The Fortress of Utopia is an experimental short film set in the former military bases of the Island of Vis in Croatia. The remains of its impressive architecture serve as a stage for performances through which the author explores the nostalgia for the socialist past and its future perspectives. Not approaching the history of Yugoslavia directly, but merging facts and fiction in a peculiar way, the author introduces personages of contemporary tourists and stylized figures from the past in the same time and space, emphasising the nature of memory (both personal and collective) and decay.
Writer/Director: Sandra Sterle
DOP: Bojan Mrdenovic
Editing: Marija Bjelinski
Release date: 2015
Duration: 28 mins
DOP: Bojan Mrdenovic
Editing: Marija Bjelinski
Release date: 2015
Duration: 28 mins
Artist Interview: SANDRA STERLE
SANDRA STERLE details
IntervieW Transcript: SANDRA STERLE
The film starts with a really beautiful shot of Croatian coast. Where is The Fortress of Utopia set and what is the significance of the location that you have chosen?
Sandra Sterle: This is actually the island of Vis in Croatia. This island was forbidden for foreigners until 1998. It was a very important military site. There have been many, many places built on the island that were part of the military security protection so it was not so easy to allow foreigners. So the first tourists started to come in 1999 / 2000 and this is when this island started to have a new history and a new relationship to tourism, the global economy and stuff like that. I was really interested in the past and the present and how to maybe talk about that in a film that is a bit experimental.
You said that the film sits somewhere in between the nostalgia for socialist past and perspectives of future. Is that the premise that you were trying to explore as a key idea behind the making of the film?
Sandra Sterle: That certainly was one of the key ideas concerning of course my generation at the times that we basically lived through different countries. I mean it makes you really question things that you have been brought up with and then now have to transfer in another country, in another values. I mean, I'm really the representative of that generation because I think that you are too young to even know what was it like to live in Yugoslavia and what does it mean to live in Croatia. I think we are basically this generation that have had this split in the middle of their adult lives. So we know what we were brought up with, how are we obeying the rules that we had to live with and then what happened later. How did we adapt to that? What were the values? And in a way I was not very serious but I must comparing this values through the new value of tourism. So in a way I was a bit critical but also just trying to understand.
Coming back to the beginning, the opening sequence of the film. We start with the rhythm of something that sounds to me like military drums. And this is combined with fast editing and as I already mentioned quite a beautiful sight of Croatian coast. And then there is a cut and the drums stop and we see three red figures appear in the distance. And the sound changes as well. What are we seeing and hearing at this stage?
Sandra Sterle: I was trying to, without film gimmicks and the way how people are doing it in a narrative film, I was just trying to maybe play with the idea that we can as well go to a past that moment. So this transition is just saying: OK we are now in the past but maybe it's not even the past. Maybe it's just me setting up people, dressing them the way how they used to dress and what is this uniform that they're wearing, it's like this associating with socialist past but we also see it's a costumography, we also see clearly that it's not documentary … And also the sound that is being played is old partisan songs just to make it clear that these are the moments where we can start to think of the past. … I was questioning also very much the lyrics of the partisan songs and how do we today think of all these words that we were pronouncing and me as generation we were singing those things in school. What were we thinking basically, this is what I'm asking myself; what were we thinking while singing the partisan songs; where we serious, were we laughing, where we performing … what were we doing? What it means to me, what it means to you, what it means to somebody else? Because we are individuals, one can identify with these songs and say: Wow, beautiful youth, this is what I remember from my childhood! And another person from my generation would say like: Wow, I'm so frustrated I had to sing these songs, they were so stupid! And then you will have somebody who would say: Wow, this is our legacy, we will never give up this legacy because this is the moment where we as people were liberated from the fascism and stuff like that! So this is what I was questioning, basically.
I would like to sit a bit with the element of sound in the film because it's one of the strongest elements and I'm interested when in the production process did the sound come about, whether it was something that was guiding the idea behind the whole project from very early on and whether even visually the film was imagined with the sound in the background, or was sound attached to it after?
Sandra Sterle: While you watch the film you can see that some parts of the film were already preconceived with the music because there are certain parts where the music is playing off the mobile phones of the people who are in the film. So it actually served as a sort of guiding line for the performers in the film while other pieces of music were added later. So I wanted to have a certain connection to the music from the past, the music from the socialist times, the partisan songs but on the other hand some things were added later in the editing process. Of course I didn't know till the end how the whole experiment would look like but I must say it's an experiment in a way.
When you were developing the project did you work with a script or you had something more like a treatment?
Sandra Sterle: It was more like a treatment with some elements explained more in detail. And here I must say that this was applied as a project to Croatian Film Fund which has a special section that is called experimental film where I usually work with as an author because of my background and the way how I was raised and what I was doing before. I somehow always have worked in this field of experimental film. I have also been educated in that direction because here in Zagreb we had a multimedia centre where a famous experimental filmmaker Ladislav Galeta was working and holding lectures for us students from Art Academy, from Dramatic Arts Academy so we were sort of group of people who have since early age started to think in that direction and luckily there was always this fund that supported us in a way with this intention to make experimental film, film that questions certain ideas and I'm so happy that we still have this here in Croatia.
Coming back to the narrative of the film, there are few different characters that could be identified. We have tourists. We have figures dressed in red. Then there is a figure in black. There is a naked man towards the end. Could you tell me a bit about the storyline in a way behind the film; who are these figures, what do they signify?
Sandra Sterle: Well I usually in the past have worked a lot with costumes and I'm very interested in combining different costumes with different ideas behind and for me this is let's say a long term project that I have always either turned myself into other people or turned the other people into something else. So, yeah this is a story where actually the same actors or I would say people who appear in the film, they change between this ghosts from the past, and further simplify themselves into the reds and blacks, and then today they transfer in the tourists who we don't know whether they're black or red or white or whatever but they all have the same interest to explore that territory. And I wanted to shift in this experiment the time forwards and backwards just to see or to start to think about what is happening in terms of ideology or does any ideology still exist except ideology of selling your product in a way.
There is a series of performative gestures in the film. When we spoke about this project earlier you said that you were interested in shifts and transitions between performer and dancer and the shift into expression with the body and the movement. Why was this of interest to you and how was this explored throughout the film?
Sandra Sterle: Maybe I will just continue what we were previously talking about, that my interest is really shifted towards this investigation into what is a performance or what we call performative today. So I think this film has joined some of my visual explorations in the times but also some intellectual wondering about what is this performative shift that we now call in contemporary art. And I tried basically to connect professional dancers, and performers or people from the visual arts who are performing, and actors with their totally different experience in film to put them on scene and to see how are they interfering and what is actually the mark that any of them are leaving in this process. So in one way I worked with the actors and I received what they did receive from them and I have seen how they actually interact to the loose script and how do you go from one scene to another with them. I have seen also performers reacting on the spot on location so it made me want to cross the line between all these three disciplines.
With this result basically.
Did you work with choreographer?
Sandra Sterle: No. No, I worked, let's say, with all of them individually. I had help from some people who were coordinating actors, for example a colleague of mine from the academy who had prepared actors so they become responsive to my way of working. So they were just a sort of unconscious puppets and reacted spontaneously to my visions and they performed in front of the camera and sometimes I would continue recording what they did although it didn't previously stated it like that in the script. So I improvised a little bit.
And was there an overarching direction that you gave to your collaborators, maybe an image or a thought you wanted them to carry in mind as they were working on the piece?
Sandra Sterle: Yes I had a talk with all of them and I also have sent them a treatment so they know what is this about and they have collaborated in a way that they also suggested some ways how they want to come to a stage. So there was a lot of negotiation about that and not in a bad sense it was just like organically trying to find the best solution for a scene. And I had a very nice atmosphere, I must say.
How long were you shooting for?
Sandra Sterle: A week. I mean not all days and all the time but I was on this island for a week with all the equipment. And yeah we had a little sponsorship from the hotel on Vis that allowed us to stay, because there was like maybe ten of us all the time in the hotel rooms. So they helped a lot.
A question around your own methodology of working whether on this film or any other project. Is there a special ritual that you have before shooting a scene, something that helps you center and enter a particular creative mood?
Sandra Sterle: Well it's not maybe before every scene but as this was quite a demanding task I have set myself a rule to maybe withdraw a little bit from let's say daily life as I usually have it with many friends and relatives. And so I withdrew a little bit for a month or two before going there to shoot it and an actor who is in the film he suggested where I should go on my personal retreat. So he suggested the literature that I was following at the moment trying to concentrate on my breath and trying to be sort of present and trying not to lose a lot of energy before the start of the film.
What kind of literature?
Sandra Sterle: Yeah well it's not really… I mean it's not a simple self-help literature, is more like a method of everyday concentrating on your breathing as a kind of meditation that can help you focus on some level.
Once you had the idea for the project, I assume one of the first collaborators would have been a producer who helped you put everything together. Was it then the DOP that was the next one to come on board?
Sandra Sterle: Cinematographer was one of the students who have joined us on this location as a student who wanted to learn more and he was a very talented student. He's also a photographer and he's also a very creative person who makes his own art and he immediately could visualize what I see. So it was a very good collaboration in the first place. Nothing was unclear. I mean it was just as much pleasure as you can have with somebody shooting something that you actually want to shoot.
Coming back to the performers and performances there is a strong sense of absurdism in the film. Watching it I am imagining that sets were quite fun. That it was quite fun to shoot it… But at the same time performers needed to feel very relaxed and safe to be silly in front of the camera. Were there some methodologies you were using to help them through that process?
Sandra Sterle: Yeah. A lot of my pieces are a bit funny. There is this element of absurd that is present in Mediterranean area. I think that people are joking more as you go south. I really like to work with this element and I don't know if I am always successful but I wanted to bring it in this film. So we were joking a lot and people knew that they are going to make silly things and they were all agreeing on that.
Talking about the audience and the reception, how did international audience receive the film? The reason I'm asking is because I'm aware that there are many elements in the film that are quite familiar to Yugoslavian audience but I'm wondering how do they translate to international audience and whether you have noticed that when you are presenting film abroad you need to give them an extra information to orient them?
Sandra Sterle: Well in the few places that I have shown this film I had quite a good response and a various response. What I can say in general is that there is this question that comes along that people ask me: Are you joking or are you serious and are you a fan of Tito or are you criticizing the times of socialism? I mean this is what people usually ask me concerning this film. The last place where I showed it they didn't have this questions at all. And this is Aesthetica Film Festival in Britain where they didn't ask anything, they were just really happy with the film and somehow they have felt this sort of relationship also to the British history because Brits were also part of this liberation movement and they immediately somehow understood the humor and the seriousness of the issue that I was addressing. And in Switzerland I had more of this talk with a curator who really liked the piece and was wondering about my history. But she was Bulgarian. Another person who really liked the piece and also showed it was Romanian. So it's like, it seems like this whole area very near to ex Yugoslavia has this relationship to a piece.
Is there a particular scene in the film that's your favourite?
Sandra Sterle: It's hard, it's very hard for me to say that. There are several scenes that are interesting and that I always kind of come back to: of the woman singing after the cinema scene, that I really like. It ‘s just before they all go away from the camera. I also quite like a dancer who danced dressed as a Marshal, as Tito, in a Nike tennis shoes.
Did he develop this choreography himself or did he work with someone who helped him a bit with movements?
Sandra Sterle: No, we were talking about that and we discussing what he's going to be doing at this moment and how he will move and what he wants to do. And then he kind of said OK I know how I will move here. And it's like something very contemporary in a way. And also very pathetic.
Were there locals around you when you were shooting scenes and were they a bit confused with what's happening?
Sandra Sterle: There were locals but they reacted in a normal way. They kind of immediately understood because they know that this is their legacy and this island is very known for this historical moment in the past. And so they understood it immediately and I didn't have any strange reactions.
The film was presented in the cinema but also as an installation in the gallery. Were those two modes of presentation always on your mind as you were developing the project or did these decisions and options came up after it was made?
Sandra Sterle: Well it somehow works like this in many cases for me. As I told you, as I work in experimental way I always shoot a lot of material and as I also don't have a script that needs to be put together in exact way I'm always experimenting with this and that and the way how to connect it. So for me it is very organic to work with installations, especially because I make exhibitions and this is really a piece that can be used for the installation work.
So as an installation it was presented in a different way?
Sandra Sterle: It was presented on five screens. And there were different loops that are from the film. Minimal actions that are on the loop. You don't see the whole film, you don't really read the narrative but you just somehow go inside this absurd actions and scenes and this is much more of what I have been doing as an artist in my performance art and video art.
What is the significance in the film of one of the final shots where we see the cinema space and the audience falling asleep?
Sandra Sterle: I think it's very much about the saying: is life a dream? Is life a movie in a way? We are seeing this historical moments sometimes as a movie projections that have been projected in front of us. And we somehow relate to that. So it's more like saying OK this historic moment is finished, we are now entering a new phase and the new movie is being projected. We are maybe not dead. We are just dreaming. And the switch between reality and fiction is just this moment where you sort of fall asleep in a cinema and you wake up and it's a new movie. You are always in a new projection.
It's interesting, I was reading it as if the audience is in a state of apathy. There are these changes and the invasion of tourism to this historic site and nobody really gives a damn about it. People are falling asleep while they watch this new movie.
Sandra Sterle: Well yeah in a way I mean if you have had a previously different approach to life and if you have been identified with a way of living from before I think you would also find it very difficult to identify with the way of life now. Because we all know that like so many people have that, I mean they don't understand the new principles at the moment, what are we really living, what does it mean to be part of European Union, what is the role of your territory? I'm not speaking about the country, I'm speaking more about what could you expect. And we also witness everyday young people going away from this country. There is no work, or a prospect of having a successful life because of new jobs not being created. The education system is falling apart in a way that needs a very new structure. This is the question… Is this new country able to form sufficient life experience for young people. Or are we just falling into less and less important jobs that are serving tourism and entertainment industry. Is this all what we can do for the next generation?
And so going from there, because you mentioned education and you’re mentioning the next generations, and apart from being a successful artist yourself, you're also a lecturer at the Department of Film and Video at the University here in Croatia. And you will also soon be lecturing dancers in how to work with camera or how to work for camera. I'm interested what will be some of the advices you will be giving them? How do you work with camera as a dancer?
Sandra Sterle: Well I don't think that I will basically give any preconceived answers about that. As a subject that is sort of just adding to their curriculum is something that should maybe just make them aware that there is this camera or even mobile phone that is always present today and that we feel sometimes recorded even in the moments that we don't want to be recorded, and that there is this moment that this can be a very nice solution to some problems that you work with while dancing. So I will basically work more on awareness of what a film or photography can do for a dancer. I don't really want to prescribe one or two ways on working with camera because I have my own experience and I have some experience from my close friends and colleagues and I know how they work with that but I still think it is quite the unexplored, there is still a lot more that we can do in this direction working with bodies and cameras in different ways. I mean this is really something that is interesting to me.
What would you say does it mean to transfer a dance onto the screen, to make dance cinematic? Because you were saying that it's unexplored territory what the camera can do for dance. What is it in your view that a camera could do for dance?
Sandra Sterle: Well in a way I'm always interested in these languages that are not conventional. So I firstly am not attracted to commercial dance, I'm more attracted to the unconventional behavior. This is where my interest comes from. I'm interested in the ways how you can move through the space or even psychologically express yourself and not being trained for that in a conventional way. So it's very maybe psychological interest. This is where I derived my interest from and dance is maybe in that way interesting to me. Not as a history of dance or forms of dance but more as an exploration of one's own body through physiology and also psychology. So these ways of expressing are especially inspiring to me and I would like to encourage people to think of incorporating both ways in the document, let's say, in a document of behaviour, in a document of interfering with space, interfering with one's selves, with other people. So it becomes more clear what are they really doing.
And also thinking about that question what makes dense cinematic, one question that I was raising for myself is whether it's something that the dancer finds in the way they develop choreography with the camera in mind? Or is it something that is found through camera, through the eye? Or is it something that actually really comes together in the editing process?
Sandra Sterle: Well everything's possible really. I mean camera can be on the external position but a lot of dancers are dancing with the cameras so they completely have another view from a certain body parts or from the certain moments, or camera is recording from their body to the outer space, I mean this is also possible. Of course there is more straightforward way of working with the camera from a very distance and dancer being really very much into his or her dance. And then we do the final editing and we make the best of it. And depends what you work on or who you work with but I find usually very, very interesting to record moments that are not an actual performance but are maybe just practicing for performance or exploring where to perform or exploring how to perform. And it's a very interesting form. Because it's a live form of art. And with every live form of art there is something that you cannot catch as much as you try. You cannot catch it only in performance. You cannot catch it only on the stage. You really need digging up. And this film form in performance is for me this sort of digging up on what is behind.
"I find it very, very interesting to record moments that are not an actual performance but are maybe just practicing for performance or exploring where to perform or exploring how to perform. And it's a very interesting form. Because it's a live form of art. And with every live form of art there is something that you cannot catch as much as you try. You cannot catch it only in performance. You cannot catch it only on the stage. You really need digging up. And this film form in performance is for me this sort of digging up on what is behind."