Scotland, Hole in the Soul (1994) is a 52-minute documentary with Dušan Makavejev behind and in front of the camera. It also features family and crew members, old friends and collaborators, animals, and other illustrious characters (whom one is never sure if they are playing themselves, performing a part, or both). Despite all its beauty, despite being the last project that the director was able to complete (leaving aside his participation in the 1996 anthology film Danish Girls Show Everything), you won't see many mentions, discussions, or celebrations of Hole in the Soul. It is a shame. A shame that is also a sign of our times.
By crafting his own persona via what we could call a cinema of situations, Makavejev makes an autobiographical documentary that pursues its own free form. Across a series of independent sketches—united, nonetheless, by a strongly coherent line—we follow the director as he navigates an emotional turmoil whose roots are personal and artistic, political and historical: Makavejev's health issues, his difficulties in getting finance for new projects, are enmeshed in the same net as the amnesia of a country—Yugoslavia—torn apart by nationalistic wars. From Belgrade to Los Angeles and San Francisco, Makavejev's peregrination is complete with spiritual counseling, scientific inquiry, professional advice, and even candle lighting. All in an attempt to regain something—something that remains unnamed, unidentified, like the source of a pain that eats the soul.
Motifs of rise and fall, weight and lightness, entrapment and liberation are scattered throughout the film, attesting to the highs and lows of existence. But this affecting meditation on loss and change teaches us, precisely, how to remain tuned to the faintest pulsations of life, how to listen to the rumor of subterranean rivers, how to keep the flame of dreams burning—after those dreams have been smashed and mourned.
There's much of what makes Makavejev's films great in this little documentary. To begin with, there's the collage spirit, evident in the mix of materials, but also in the combination of different tones, types of scenes, approaches, and ideas. The film jumps graciously from everyday moments (a family meal, a visit to the market, gatherings with friends who remember past events and fabulate deliriously about the history of a stone), to more staged scenes that reveal the very intricacies of the shooting process (the recitation of a poem, for instance, is interspersed with backstage shots of the huge cue cards used for the reading, and of a mirror that reflects the crew). It is punctuated by wonderful cartoon-style images that serve as introduction for each chapter, an array of live songs and musical arrangements, constant nods to different members of the filmmaking team. There are lyrical montages made with footage from Makavejev's previous works, a 1973 home movie "in Jonas Mekas style" shot during his exile trip, and excerpts from films by others that have been manipulated and repurposed, either used as poetic interventions or as explosive inserts.
Every scene of Hole in the Soul is worthy and, in many of them, it is impossible to tell what has been written and rehearsed from what comes out of the blue. Often we find ourselves marveling at this perfect combination of organization and improvisation, between careful planning and fortuitous discovery. In one of my favorite sequences, Makavejev and his friend seek advice from a couple of Buddhist monks. Initially, the scene is set up in a way that satirically emphasizes the hyper-staged nature of the chance encounter. But, as soon as the conversation starts unfolding, something switches. The back-and-forth between Makavejev and the male monk is unpredictable and full of grace. The editing alternates between shots of the monk—his piercing gaze and questioning accentuated by the push-in of the camera—and Makavejev's genuine reactions of expectation and surprise. "Tell me Dušan, what can you lose in a dream?", asks the monk. The director, disarmed, looks at his friend and bursts out laughing: "You’re a tough cookie!"
The Buddhist couple offers Makavejev a gift: music played with their finger cymbals, set against the aural backdrop of birdsong. The emotion that emanates from this moment takes us from the earth to the sky, before returning to Makavejev who responds with an unexpected move: slightly bent toward the couple, with his hands behind him and a smile in his eyes, he says: "I have something for you." And he starts whistling a tune. On the wings of such a gesture of gratitude, we move from this garden in California to the decorative heart-shaped mobiles sold in a Belgrade market. This incredible freedom of staging and montage—another mark of Makavejev's cinema—is everywhere here, serving various purposes. Sometimes the film allows us to wander the streets as seen from the perspective of a dog; at other times, it allows us to take flight with the freedom of a bird. It can deliver an edgy comment about show business by lingering on Arnold Schwarzenegger's foot kick in the poster of Last Action Hero (1993). Or it can respond to the madness of the present day with the beautiful colors and healing images (trees blossoming, boys jumping from the Mostar bridge) of an old movie.
In a section titled "Film as a Manic-Depressive Activity," we see Makavejev at the AFI Film Festival in Los Angeles, where a tribute is being held in his honor. But the theater where Sweet Movie has just been screened is spectrally empty—we see only a couple of heads in the audience, some staff members and… a fat, white pig. "I was delighted when I discovered that I had non-human viewers too," declares Makavejev. Outside the theater, the director seems pleasantly amused by the pig roaming around and making funny noises. Utterly curious, he bombards her owner with questions ("What kind of movies does she like?" "Is she a film star already?" "Does she drink Coca-Cola?"), finally discovering that this charming lady animal shares a birthday with Joseph Stalin. There is, in Hole in the Soul, this constant playfulness that sticks its tongue out at depression. But depression doesn't go away; it haunts. And it's this spectacle of constant re-balancing and re-negotiation that the film offers to us, like a never-ending cat and mouse play. Humor and melancholy, sadness and joy, are so tightly intertwined in this film that it is impossible to tear them apart.
The final segment—a boat trip down the Sava river with rock star Rambo Amadeus and a bunch of crew members—has the flavor of twilight drunkenness. The men joke about serious matters, screaming and singing and dancing like old sailors who don't want to go to sleep. As the sun sets and the image acquires an orange tone, the cameras pan across boats, faces, and water, eager to capture everything. "Give me a close-up!", orders Rambo. With his face stuck to the camera, he starts exhorting the producers, calling them names, asking for three hundred million dollars on behalf of his friend. "One or two million would do. Zero point eight would do," says Makavejev. Rambo looks at him disapprovingly: "You've got to think big. Three million. No less. We'll blow the other two!" Makavejev's dream project—which he didn't get to make—was to be titled Yugoslavia.
Hole in the Soul opens with a picture of Makavejev as a curly-haired schoolboy—born in 1932, his childhood coincided with the Second World War and, very early on, he learned "how easily people plunge into the dance of hurt and being hurt.". The film closes with a 1935 message engraved on Hollywood Boulevard by Shirley Temple, another curly-haired kid: "Love to you all."
Can today's audiences pierce the disguise of this film that presents itself, without fanfare, as a bunch of scenes put together for a minor TV documentary? If they do, they may discover something quite precious and unique. A film that cries and laughs at the same time, that wanders with the innocence of a child, and sings with a broken voice. A tender movie. A sweet movie.