Director Ivana Mladenovic on ‘Soldiers. A Story from Ferentari’

The portrait of a queer marginalized couple in a marginalized community and neighborhood hits San Sebastián competition

San Sebastián: Ivana Mladenovic on ‘Soldiers.
Courtesy of Beta Cinema

SAN SEBASTIAN — “Boy or girl?” jokes Adi (Adrian Schiop), poking the vast dome of a belly of boyfriend Alberto (Pavel Vasile-Digudai), who lies on his sofa, on which he takes up frequent residence, in the mid-stretch of “Soldiers. A Story from Ferentari.”

Even in physical terms, the love story of Adi, a wiry thin-rim-glassed intellectual and Alberto, an young ox of a man who has gone to fat, seems a near surreal conjunction. And sex is one of the best things the couple’s got going for them.

Adi and Alberto meet when Adi moves into a dreary flat in the Ferentari Roma neighborhood of Bucharest, to research a doctorate on menele, Roma urban folk music. But homosexuality is frowned upon in Ferentari. The lovers can frolic together in a park in the rich part of Bucharest, but not even hold hands in the neighborhood. Adi comes from Romania’s middle-class, a Roma ex-con who is treated like a serf by his cousin. Adi feeds Alberto dreams of getting a job at the local rail yard. Alberto spends the money Adi gives him on slot machines.

Shot in near-documentary style, and based on Adrian Schiop’s book, “Soldiers. A Story from Ferentari” marks the fiction feature debut of Serbia’s Ivana Mladenovic.

The film’s caché has grown steadily given its backing – “Toni Erdmann” co-producer Ada Solomon at Romania’s Hi Film Productions, Serbia’s Film House Bas Celik, Belgium’s Frakas Prods – as well as pickup for world sales by Beta Cinema and the film’s selection for Toronto’s Discovery section and competition at San Sebastián. “Soldiers” delivers a searing comment on the gulf between Roma and middle-class Romanians, and en passant on poverty porn. Odd couples have rarely seemed odder, though endearing, or a love story so rigorously realist and at times – and this also goes for interludes, such as of a Roma wedding – at the same time so surreal.  Variety talked to Mladenovic before her San Sebastián competition screening.

The film’s heart, and warmest scenes, are those of Adi and Alberto is the park, or just chilling out in the flat, or walking with mischievous smiles on their lips, almost holding hands, to the countryside to make love. How did you get such performances from two actors who are after all non-pros?

Once I found the person who was going to play Alberto’s character, I felt at ease. After all, he was the one who was hard to find – the looks of an ex-con Roma who would be able to be good at acting long monologues, none the less. When I met Pavel Vasile-Digudai, it seemed almost impossible that a family, married man from a very traditional gypsy community, who is not even gay, would accept the role of Alberto. But once he accepted, we started a long process of working on acting. He would come every weekend to Bucharest (he works as a bodyguard in a city far away from Bucharest) and participate in long casting sessions with actors while I was trying to fill the role of Adi. At the same time he would learn from them, even what improvisation means. It lasted for one year and a half, until I finally decided to take the real Adi for the role of Adi the character. It was strange for Alberto at the beginning because it was hard for him to act with someone he knew was openly gay. But when he met Adi he discovered that he had so much in common that the two became friends. We rented a small apartment in Ferentari, almost similar to the one in the movie, and we started filming rehearsals for two months before the actual shoot.

Festival films from Latin America are sometimes accused of being “poverty porn,” exquisitely-lensed depictions of dirt squalor and hopelessness. You seem conscious of this not only in your commentaries on the films – “Poverty is not to be contemplated” but in developing “Soldiers” as a study of the psychology of poverty and ostracism. Adi’s been dumped by his girlfriend, conceives a romantic scheme to rescue Alberto, which also helps him restore his self-respect. Alberto is ostracized by his family or treated as a neo-pet by rich Roma Borcan.   

I had the temptation to focus more on the framework, the poverty around me – Ferentari is a world in itself, somewhat different from the rest of Bucharest, and your eyes are easily stolen by the landscape, you want to put the camera on what you see around. Even though Adi’s novel in real life (on which this film is actually based) has a sociological dimension, with all kinds of interesting episodic characters or examples of atrocious poverty, I preferred to ignore them in my film. In the novel, such characters and situations are packed by the narrator’s voice in a mixture of dry cynical empathy: “That’s how it is, that’s the way things work”. But in my film, in the absence of a voiceover, this approach would have been pathetic and ostentatious, as it is with porn. Which is why I preferred to obsessively observe the relationship of the two men; to reveal the paths of poverty and psychology through Alberto: the status of a servant in cousin Borcan’s house; his legitimate desire to gain his personal autonomy at any cost; and his gambling addiction that is also based on the hope of getting out of poverty.

From the very first scene, when Adi discusses the rent, money runs through the film, with Adi haggling over price of anything from a Nokia phone to a prostitute. The film seems at once tender and acutely aware of what separates Adi and Alberto…the movie has been described as a Roma Romeo and Juliet, but it’s one where Romeo can go back to his well-heeled family. Only Juliet dies. 

It’s true: Romeo and Juliet came from worlds of similar economic and status quotient, whereas Adi and Alberto come from radically different economic worlds (clearly in favor of Adi). As long as there’s enough money for sustenance, Adi’s relationship with Alberto goes smoothly: a kind of affection that we can call love. In that sense, money adds to love. But when money finally runs out, the problems begin. Alberto realizes that Adi is without money and power, even though he comes from a different background to Alberto’s.

If we circle back to the comparison to Romeo and Juliet, it is first and foremost the idea of ​​an impossible relationship that has no success in the real world: the differences between the worlds where the protagonists come from is difficult to reconcile and here it is not just about money.

As for the fact that only ‘Juliet’ dies – in the consumerist world we live in today, the sublime tragedy has been replaced with the drama. In the tragic version, perhaps Adi would have had to stay with Alberto until they get kicked out of the apartment, work his days while sleeping in a social shelter and maybe end up setting themselves on fire in front of the town hall in protest against the course of society. But Alberto is not a piece of clay waiting to be molded, and Adi does not want to take the responsibility in the end, Alberto ends up worse than he was at the beginning.

You’ve said that ”Soldiers. Story of Ferentari” is a love story which then becomes one about guilt. That’s not only Adi’s, however, but the spectator’s I think…

At one point I was tempted to make the film from Alberto’s perspective but I realized I would not be honest with myself. I was not able to rebuild the psychology of a poor, ex-con Roma. Mediation through the eyes of a character in the same social class as mine seemed more credible. Staring at the idea of ​​the perspective through Alberto’s eyes, I also realized that the meaning of the film would have been reversed: Alberto would have become a kind of hero who risked everything to get rid of Borcan’s captivity by replacing it with another captivity, to a drunken homosexual, poor and rather stingy guy who at the end abandons him. Adi would have become a moral monster in a boring and conformist fable, which was 100% politically correct. That’s not what I wanted. I wanted a movie that empathizes with both characters. Watching the story through Adi’s eyes, the spectator tends to identify with him, put himself in his shoes. Through Adi’s eyes, the mechanisms of the racism against the Roma are dismantled – the fear and paranoia towards them. Then, as a spectator, you get attached to Alberto and discover that he is actually a funny and sensitive guy and that he deserves a better life. Then you begin to identify with him. Of course the question that concerns both of them is what can Adi do for Alberto, under the circumstances? After his relationship with Adi, Alberto cannot go back home, and Adi is trapped in an one-way situation. We begin to identify with Adi’s guilt.

The film has been praised by the few who have seen it for its taboo-busting. That seems to me to be across the board. You show queer love in a Roma community. You don’t steer away from the district’s simmering threat of violence in its men or admissions of petty-criminality.  

Before this film, I have made a documentary about three young men released from prison. Spending almost three years making that film I have seen that poverty attracts crime; that it’s a vicious circle that can be very hard to escape. That’s why I didn’t steer away of showing either the violence or the petty criminality in Ferentari: it’s part of the poverty landscape; it did not make sense to hide it. But I did not insist on it either; I preferred to suggest it. I was afraid that too much insistence risked detracting the message of the film to other areas. The film is first and foremost a love story between two individuals. It’s neither an ethnographical study of a Roma cartier nor a sociological radiography of the ghetto. But from their love story you realize step by step how things work with poverty and homosexuality in the Roma: that homosexuality is regarded as a defiled thing that can throw you among the untouchables; that it is hard to wash, only with the priest; that it is forgiven if you did it only in jail and only as the active person; and that in the end, homosexuality is something that you have to get rid of. Alberto’s schizophrenia is so great that even when he does it with Adi he feels the need to talk about women or look at hetero porn. On the other hand, even in Romanian society in its entirety things are not much better: Before Alberto, Adi had a heterosexual relationship for a few years, in discussions with his friend Andrei makes it clear that Adi is not at all a homosexual virgin. As Adi mentions in his novel, in Romania, homosexuality – just like crime – is done in silence, naturally, under the cover of an honorable family business.

When you set out to direct “Soldiers. Story from Ferentari” what guidelines did you give yourself regarding direction?

Not to lose patience with non-professional actors and not to be confined to and actually forget about the script whenever I could.

You’re Serbian but based out of Bucharest. Also an actress. What are your plans for the future? Was acting in Radu’s film just a one-off?

I moved to Romania 13 years ago, and this is where I studied film directing and where I stayed to live. It’s like a second home and it feels good to have two countries. While waiting to make my fiction debut, I was offered to act in Radu Jude’s film “Scarred Hearts.” It was an amazing experience that I have accepted because I was a complete non-professional and I was about to direct a bunch of non-professional actors for my own film. I’m not sure if I would do it again, but if I believe in the director and their vision, which was definitely the case with Radu Jude, I would embrace it most probably.