Mladen Kovačević • Director of Another Spring

“It is an intimate reminiscence, especially from the point of view of this new pandemic, of the events of the early 1970s”

– We explore how COVID-19 inspired the documentary filmmaker to make a film about the 1972 smallpox outbreak in Yugoslavia

After the world premiere of Merry Christmas, Yiwu [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Mladen Kovačević
film profile
]
in Rotterdam in 2020, Serbian documentary filmmaker Mladen Kovacevic was preparing to go into production on his new film, which he had planned to shoot in eight countries. But then, of course, COVID-19 happened. “It would have been crazy to give it a shot with all the restrictions in place,” he says as we sit on the balcony of his hotel in Karlovy Vary, where his new feature film, another spring [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Mladen Kovačević
film profile
]
created as part of the Proxima competition.

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Since his first film found footage, 4 years in 10 minutes [+see also:
film review
trailer
film profile
]
, Kovačević thought of using archival material again, and the idea arose immediately. As various medical experts began to appear in the media, one of the most prominent was Professor of Epidemiology Zoran Radovanovicwho was at the center of the world’s last smallpox epidemic which took place in Yugoslavia in 1972, and who wrote a book about it, entitled Smallpox Vera.

“I had this feeling that my life had suddenly changed, and it inspired me very quickly. Almost the same day, I thought of smallpox vera and the 1972 epidemic,” he recalls. So producer Iva Plemic Divjak went to a bookstore and bought the book, and they started working on the movie. Even though it is the work of a medical professional and has no real narrative structure, the timeline and chain of events were there.

“As soon as you start reading, you realize that the structure is there. That’s what interests me the most, when I find these organic structures that don’t need to be forced,” says Kovačević. The first part of the story, telling how smallpox came to Yugoslavia from the Baghdad bazaar, sounds like a police procedural. “And from the moment the narrator and protagonist, Dr. Radovanović, gets involved, it turns into something like a thriller because they are actively fighting against this disease,” explains the director.

Use of archival material

Radio Television Serbia (RTS), which inherited the archives of the former TV Belgrade from the Yugoslav era, had images from the time, but none have been digitized. So when the production team informed them that they were shooting a film, they scanned it in 2K, which made RTS a co-producer of the documentary. Other sources included Kosovar TV Priština, the army film Zastava, and Yugoslav Newsreels. This diversity meant that there were discrepancies in how the different sequences looked. “Other than slowing down the footage for more or less the whole movie, we didn’t try to visually unify the material,” says Kovačević.

By slowing it down to 30% of the original speed, the team has virtually reinterpreted the footage from the perspective of 50 years later. “The idea was that it would help the archives feel like memories, like they were slowly forming. It also set that menacing, thriller-like tone of a dangerous disease that is spreading unnoticed across the country.

Sound design and music

When you have a movie that is mostly slowed down footage, realistic sound design is out of the question. When Kovačević, editor Jelena Maksimovic and sound designer Jakov Munizaba began to work on the editing, they used Yugoslav experimental electronic music from the 1960s and 1970s. “But this music is very eclectic and impatient, changing the mood too quickly”, recalls the director. “And I don’t like cutting other people’s works.”

Sometimes creative decisions come from an inspiration; to others, they are the result of coincidence. It so happened that the same week, Munižaba was appointed head of Radio Belgrade’s electronic studio, which included the legendary and giant Synthi 100 analog-to-digital synthesizer custom-built by Electronic Music Studios UK in 1971. we used in the edit was done on this synth, and I asked Jakov, ‘Why don’t you try something similar?’ “recalls Kovacević. This buzzing, heavily atmospheric score became Munižaba’s first motion picture soundtrack, after more than 90 credits as a sound designer.

The Reliable Narrator

Kovačević wanted Dr. Radovanović to be the film’s sole narrator, and they spent a week in the studio, ending up with around 20 hours of audio material.

“He is a reliable narrator who has revisited his memories countless times and confronted them with the facts, and these memories are supplemented by archival interviews”, details the director. “It tells the official version of events, but it’s not a polemical or historical film; it is an intimate reminiscence, especially from the point of view of this new pandemic, of the events of the early 1970s.

This reminiscent quality is reinforced by the fact that the 1972 epidemic marked the beginning of Radovanović’s career – one can imagine that it was the most important event of his professional life. And in dramaturgical terms, the more a thing means to a character, the more engaging the film.

“The way he shares these facts, he doesn’t do it like a professional storyteller would. These facts mean something to him. When he says, ‘In the third wave, there were 173 people infected’, he knew who were those people. I don’t think I read anything into it, but I think you can hear in his voice that it’s important to him. And that’s why it works,” says Kovačević.

1972 versus 2022

As another spring probably wouldn’t have happened if a new pandemic hadn’t started in 2020, it’s impossible to look at it independently from that exact vantage point. What was the biggest lesson for Kovačević in terms of comparing the two eras?

“It’s so obvious that in those days, experts were making decisions and the public was listening to those experts, and the authorities were listening to them as well,” he says. “All the people you could see on TV were scientists; it wasn’t even an option for a layman to start talking about it in the public domain.

Even Yugoslav President Tito made no public appearances or statements during the smallpox outbreak. “Even when experts made unpopular decisions, no one doubted that they were for the common good. The smallpox vaccine was not normally given to pregnant women, but data from the World Health Organization led them to conclude that the danger posed by smallpox was far greater than that of the vaccine. The same was true for newborns. But they decided to vaccinate these populations in areas where the probability of infection was highest, and they were right: 67% of unvaccinated newborns died of smallpox,” says Kovačević.

On a larger scale, when the smallpox eradication program began in 1967, the proposal came from the USSR and all WHO members accepted it. “It was the time of the cold war, but nobody said: ‘We are not going to do what Russia says'”, underlines the director. “These scientists, regardless of the political relations between their countries, succeeded in ten years in eradicating the most dangerous disease in the history of mankind, which had killed more than half a billion people during the 20th century alone.”

Smallpox remains the only infectious disease that has ever been completely eradicated, a result that was officially declared in 1980. “There are now four or five diseases on which such an approach would work, including poliomyelitis,” says Kovačević . “But such a degree of solidarity and cooperation is virtually unimaginable in our time.”

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