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SHEFFIELD DOC FESTIVAL WINNER MAJA NOVAKOVIĆ ON 'AT THE DOOR OF THE HOUSE WHO WILL COME KNOCKING'

Maja Novaković's At The Door Of The House Who Will Come Knocking was awarded the Grand Jury Award for the International Competition at the Sheffield Documentary Festival, where the Serbian and Bosnia-Herzegovinian co-production had its sold-out world premiere. Novaković’s gentle, meandering debut feature unfolds against the rugged winter landscape of the Bosnian hills. Imbued with the sensory detail reminiscent of the Baroque masters, the film captures the divine splendour within the solitude of Emin, an elderly man living an isolated life in a small cabin. Inviting viewers into a contemplative exploration of the human condition, the film delves into themes of alienation, the passage of time, and the complexities of finding comfort and solace amidst life’s trials. 


Novaković holds a Master's in Art History and is currently a PhD candidate studying Sergei Parajanov’s poetics of heritage. Her debut film, Then Comes the Evening, premiered at Visions du Réel in 2019 and achieved an OSCARS® nomination qualification by winning at the Full Frame Documentary Festival. It has since received over 50 awards and screened at more than 130 festivals worldwide, including Hot Docs, Jihlava IDFF, Camerimage, and Sarajevo, among others. I had the opportunity to sit down with Novaković following her first screening at Sheffield and speak with her about her latest project in some more detail.


via Mubi


During my research, I was surprised to learn that the man featured in the film is a real person, rather than a fictional character. In your directorial statement, you mention having met him as a high school student while taking photographs for a competition. You direct him so artfully in the film, particularly in moments like when he's sitting on the stool in his cabin, with his long beard and hair framing his face as he rests on his fist, reminiscent of a Caravaggio painting. You also weave in deliberately magical elements, which are intriguing. Could you elaborate on your approach to blending reality with these imaginative aspects?


I wanted to create a creative documentary with a subjective interpretation of the subject, deliberately neglecting traditional interpretations to focus on portraying a particular atmosphere and its meanings through metaphors. Neglecting his biographical details allowed me to concentrate on his inner life, exploring what I refer to as a psychological landscape. His physical appearance is also intriguing; he hasn't cut his hair or shaved in nearly 50 years, only removing what bothers him. This served as a starting point to tell a story that prioritises the broader themes over minute details. About 50 years ago, his brother, a hairdresser, died in a forestry accident. By not cutting his hair, he’s protecting that memory. To me, this act is an important way to visualise these human emotions of sorrow, sadness and alienation. Through that act, it was important to me to visualise human emotions and feelings: sorrow, sadness, and alienation. During my research, Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space was meaningful to me and inspired me to deal with these inner spaces: their metaphor and meaning. I wanted to depict alienation and the coldness of both the landscape we belong to and human emotions, words spoken that nobody hears. The film explores grief as a universal human experience, simultaneously isolating and unifying. It's also an ode to the Bosnian hills, as both Emin and I are from the same area and share a deep connection to the landscape.


In your statement, you mentioned having a sense of Emin’s inner life from when you first met him. Could you share if there was a specific moment or interaction with Emin that initially sparked the idea for this film, or did the concept develop gradually over time?


There isn't a single starting point for this project. When conceptualising a film, I often begin with visual imagery, influenced by my background in art history. As I explored themes of alienation, these mosaic-like images gradually evolved into the narrative structure, getting me closer to the subject matter and allowing me to visually and emotionally connect.


I think those influences are strongly evident in the film, especially in your portrayal of the landscape, which conveys movement and beauty. I’m intrigued by this line in your Director’s Statement in which you say: ‘I use landscapes and nature to describe the human condition.’ Could you expand on these themes and their significance in your film?


Before I moved to a big town to study, I was deeply connected to nature. However, after relocating, I became somewhat deaf and blind to nature's subtleties. The sounds of the wind and streams felt different to me. In my film, I aimed to represent these feelings and compare them to how nature behaves. For instance, in the scene where the cat's breathing turns into the breathing of the forest the image of nature is depicted as a state of the soul and we see nature as a living being and feel it as it breathes. It's always interesting to me to try to represent human emotions as nature events.


At the Door of the House Who Will Come Knocking, 2024, still and poster


Your connection with the landscape is palpable in the film. Watching it made me wonder if you're familiar with the Celtic concept of Thin Places. In Scotland, Ireland, and Northern Ireland, these are believed to be locations where the boundary between the earthly and spiritual realms is thin. 


I didn't specifically think of it that way during filming. However, upon reflection and revisiting Bachelard’s work, I came to see how ”imagination increases the values of reality.” The question what is reality? My focus on human emotions meant that specific events during the three-year, three-winter filming period influenced the film. For example, Emin’s favourite horse passed away. I knew that I didn't want to shoot any of this. I wanted to respect those emotions because at that moment they haven't been processed. They could have been documentary moments, but I wanted to honour his process of healing. 


There are several magical moments in the film, such as a child dressed in white running through a forest and later appearing in Emin’s bed while he sleeps, singing a lullaby and placing flower petals on his face. It appears Emin has passed away and the child is an apparition or metaphor. In another scene, Emin walks through his house corridor and fades away like a ghost, only to later converse with a neighbour. Their discussions evolve from mundane small talk to abstract reflections. Were these elements ways of presenting the experiences of loss throughout the making of the film?


Yes, your interpretation is correct. The film explores feelings of loss and grief, as well as memories that can be both pleasant and unpleasant. These emotions grow and evolve within us. The child represents something very personal to me, but I prefer not to impose a specific meaning and instead let viewers interpret it in their own way. I can share that the scene where teeth are being pulled is directly inspired by my childhood. As for the conversations between Emin and his neighbours, they reflect the typical small talk exchanged by passersby in this area, with not uncommon quips and remarks.


Which I suppose when abstracted from context can feel poetic. Like a Beckett line.

 

These dialogues contrast Emin’s inward experiences with his outward interactions, highlighting the disconnection between oneself and others, as well as with our nature. We often think we know someone based on mundane information, but true understanding goes deeper. The film explores how alienated we are from each other and even from ourselves and our nature. For me, there is no clear distinction between the natural world and the inner world of spirit and emotions. They are deeply connected.


At the Door of the House Who Will Come Knocking, 2024, still


What do these tapestries symbolise for you and how do they contribute to the film’s narrative?


I chose a winter setting to convey the coldness of human emotions and landscapes, using the carpet as a symbol. During my studies, I discovered Iranian art and its symbolic use of carpets, often depicting blooming gardens, a rarity in their natural landscapes. The carpet’s appearance in the film also holds personal significance, recalling my childhood spent playing on carpets with my sisters, imagining them as lava streams or rivers. It wasn't a blooming garden then, but rather a playground. Yarn balls rolling on the carpet symbolize the arrival of spring, pulling away the old to make way for the new.


How has making this deeply intimate and also personal film changed you both as a filmmaker and as a person? What have you learned through this process that you will carry into future projects?


Yes, it’s a deeply emotional subject for me. During the making of the film, I experienced several personal losses and there were times I feared I wouldn’t be able to finish it because of everything happening around me. However, I feel I’ve grown a lot through this process. Once the film was completed, I felt a sense of contentment. The losses impacted me, but I didn’t want them to overwhelm the project and push me into pathetical. It didn’t matter what happened with the film next because I knew I had made it the way I wanted to. 


What’s next for you?


My next project will also be a documentary feature, this time focusing on my father. He retains such a positive spirit and taught me about positivity and love despite the war and everything he’s been through.


 

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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