“What is your generation going to do?”: 5 Questions for Mila Turajlic, director of “The Other Side of Everything”

For decades, a locked door inside one family’s Belgrade apartment has stayed firmly shut. Now, after 70 years, acclaimed filmmaker Mila Turajlic (Cinema Komunisto) opens the door to reveal not just the divisions inside her own home, but the deep fissures that continue to separate her embattled nation. The Other Side of Everything follows the story of Mila and her mother Srbijanka Turajlic, a formidable member of the resistance against Slobodan Milošević in the 1990s, as they grapple with both their contentious past and unsettling present. A probing inquiry into the responsibility of each generation to fight for their future and winner of the top prize at the world’s largest documentary film festival, the widely acclaimed and powerfully resonant The Other Side of Everything is an “engrossing” (Variety) and “wryly humorous” (The Hollywood Reporter) family portrait that “beautifully intertwines the very personal with the painfully political” (Filmmaker Magazine). Here, Turajlic speaks with DOC10 about the rising tide of nationalism, the history in household objects, and stories about mothers and daughters.

Your film is obviously about Serbia and you and your mother’s experience, but it’s also resonating in other parts of the world right now, including in the U.S. What’s been your experience showing it around the world?

Mila Turajlic: Yes, people all over latch on to one of the central themes: In a time of political hysteria and turbulence, what is the responsibility of every adult? I had feedback from people in Europe: This is what’s coming to us if we don’t stand up and react. My mother was with us in IDFA [in Amsterdam], and people stopped her on the street in Amsterdam to tell her how much the film spoke to them and made them face their own action or inaction. So I feel that it does seem to be representing this rising tide in nationalism and intolerance. The people respond to the central question, which she poses to me in the film, “What is your generation going to do?”

It’s such a big moment in the film. And she’s looking directly at you—but she’s also really looking at the audience. Was that planned?

It was so honest and direct. The energy of the scene: She’s literally staring down the camera lens, but the way we had built the dramaturgy of the film, we were really building to that moment. There’s definitely a switch that happens in the film in the third act, where I’m no longer questioning her, but she’s questioning me.

What was the process like of interviewing your mother for this film? Do you think it brought you closer? And what did the relationship of filmmaker and subject reflect on your relationship as mother and daughter?

I do think it’s a film about a mother and daughter relationship. During the editing, my producer told me that you never get to see a conversation between a mother and daughter that’s not about an anguished family trauma, or how one has destroyed the other. I think it’s true; I rarely see mother-daughter conversations that are about engagement and politics and courage. I definitely wanted to address that. The problem for me, when I was filming, is that my mother was so used to doing interviews and lecturing in public places, so in the beginning, she was speaking to me as a journalist. The hardest part in the interviews was breaking down that mode of talking, which was not intimate, at all. It was only until it became a dialogue that I began to realize how to work it into a film. But it was definitely a process. Regarding your question about if we came closer, my mother and I always shared the language of politics, and as a little girl, I followed her to demonstrations. But what definitely changed in the five years of making the movie was that I grew up. The film follows very closely the chronology of how I shot: The first interviews were the first that I shot and the last interviews were the last I shot, so there’s a natural progression in our conversations. And at some point, I stopped being the daughter and became the adult, viewing her life as an adult. And I think that’s what changed while I was making the film.

Did you intend the film to document yourself and your evolution?

Not at all. To be honest, it took me awhile. When I realized that my questions had to be there, and my presence had to be there, and that I had to establish clearly that I was the person filming and I was the one provoking these situations. It took me some time to accept that as a framework for the film. But it had to do with me realizing that I had to be honest and intimate about where I was at the time.

Your last film was very archival-driven, but here, you’re telling a more personal story. And yet, there’s a lot of evocative visuals and poetic close-ups. Can you talk about the visual design?

The challenge I set for myself is that I wanted to make a very simple film. I wanted something a lot purer than Cinema Komunisto and much less flashy. If Cinema Komunisto was made on an epic register, I wanted this to be on a more intimate register. I also knew that the film would never leave the apartment. And hence, what really influenced me is that I went to this museum in Istanbul called the Museum of Innocence, created by [author] Orhan Pamuk, based on his book. In the museum, he made these glass display cases where every chapter in his book is retold in glass display cases through daily household objects: an ashtray, a napkin, someone’s dress. You can tell so many things about the objects that fill a house. So I really set out to look for those little details that would turn the apartment into a character. I thought the apartment becomes a character, and from there came this idea that the apartment holds history, and that’s how I set about building that space. And the evocative power of that space. Another huge inspiration was 17th Century Dutch painting, because again the household become a subject of painting, where there’s feeling of light and depth. And the second element I wanted to work with is that because the apartment is so such centrally located, you have this running commentary about what’s happening out the window and what’s happening inside. So I was interested in how are we going to show time passing through those windows as it also becomes a chronicle of time.

Paula Froehle