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Director Ivana Mladenovic on Autobiographical ‘Ivana the Terrible’

An actress on the verge of a nervous breakdown heads to her hometown on the banks of the Danube, a river separating her adopted country of Romania from the Serbia of her youth. Hoping to recover from a mysterious illness no doctor can diagnosis, she instead falls into a torrid love affair with a younger man and becomes grist for the local rumor mill churned by her family, neighbors and childhood friends.

“Ivana the Terrible” is the second feature of Ivana Mladenovic, a Serbian-born filmmaker based in Romania. Mladenovic writes, directs and stars in the acerbic comedy inspired by true events and shot in her hometown of Kladovo, Serbia. Pic is a co-production between Romania’s microFILM and Serbia’s Dunav 84. Toronto-based sales agent Syndicado Film Sales has world rights. Featuring her real-life family and friends portraying themselves on screen, “Ivana the Terrible” had its world premiere at the Locarno Film Festival and also plays at the Sarajevo Film Festival.

Mladenovic’s critically acclaimed debut, “Soldiers. Story from Ferentari,” world premiered in Toronto in 2017. Variety described it as “a likably ramshackle, seemingly semi-improvised ‘free adaptation’” of Adrian Schiop’s semi-autobiographical novel about a gay romance in Bucharest’s Roma slum. Mladenovic spoke to Variety about the challenge of directing her family on screen, the slow progress of the Me Too movement in Eastern Europe, and the importance of making peace with the place where you were born.

“Ivana the Terrible” is based on a real-life crisis you faced two years ago. What made you decide to fictionalize that experience in film?

In 2017, my first feature film, “Soldiers. A Story From Ferentari,” premiered at the Toronto and San Sebastian film festivals, based on the semi-autobiographical book of an anthropologist friend (Schiop), about an illicit gay affair with a Roma ex-con that he had during field research on the outskirts of Bucharest. He is the co-writer of the script and also stars in the film as himself, together with another brilliant non-actor. I kept [exploring] my interest in true-life stories that are re-created by non-professional actors, in a more direct form of cinema. Only this time, I semi-fictionalized my own experiences, and I was both in front of and behind the camera.

Two years ago, during the post-production of my debut film, my hair started to fall out and I had epileptic attacks. But people around me kept saying that I was exaggerating, the medical analyses were good so it must be all in my head. So I went back to recover in my hometown, Kladovo, a small touristic town on the Danube river. Kladovo is connected with Romania by a bridge called The Bridge of Friendship between the two nations, inaugurated in the ‘70s by [former Yugoslavian leader Josip Broz] Tito and [former Romanian President Nicolae] Ceausescu together, with a huge power plant on the Danube that still serves both countries. Back in Kladovo, I continued seeing this 21-year-old Serbian boy, terrified that someone could gossip about it and my parents would find out.

Experiencing all these emotional situations that became tragicomic, at a certain moment I had the impulse to fictionalize my situation into a filmed script that would involve me, my family, friends, and former lovers.

Your on-screen family is very combative toward you; many of the relationships we see in the film are antagonistic. How difficult was it to convince those same family members in real life to take part in this project? And as a director, how hard was it to work with them?

I don’t see it that way. In this film there are loads of quarrels, but there is also loads of love. Some sort of Balkan family gone wild.

Of course at first, my family didn’t want to hear anything about any kind of filmmaking, but I think they eventually understood it was really important for me. For the rest of the city, acting was a big joy and we had loads of fun. It connected me to all these generations, some older and some younger than mine. Of course we had some quarrels, too, because sometimes making a film is just too demanding. They thought it was going to be a little work, but as soon we started they realized how much people actually work while making a film, and they were like, “If I knew, I would have never accepted it.”

As in my previous film, it was very hard to work with non-professionals, because most of the time they don’t understand stuff related to discipline, like respecting schedules and repeating the same thing lots of times. For them it was just a hobby they could quit any time they felt like. But we rehearsed for months and eventually they started competing with each other for who is going to be the best.

The mayor asks Ivana to be the face of the town’s music festival, but she doesn’t seem entirely at home in Kladovo, and we get the sense she doesn’t feel at home on either side of the Danube. You were born in Serbia but now live and work in Romania. How much has that experience of being in-between two worlds affected your work as a filmmaker?

Yes, the film deals with people living at the border, in this case between Serbia and Romania, and it also depicts the small prejudices these two countries have about each other. My town lives off of Romanian tourists, but there were times when things were different, and this city in Romania was depending on its Serbian neighbors across the Danube. The cultures are not very different from one another, and most of the people speak the Romanian language. What is sad, and what they both have in common, is that their citizens want to leave the country. Luckily, I didn’t go too far. After 15 years in Romania, where I also studied film and worked with some of the most amazing people like Radu Jude and Florin Serban, I just recently started collaborating with some Serbian artists and producers, too. I am really glad I have film friendships on both sides of the Danube.

Rumors about Ivana’s sex life run rampant throughout the town, and her family members seem happy to express their disapproval with her life choices. The film as a whole isn’t a very flattering portrait of what it’s like to be a young woman in small-town Serbia. What has it been like for you as a young female director — particularly one who, in your first feature film as well, is tackling subjects that go against the norms of a conservative society? Has the Me Too movement made any tangible gains in the corner of Southeastern Europe where you live and work?

My previous movie, “Soldiers,” was a bit hard to grasp for wider audiences, as the film deals with both homosexual and Roma themes. So there were comments ranging from sexist to racist and even violent. With this film, I hope things will be a little different.

The rumors and gossip from the script are collected stories from many girls during a long period of time, so they are quite common. But I don’t think these kind of situations are only reserved for Eastern Europe. I think they are more globally spread.

Unfortunately, the female status [in the region] is far from egalitarian, but in Romania there are a couple of women artists and groups fighting for the cause. Hopefully, Serbia will follow. When we started [developing] the character, we made Ivana more confrontational towards the people surrounding her, and we wanted to show how it is for a 34-year-old woman dating a guy 13 years younger, when everybody is telling her that she should just get married. Some people while watching the film couldn’t deal with this kind of female character, saying that Ivana is so unlikable and annoying, and it just looked like they couldn’t move away from the first barrier and look into the depth of it.

You’ve said that the process of making “Ivana the Terrible” “started out as a sort of therapy [and] suddenly became a film.” Was the film ultimately a form of therapy as well?

I think that most of the family relationships got much better once we started working on the film. Suddenly everybody forgot the problems between us, and all of us were absorbed in order to make the film work. The problems I have had with my grandma completely disappeared once I gave her lines to learn by heart for the shooting. Working on it and doing something together, giving attention to these people, took things to a much better place. I am not only referring to the relationships with my family, but also with the city itself. Sometimes you need to make peace with the place where you have been born.

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