Rok Biček: “The football field always represents the world in a micro-cosmos”

Biček Rok, director Kazneni Udrac (Penalty shot) PDD at the 74 Locarno Film Festival, Locarno, Wednesday 11 August 2021 © Locarno Film Festival / Ti-Press / Massimo Pedrazzini

The Slovenian director Rok Biček competed in Locarno’s Pardi di Domani and in Sarajevo Film Festival with his short drama Penalty Shot, a deep, dark coming-of-age drama set in Medjimurje (Croatia). This is Biček’s festival come-back after the huge sucess his two previous feature length films gained internationally.

We met for the interview shortly before the world premiere of Penalty Shot in Locarno, to discuss the future of this project, the young talented cast, and the dreamy setting that stands in sharp contrast with the film’s sinister narrative.

Your short drama Penalty Shot is an excerpt and announcement of your upcoming feature film of the same name. Can you tell us how this project came about?

The Croatian producers Katarina Prpić and Danijel Pek approached me sometime in 2016 with the idea to make a film based on the novel ‘Črna Mati Zemla’ (Dark Mother Earth), written by Kristian Novak. At that time I was in the process of editing my documentary The Family, so I first had to complete that. I could only start concentrating on such a heavy topic as ‘Dark Mother Earth’ after finishing everything else. The beginning was quite smooth. We went to Torino Film Lab and we got the support in Croatia in development, we got the Media support and even support for development in Austria, but then we were supprisingly blocked twice in Slovenia.

Do you know why?

I really don’t. My fear was that since this is such an important story for Croatian culture, I wouldn’t be suitable to direct this story as a Slovenian. The producers assured me that there were no problems, and that I was the right person for this because they saw Class Enemy, and they knew that I had the experience both working with non-professional actors and with hard topics. I was told that I was the right guy for that.

I never thought that I would have a problem to get the finances for my next film in Slovenia, especially after the success of Class Enemy (Fedeora Award of Critics Week in Venice 2013) and The Family (Grand Prix at Locarno Critic’s Week in 2017) which are – and I don’t want to brag – two important films in the recent Slovenian cinema. I wouldn’t want to speculate about the reasons for the rejection, but it’s not the coincidence that they blocked my twice. I hope that after the selection in Locarno, they will finally support us, because without the Slovenian support we can’t do the film. We would like to do the parity coproduction between countries that are culturally and historicaly connected. We need to reach the budget of 2,5 millions which is necessary to do the historical piece with young actors in main roles. We will surely come close to 50 days of shooting, and without that budget this would be impossible to do. That’s why it is important that both countries contribute a siginficant ammount. Croatia already supported us with 550000.

The photography of your short has the dream-like quality, and it feels like being shot analogue. Can you tell us something about the approach and the choices you made with your DoP Fabio Stoll?

If Fabio would hear this, he’d very, very happy. Our goal was to come closer to this time and he made the decision that we should use the higher ISO sensitivity. There was a lot of noise in the original footage. We didn’t use any extra light and we found the location that was actually perfect in terms of the position of the sun. The East was on one side of the football field and the West was on the other, so we were always shooting towards the sun. We made the whole shooting plan based on the movement of the sun, which is in a way the same thing that we did in Class Enemy; even though the film was shot indoors, we were leaning on the natural light and chosing different parts of the day to shoot in different classrooms.

Regarding the colours, they are soft and warm. I was constantly repeating that we should build the feeling from my childhood, and I was showing my photos from the past to Fabio. He knew how the photography should be and we achieved this look. And of course, together with the costumes and the set design, I think that we came very close to the look of the 1980s. In a way this was all test for the feature film. This story could be also placed in the now. Such kind of tragedies are repeating from generation to generation. Both Kristian Novak and I experienced similar situations on a football field. As I explained in the press kit, the football field always represents the world in a micro-cosmos. In a village, you have to fight for your position in this world, and all the boys are always doing nasty things to the younger boys, which is in a way an initiation ritual. When you are older, you just slip from one role to the other. So, you remain in the vicious circle.

Let’s talk about the fact that you are working with an all-amateur cast. Considering the dark nature of the narrative, how did you work with your young actors?

We had a really big casting just before the pandemic. We were, as I mentioned, preparing for the feature film, but after the outbreak of Covid-19, we were refused for the second time in Slovenia and all the actors we casted for the feature, act in the short. The casting was in the Medjumorje region where the story is originally taking place because we wanted to have the authentic dialect.

Once I’ve chose the two boys (Gabrijel Dolenec as Franc, and David Ivanović as Matija) I spent around three months with them to establish trust, and befriend them. Most of the time we were playing and doing “boys things”. We also read the script together which made me learn a lesson: the scenes where they were following the script were not so good as the scenes in which they could ‘live them’.

They knew what was the situation and they had to be aware of their position, but I wasn’t so sure about the scripted lines. Their own lines have sometimes been way, way better. This was also the case with the teenagers. We made some additional dialogues in the post-production, and when I let them improvise, we got such jewels! There were some amazing lines that we couldn’t have put together on our own. Of course Novak’s lines will be used, but in general, when I am talking about my work with actors, the most important factor is to make them understand where they are, and the nature of their relationship with other characters.

What I am quite proud of is how we managed to detect together with both boys’ their traumas and surpressed emotions. The father of one boy and the mother of the other were in a way acting coaches on the film set, and they helped me to get the children in the right emotional state. Once they were in that mood, it was really not a problem to get their performance that you see in the film going, because they just followed the coordinates. Without achieving those emotional states this would have been completely different. In a way, their performance in the film – I dare to say – was cathartic for both of them. During the process of rehearsals, there were some problems that were never spoken about. But after the shooting, they managed to relieve themselves from those issues, at least Gabrijel. He had some trouble with his schoolmates, and he never said it out loud, but he admited to himself that maybe they were not his good friends. Also, Gabrijel was attending football classes at the local club, but after the shooting he stopped with the training, and he got into the music school instead. It wasn’t the shooting that made him take that decision, but it did help him in a way to rethink what he really wanted in life. What I am trying to say is that the film wasn’t a traumatic experience for neither of the kids. They are still happy to see me.

There is this very intense closing scene, which couldn’t have been that easy to pull off.

That was actually the easiest scene to shoot! It looks terrible, but it was an enjoyable experience for David because he was in reality stuffing his face with chocolate and not dirt. The biggest challenge was actually shooting the scene of Franc being tortured by the older boys. We needed to develop the whole scene carefully. The only way to reach good results was to shoot the whole scene in different layers and moods. The actor was not able to be so precise to do the right thing in every repetition. In the editing we could put all pieces together.

How long did it take you to shoot the film? Were you based in Medjimurje?

Actually, the film was shot in Zagreb, but we faked it being in Medjimurje. The location is quite amazing and I am supper happy that we found it. We shot the film in five days, but technically we had four and a half. On one day we were doing only motorbikes.

Every detail in the film sits. The setting, the costumes. One is sent back in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

This is thanks to two amazing film professionals: the art director was the leading Croatian expert Ivan Veljača, and the costume designer was another amazing artist – Ana Savić Gecan. I am very happy that I worked with her. This was our first cooperation, but definitely not the last one.