Noticias Feature Films, Festival,
Official Section Interviews: Emilija Gašić, director of ’78 Days’.

“The idea of ​​finding a family home tape that you have never seen, full of forgotten memories, was very stimulating for a film

– Where does the idea for the film come from? How autobiographical is it?

– It all started with my family tapes, which I had a lot of. I digitized them during my time at the Academy of Arts in Belgrade, and they stayed with me as something very cinematic. During the pandemic, I went back to the tapes and I noticed things I had never seen before. I wondered if I perceived them as cinematic because I found them in this context and I didn’t remember some of the events captured there, or because they were tapes of my childhood. The idea of discovering an old family tape you have never seen before filled with memories you forgot was exciting to me as an idea for a film. Since some of the footage I saw there was recorded during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, I realised that the film should be set then and be an entirely found footage concept. This is how it all came together.

– How did you start working on the film?
– I first made an anonymous poll on the internet to see how people remember that era, especially my generation, as I was seven at the time. I have two older sisters and this kind of dynamic is very familiar to me, so I included people of their age as well as both older and younger generations. I received around 200 responses. It was particularly interesting that for people who were children and teenagers at the time, this time was connected to a lot of positive memories. They didn’t go to school, they spent a lot of time with their friends and had their first loves and first kisses. On the other hand, they were frightened: their fathers were drafted for the army, and there were air raid sirens and bomb shelters, military planes… So it was simultaneously frightening and exciting. But what stood out for me was the togetherness, the closeness people felt with each other because they were spending a lot of time together.

Someone wrote that this was the first and the last time they entered every house in their neighbourhood. This is an experience I related to. In a way, this was both similar and different from the pandemic when everyone was isolated from each other but together virtually. Here everyone was together inside this isolated country. I felt this all the more acutely because I watched these videos during the pandemic, even though I started working on the script earlier.

-How did you meet your producers, Miloš Ivanović and Andrijana Sofranić Šućur?

– I am based between New York and Belgrade, and when I was still developing the idea for 78 Days I was still in the USA. The last film I saw before the lockdown in New York City was Marija Stojnić’s documentary Speak So I Can See You, which was screened at MoMA and which Miloš had produced. I met her through mutual friends and learned that she is one of the members of the Set Sail Films production company in Serbia. Because I liked her film so much, I asked her if they would work on my film. I was planning to apply for Biennale College Cinema in Venice because they had a micro-budget film program which I thought was perfect for this type of film. The technology I was going to use wasn’t expensive and I already had all the locations in mind. Most importantly, my grandparents’ house which remained unchanged from the 1990s. So I gave Andrijana and Miloš a short pitch video, dramatising some of my family tapes, they liked it and we started working together and applying for funds.

– Is this the house where you spent the NATO bombing?

– In a way yes, because my parents’ home is just next door. But my grandparents’ house is where it all started, my cousins would come from neighbouring towns and we all used to spend a lot of time there. I find this house very cinematic and with a special atmosphere, so I had no doubt this would be the main location for the film. It is authentic and has a very good light. I filmed a short film there before (The Wait), but it looks very different because of the filming process.

– How did you use your original home videos? Did you re-create some specific scenes?

– I re-created some of the scenes that I felt were true to the characters and the spirit of the film, especially the opening scene in which the youngest sister discusses with her eldest sister if she is ugly. I picked up many details from these home videos, but I didn’t want it to be autobiographical, instead, I wanted to show the perspectives of different generations. I wanted the film to be a time capsule of sorts as if you stumbled upon a tape from that era.

– Each of the three sisters has a character arch that is typical for their respective ages. How did you build their relationships when writing the script? Was it instinctual and did you tap into your memories?

– I’m sure that when you write, you subconsciously tap into your own experiences. I did take some things from my memories and when my collaborators read successive drafts of the screenplay, they’d tell me some things weren’t clear so I’d go back and fix them. I do work instinctively, my process is to think about it a lot and then just sit down and write it all in one go. And then rewrite.

But it was the rehearsals in which we finalized their relationships, even though it is directly based on and very similar to what was in the script. When I worked with the three of them they brought in their characteristics and experiences, they really became like sisters.

– How did you find the three young actresses?

– I’m big on authenticity and although the setting of the movie isn’t specified, I wanted it to be in the area around my hometown, Vrnjačka Banja. So I was after those accents as much as possible and I looked for girls in this area. The casting process took more than a year, starting in December 2020 when almost 300 girls answered the call. My casting director and I went through their photos and I was looking for girls that could plausibly pass as sisters by their physical looks.

Because I was in New York at the time, the casting director was sending me their audition tapes. I narrowed it down and the following summer I came to Serbia and met them in person. We were putting them in pairs to see how they function with each other and even made another round of casting to make sure we didn’t miss anybody. I made the final decision in the spring of 2022, right before the shooting started.

There were many combinations, depending on how alike they looked, how they talked, if they had chemistry until the three girls clicked together. Milica Gicić, who plays the eldest sister Sonja, had studied acting in Belgrade when I met her, Tamara Gajović, who plays the middle sister Dragana attends an acting school in the city of Kraljevo, and Viktorija Vasiljević, who plays the youngest Tijana, was attending the children’s acting school in Vrnjačka Banja. But for all of them, this was their first film experience

– How did you rehearse? It’s a very lively, physical film with many emotions, did you do tests on location?

– I worked with kids before and knew I’d need someone to coach them, and this was actress Kristina Vuletić who also helped with the casting. We agreed that she works with the two youngest actresses, Viktorija and Maša Ćirović (who plays the neighbor kid Lela). But I think the key thing was all of us bonding, spending a lot of time together and doing various exercises, often in the house where we were to film.

From the start, I decided that the two youngest girls shouldn’t read the script. I didn’t want them to take those words in too early, because children have this tendency to learn something by heart and then it’s too literal and the viewer wouldn’t buy it. I wanted the liveliness and spontaneity.

With the three sister characters, for a month we did various exercises that were similar to the situations in the script. Some of these scenes are rather delicate and I didn’t want to rehearse them too much (or at all) so they don’t become mechanical. For instance, I knew the opening scene would be very difficult, as well as the scene of hair-cutting, so we set apart a full day in the shooting schedule for just these two scenes.

Viktorija really has good instincts and often she would get to her lines through the situation I put her in, without actually reading them in the script. I wouldn’t have dared start the shooting without this preparatory process. We had a day when they met up with the professional actors, Jelena Djokić, Pavle Čemerikić, and Goran Bogdan, to make sure there were no surprises on the day of the shoot.

– Was there any additional set design done on the house?

Not all the rooms had stayed untouched, some of the decrepit furniture was removed. My grandparents died in 2012 and no one has lived there since, and we wanted a feeling of a lived-in space. So we renovated it but in a way that it looks aged, so we brought in some old furniture from all over, as well as clothes from the era. My production designer and long-time collaborator Maja Đuričić did an incredible job there.

– How about the visual approach? You had a DoP, Inés Gowland, but the young actresses are the ones holding the camera, or at least it appears so?

– I knew that we would film on Hi-8, and we had three or four of those cameras because they can be unreliable. The whole process had to be planned in advance. But it was a mix of approaches. I had met Inés at NYU and she really became the “fifth sister” – if Iwere the fourth. She spent all the time with them and everybody became very close. But for some of the more emotionally delicate scenes, I insisted that the girls film them.

Normally, Inés would shoot a scene in a couple of takes and then we’d give the camera to one of them and see what happens in one of the takes, as sometimes we also improvised. Some of the takes that ended up in the film were indeed shot by the actresses. They learned to film very quickly, it came naturally to them. I tried hard to make a variety in what each of the girls sees, that each of them films in a different way. It was instinctual and I hope it comes across in the film.

It was key for me to have minimal lighting and a bare-bone crew in all these scenes in the house so that they feel free and can embody the characters. In behind-the-scenesphotos, I often find myself hiding under the table, pretending I’m not there.

– How did the editing process go, with all these various camera angles, movements, and takes?
– The concept with different takes and improvisation helped bring out the liveliness and spontaneity of a home video, but we ended up with a lot of footage. Editor Jovana Filipović and I worked on it for nine months. We first made a version with the best takes and it was four hours long. We then gradually started cutting it down and adding visual effects that sometimes naturally happen with Hi-8 – like jump cuts and fades to black.

In essence, a certain period could have elapsed between any two cuts in the film – a character leaves the camera and then goes back to it. That’s why this format was very interesting to work with.
– How did you work on the sound design? It is very important for the film because there can be no music score with such a concept.

– While we were shooting, I knew I wanted to use the camera sound to get that authenticity, so sound designer Dora Filipović and I approached it in a documentary-like way. We combined the sound from the camera and the microphones. The sound effects are subtle and are used to increase the tension, like when the missiles in the sky are filmed and we hear the person with the camera breathing.

In reality, there is a certain performative element that a person automatically goes into when they see they are being filmed. But this is different with the kids today who grow up with cameras on their phones.

This is a key aspect of the film and I spent a lot of time thinking about it. Today it is so normalised, even natural that someone just starts filming you. But back then, gettingthe camera out was a special event, something you don’t do every day. You’d do it for a birthday or Christmas party, and then everyone felt like they had to do something specific for the camera, to get noticed. So if you start filming outside these situations, someone would always immediately jump in front of the camera. It is a fascinating
phenomenon, how this has changed with technology. It seems that it has also changed our mindsets.

– What do you expect the Serbian and international audiences will take away from the film?

– I think the main difference is that international audiences will experience it as a real found footage film, which has already happened at a test screening in New York. They don’t know our actors, so they are more open to giving in to the concept. For Serbian audiences, the topic will be much more familiar, they have memories and stories from the era regardless of the generations they belong to, and I hope the film will unlock those impressions for them.