Acclaimed Serbian director Goran Paskaljevic on his haunting film When Day Breaks

Goran Paskaljevic is one of Serbia’s most acclaimed independent filmmakers. He has been making movies for the past 40 years, winning awards in numerous festivals. Recently as part of CIFF his film, When Day Breaks, Serbia’s official entry to the Oscars was screened at Woodlands. The film which was inspired by the real-life story of his friend and screenwriting partner Filip David tells the story of a retired music professor who discovers that he is actually Jewish and that his parents gave him away before they were taken to a concentration camp. The Judenlager Semlin camp, one of the worst Nazi concentration camps in the heart of Belgrade is now a place with little to show for its disturbing past. Goran was present during the screening of the film and was on hand to answer a few questions:

In your introduction you said this film was a marked change of pace from your earlier work. Any particular reason for this change?

Nearly all my films till now were contemporary films but this one mixes the present day with the past. This is the first time I am touching upon the theme of the Holocaust and it being a very sensitive and intimate issue I opted for a mellow pace.

The museum director of the Jewish museum says that lots of people have forgotten the Holocaust. Is this something you feel strongly about?

There used to be 30,000 Jews in Serbia. But now that number is down by 90 per cent and there are only 3,000 Jews. More and more young people today in Europe are drawn towards ultra-nationalism which leads to fascism. They don’t know how big an evil it is. They base their love of the nation on the hatred of others which is a very dangerous thing and the end of human thinking.

Has your film managed to change that somewhat? What was the reaction like in Serbia?

It was interesting because the film was to some extent controversial. Most of the normal people responded well to the film but the ultras distributed flyers and pamphlets outside theatres. They protested saying don’t watch this film, it is not about Serbs, it is a film about Jews. But that was the whole point of my film. Of course these people are Serbs. Judaism is just a religion. It does not change your nationality.

Have your efforts in attempting to memorialise the old fairgrounds succeeded?

The politicians made promises like all politicians do before re-election but nothing has materialised so far. But at least we have this film now. I made it as a memorial to those people and that place.

Can you talk a little about your friend whose story was the inspiration for this film?

Well Filip David is 73. He is Jewish, born in Kragujevac. When he was one year old his parents settled him in a Serbian village because they felt threatened. They changed his name to an orthodox name. Most of his family died in concentration camps or was executed by firing squads. I have known Filip for a long time and have written many films with him. We talked of this often, I knew his story. One day something clicked and we decided to do this movie.

How did your lead actor Mustafa Nadarevic prepare for this role?

That’s the interesting thing — Mustafa is a Muslim actor who plays an orthodox Christian who discovers he is a Jew! But he is such a great actor, one of the best we have. I didn’t have to tell him anything. He would come for shooting and do everything naturally. When he came on the set he was already the professor. When I decided to do this film I knew he was the perfect actor for the role and I knew that I wanted him and no one else.

A number of buildings you show in your film are in a state of disrepair. Is this reflective of Serbia today?

Not really but it is reflective of the old fairground. Everything was shot on real locations. I made the film one year ago and sadly nothing has changed. This film is not just about Serbia but also about communities like the gypsies. What is happening to them today, their living condition and displacement is sad.

Yesterday I managed to watch Hirokazu Koreeda’s Like Father, Like Son which is about a couple’s search for their son. Your film is about a son’s search for his parents. But unlike you, Koreeda makes the argument that where we come from is not so important for who we are. Would you like to comment?

I watched Koreeda’s film in Goa where I was the jury president. I cannot remember the exact quote right now but the Rabbi in my film says something very important. He says that the crimes existed, they are repeated but the criminals are never punished. I think it is always important for us to remember where we come from.

(A retrospective of Goran’s films will be screened across various venues throughout the run of the Chennai International Film Festival).