Three teenagers living in an institution for people with special needs fall into an unexpected love triangle, and are suddenly forced to navigate powerful new feelings of envy and desire. As their emotions threaten to upend the carefully structured world around them, the trio find themselves increasingly willing to resort to desperate measures to find a way out.

“Oasis” is the sophomore feature film from Serbian director Ivan Ikić, which world premieres Sept. 3 in the Venice Days section of the Venice Film Festival. Starring Marijana Novakov, Tijana Marković, and Valentino Zenuni in their first acting roles, the film was produced by Milan and Marija Stojanović
 of Belgrade-based Sense Production, and co-produced by Tramal Films (Slovenia), Keplerfilm (Netherlands), Les Films d’Antoine (France), and SCCA/Pro.ba (Bosnia and Herzegovina). Heretic Outreach is handling world sales.

The inspiration for “Oasis” was drawn from the real-life experiences of Ikić, who visited an institution for special needs youths as a film student and later returned to do documentary work. It was during that time that he came across a love triangle between three residents that almost ended tragically. The story, he said, went beyond the range of the documentary he was filming, but the idea would gestate for the next decade, even as he was working on his first two films: the documentary “Tarot Srbija!” (2010), and the fiction feature “Barbarians” (2014), which won the Special Jury Prize at Karlovy Vary.

“Oasis” was developed in part during Cannes’ Cinefondation Residence in 2016, though it would take another four years for the film to be financed and produced. Partly that owed to the systematic approach taken by Ikić, who spent more than two years visiting the institution where the movie was shot, getting to know the residents and management, and ultimately selecting non-professional actors for the main roles.

“We were trying to build trust, and some kind of relationship with all of them,” he said. The casting process took several months, as Ikić interviewed the residents to gauge their interest in acting, and to discover what kinds of characters and stories they were drawn to. Over the course of a series of intensive acting workshops, the cast began to come together. But the script evolved throughout the process, as it became clear that the dramatic action would have to be tailored to the interests and abilities of his cast—that they wouldn’t simply fit into pre-determined roles.

“That was artistically my initial challenge,” said Ikić. Over the course of shooting, however, the actors’ confidence grew, and they became more adept at managing the rigors of a feature film production schedule. “They learned a lot about the process of filmmaking. They started to become very aware of the rhythm, the tempo, the movement.”

That process was a radical departure from what Ikić described as “a very repressive life, which is very strongly controlled.” “They know that living in an institution does not fulfill their dreams and their vision of life,” he said, adding that the residents are “trying to find their place in society, trying to get out of the controlled system of the institution—get out from the governance and control.”

Recognizing that, he said, was the most tragic part of making “Oasis.” “They are very aware of the situation they’re in, and they don’t like the circumstances,” he said. “They’re trying to get any kind of exposure outside of the institution to be sure they are seen by other people, and that could be…one step forward to their liberation.”