For Lost Country, director Vladimir Perišić dug deep into a very personal history. The film, which premiered in Cannes Critics’ Week and will be screened at the Sarajevo Film Festival on Saturday, Aug. 12, follows a young, Serbian teenager in Belgrade who gets caught up in the mass student protests against the authoritarian regime of Serbian President Slobodan Milošević.
The protests, which started in Belgrade in 1996 and spread nationwide, were in response to electoral fraud: In the 1996 local elections, Milošević’s Socialist Party of Serbia had lost several key cities but, Donald Trump-like, was refusing to accept the results.
“The protests lasted more than three months, which I checked, makes them the longest student protest in the history of Europe, and had a real carnival atmosphere,” recalls Perišić, who was 19 at the time and got swept up in the spirit of civil disobedience. “It was less about political discourse or any kind of ideology than, carnival-like, about inverting the power relations in society. For me, and for a lot of people at the time, it triggered a kind of inner revolution.”
In the film, the protests have a similar impact on 15-year-old Stefan, played by newcomer Jovan Ginic, who finds himself caught between the upheaval in the streets, and at school amid his anti-Milošević classmates and his loyalty to his family of staunch Milošević supporters. Stefan’s own mother, Marklena, is the spokeswoman for the regime. She goes on television every night to spread the government’s lies. Stefan overhears her talking on the phone, planning a police crackdown to violently suppress the demonstrations.
“My mother was also part of the Milošević government, though she was in the culture department, so not a spokeswoman,” says Perišić, “but I had this same experience as Stefan as a child, growing up in a political home [and] experiencing this conflict of double loyalty, between the loyalty you have to your parents, and a loyalty to some kind of inner moral imperative. All the politics of Serbian nationalism is based on family loyalty, this idea of belonging, by blood, to a group. It’s the basis of all right-wing politics, actually. I was interested in subverting that.”
To find his Stefan, Perišić scoured the country. “We met almost 2,000 kids but I couldn’t find the one. I was getting desperate,” he remembers. In the original script, Stefan, like Perišić, played water polo, and the director decided to scout out some of Belgrade’s water polo clubs.
“We came to one club, Red Star, and the trainer called over all the kids, who came to the edge of the pool, and it was really beautiful, they looked like little fish,” says Perišić. “So I took out my phone to take a picture. All the kids were watching the trainer except for one. He was looking straight at me. I told my assistants: ‘Let’s call that kid.’ It was Jovan.”
Perišić spent nine months rehearing with the first-time actor before the first day of shooting. “It wasn’t really a rehearsal. I didn’t let him read the script. I was just asking him questions, like ‘what do you do when you quarrel with your mother?’ and filming that,” he says. “When we came to shoot, I filmed in order, chronologically, and treated the material as if I were shooting a documentary. If the actors did something different from what was in the script that took things in a different direction, I’d change the script. That’s why I love working with non-actors, it makes you humble. You discover the story together with them.”
The documentary approach extended to the locations and set design. Unable to afford period costumes or sets — “I didn’t have the budget to do a Visconti-style historical epic, and anyway I don’t much like those films, there’s a museum/antiquity feel to them” — Perišić instead found Belgrade streets and apartments unchanged since the late 90s.
“That’s why I shot so much in the backyards,” he says. “The neighborhood I shot in has changed a lot, but only from the front. If you go to the backyards, it looks exactly the same. You’d think you were back in 1996.”
For Marklena, the political spokeswoman, Perišić chose the opposite of a first-timer, casting Jasna Durićić, the Serbian star best known for her role playing a Bosnian translator trying to save her family from the Srebrenica massacre in Jasmila Zbanic’s Oscar-nominated drama Quo Vadis, Aida?
“My idea with Jasna was that, as a politician, her character was acting all the time,” says Perišić. “So even when this mother comes home, and is with her son and her family, she’s still performing. But the documentary approach was the same. There’s a scene where Stefan asks his mother if the government has stolen the elections. She says no. She’s lying. And then, she goes down on her knees in front of him. I never wrote that. It came straight from Jasna. She’s a genius. Filming it, it felt like a documentary, like I was capturing a real moment.”
But watching Lost Country in 2023 can be an unsettling experience. With far-right nationalism on the rise across Europe, the film feels less like a record of the past and closer to last week’s news report.
“The story obviously has echoes of what is happening now, with these threats to democracy we are seeing everywhere, not just with Trump in the United States or with [Jair] Bolsonaro in Brazil, but in the rise of the right-wing across Europe,” says Perišić. “In the 1990s, in ex-Yugoslavia, we really saw the return of historical fascism. I left Belgrade for France, and what I loved about France at the time was there was a real red line with the extreme right wing. In the public discourse, among mainstream political parties, and in the media on TV, far-right, fascism, was just not acceptable. Little by little, that’s changed and these ideas are becoming mainstream again. So my film is also a warning. These ideas aren’t dead and they can come back — quickly and ferociously.”