Earlier this year, Embassy of France in Washington D.C. hosted screening of the “Promise”—an award-winning Serbian-French documentary about courageous, optimistic and hard-working middle-aged French couple moving to a deserted and nearly forgotten village in Serbia in search for a perfect terroir for their vineyard. Through Estelle’s and Cyrille’s story we learn about villagers of Rogljevo, their hardships, and their life revolving around wine growing. On a deeper level, the movie is a delicate contemporary narrative, and an anthropological vignette about people and cultures in transition. Aging, loneliness, dreams, realities, resilience and hopes are all masterfully captured through a soulful, delicate and sincere lens of a camera. We recently had an opportunity to talk to the movie director and producer of “Promise” with Mr. Zeljko Mirkovic, and learn more about his creative process, and the art of masterful documentary storytelling.
Zeljko, can you please tell us a bit more about yourself?
I graduated in movie directing from the Academy of Arts in Belgrade in 1999. Catalyzed by political changes in Serbia at the time, I started working on documentary movies in 2000. In my first documentary project, I followed the story of a young couple waiting for changes and watching situation build-up through street protests. He was a videographer working for a local TV station. She was expecting her first baby. They wanted for their baby to be born in new Serbia. That left a powerful impression on me. I had the same hopes and dreams, and I wanted to capture their private story in context of this political and social change. This is when I became very interested in creative documentary movies.
After years of study, and several completed projects, I finally established my own production house in 2007. Optimistic Film is celebrating 10th anniversary this year. Today we exclusively focus on production of documentaries.
In my private life, I’m deeply dedicated to my family. I have two children – a son and a daughter. My wife and I believe in family as a foundation, guiding light, and a source of strength to tackle any challenges that life may bring.
Was there any relative, teacher or a role model that influenced you to choose cinematography?
When I graduated from high school, we were at the brick of civil war in former Yugoslavia. I did not want to be part of that story. To delay my mandatory military service, I decided to study electrical engineering as one of the only three programs at the time that allowed students to postpone their service after graduation. I was hoping that the war would be over soon, and I would be able to transfer to arts and humanities. Instead, war kept dragging, and I nearly graduated in electrical engineering. As soon as the situation with military service changed, I transferred to the Academy of Arts to a great surprise to my parents. Electrical Engineering as a career would likely serve me well today, except that I was truly and extremely interested in film making and humanities.
I’m guessing your knowledge of electrical engineering can still be very helpful in your work today?
Studying electrical engineering certainly helped me develop high work ethic. Electrical engineering requires disciplined and structured approach to work. It also takes consistency and endurance to study for ten hours a day or more. Art and humanities, on the other hand, require a different kind of energy. Today, as a manager and producer, I greatly benefit from using my organizing and planning skills I acquired when I studied electrical engineering.
I believe it takes a lot of courage for such a bold turn. What comes to you first as you look back at your path?
We all have our path. In the moment of decision, we don’t know if our decisions are good. If we want to be happy, we should listen to our intuition. Many decisions in life are intuitive. Perhaps some best decisions we will ever make are intuitive. When we overthink our direction, we try to incorporate too many factors—many of which we can’t influence—and we try to find a rational and logical explanation for our next step. This is sometimes very complex and difficult.
You are saying that path not aligned with our inner voice will eventually reveal itself as a limiting solution?
What moved you to start the Optimistic Film? What are you looking to accomplish?
When my children were born, I wanted to bring forward a bit more positive perspective of reality, to see life from a positive angle. All my projects are human-centered, and I personally believe in love, hope, family and humanity. Humanity, I believe, always wins at the end. This belief is reflected in our company name, which is more than just a name—it’s the view of life. All our movies—even though they deal with serious topics—always bring hope at the end, even if that’s just a modest hint of hope. We always look for humanity when exploring different perspectives.
The hope you bring through your documentaries is kind of hope that emerges after deeply insightful reflection…
I strive to be sincere and authentic in my work. I always look to understand people, and the topic I am working on. I avoid superficial viewpoints. I also want my reflection to be positive. I don’t want to use language of aggression in my movies, because it would result in aggressive reflection. It’s like in aikido, when you chose to respond differently to aggression by allowing the energy to move so you can direct it when the opportunity is right. Our movies are created to stimulate deeper thinking, and search for meaningful key answers.
How would you describe your style? When you take a look at your entire portfolio, what do you see as a common thread?
I often say that my movies are a version of a docu-fairytale. Perhaps they are not a fairytale, but rather a way to tap into a different frequency that shows us that everything is possible if we have faith, determination, and will to try. I think that the energy we bring with us into our environment creates our future. In my movies, I always look for the right key that matches the energy of the movie. I think that creative documentaries are an artistic expression of contemporary fairytales that happen to all of us. What may render my movies as docu-fairytales is that our modern reality doesn’t generally believe in a possibility of a positive outcome anymore. We are focused on negative news. Through my work, I am trying to say that good news and beautiful human stories can be as valuable if not more precious than negative news.
Is there a special moment or a memory of your creative production that you fondly remember?
Every project was very important to me when I worked on it. I always try to understand the moment, and find time to enjoy it together with my project team. I enjoy equally all project phases: from idea to development, to post-production.
Perhaps the biggest production challenge I had so far was to bring two former soldiers and war enemies together in a meeting set twelve years after their first encounter, and to capture their story about peace, and hope for humankind. I was lucky that both protagonists wanted to participate in this adventure that took is few years to complete. “Second Meeting” garnered international recognition and multiple awards, including nomination for Oscars.
The most interesting thing about the “Second Meeting” is that it reached very diverse audience because our movie screenings were offered in some most unusual places, such as US Congress, United Nations, military barracks, academic institutions etc. No matter who our audience was—whether they were citizens of Serbia directly impacted by war, or Pentagon generals, politicians, soldiers, or students interested in better understanding of events in Balkan—they all reacted in a positive human way, which shows that movie achieved to connect directly to the soul. This is why, I believe, the “Second Meeting” was so successful.
Can you tell us more about your creative approach? How does it look like for you as a producer, director, and a storyteller?
As a director and creator, I am seeking for excellence and masterful creation. As a producer, I look for the best way to bring the project to life, and to find ways to bring it to market. One advantage of being movie project director and a producer is that you have freedom to tell the story the way you see it, especially if you are ready to take risks and allow the story to be developed as needed.
Making of a documentary movie is a unique and interesting process. Creative documentary movies develop gradually at every stage of making, from the very first idea, to production—which can take several years—to post-production, when you may discover some new possibilities and ways to take the movie to a new level. This may be why documentaries are one of the most creative movie genres today.
Can you share a bit more about relationship between documentary movie director and protagonists?
Documentary movies are based on deeper collaboration between the director and protagonists. This requires trust, shared energy, and equal desire to make the movie in the best possible way, without rushing, or ending it before the story is told, and new levels of insight are achieved. Based on my experience, a new dimension usually opens in third or fourth quarter of the movie, and it gives the movie a new and deeper meaning. It takes extra energy, faith, and combined effort to unlock that new dimension. It is very important for the project that the relationships are clear, well defined, and built on mutual trust.
I believe that trust and understanding is the key. It is important to be open to hear what protagonists are saying to you. They need to be able to trust you, and they need to feel good when they work with you.
You have been through the creative process many times, and by now you probably have a very refined sense of recognizing the moment as it comes. Majority of protagonists are, however, part of a creative documentary project for the first time. Is it fair to assume that director as a coach and mentor can help protagonists stay connected to the moment? How does this resonate with you?
I often tell my students that there is an algorithm for a movie project. This means that all the project steps are clear and known, and defined by a chosen production model. However, the way in which will algorithm really take place is not fully predictable. The algorithm has many “if” moments, and knowing “what opens when something happens” is achieved by recognizing the keys. It is important to have clear understanding of your intention before starting a project. Without clarity about your message, it is easy to get lost in possibilities, continue to search around, and not be able to complete the project.
Without the key, you can’t get in, which is the essence of creative work.
What requires the most attention?
Every step is very important. Whether you are at the beginning of your project, doing research, developing the story, building your relationship with protagonists, working on post-production, or choosing the soundtrack – every little detail matters. It is really fascinating to see how some tiny details can significantly improve the movie. One moment—and one tiny detail—can evoke emotion that will lead the whole movie, or shift the perspective of the story. Every moment matters. It is important for person to be able to recognize as many moments as possible.
You are saying that it is important to be present in every moment?
The most important is to know where are you going.
How do you prepare for a day on location? You mentioned that you want to have the right energy with your team, and the movie protagonists. Do you have any specific way how to prepare for it?
I mostly talk with my wife about my projects. She is a psychologist and psychotherapist, and I love to hear her perspective about the project. Her viewpoint gives me a fresh look. Her comments are always relevant and precise.
Also, I don’t like to mystify or overcomplicate my projects, no matter how difficult or serious work we might be doing. I do not want to make more out of it than what it really is. Life is simple, and we only need to choose to see it and accept it in such way. This is how I like to set up our production. I want everyone to feel good when we work together. I often use cinema verite style that follows life and situations as they are. This is why it is important that everyone feels comfortable.
How do you select topics for your movies?
Topics chose me based on the energy I carry with me in the moment of encounter. I sense, pay attention, and I recognize the topics. Sometimes they stay with me, and other times they don’t. I don’t have a list of topics that I want to create in next ten years. The topics evolve as I develop, and my interests and searches open up. In my interaction with the world around me, I recognize what comes up, what touches me, and compels me to tell the story from my perspective and my personal value stance.
What touches and inspires you right now?
I am currently working on a large project “A Dream of Future: Shalom, Salaam, Peace” with Jerry Holsopple. Through a story with leaders of three largest monotheistic religions—Judaism, Islam and Christianity—we want to explore why we don’t have peace although peace is the core message and the goal of all three religions.
How far are you with this project?
We are in advanced developmental stage. We have finalized our research, and we are looking to start production as soon as the financial conditions allow it.
How do you find the right collaboration partners for your projects?
In all my collaborative projects, I directed the movies, and partnered with other producers to bring projects to life. Producers usually reach out to me to get my perspective as a director. Over time, our collaboration may grow into a deeper level of partnering, followed with my investment into the project.
What kind of collaboration would you like to see in the future?
A notable example of the kind of collaboration I enjoy is manifested in working with Jerry Holsopple on “Shalom, Salaam, Peace”. I love to collaborate with my partners on many levels, including the last step of market launch. I am truly hoping this latest project will also earn nomination for Oscars, similarly to the “Second Meeting”.
You mentioned how important it is for a director to recognize when the story is incomplete. Can you share with us how do you decide where the story ends?
If you know where you are going, and if you got the key, then you will know how to get in and come out, where to start and where to finish. That’s the whole secret.
Where can our audience find your movies today?
“Second Meeting” is now available on iTunes and PBS. “The Promise” will hopefully also be available for distribution later this year.
What is your message for artists, writers, storytellers, current and future movie directors?
Be sincere, and do not be afraid to make mistakes. Mistakes are an integral and necessary part of work. Mistakes will follow us continuously, so we should accept them, because they are the best ways to learn. Being able to recognize a mistake is already an advanced level of learning. It means that you have advanced your awareness. It also means that you will be able to do better in your next project. Over time, as you move forward, you will build your mastery.
What’s most important, in my opinion, is that you follow your voice and intuition.
Thank You very much for a candid and inspirational discussion. I look forward to seeing your next movie.
What is your creative passion? Why? What helped you most to move your creative ideas forward, and produce something engaging, beautiful or moving? Leave a comment and let me know.
Svetlana Dimovski, PhD is a leadership scholar and career coach, and a co-founder of Dharma Growth LLC from Arlington, VA. Svetlana supports individuals and organizations in creating strategies for transition, transformation, and growth. Her interests include artificial intelligence, learning, art and meditation. Follow Svetlana on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/dimovskis
Zeljko Mirkovic, MA is an internationally-awarded and Oscar-nominated movie director and a founder of Optimistic Film movie production house. With several dozens of awards, Zeljko’s films have been featured at more than 200 international film festivals and broadcasted over TV stations throughout Europe, USA and Asia. Follow Zeljko on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/zeljko.mirkovic.5
Optimistic Film: http://optimisticfilm.com/
“Second Meeting” movie: https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/the-second-meeting/id660785694
This article was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/keys-our-dreams-svetlana-dimovski-phd
Originally published at www.shareyourpassion.tv