A Projection Over the Forest: An Interview with Ian Soroka
Ian Soroka’s Greetings from Free Forests (2019) takes place in the expansive forest of Slovenia, where resistance fighters and refugees fled and hid during World War II. Much like the rhizomatic tapestry of the forest itself, the film drifts between various events that take place within it, both in the present and historic sense; weaving reflective voiceover, careful sound design, and testimonies from locals around present-day footage and celluloid traces found within the national archive. That archival vault lies beneath the surface of the forest in a former military hideout, cut into the same rock that a network of caverns exists within, formerly witnessing the practice of mining in the region.
Opening with a projector beaming white light onto windswept trees at night, creating an eerie image, it’s clear that Soroka is keen for you to abandon your sense of space, time, and scale, and think about how those things so often intersect, especially in a region that has changed hands throughout history, and which still struggles to fully make sense of the historical ledger.
Speaking during the Open City Documentary Festival in London, Soroka discusses his interest in the region and how the film ties into his own research project on Yugoslav cinema, the process of constructing the film, and dealing with the region’s memory politics.
What were your initial interests in this area in Slovenia? Especially their archive, and the archival clip that you display prominently at the end of the film with scenes from the forest in the snow…
I was living in Slovenia, where I was doing a research fellowship, and I was working at their national film archive. That’s how I came into contact with this underground space that you see in the film. While I was living there, in 2012/2013, it was a time of heavy street protests — anti-austerity and anti-corruption protests. At the time their prime minister, a fellow named Janez Janša, got caught in a corruption scandal and ended up later in jail. That was the surface, but the subtext bubbling below was a debate that went back to World War II, and that fascinated me as an outsider — that this conflict was still alive somehow under the surface.
So that was the initial impetus for the film, in combination with the forest landscape, which is this omnipresent space in this country. A lot of my past work concerned landscape and memory politics, so it fit in to some older themes that I was interested in. And part of working in the archive was coming across things — I was really interested in Yugoslav cinema and its development over time — and these oddities. I was watching a lot of newsreels and the material that you see at the end of the film, which really became the tie-in for the archive for me, because it’s so raw and immediate. The whole film circles around this absence, and that film was the most direct thing for me to watch. It reminded me a lot of Oskar Fischinger’s “Walking from Munich to Berlin” (1927), in which he walked from Munich to Berlin taking a few frames at a time. It’s all in camera, untouched. These elements are basically the origin of the project.
You’re exploring memory throughout the film, but even with an archive there are moments where you run up against these things that are unexplainable, and you can’t necessarily figure out what’s a document and what’s a myth or a legend, what’s an “official” document and what isn’t. What was it like navigating that, especially once you started bringing people’s audio testimonies in?
I’ll talk about my process as it relates to that. I don’t like to begin production with a finished script, so it’s more about building a kind of basic architecture. Then you go out into the world, and the world is a kind of critique of your ideas, and you have to react to that in the moment. Then you go into the edit, and the editing becomes a critique of what you’re able to capture in the world. You finally have to ask yourself: “Where is the cinema in this mass of material?”
Back to your question: part of the architecture that I set up from the beginning was playing with different means of knowledge. There’s the document, the testimonies, and the things that are found in the landscape. Alone, they’re each insufficient when it comes to truth claims, but when you start activating all of them, you can triangulate between them, and they circle around an absence, something unspoken, an experience that can no longer be accessed. That’s why I wanted this film to have this flow between sources and the layering between these different elements.
That’s interesting to think about with the opening sequence, because you’ve got the projection over the trees in the forest, then you have the rock being dropped down into the crack in the ground, and then you have the clip from the archive of the mine below the surface. It’s like that sequence is activating the different sources…
As you exactly recollect, the beginning introduces this movement that the film takes between the above ground and below, and between the archive and the contemporary. Digging is an old metaphor — the subconscious, the process of digging below. That’s what’s fascinated me about Yugoslav cinema. Cinema constructed this place in a way, and it’s a space where the country still exists, inside these old films. In a sense, this archive consists of films from a country that doesn’t exist anymore and display how it represented itself. You can kind of trace its own image when you watch these films in chronological sequence. In the beginning, there’s this pure idealism of building a Socialist alternative, and over time it becomes dusty as the former Yugoslavians lose contact with some kind of origin. That’s what the English voiceover in the film is musing about — something becoming fixed in stone over time and eroding.
There’s the feature film mid-way through that’s made with survivors of the conflict. Was it odd finding a film about factual events that weren’t necessarily adequately documented originally, and incorporating people from that actual narrative? Were there blind spots there, or was it quite well adapted?
Well, most of the actors in that film are quite famous in that area and they lived through the war. That film was the first Slovenian-language feature film ever made (1948’s On Our Own Land), so it has specific historical value as well. So, I don’t know about blind spots, but there is this genuine need to capture some experience and commit it to film. That’s inherently problematic on its face, but the gesture is important. It’s the process of writing any history, fixing it into a narrative — something is invariably lost.
Was it celebrated at the time?
Yeah, certainly. It’s still very popular, especially among older folks. There are two feature films that I used footage from, and the one in the cave that’s in color is from a man named Aleksander Petrović, a famous Yugoslav filmmaker, and that’s from his first film, The Only Way Out (1958). It was too good not to include the action scenes in the cave.
Yugoslav cinema evades most Western expectations of cinema from the East. Because of the split with the Soviet Union in the late 1940s, they escaped some of the effects of socialist realism on their cinema, which developed alongside the rest of Europe, having its own modernist tendencies. Viewing between the lines of these two films, with The Only Way Out you can start to feel less urgency in the depiction of the liberation struggle as in On Our Own Land, and more of a partisan spectacle.
Let’s talk about the sound design as well. There are so many textures to it when you’re experiencing it in a cinema. What was that process like in terms of using voice and music and everything else?
In production, we knew that sound would be something that builds the space. It’s essential. It’s kind of backwards and sounds insane, but I like to edit audio first. At least, I build out the text arch through the dialogue, following the words, rhythms, and cadences of voices. When we were filming, we were doing things like attaching contact microphones to trees as they were being cut down, and using underwater microphones and things like that, to let the textures of the landscape really come out. We had a lot of fun building this surround space. That’s why I hate sending it to people on a laptop! I just think the forest is a main character, and I wanted it to speak.
I was working with a brilliant multi-instrumentalist friend of mine from Sweden, Anders Af Klintberg. It was my first time working with a composer, and it was a real challenge at first to find a language. It became kind of a dialogue, sending things back and forth, seeing how they changed the film. From the start, I knew where and why I wanted to include music, and I knew I wanted some local sound influences, a droning accordion specifically, bells, and also this shifting between dissonance and confluence. Anders also decided to use some bowed metal for a more industrial element. I really love it. It fills out the low-end audio frequencies in the cinema really well.
When it came to editing the film, was it difficult to navigate the images of the forest? As a space, a forest like this feels easy to lose your bearings in, and there are a lot of processes undulating within it. Were you trying to embrace that unpredictability, or keen to force it into place in a way, especially as it’s so expensive?
I think this is where my background in experimental cinema comes into play. You are completely right that there is this balance. I knew I wanted to communicate this “lost” sense in the forest. Many of the editing decisions were dictated by rhythms in the audio, while still allowing time to take in an image visually. Both the visual and the audio editing follow their own logics… they drift apart and find their way back to each other.
As I wanted the forest to read like the main character of the film, I decided to have this formal constraint of shooting the characters from a distance, to break this human scale. However, they were still wearing radio mics so we could capture their conversation and the sounds of their work. This creates a strangely cinematic mash up between showing the immensity of the forest while retaining the intimacy and closeness of the human voice. Just as visual focus is decided by the camera work, sonic focus is also a decision. You can have a conversation happening as if it is next to you, while seeing people talking in the distance.
What was the process of collecting recordings of the people we hear in the film like, and were you determined in the types of people you wanted to find, or open to chance? The men walking through the forest talking feels like a special moment…
It was a little bit of both. I initially set out trying to find certain basic characters, or voices, that I knew the film needed. But I do rely to a large extent on chance. To me, it’s really an encounter with a place at a certain time, and this came out in the process: filming four friends living out of a car and a small room in a rural town over a couple summers. The people we met ranged from those we specifically sought out — like the cavers — to people leading us to other relevant people in the area, to people simply on the roadside who were willing to talk to us. Many of those unexpected conversations were the most impactful.
Something that was really special for us I think was the desire from complete strangers to tell us about their lives and their experiences during wartime. I think there is a real need there to communicate this to the younger generation. At least part of the film in my mind is about this losing contact with history.
We see much of the forest being cut down in a way that’s a lot more mechanical than in the archive clips. I wonder if you could talk about the dynamic of those two practices split in time?
When I began specifically digging through the archive, my starting place was to survey forest labor. I thought it would be a kind of unifying factor between what I was shooting and what was found within the archive. Built into that juxtaposition is certainly a commentary on labor over time. What we see done by hand is later contrasted by the machine. I’m not trying to romanticize any past forms of labor but draw a continuum — materially connecting people and their way of life to this place.
Extraction happened before — as it does now — but perhaps on different scales and for different ends. Much of what we see from the archive is newsreel documentation of the development of forestry technology and practices during Socialism, as well as the youth work actions, these volunteer brigades that were organized to rebuild infrastructure that was ruined during the war. There is certainly a reading there, between building solidarity and extracting for export in a world economy. I wanted to have this ever-present feeling of extraction throughout the film because I think of the forest as an archive onto itself, containing these links through time.
Lastly, the end shot is quite mesmerizing with the TV and the background — a kind of touristic presence without anyone being in the frame corporeally. What was the thinking behind placing that as the last moment in the film?
I wanted to somehow bring the film back into the present, that is the present of sitting in the cinema at the end of the film. I wanted to bring the animal calling that happens throughout the film to a conclusion and to somehow tie the film’s visual elements into this final shot — as it’s a film that is characterized primarily by absence.
The shot is almost an installation onto itself — it’s a scene we could have just stumbled into in any bar in this area. It’s an empty bar with a large photomural of a kitsch mountain landscape hanging on the wall. The local radio station is playing in the background while a hunting video is playing on the TV in the corner. The hunter on screen meditates over his kill, dipping a branch into its blood, as if performing some ceremonial rite. That deer means a lot to me, but I prefer to give people the space to have their own readings. The video, like a screensaver, then cycles through the landscapes that we have been moving between throughout the film. The radio plays an old partisan song, “Hej Brigade!” It’s the voice of the Partisans sending their greetings from the free forests, from a past that we no longer have access to. It’s bittersweet but hopeful.
Ian Soroka’s Greetings from Free Forests screened at London’s Open City Documentary Festival. It is now playing in festivals across the world.