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Sparks of Light – An Invitation to See: Interview with Fred Kelemen

By: Anne Wakefield

The Hungarian-German director of film and theater, cinematographer and writer, Fred Kelemen, was one of the Special Guests of the fifteenth edition of the Morelia International Film Festival (FICM), where he presented his most recent film as director, Sarajevo Songs of Woe (2016). In an interview with the journalist and film critic Anne Wakefield, Kelemen spoke about the intention and meaning of his film, as well as the cinema he prefers to make.

Fred Kelemen

Fred Kelemen.

Sarajevo Songs of Woe is a film triptych composed of two stories, “Blue Ballad for Lovers” and “Blue Rondo for Survivors”, connected by the documentary “Blue Psalm for Wolves”. The stories flow to build a universal mosaic of fragmented life that is located in the city of Sarajevo. The camera follows different protagonists and connects them in a circular dance of hope and anguish, love and death, and the search for a dignified life, which grapples frailly between the longing for the warmth of love and the coldness of reality of our civilization.

You can read the complete conversation between Anne Wakefield and director Fred Kelemen below.

Anne Wakefield: Let’s start with the quotation at the beginning of your film Sarajevo Songs of Woe, a part of “Kohelet”, or the “Book of Ecclesiastes”; he is called The Assembly Man, right? It seems that this is part of the game of the movie, too: for the public to work and try to decipher where each part goes, and doing it instinctively, I imagine, not intellectually.

Fred Kelemen: The expression “Songs of Woe” in the title of my film is connected with two texts of the Jewish Tanakh, part of the Christian so called “Old Testament”, the Bible, which are Jeremiah’s “Book of Lamentations” or “Book of Woe” and “Kohelet” in Hebrew or “Ecclesiastes” in the “Old Testament”. The “Book of Lamentations,” which is also a book of songs, laments about and describes the situation after the destruction of Jerusalem. What my film does is to show a world after the destructions of the siege of Sarajevo. In former times, Sarajevo was called “the Jerusalem of Europe”. In Sarajevo for a long time all Abrahamic religions co-existed in harmony without problems, and only after the ethnical, religious conflicts, this cultural diversity was destroyed. Now we don’t have this anymore, of course. And so, somehow, I related the situation in Sarajevo with the situation after the destruction of Jerusalem. As I said, this situation after the destruction is described in the songs of the “Book of Lamentations” of Jeremiah. The book you mentioned, the “Kohelet” or “Ecclesiastes”, as it is called in the “Old Testament”, is another of the 24 books of the Tanakh.  The quotation I mentioned in the opening credits of my film I found appropriate not only for the film but for our existential human situation. And it contains the expression “woe” which is part of the film’s title and it is connected with the “Book of Lamentations” or “book of woe” of Jeremiah. Like the biblical texts my film is a kind of songs of woe. And the topic of the quotation in the opening credits is definitely related to all three parts of the film, because it asks “what are we when we are completely alone?” And the first part deals with the question of dependence, loneliness, partnership, betrayal, trustworthiness, desire, love and so on, and also the third part is, of course, related to these topics on a different level, because it focuses on the topic of destruction of human relations and individuals by war, nationalism, religious and ethnic racism. And the middle part, as well, is connected with the quotation as it shows the fraught relation between the hostile struggle for survival and the need for social attachment, solidarity, care and companionship. Completely lonely we all creatures would be lost. Like the human beings, the dogs in my film also need partners, they need a social life, they are straying together, because when they lie down, they need warmth, too, as the quotation mentions. So this quotation – “For if they fall, one will lift up his friend, but woe to the one who falls and has no second one to lift him up. Moreover, if two lie down, they will have warmth, but how will one have warmth?”- really connects all three parts. It is existential and in the same time a beautiful ideal is expressed by it.

AW: And do you think cinema can help us, directly or indirectly, to learn these lessons? How does cinema contribute to making us better human beings?

FK: I don’t know if films can make us better beings, but I think any art, and also, of course, film art, can sensitise us, it can create a kind of connection between us, so if, let’s say, an author of a film expresses honestly what he or she really feels, what he or she really cares for, his or her reflection about the world, about what gives him or her pain and what gives him or her joy, whatever, this creates a kind of communication, because deep inside us we all share the pain and the beauty, the desire and the fear of this life. And the moment when we articulate something and we hear or see somebody articulating something that resonates within us, we are less alone. So, I think, art, culture in general is a very, very important thing for our mental and emotional and spiritual survival, it is important for the quality of humanity.

AW: You are a photographer as well as a director, how does the language change the content? How does the form affect the structure?

FK: The form is very important, because the form transports the content, and the form is the content, so form is nothing we should not care for. It is very important to care for the form. Because the form, expressing artistic solutions you give in the film, is part of the content, and these artistic solutions are expressing the attitude and the point of view of the artist, so they’re really something that is beyond the story or beyond even what we see. How something is shown is as important as what is shown, because of how it adds the metaphysical level to the film and thus makes it tangible for the audience.

AW: How do you think the public can relate and respond and work through a film like yours, given that we are, unfortunately, more and more alienated from reality, because we are more influenced of what we are seeing on the computer, TV or cinema screen, and more and more impatient and used to a much faster rhythm? Your films challenge you to be there and to get immersed and study what you are seeing. In a way, it seems as if you are asking the public to consume time and not to evade it.

FK: I know that my films are demanding. They kind of demand something of the audience, because mainly people are used to seeing images and actions more quickly appearing and disappearing, to follow films on the level of entertainment and information. But in the moment when you use time, duration in a different way, when it is not only entertaining anymore, and when a shot is not just as short as necessary to give a simple information, you touch a point, of course, which can be scary, because you touch the metaphysic reality of time. In mainstream cinema, time is not existing, somehow. The presence of time is avoided, you do not feel time. But when you start to make time tangible, to make time almost material, then, of course, it is a different challenge, because then you make conscious the temporality, the fragility of our lives, you somehow make present the reality of death. The only thing I can do, and I think everybody who makes films can do, is to do what I believe in and to propose it to the audience, and then it is up to each one individually to take it or not, to connect with it or not. I truly understand that people might not want or might have problems to take it, because they are used to rush, not to concentrate, not to contemplate. The concentration span nowadays, for example, is very short. I’ve heard that there is a research, done every two years by some institute, about the concentration span of people, and from two years ago to now, the concentration span is half of what is was before. If I remember right, two years ago it was a span of 16 seconds, and now it is 8 seconds. So after 8 seconds, people lose their concentration. But I think film, at least the films I believe in, should not follow this development, not to support, let’s say, this trend, but to offer something else and to invite the audience to have a different look and maybe to try to watch things in a different way. A film could be an invitation to see differently.

AW: Béla Tarr’s films were compared with Tarkovski’s cinema. As far as content, Tarkovski always points to a spiritual dimension. Would you deny that your cinema has also the intention of seeking meaning at a higher level and, in a way, implying or hinting that there is another dimension?

FK: No, not at all, I do not reject this assessment. But regarding Andrei Tarkovski and Béla I must say that it depends on what level you want to compare the works of these two directors you mentioned. On a more superficial level, there is maybe a connection, but I think if you look deeper, the films of Andrei Tarkovsky and of Béla are quite different. Especially on the level you named “spiritual”.

My work is not so much about cinema, it is about life, filmic expression is my natural reaction, my artistic reflex to life, and I try to understand what life is, what the meaning is of my existence, of your existence, anybody’s, which are different, of course, and everybody has a different mission, but there is something that connects us as human beings. First, we have to try to find a way to deal with each other in a human way, and this can lead to the question “what are we here for?” or “what is our path beyond this materialistic world?”, “what is the meaning and mission of our life?” First, we are living in this world, which is a materialistic and dualistic world, and we have to find a way to live here in a human way. The second question is “what lies beyond this world, what is our meaning?”

AW: Beyond this world? Tarkovski’s cinema is quasi-religious, but I do not think that is Béla Tarr’s message at all.

FK: No.

AW: What about yours?

FK: It is a simple question difficult to answer, because it is complex and we should not talk about it in a banal, superficial way. If we talk about religion, we should not do it on a level of institutionalised concepts or as different confessions, but we are going to have to talk about spirituality and about the question, “is a human being more than just some higher working material organism?” And I think the human being is more than just the material he or she is, we are spirit, and there is definitely a spiritual world and a spiritual power, and there are things beyond the material. Even though we do not leave this world of material thinking, we know that every material is basically energy. It is all energy. If you take an object, you can ask “what is this?” Basically it is energy. And easily, you can conclude that it is spirit. And then you could ask, “what kind of spirit?” and “is there a kind of higher spirit and, let’s say, lower spirits?” and “are they connected or not?” It is a complicated topic.

But what I am trying to do is to use the language of film, to use the images and all other tools I have – the sound, the material things that are in front of the camera, the movements, the time, the light, the actors, whatever – to create a world which allows us to extend the material world. It is similar like in the case of an icon. If we take a look to the icons of the orthodox church, we have to consider that the important thing of the icons is not the wood, is not the color, are not the material elements, even not what is concretely imaged, important is what lies behind or above it, what the icon points to. So the icon works as a window to a world which is beyond the material world, and I think art, in general, and film especially can be the same, it can be a window to a world beyond the material world, a window to an invisible reality beyond the film itself. I think, every film, at least in my eyes, a good film, should overcome, transcend, somehow, its own borders. It should be more than just a film. A film should exceed its script and after the last image at the end of the ready film it should exceed its narration, and in the black, after the last image or the credits, the invisible film, provoked by the visible one, should start.

AW: And the icon in the last part of your film, is it a place of liminality?

FK: The icon in the context of the orthodox church is indeed an area of liminality. It connects the material reality with the spiritual reality.

In the last part of my film the main character, a Serbian former soldier, is standing in front of the icon watching a human face looking at him. It is not just any human face, it is the face of Jesus Christ, who is as well, in the context of the understanding of the church, an area of liminality between the human and the Divine. In the face of Jesus Christ the Divine is present. Another term for Jesus Christ is Son of Man. The icon is the area where the human encounters the Divine and himself. In the mentioned scene in my film there is a cut – the only classical cut in the film, a reverse angle shot – from the icon of the Son of Man to the man (the main character). And he is watching the icon and us, the audience, as before the face on the icon watched him and us, the audience. We, the audience, are suddenly at the position of the icon, of Jesus Christ, the Son of Man. And the man, the main character, asks for our response.

It is maybe a religious, spiritual but certainly a human, existential moment.

Talking about all this we should have in mind what happens in the sound while the icon of Jesus Christ and then the face of the main character, the Serbian man, in the Serbian church in Sarajevo is shown: We hear the Christian orthodox prayer songs from inside the church mixing with, accompanied by the sound of the singing voice of the mosque’s muezzin from outside with the equal volume. With this the described moment is opened to an additional dimension.

A film showing a man performing traditional religious or pseudo-religious acts is not necessarily a religious film.

By the way, the element of the icon is related to another object and its meanings in the film – the mirror. But to talk about this now would be too much.

AW: Talking about liminality: The dogs, in the context of the film, seem to be a middle ground between our essence as animals and what we become in society. Do animals have something that we do not understand, yet, what they can give to us?

FK: It is not an accident that the animals in my film are in the center, in the middle of this filmic triptych with the first and third part around it. And as we talked about a triptych in painting, the middle part of it is always the main one, it gives the topic, it gives everything, and the left and right sides are parts which add to it. In painting it is always the biggest part, the largest.

The iconostasis in orthodox churches is a triptych, too. The middle doors, the biggest ones, the “Royal Doors”, are the gate to the “Heavenly Kingdom”. They opposite of and facing the altar. If we would understand my film as an iconostasis – we don’t have to, but it is an interesting intellectual experiment -, the world of the straying dogs, where we are somehow at the lowest, most existential, most naked and most pure level of the film, is taking the place of the gate to the “Heavenly Kingdom“. Who wants to continue and contemplate this thought, will find some brightening points.

Anyhow, in my film, the middle part is the shortest, but it is, of course, the center.

Both fictional parts, the first and the last one, are related to this, and both lead to the dogs, and from the dogs, everything leads to them. The animals, our brother and sister creatures, have an incredibly important meaning for us, which we still did not fully understand yet. It would be good to start to understand the meaning of the animals and to respect them and to stop the war we fight against them. But not only against the animals, we fight a war against nature, against everything. And I am sure that there will be no peaceful relation between people, neighbours, countries, states, and so on, if we are not in peace with what is around us, we are at a permanent war against the creation. And as long as we do not finish the war against the creation, we cannot find peace among each other.

AW: And the political? I couldn’t help thinking about Catalonia. Is the origin of what’s going on there, comparable to what happened in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

FK: I think that it is a different situation with a different historical background and a different present reality. Even though on a certain level we could detect a similar impulse.

It is a question of what should be the meaning of it. Nowadays on the one hand, we have a more globalized world, and there is this idea of a united Europe – unfortunately mainly on an economical, materialistic level. On the other hand, smaller regions are starting to split from their nations and nations, which want to be more independent from the others – often charged with the idea of superiority; we have both tendencies now in the world. More nationalism is to be found everywhere. There is a growing nationalism in a world, which, on the other hand, is moving closer together. This is a very interesting but logic paradox.

AW: Connection or disparity?

FK: Seemingly a contradictory movement, but related to something what is essentially complementary. Just the logic of the forces. The one force provokes the opposite force, but both belong to one movement. We seem to live in a period where indifference is not possible anymore. Opposing forces are strengthening each other, their borders are sharper and they are clashing. The darkness is growing. We have to kindle more light. We have to fight for a new humanism, and the idea of a democratic and solidly united society has to be defended every day against a growing materialistic totalitarianism.

AW: So it’s like an instinctive trend to get away?

FK: It is fear. Like most of the things we do, it is caused by fear. Lots of times we act out of fear. The question is, how we can replace fear by love to make it the source of our acting. If love is not the source, the footing of my decisions, my actions cannot lead to anything deeply and sustainably good.

AW: The character in the third part of your film cannot make love to woman without violence and without threatening and humiliating her, because he raped so many women during the war. Do you think those sorts of things can ever heal?

FK: It depends on which level. I would say yes and no. If people are really able to forgive, forgiveness is a very important thing and a strong power. True forgiveness means not just trying to press the other one to say sorry, which is like a judge’s behaviour, true forgiveness does not need the apology of the other one, but to for-give (the two words forming the word “forgive” are interestingly “for” and “give”) from the depth of your heart, because you have a deep understanding for the weaknesses of the human beings. If this is happening, it can even be healing for the one who is the victim; even though I believe, in these situations there are no pure victims or no pure perpetrators, because the situation is more complicated. The world is not so easy. In a war the truth is the first to die.

AW: He has to forgive himself, too.

FK: That is also a part, yes. That is what I show in the film. I do not show the position of the victims, but I show the position of the perpetrator who, himself, suffers because of his actions. It is not to excuse him, it just shows the existential consequences. If you are a human being, you cannot harm somebody without harming yourself, and only if you find a way to deeply regret, which grows a deep pain, there is a possibility to find a level which allows you to find a kind of relief or even healing – even though I am not sure if the word “healing” is right, it is more a possibility of continuing to walk ahead in a more humble and fragile hence more human way. And in the world we are living in, to experience a burning pain is needed to make us grow, the pain of true understanding and sorrow and love for getting relief, maybe cure or even deliverance.

AW: Psychoanalysis is not part of what you believe in.

FK: Not really.

AW: Do you reject it?

FK: I do not reject it, but it has tight limits, It does not operate deep enough. I rather believe that there is a spiritual level – beyond the concepts of institutionalised religions – necessary to reach. And on this level, I think that healing is maybe possible. But it needs a change in perspective. As long as we stay in the same perspective, in this perspective of perpetrator and victim and judgment and guilt and so on, there’s no way out. I think if you overcome these categories of guilt and judgment and victim and perpetrator and punishment and so on, then there is the possibility to find each other as human beings again. That, maybe, is the most important thing: to connect as human beings.

In the Jewish tradition, there is the beautiful thought that there are Divine lights, sparks of Divine light encapsulated in every human being, and the question only is if we are able to see them and liberate them, and this is one of the most difficult things, to see the Divine sparks in everybody, even in the one who has hurt you.

AW: Beautiful.

FK: Yes. And difficult. But this is probably the only possible way.

AW: Jewish religion is very much about life here in this world, isn’t it? It does not put into consideration the otherworldliness, or does it?

FK: Oh, yes, there is another world.

AW: Yes? I thought, in the Jewish religion there is no hell.

FK: There is. It is called Gehinnom in Hebrew, but it has a different connotation and meaning than in the Christian tradition.

AW: Finally, do you think if you had grown in a place like Mexico, your outlook on life would be totally different? Because you are so grounded with geography and your films have so much to do with the place.

I am thinking of Sarajevo in your latest film. Do you think, for people who grew up in this country their perspectives on life are so different from someone who grew up in Mexico?

FK: Yes, regarding certain aspects of life, but not essentially. The devastating effect of violence and war, for example, is the same on every human being. And the film does not talk about Sarajevo only, and everything was a fair choice you could easily transport to any country in the world. Because the film talks about violence, loneliness, exploitation of others, of how do we treat each other, and ask the questions how can we find a different life in dignity, how can we come together again, how can we forgive each other? In the first part of the film, for example, the couple is definitely not happy. They smile, they laugh, but this smile, this laugh is disturbed, broken. Despite of all we do, of all the harm we give to other people and ourselves, how can we find a possibility of reconciliation? This is a very important question. This question is a topic of the film and it is not only linked to Sarajevo; what happened there could have happened anywhere; and it did and still does. So Sarajevo is just the framework, the ground on which happens what I wanted to talk about. It is a very important question, how we will find a way to make our light shine again as straightened up truly human beings.


Anne Wakefield began her career as a film commentator in Mexico. She made reviews for Televisa’s ECO newscasts and conducted Entre Butacas, a daily film program for Cablevisión. She was a film critic of several morning newscasts, where she interviewed artists such as Catherine Deneuve, Anthony Hopkins, Julie Andrews and Alain Delon. Her master’s thesis from Georgetown University, “Chicano Identity and Cinema”, was published by the University of Paris. Nevertheless, Anne considers that her true instruction began at home with her mother, a fervent cinephile who took her and her two brothers to the movies – religiously – every Saturday.