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Taking his camera into the heart of chaotic queues winding through the city centre, Goran Dević captures poignant moments of connection and humour among Croatian citizens eagerly awaiting their doses of the coronavirus vaccine. Inside the clinical interiors of the vaccination centre, a diverse array of personalities—grandmothers, spouses, and healthcare workers—engage in candid discussions about their scepticism and sense of disorientation during this surreal chapter in our collective consciousness. Amidst the queues, strangers forge bonds, couples exchange banter, and individuals share humorous anecdotes from their lives. The documentary, Pavilion 6, not only highlights the absurdity of the situation but also pays tribute to the Croatian healthcare system. Through its blend of humour and humanity, it serves as a touching reminder of our shared resilience in the face of unprecedented challenges. 

Goran Dević’s documentary and fiction films have received awards internationally at festivals including Pula, Cottbus, Prizren, Prague, Sarajevo, Oberhausen, Leipzig, Motovun, and Zagreb. His debut feature film, The Blacks (2009), which he co-directed and co-wrote with Zvonimir Jurić, was highly praised by critics. Following the world premiere Pavilion 6 at the Sheffield Documentary Festival last weekend, I had the opportunity to interview Dević and discuss his latest project.

You've mentioned that accompanying your mother-in-law to a vaccination centre inspired your film. She was initially nervous about going alone but soon began chatting with people in line as if they were old friends. What attracted you to these spontaneous interactions, and how do they contribute to the overall narrative you wanted to convey about Croatian society during the pandemic?

In the whole region of the former Yugoslavia, we have an unwritten rule to communicate with people in public spaces, like if someone is sitting next to you on a train. When I noticed people confronting their fears and starting to communicate intimately, it reminded me of things I appreciated before the pandemic. When I was a student, I had an idea to make a movie about my hometown, Sisak, a strong industrial city similar to Sheffield with its oil refinery, steel mill, and chemical industry. I noticed that people from my town would start talking differently when they entered a train in Zagreb, as if they were back home. This adaptation and communication often led to friendships and emotional connections. Though I never made that movie, it's one of my favourite small subjects. In the context of the pandemic, I decided to capture these small, beautiful moments. The fact that nobody refused to be filmed shows the isolation we all experienced before.

You mentioned that you would talk to people for a bit and then introduce yourself as a filmmaker and ask them if they would mind being mic’d and recorded from a distance. The people are remarkably comfortable being filmed, despite the sensitive topic of vaccination. Why do you think people were so open to being recorded, and how did this affect the authenticity of their responses?

Two important facts to note: first, we filmed a lot of people, hundreds and hundreds of them. Second, we maintained a distance of about 20 meters. The space where we shot had modern architecture with many columns, allowing us to hide and stay 10 or 15 meters away without being seen. We used mini microphones instead of normal mics, so people didn't see the camera or the crew. Multiple times, I would hear people ask 'where are the guys with the camera? Why aren’t they shooting us?’ That's when I started filming.

There is such humour in the interactions between people. From the witty exchanges among relatives to the histrionic things that people say to the medical staff – I’m thinking of the woman who’s telling the staff that she’s had half her organs out, that she’s half a person. Did you intentionally try to capture these moments of humour, and how did you approach them?

Yes, definitely. I believe humour is one of the most powerful tools in challenging situations. In Croatia and the Balkans, our humour is quite similar to that of the British – laced with irony, even in times of wars and catastrophes. It's not about being inappropriate; it's almost a coping mechanism, a normal way for us to find levity in any situation, even the most serious ones.

How did you navigate portraying the anti-vaccine sentiment while maintaining a balanced perspective?

While I was aware that half of the population held peculiar beliefs about reality, vaccinations, and the pandemic, I didn't anticipate that those who had chosen to get vaccinated would also harbour such beliefs. That is very disturbing for me. We included such dialogues in the film to prompt reflection because scepticism isn't limited to the public; it extends to doctors, emergency crews, and administration staff who don't fully trust science. This surprised me. But you learn when you shoot a movie, you’re a participant in real life. You can't be stone. You must learn something from the process that you’re immersed in. One of my goals with the film was to commend our public health system. The pandemic vividly illustrated the consequences of neglecting it. I think that now, even the stupidest of us, realise that that is wrong now.

This socialist legacy enabled significant vaccine production for half of Europe, but we shot it when we transitioned into capitalism because it wasn’t economically efficient. Now, it's widely acknowledged in Croatia that a robust health system is crucial. During the pandemic, some curtains fell down completely. I didn't see any part of this famous European solidarity when some countries hoarded vaccines and medical supplies like mobsters in criminal movies. Nation-states became much more important than before reshaping both physical borders and public perspectives. This realization was sobering. I found the decline in trust in science and human knowledge during the pandemic troubling. Nevertheless, I felt an urgent need to express gratitude to the medical professionals who tirelessly worked through the epidemic—they were true heroes.

You mentioned a shift from initially editing a film about Covid times to one about society more broadly. How did this evolution reflect your own understanding of the subject matter, and what do you hope audiences take away from this broader perspective?

We began filming as a no-budget practice project. I noticed something interesting on the first we were there with our cameras the very next. However, we were turned down twice when seeking national funding. During this period, we edited hundreds of hours of footage, which gave us a long-term perspective on what truly stood out in our material. We initially intended to focus solely on the COVID era, as that material was unavoidable and essential. However, we also found importance in capturing aspects beyond COVID.

In the editing room, our approach was to highlight everyday elements that resonate with our lives and realities—like a grandmother proudly displaying photos of her grandchildren or the self-irony of this woman without half of her organs. Small gems that we captured without dialogue, a man wearing a plague doctor, beaked mask. Editing became a game of how to create a symphony of these vivid life details, ensuring these captured moments formed the cohesive structure of our narrative. It was a challenging journey, I often felt we’d collected a year’s worth of footage in a single day, but it ultimately helped us craft a film that reflects these nuances of life.

What responses have you received from audiences? Were there any reactions that surprised you?

What surprised me is that people laughed at the same moments in the film that we found funny. Many viewers saw themselves, their mothers, and friends in the dialogues we included. It made me realize how much we all have in common.

Can you share any challenges or surprises you encountered while filming Pavillion 6, and how has the film influenced your approach to future filmmaking?

I'm not so young anymore. Now over 50, my greatest challenge is finding the inspiration to pick up the camera. Over weeks or months, I may notice something intriguing in everyday life that could make for a compelling film, but I often lack the same youthful motivation to dive into new projects with enthusiasm. However, on the first day of shooting for this film, I felt rejuvenated, like a young student. This feeling is something I’m constantly chasing and striving to rediscover. Currently, I'm preparing two films, one about one of Croatia's most harrowing concentration camps from World War II, and the other a documentary about an ancient village soon to be submerged beneath an artificial lake, due to the construction of a dam. Nobody wants to leave their homes, but citizens of this small village will be forced to leave their farms in the most beautiful part of the country, a very poetic land. It’s a poignant backdrop to Europe's push for cleaner, greener energy independence from traditional sources. I've been following the villagers' stories for about four years now and will continue tracing their journey to the story's conclusion. I have motivation for this film, but it is completely in pictures. I can imagine how horrible and beautiful the pictures of people’s homes underwater, as a result of this barbaric act my society will do.

All the films I've made can be categorised as long-term projects where I follow participants for 7 to 10 years or small films shot with a few friends over a week or two. I enjoy both approaches. As I grow older, I have a greater appreciation for shorter films, where Aristotle's concept of 'unity of place, time, and action' is crucial. I'm searching for stories that can be filmed with minimal resources in a short timeframe, yet still carry significant meaning. It's challenging but achievable.


Agnès Houghton-Boyle is a critic and programmer based in London. Her writing features in Talking Shorts Magazine and Fetch London.


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