Mirjana Karanović has established herself as one of the most important figures in Serbia’s film industry, as well as a deeply influential actress in its surrounding countries. In her career as an actress, Karanović’s roles have been defined by a genuine artistic courage and activism. From roles focused on disadvantaged Serbians such as When Father Was Away on Business (1985), to political works such as Svjedoci (2003), where she became the first Serbian to play a Croatian on film since the break-up of Yugoslavia. In her latest effort, A Good Wife, Karanović both acts and directs, resulting in both a deeply personal and challenging work that examines cognitive dissonance, guilt, adorned with poignant and overdue moral imperatives.
We caught up with Karanovic at Sydney Film Festival to discuss her film, the shift from acting to directing, and her history as one of Serbia’s most provocative and brave actresses.
You’ve written and directed the film as well as featured in it — that seems like a very personal experience. What made this project something that you wanted to have that kind of control over?
I’m very interested in this subject because I really try to understand human nature and people who hide themselves from any kind of responsibility in their lives. It started to be clear for me after all that happened in my country in the 90’s; after all this war just finished. I tried to understand why this happened. At the beginning I had a strong belief that everything would last a month or a couple months, and then people will start thinking and stop fighting, killing each other, because it’s so wrong, it’s so absurd. But it didn’t happen. It lasted 10 years, so I tried to figure out why. Then I started thinking about the woman who actually is the beloved wife of one of the people involved in the war operation in Bosnia. I tried to understand that person, tried to figure out what’s going on in her head, because all through the years during the conflict I was completely different than her. I was active, I gave interviews, I was an anti-war activist, I did a lot of speeches.
That’s why I did this story, because I tried to analyse and understand. That’s why it’s the story about the an average middle-aged woman who never questioned her life, and never had strong thoughts about what’s behind her well being.
With all of these very political characters that you’ve played, it’s interesting that you should play this very normal kind of role. I was interested in how you constructed that character, being so detached from it in your own life. Did you write it yourself, or is that character accepting what happened a wrong kind of idea?
For me it was the challenge, because she’s actually basically a decent, nice woman. She’s not politically active, she just has her very limited universe, and she’s quite comfortable in her space. The illness is the first thing that happened in her life that put her out of balance. That was the start of the events of what was next in her life. One goes to another and then she can’t stop it. Even though she wanted to keep her life the way it was, it can’t happen. That’s how I feel about the history. People always try to keep things unchangeable, like “don’t change anything in my life, just let me be the way it is”, but it’s impossible. We have to move on, we have to look around, and in one moment she is forced to look around herself and to look back at her life and question her life. Everything that’s going on around her is [questionable], so she has to decide. In her life she let all decisions be made by her husband and she just enjoyed this comfortable life. This is the first time that she has to decide on her own what to do.
That’s why I connect the decision about what she’s going to do with the breast cancer and what she’s going to do with the state, because this is a similar kind of hiding things. Underneath is something else. There is a time when you can deny the truth and you pretend that nothing is going on, but in one moment you have to decide: are you going to live or are you going to die; die with the truth or get the truth out and, of course, take responsibility for your life?
Specifically with the husband, I thought one of the interesting things was that the audience was made to view him as quite different to some of his friends. He is doing some good things in the present, but you still have to grapple with what he did in the past, putting him as a figure that was a mixture of good and bad things in his life. Did you actively kind of write him to be like that for a certain reason?
I wanted him to be a flawless husband and father, and a really strong, protective person. In my country, this is a kind of ideal husband. He provides his family enough assets, like money and security, and they have a nice house, and he didn’t ever raise a hand on her. really in some really patriarchal criteria, he’s an ideal man, but underneath this image is actually a person who just has no emotion and compassion for other people. He’s just concentrated on [himself]. For me, this is an image of my country and what I as a writer and a director wanted to question, because loyalty to your family or loyalty to your nation is not stronger than morality, which are higher than loyalty to anybody. For me you cannot commit a crime in the name of your nation, or in the name of your family, and live your life like it is okay and that you are not responsible for this. That’s why I wanted to tell that Milena, the wife, has no other reason to betray him than this inside moral instinct, what’s good and what’s bad. I didn’t want to give her alibi to make decision about what he did because he’s a lousy husband or lousy father and she has a problem with him anyways, no, he’s perfect and she has to decide on her own, not because of something else.
How are both this film and your other work received within Serbia, and in places like Bosnia?
We just started the distribution in Serbia, and until now, mostly the reactions are good, but I still expect more reactions during next period. I’m waiting for the emotional response of the people, but I’m hoping that everybody’s going to understand what’s going on in the movie. It’s not that I’m judging anybody, I’m just trying to stimulate people to think about it on their own. I don’t want to send a message of how to think, but I want to provoke an emotional response to the story, and it could start an intellectual response because I think it is important. It’s important to face the truth. It’s not good hiding this and trying to pretend that nothing happened, so that’s what I want.
With films like Death in Sarajevo and Our Everyday Life, it seems like there is this kind of focus at this year’s festival on films that try to look at this conflict through cinema. How do you view this, as someone who has viewed cinema as a way to navigate these political issues?
These stories took a lot of energy in our lives, in everybody’s lives, so as an artist, [I] just have to respond this way. I just can’t live my life in my country not trying to respond to certain subjects, because politics is such a big part of our lives. Even though I’m playing some other performances and movies with a different subject, this recent history and what’s going on in our society is important for the artist to respond in an artistic way, not as political messages. During the 90’s I was very involved in politics [through] making speeches and activism, but now I just want to be an artist, and to say stories which, of course, have political background, but [aren’t] pure politics, like a cheap political message.
I interviewed someone once who used to do a lot of activism in his youth but didn’t view himself as an activist anymore, and he looked at art and cinema as this thing that existed to inspire activism and give people a reason to be more engaged with those issues. I think that this film does that in a really fantastic way, so thanks so much for the film.