Montenegrin feature film “The Tower of Strength” by Nikola Vukčević had two sneak previews inCannes Montenegro and Culture: Allowing for the best and not “the usual ours” to win.

Montenegrin latest feature film “The Tower of Strength” directed by Nikola Vukčević had two sneak previews at the Marché du Film – Festival de Cannes on May 22 and 23. In his interview for Diplomacy and Commerce, the director explains that this film has been a wonderful experience, with us leaving the boundaries of the local comfort zone and presenting the film to those who find cinematography more than just an incident. Vukčević, a formally educated film and theater director, a full time professor of theFilm and Television Directingsubjects and the Head of the Film and Media Study Programme at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts Cetinje – University of Montenegro, a national delegate at Federation of European Film Directors (FERA), holder of the PhD degree in film studies and one of the founders of the Producers and Directors Guild of Montenegro, with around eighty projects to his name, says that today any public-interest reform takes courage. A strategic emphasis should be placed on those opportunities and potentials that favor better valorization of the culture in Montenegro. There is a need for a backdrop that would highlight a country newly aware of the full extent of its cultural treasures and diversity, a country which preserves, appreciates and fosters its culture, governed by professional standards. It is not an easy task at all, he emphasizes, as we need to allow for the best and not the usual ours to win.

1. “A View from Eiffel Tower”, “The Kids from the Marx and Engels Street”, and finally “The Tower of Strength”. Aware of the circumstances in which the film industry in our country struggles to survive yet at the same time continues to develop, you as an author are noticeably present and critical, as any artist is preferably expected to be in a sound environment, while not suppressing the manifest of your creative abundance. What were all the things not holding you back from presenting yourself to the peers and audience through your feature films in, as a rule, recurrent period of nine years (2005, 2014, 2023)?

Inner depths of my personality would not allow me to name the cinematography in Montenegro an industry, as I am inclined to think of it as a work of great love that goes beyond the market profitability. For such a reason, it takes a considerable number of years before a feature film sees the light of day. And there is no place for that in the commonly perceived notion of the industry. Meanwhile, in-between the films, I engage in whatever the free market can offer to a director in Montenegro – TV commercials and campaigns, music videos and documentary films which not only allow room for my creative outlet but also give an opportunity to explore recent technologies of video cameras and film equipment.

For a while I was activelyinvolved in the theatre work, and today I am emboldened by the existence and the results of Film Centre of Montenegro that has much facilitated making of our feature films by providing institutional support (co-financing up to 50%),opposed to our rather haphazardbeginnings. The EIFFEL was born out of need of one generation to prove that it was possible to make an independent film in our country, and I am proud of every piece of legacy of that film. Having a modest budget, just shy of 30.000 EUR, did not prevent us to travel the world with this film and made iconic box office sales in then Serbia and Montenegro – where this film still holds the third place in box office sales of the Serbian minority co-production in the last two decades.
It gives me great pride to say that the references of the EIFFEL and PACKING THE MONKEYS, AGAIN!, a film directed by my colleague Marija Perovic, as the initial references of the study programme of the Film and Television Directing at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts Cetinje – gave birth to something that today, rightfully and with love, we can refer to as The Montenegrin New Cinematography.

2. Your new feature film “The Strength of Tower” had two sneak previews at the Marché du Film – Festival de Cannes on May 22 and 23. According to the professional community, this is a big breakthrough for Montenegrin film. What are your impressions, and what emotions andnovelties followed you back from France?

No doubt it has been a wonderful experience, with us leaving the boundaries of the local comfort zone and presenting the film to those who find cinematography more than just an incident. These two sneak previews in Cannes are a good steppingstone for further international life of our film and I believe that in days to come and in the market such as Cannes other Montenegrin authors should also present their films. It feels rejuvenating to compare oneself to the better ones, it raises personal standards and eases mystification. Naturally, it is not all effort, but a little courage to it as well.

3. When will Montenegro get a chance to see (its) Tower of Strength?

We came a long way to tell this story. We have started filming in 2006 and worked patiently since, with a great deal of shooting taking place amidst COVID pandemic. Set within a 36 hour-window during World War II, the story is about a hounded childwho fleeing from a fascist paramilitary formation thatkilled his parents and burned down the village, finds refuge in the home of a stranger, Nur Doka, an Albanian. The master of the house is now faced with a moral dilemma: to give the child into the hands of those who seek his life (thus throwing away the centuries old code of his people and his personal beliefs) or to sacrifice his own family for the sake of that unknown child – which introduces an element of tragedy to this dilemma.Through the story of moral values,a promise, love and growing up, the film questions the value of individual human sacrifice, transcending the issues of faith and nation, and wonders how Nur will meet the challenge. The film features international cast members: Edon Rizvanolli (lead actor, The Netherlands, who studied acting at one of the cult film academies in the world: Lee Strasberg Institutein New York), Nikola Ristanovski (as Judge, Macedonia), Igor Benčina (as Danilo, Serbia), Alban Ujkaj (as Sokolj, B&H), Selman Jusifi and Xhejlane Terbunja (Kosovo), and Montenegrin cast – Aco Radulović (Abid), Ana Vučković (Marija), Zef Bato Dedivanović (his swan song), Branimir Popovic (commander Demuš), and children: Elez Adžović (Meša), Vuk Bulajić (Vuk), Hana Pavlović (Meša’s younger sister), Merisa Adžović (Meša’s older sister) – who got the roles after months of casting and preparations. Director of photography is Djordje Stojiljković, scenographer – Stanislav Nikičević, costume designer – Lidija Jovanović, mask maker – Natasa Sevcnikar, sound design – Igor Vujović and music – Dušan Maksimovski; The main theme is performed by sisters Maša and Milica Vujadinović; editor – Olga Toni (previous successful collaboration on the film A View from Eiffel Tower), visual effects are credited to Djuro Mihaljević and Djordje Stojiljković, film director – Milorad Radenović (Galileo production Montenegro), co-producers – Nevena Savić and Ivica Vidanović (Cinnamon films, Belgrade), and among executive producers – Jelena Filipovic, lecturer at the Film and Dramatic Arts Academy Cetinje. Also, a number of students of the FDAA Cetinje were recruited for assistantand assistant director functions (my dear former student Nemanja Lakić was among them). The script, inspired by motifs from the anthological story of the same name written by academician Zuvdija Hožić, has been developed at the prestigious international workshops AlabSCRIPT and MIDPOINT. At its competition for regional co-production, the Film Centre Serbia awarded this film in the competition back in autumn 2020. To preserve the authenticity, a significant part of the feature was filmed in Albanian language -this was a challenging task in terms of filming but also when it came to editing and postproduction. I am confident this film in all its universal character and never-fading contemporariness will get through to all people regardless of their nation, ethnicity or walk of life, thus giving the film an added value, something that we altogether witnessed at the screenings in Cannes. I believe the film will be available to the audience in Montenegro in 2024.

4. Živko Nikolić, Veljko Bulajić, Vlatko Gilić and Dušan Vukotić are considered the greatest Montenegrin directors of all times. Whilst local filmmakersfight bitterly to win over the international audience as their primary target, one cannot escape the feeling that both local and wider publichas a rather modest knowledge about the history of the Montenegrin cinematography.The generations have grown up and got their degrees without ever getting a chance to learn that the first permanent cinema in Montenegro was opened in 1911 or that we have an Academy Award winner, a man who managed to outmatch no other but Walt Disney. Is it that cinematography can grow only through persistent and patient work in the alleys inhabited by specialized professionals only or do we need a fresh start – early education of all citizens to this end?

Correct. Yet, that is just one side of our medal. On the other side, it is worth recalling, there is a high percent of the most acclaimed Montenegrin artists of the 20th century who lived and worked away from Montenegro. For such reason, our cultural institutions have remained impoverished compared to their counterpart organizations in Belgrade, Zagreb, Sarajevo and Pristina, which have been developed by the people who were born or raised in Montenegro, yet only sporadically and rarely had a chance to work in Montenegro. Therefore, we have entered the 21st century with certain setback compared to these regional centers, in various aspects, including the one that many important cultural institutions in Montenegro are now still in their early days (let me remind you that we were the last in Balkans to welcome the national Film Centre, Musical Centre, Cinematheque etc.). These are all elements that determine but also stunt the development of cultural base in Montenegro in present times (including the aspect of education that you have mentioned in your question). Such cultural base endeavors to catch up on lost time, to keep pace with the regional challenges and in recent years has experienced a generational shift, something that should be embraced. It is a tough road ahead of us and significant joint efforts needed in the days to come.

5. Film tourism as a new development opportunity for Montenegro has become increasingly popular topic. For example, filming location of “Mission Impossible” boosted popularity of the Czech Republic, Tunisia benefited in the same way after screening of “Star Wars”, and the most recent example comes from the close neighborhood – Dubrovnik, the filming location featuring in “Game of Thrones”. The film tourism allows for engagement of various film crew members – from highly skilled professionals to unskilled workers, it helps raising the quality of local production, facilitates establishment of small and medium-size enterprises, accounts for income from licensing and diverse benefits to not only film community but far beyond. What would be comparative advantage of Montenegro compared to Croatia, Czech Republic, Bulgaria and other destinations which have achieved success in this segment? In line with that – how would you best describe the status of the Montenegrin film directors when we are aware that nowdays the audience is convinced the film “lives” on Netflix and other online platforms?

It is exactly the locations that give us an advantageover the region. However, what still needs improvement is the legal framework, infrastructure and advanced development and professionalization of qualified personnel. On the other side, looking at the achievements of the former students of the FDAA and based on what I have observed at other art schools in the country, I can say that Montenegro offers quite decent educational opportunitiesto our young students (surprising as it might sound, we have a noticeable inflow of students from the region as well). Many among them pursue their postgraduate studies in the region and worldwide – a step higher that could not have been made if it had not been for a modern approach to basic studies that is fostered in Montenegro. When it comes to further work to be done, we immediately encounter a cluster of problems to be dealt with – a small market and thesmall numbers fallacycall for a thoughtfully planned support of the State, a more elaborated strategy that wouldacknowledge the culture as a resource but also as an important part of our lives. What has become palpable in my guild but still awaits a strategic response of the State is the reactivation of the mechanism of migration from Montenegro – a lot of young artists have decided to leave for good and settle across the region where they will be offered with greater chances to manifest their creativity, as recently there has been an expansion of screening of TV projects in the region of the large numbers markets(Serbia, Croatia). Hence, with a number of our educated youth fleeing the state, we are coming back to the same problem that Montenegro was facing from the 1950s – and failed to cope with back then. If we are to succeed this time, the problem first needs to be identified and then addressed with a strategy and by an institution that would actually care to find a solution.

6. From the viewpoint of a person with an extensive filming experience, then university teaching experience and, albeit short-lived, experience in the executive branch (in the 42nd Government you held a management position in the department of culture in Cetinje), how would you rate the cultural policy of Montenegro in general?

As regards the previous culture investments – it is my general perception that long years now the spend management of investments fell short of transparency rather than being (only) financially insufficient, with a minimum share of public calls in culture in general. Hence, our main task, serving the highest public interest would be to make the procedure more transparent. Considering my engagement in the departure of culture – I do not regret for a single moment having accepted that offer and likewise I hold no regrets for having terminated the contract as soon as I realized that the whole thing was inoperative beyond repair. To the detriment of theentire destiny of the culture under that Government, the time has not proved my arguments wrong. Your questionalready reflects the trend of Montenegro to position its cultural policy and foster its engaged creators depending on the status of love relation with the politicians: an old vicious joke from the theater circles says the best author is a dead author. There is a grain of truth in that one, especially when it comes to Balkan and Montenegro in particular. In principle, any single institution of culture and art that has emerged should make us proud, these represent our true development potential. Naturally, when saying institution, I am not referring to a building, staff, or budget but to the matter of procedures, competencies and integrity. And where we are on that – obviously, there is a crying need for more. Moreover, our shortfalls come from something the economists call a small numbers fallacy, which requires a strategic-level approach, in line with a necessary reviewing of our previous public policies in culture that undoubtedly include simple appointments to management and executive positions within the department and at institutions. These processes, as far as following the model of a developed world must become public and transparent and exceed partisan interests, if we are really committed to the safeguarding of public interest. I’ve said it so many times but it gives me pleasure to repeat it here as well – in my opinion the culture could be one of the most potent enablers of our society and I am confident that it could be turned into a backbone of prosperity and by analogy we could make our cultural workers and artists our best representatives, those who would savor their status and relish the given opportunities, if only the parties would allow us so. Or it would be purposeful getting the guild associations to finally decide on taking an active approach to the cultural policy. The history of a selective management of these valuable resources has resulted in a number ofdeficits and issues that we face even today – while numerous institutions rely on totally indifferent employees, the uninventivelaborers just waiting to clock out for the day, the whole bunch of educated young professionals are languishing in the unemployment line. All the previously mentionedshould have been remedied long ago through an overall system reform, because – future mismanagement of any kind can set us back irreversibly. Truth be told, we have lost irretrievably one too many resources while at all times wrapped in the flag with a mouth full of patriotism and ofan external enemy.Today, any public-interest reform takes courage. A strategic emphasis should be placed on those opportunities and potentials that favor better valorization of the culture in Montenegro. There is a need for a backdrop that would highlight a country newly aware of the full extent of its cultural treasures and diversity, a country which preserves, appreciates and fosters its culture, governed by professional standards. Viewed altogether these are particularly important development tasks that unfortunately largely depend on political parties, which is not a good sign when knowing that regrettably they have failed to achieve aquintessential public interest up to date. The only method to mitigate this problem, applying the models established by the developed democracies and cultures can be found in the transparent public calls for projects, resource management, public companies, and processes in general. It is not an easy task at all, as we need to ensure the best and not the usual ours to win.