On a Saturday afternoon at AFI Fest last November, I walked into a 4:15 PM screening of a Serbian film called Clip by first-time director, Maja Milos. I knew from the press images that it was at least potentially provocative; the poster features a girl in a leopard-print dress, wet with sweat, dancing madly. But I had no idea what I’d be watching over the next 90 minutes. Rather than an earnest, semi-sentimental coming of age story (what I’d expected), Clip turned out to be one of the most unflinching and controversial portraits of teenage lust, longing, anguish, and rebellion ever captured on camera. I haven’t been able to forget it since.
I knew immediately that I wanted to write about the film, but when I sat down to do so I felt ill equipped, as if I’d misplaced the appropriate critical vernacular. Why did Clip feel so real? I couldn’t say.
But reading back through some early essays on cinematic realism, I came across Walter Benjamin’s seminal paper, “Art in the Age of Mechnical Reproduction.” If, like me, you haven’t read Benjamin since college (and I don’t think I really read him then), one of the hypotheses he posits in “Art in the Age” concerns the fundamental elusiveness of capturing “reality.” And yet, Clip seemed to be one of the most realistic films I’d ever seen.
Early in the essay, Benjamin observes that in the adolescence of reproducible literature (post-Gutenberg, but before the advent of the world’s first “penny” newspaper—the Boston Transcript in 1831, if you’re interested), a very small handful of writers enjoyed a proportionally enormous readership. The literate masses wrote one another letters, and perhaps kept diaries, but their correspondences were by nature private. But by the end of the 19th Century, the cost of running a printing press had diminished radically and literacy was on the rise. Accordingly, Benjamin wrote, “[T]oday there is hardly a gainfully employed European who could not, in principle, find an opportunity to publish somewhere or other comments on his work, grievances, documentary reports, or that sort of thing. Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character.” He continues, “All this can easily be applied to the film, where transitions that in literature took centuries have come about in a decade.”
Seventy years before the first cell phone supported video, in the proto-vérité Kino-Pravda films of Dziga Vertov and Joris Ivens’ Misère au Borinage—where the directors trained their cameras not on actors in a controlled environment, but on workers in a natural one—Benjamin foresaw the impending transformation of movie subject into moviemaker. “In cinematic practice, particularly in Russia, this change-over has partially become established reality. Some of the players whom we meet in Russian films are not actors in our sense, but people who portray themselves… Any man today can lay claim to being filmed.” YouTube would not have surprised him.
As consumers of contemporary cinema, where “realism” and “naturalism” seem endemic to film criticism, it’s almost shocking to discover that in 1936 the idea of capturing “reality” in film was a radical concept—the territory of Marxists inciting revolution. But in “Art in the Age” we see Benjamin venturing for the first time into the indefinable chasm between the “real” and the “documentation of the real.”
“Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction. Unmistakably, reproduction as offered by picture magazines and newsreels differs from the image seen by the unarmed eye. Uniqueness and permanence are as closely linked in the latter as are transitoriness and reproducibility in the former.” The “real” is unique, in other words, and therefore defies reproducibility. And yet filmmakers—beginning with Vertov and continuing today with the seemingly unlimited spate of neorealists premiering their work at SXSW and Rotterdam, Toronto and Thessaloniki—keep striving to achieve the “look” of reality.
But naturalism, of course, is more than an aesthetic ideology; it is a pretension to authenticity. And the fact that realism in film remains, by virtue of the tenets of reproduction, a simulacrum of the original may be the driving force behind our cultural desire for capturing that unattainable actuality. The digital camera, like the film camera before it, lures us into believing we can document our surroundings as we experience them. But we can’t.
Or can we?
Nearly eight years ago, Milos started watching online footage shot and posted by teenagers in the working class neighborhoods around Belgrade. In these videos, the subjects record themselves and their friends drinking, dancing, fighting, and fornicating. Milos, at the time, was less than a generation older than the kids in the videos, and yet their behavior startled her—as if 50 years of technological and cultural evolution separated them. So she set out to reconstruct the YouTube videos that had confounded her, to see what she could discover. The result, Clip, vacillates between the literally reproducible reality of online videos (shot by the actors with a cell phone) and objective footage (shot by the cinematographer, Vladimir Simic). The result is a film that achieves a level of emotional authenticity so unprecedented that it threatens to revise Benjamin’s thesis: This is (almost) moviemaking with an unarmed eyed.
Moviemaker (MM): To achieve the authenticity of the performances in Clip, you needed incredibly talented actors. Can you walk us through the casting process?
Maja Milos (MILOS): Well, we cast for two years. For me, it was just interesting to see what was going on with the younger generation. I spoke to everybody for an hour about what they thought about the problems of the people in their age group. During that period, I was also continuing the research for the film.
MM: What did a day of casting consist of?
MILOS: For the auditions we did some improvisations, as well as monologues they were asked to prepare. I knew that the acting must be the best it could possibly be because I wanted to make a very authentic and realistic film. That is why it took such a long time to make—nearly six years. I wanted to have the perfect characters for every role. Not just the younger roles in the film, but also the professionals that are playing the parents.
MM: The film contains extremely explicit sexual scenes, but the actors are all under-aged. Can you speak to your artistic decision not to cast older actors?
MILOS: First of all, no under-aged actors are included in any scenes with sexual nudity. And what we shot wasn’t only legal; we only did what everybody was comfortable with. For me, the most important thing was that we had—all of us, the young actors and their parents—a very open and direct communication. The relationship is built on trust, that everybody does things that they feel okay doing. I wanted to make a very honest film, and in that sense, we were all on the same page. Honesty is the best policy when you’re working on a film like this. Isadora Simijonovic [who plays the lead, Jasna] was 14 when we started shooting. She knew everything about what we were going to shoot, and we went through everything with her parents. We used body doubles and prosthetics, plus visual effects in post-production. All of the sexual scenes were very much prepared. When you have such young actors who haven’t had that kind of experience, it’s really very complicated to prepare and to do. We rehearsed a lot—every day for five or six hours for four months.
MM: Can you walk us through the rehearsal process?
MILOS: After we finished casting, the actors and I spoke about the script. Those were really long, long conversations, just speaking about every scene in the screenplay. We got to know each other very well in that period because we were talking about everything. We also had some rules. First of all, there was no judging, you weren’t allowed to be ashamed of anything. And nothing left the rehearsal room.
We really improvised a lot during rehearsal, adding a lot of things. I think that feeling of freedom was one of the most important things. We were also very honest with each other, using direct communication. We didn’t have any problem saying anything to one another—that this could be better or that could be better. It’s just a matter of how close you are with somebody. Because we improvised a lot and had fun, everyone became friends. They had confidence in each other. We rehearsed everything because I knew the only way to succeed was if we could be confident in every aspect of what we were doing. I also shot every rehearsal, so they got familiar with the camera and with acting when other people were present.
When we finally got on set, the performances just exploded because we were really ready. When it came to the shooting I really felt like we were at war, that we were an army unit. We were helping each other and we went together and fought. One interesting thing is a lot of people told me not to work too hard with my actors because they were young; they weren’t professionals. But because they weren’t professionals, their vision of acting was totally different. We couldn’t have gotten what we got without those rehearsals. I believe in work.
MM: I think that’s a great thing for American moviemakers to hear. There are a lot of naturalistic directors in this country who think that improvising and spontaneity make for great film, but they ignore the preparation.
MILOS: All the delicate things we changed in the story, the sense of spontaneity in the final film, was due entirely to how much we rehearsed. The more we worked, the better they got. To make something look realistic takes a great amount of thinking. We wanted to make a film where everything happening in front of the camera looks realistic and has the feeling of a documentary.
I started thinking about the film when I saw these YouTube clips of real teenagers in Serbia, and my idea of the dramaturgy of the film and feeling of the film was to obey the law of those YouTube clips. Today, when you have a society where self-acceptance is based on acceptance by other people, self-promotion is much more important. How did these kids create their life while filming it? The answer might be that these people from this younger generation film themselves to have proof that they’re alive.
MM: In a film like Clip, that portrays the behavior of a youth culture that older generations are perhaps more comfortable ignoring, I’m interested in the response to the film you’ve encountered around the world.
MILOS: For me, it’s really interesting how people from different parts of the world react to the film. It is a universal story, and not just something happening in Serbia. In South America the audiences see the passion in the film and only want to speak about that passion. In Western Europe they speak about the social aspects of the film. In Eastern Europe they like to speak about life and death and love.
MM: What was the response from people you spoke to in Los Angeles?
MILOS: They were very open about everything, and very curious. The response was great. Usually people say that Americans are very conservative in some aspects, but, I must say, I didn’t see that.
“Clip” was released theatrically in New York City at Cinema Village on March 15th and will be released on DVD on June 11th via Artsploitation Films.
Photo of director Maja Miloš courtesy of Artsploitation Films