Film

Barbara Vekarić On Her Refreshing And Empowering Debut Film, ‘Aleksi’

Expectation-busting Croatian film, Aleksi, is sure to win many admirers at this year’s SXSW Film Festival.

Led by a magnetic performance from Tihana Lazović, this thoughtful film follows a woman, Aleksi, in her late 20s as she seeks to get out of her parents’ house and discover her true path in life. A search for direction that sees Aleksi wander around her idyllic surroundings and engage in romantic flings with three different men.

Director Barbara Vekarić joins us on Close-up Culture to chat about the film’s fascinating lead character, the modern struggles facing young people, the underappreciated beauty of Croatia, and much more.


Q: It is refreshing to see such a charming and complex character lead a film. What was it like writing a character like Aleksi and what went into her construction?

A: I am drawn to stories that focus on strong individuals, especially those with the potential to redefine certain standards imposed by society. Films have the power to create role models and define existence, and so far, I have seen a very limited type of women leading movies. Most of them are really alike: beautiful, sweet, appropriate. So, I thought, it would be kinda necessary to create a character who is a mess, a savage and totally deaf to what society wants from her.

I observed girls who were my age and had similar surroundings. I noticed this inner conflict that appears in their mid-to-late 20s – when they wonder: “and what the fuck now?”. Once you decide what path to take, it’s hard to go back. It was so much fun to create her, and we hope it adds to the diversity of female heroines presented on the big screen.

And – thank you so much for saying that.

Q: I think a lot of young people – myself included – will be able to relate to the lost and conflicted place Aleksi finds herself in. Why do you think this struggle for purpose and direction has become so common among young people?

A: Well, with the technological and scientific progress that has taken place during the past century, the majority of people in western countries are not faced everyday with existential problems of life or death anymore. They can focus on discovering who they are and what makes them happy. They can dream big, and examples of people who “made it” are all over their Instagram feed.

Sadly, there is not room for everybody. This is what creates a discrepancy between desires and possibilities, and adds to the struggle for direction and purpose.

Q: Aleksi is romantically involved with three different men – Christian (Jason Mann), Goran (Goran Markovic) and Toni (Sebastian Cavazza) – during the film. What did you want to represent in these three male figures?

A: She is in desperate search of her path, and she channels her unstable emotions through these relationships. It’s not easy to choose when all options are bad.

Goran is the closest to being her match – they have intense chemistry, they challenge each other. The problem is – he just can’t understand her artistic ambition and desire to do more with life than just settle for the same “secure” future enabled by her family.

Toni is witty, charming and channels that gentleman “George Clooney” charisma that women find hard to resist, but he is a bit too old for her shit. His plate is too full to take her on.

Christian is the third “victim.” He and Aleksi share professional interests, but their vibe is pleasant more than passionate. His timing is bad as he comes right after her thing with Goran goes south, becoming a “bad pancake.”

Some people judge Aleksi for not being able to choose between these guys, but her true dilemma is not about choosing some dude, it is about choosing her path.

Aleksi stills - 6

Q: Tihana Lazović is tremendous as Aleksi. What made you think Tihana was right for the role and what did she bring to the character?

A: Tihana and I went to the same college, and I saw her in my classmates’ short films. Even in her early work as a drama school student, she had a remarkable presence.

For Aleksi, I needed a person who can hold your attention for an hour and a half and charm you along the way. Aleksi is pretty imperfect, borderline annoying, and I also needed an actor who would remedy that and make her feel relatable and sympathetic. Tihana is real, raw and playful in her movement and the way she talks.

It is a true gift for a director to have an actor with so much authentic emotion on her face, that is part of her and something she can successfully channel into the character.

Q: The film has a beautiful setting. Can you tell us why you chose this setting and the impact it has on the story?

A: Croatia has arguably one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, yet it is rarely portrayed on the big screen. There is a widespread belief among the majority of Croatian audiovisual artists that only existential problems and big social dramas are worthy of a film. And, you know, it is a valid point, especially if we put it in the context of a small country with a limited number of films produced annually. The cinema needs to be a weapon to change things.

But, at the moment, domestic cinema went to the extreme with it, and it started alienating the audience and creating the prejudice that domestic film is grey, depressing and only about the war. It also creates a vicious circle in the industry because people start having these expectations… Just as they expect all the films from Colombia to be about drug cartels, they expect all the films from Croatia to be about civil war. That’s what is mostly being funded and later selected by festival programmers. If you don’t want to do a movie like that, it will be harder to get it made and distributed.

I wanted to do something “feel good” and to spread positive vibes. I opted for a setting sentimental to me. Aleksi takes place on the beautiful Croatian peninsula of Pelješac, near my hometown of Dubrovnik, where I used to spend my summers with my family. In a superficial sense, it’s a sunny seaside village that seduces you with its green vineyards, the clean blue sea and the rough charm of its colourful locals.

Yet, this sumptuously photogenic area also reflects the prison of circumstance that confines our character because of its isolation. The area is commonly known as the appendix of Croatia, and it a bit difficult to reach. No other feature film has ever been shot there.

Aleksi stills - 1d

Q: ‘Aleksi’ will premiere for American audiences at SXSW. Are you intrigued to see the reaction of US audiences to the film?

A: Yes. I love watching films with the audiences and I am very excited for this. Last week we had a premiere in Belgrade (Serbia) and the atmosphere was just fantastic, people were laughing all the time. There is always a bit of worry that a foreign language film won’t work because of the unfamiliar context, but we’ll see.

I hope that the audience enjoys the film and gets empowered by this crazy girl’s journey.

Q: You now have a debut feature under your belt. Have you thought about what is next for you?

A: I have a few projects in development here in the United States. They all have strong female leading characters and we’ll see which one will be ready to see the light of the day first, but I am very excited for this next chapter. I heard the second film is the most difficult, but you know, time will tell what’s in the frame and what’s out.


 

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