Darko Sinko: “Rationalization is a privilege and a limitation”

AUTHOR / Žiga Brdnik

The film Inventory (2021) begins in an idyllic suburb where the seemingly idyllic Slovenian middle-class Robič family lives: a soft patriarch seemingly loved by everyone; his wife, who is more than obviously the main keeper of the home and family; and his son, who it seems has already happily moved away with his own family. When this idyll is disrupted by a random act of violence – someone shoots at the father through a window – it tears down all notions of a peaceful and carefree life and underlines the need to make an inventory of the relationships and bonds, and the trust upon which they are based. The central protagonist Boris Robič is an excellently crafted metaphor for the typical Slovenian as we all like to imagine him: hardworking, industrious, obedient, devoted to his family, kind, and polite. Who would make an attempt on the life of such a person? Who would wish ill upon us little Slovenians? The violence and power structures (gender, class, ethnic origin, social status, age …) that dictate it undermine this idealization and bring everything that has been so carefully swept under the rug to the surface – those qualities in this metaphor that we hesitate to see and therefore often overlook: awkwardness, distance, self-sufficiency, narrow-mindedness, and mistrust in interpersonal relationships. Employing a thoughtful and convincing mixture of satire, irony, horror, and drama in his feature debut, the film’s director and screenwriter Darko Sinko paints a portrait of national character never before seen in Slovenian film. And it is not surprising that the film itself took a (self-)ironic turn down a very unusual path, full of challenges, obstacles, awkwardness and success: from the lockdowns of the pandemic and the politically-motivated suspension of national co-financing to a successful international premiere at one of the most notable European festivals in San Sebastian and the fiasco at the Slovenian premiere ceremony in Portorož, which eventually resulted in four Vesna Awards (Best Director, Best Actor in a Leading Role for Radoš Bolčina, Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Dejan Spasić, and Best Original Music for Matija Krečič) and the Best Debut Award. Just after this year’s Slovenian Film Festival we had an online conversation with Sinko, who teaches film at the art grammar school in Ljubljana and claims, with all attendant irony, that he “makes films as a hobby”, where we talked about these and the many other ironies of Inventory, society, and filmmaking in Slovenia.

Can you, for a start, take an inventory of the extraordinarily creative process of filmmaking?

Ugh, these are traumatic stories. I must first admit that I do not have the nerve for long-term creative processes – I think films take too long to make, anyway. However, I must also admit that I am somewhat to blame for this, because I like to take my time, especially when it comes to editing. I started developing the film in 2016 at the first Scenarnica (a film screenwriting workshop organized by The Directors Guild of Slovenia). After that, I took part in some additional international screenwriting workshops. The Slovenian Film Center (SFC) finally approved the project in August 2017, and in 2018 we received funding from RTV Slovenia. Some funds from SFC are in the form of money and others in the form of services at Viba Film Studio (the national technical film foundation), where we immediately got into the queue for filming. There were no available dates before the spring of 2019, as Viba is severely underfunded in terms of equipment. The editing took place in 2020 and just before we finished the country closed down, so the editor, Matic Drakulić, and I were editing remotely for some time. In the meantime, the complications with the government had already arisen; in the midst of the worst possible crisis and stress for the film sector, heavily dependent on project work, the government indulged in additional sadistic bullying and stopped paying its contractual obligations to ongoing and already implemented film projects. For our project this meant that post-production was delayed after editing was completed, thus disrupting the timeline of the film’s completion. Since post-production studios have very expensive equipment that they are still paying off they need a source of regular cash flow; at the time they did not get paid for the three or four projects ahead of us. To keep their head above water at all – and luckily they did – they had to start giving priority to paid projects, commercial or from abroad, and they had to sideline our film along with others from the SFC for a while. We only finished the film around the end of the year. I know that due to the political situation the authors and filmmakers working on other projects were left without royalties, while producers could not pay for transportation services, rentals, purchases, etc.; some even sold their own real estate to pay off debts.

What is happening with the co-financing requests? Has the state made good on payments?

The production house December, which produced Inventory, was not owed money for it (because we were among the requests for tranches). As an example, they did not receive a tranche for the other film they produced, Bitch, A Derogatory Term for a Woman (2021), since they finished filming just before the complications with the government. Now everything has been paid for, but unlike in other countries, where film centers have taken into account the additional costs of the epidemic or even provided additional support for films, we have not received anything like that.

How does it feel when after such a demanding process the film has finally had its world premiere in San Sebastian and won four Vesna Awards and the Best Debut Award in Portorož?

I’m not as happy as I could be. In fact, what I was most pleased about was the fact that the film was finished. I am happy about the awards, and I hope that they will help the film reach people while also proving helpful for my status as a self-employed worker in culture. But I am always careful when it comes to success and view it with considerable caution: sometimes you do something really good but no one takes notice, and sometimes you get an award for something unexceptional. Considering the situation in the country and in Slovenian film, I feel it’s unlikely my life will simply be a bed of roses from now on. We’re facing big problems, some of them content-related, but first and foremost systemic problems. Most of us filmmakers are precarious workers and are thus particularly exposed to any kind of pressure. On the other hand, the people who are paid well and regularly to manage this system haven’t been able to ensure its normal functioning for years. The attacks on the film sector are in line with other political moves today. It is by no means an attempt to resolve the situation together on the basis of arguments and dialogue. I don’t see any rational reason why this should not be sorted out, as we are not talking about huge amounts of money; we are not exactly reinventing the wheel. Meanwhile, things are working very well in countries like ours.

It is precisely in its treatment of irrationality that Inventory coincides with the current situation by investigating the disintegration of authorities we were counting on, and how the individual is consequently left to cope with a dysfunctional system, often on their own. In what way was the atmosphere transferred from the realpolitik of the situation to the script?

In the film this sense of what used to be self-evident slipping away operates on the individual level through the main character. The sense that things which in principle should be simple are no longer clear – for instance, the relationships with loved ones, co-workers, friends – causes doubts, fears, and uncertainties to emerge. On the other hand, Inventory is certainly connected with the current zeitgeist; in general, some fundamental, even formal-legal relations are increasingly falling apart around us, or at least they are no longer self-evident. Not only because of the epidemic, but also because of the unusual policies we are witnessing not only in our country, but also in the USA, Italy, Poland, Hungary, etc. The most basic ideals and achievements of humanity are under threat. I think this is particularly related to the middle class. Things are unimaginable compared to the situation 10 or 15 years ago. In our generation this manifests itself as a kind of disillusionment that I have dealt with in several films. It began with the disintegration of Yugoslavia and continued with joining the European Union, which changed the original political direction. We are constantly facing disintegration. And maybe this feeling is also related to the life of each one of us on an individual level, which makes us reflect and take our own inventories, or just catches us by surprise.

How much have you dealt with the intrusion of the irrational into the seemingly idyllic middle-class life of a middle-aged Slovenian brought about by a random violent event that upends his ideas of family, society, the state, and his own position in them?

We have been dealing with this a lot in different stages of production. The warm, sunny, and pleasant-looking cinematography was intended to create a small-town ideal. We were using visual references as well, for example, the stop-animation cartoon Pat & Mat that portrays a tidy, orderly, clean and full world, in which everything is funny precisely because it doesn’t work that way. In a way the film is also a thriller that otherwise subversively explores existential themes. Thrillers are very often dark, rainy, with heavy contrast, low lighting, and suspense. I found it’s better to use this petty-bourgeois idyll as a contrast; also in relation to the protagonist, a naive good man who would never do anything bad to anyone. Such a contrast seemed more effective to me; at the same time it made the film ironic and absurd in the same way a man who strives all his life to do good and yet has a whole bunch of unknown enemies is. We also tried to be clean and tidy with the scenography, and more schematic in framing and camera positioning. For me, it was like some kind of retro directing.

Is such a visual style based on realism, but one full of subtle, stylized comments the perfect fit for you? Could you even say that this is your style or have you adapted it to the story? How much of it was developed in collaboration with the director of photography Marko Brdar? Is that the reason you wanted him on the team?

I don’t know if that’s my style. It is true, however, that I tried something similar in my previous feature film Classmates (2015), which is even more stylized and minimalist. In Inventory we were trying to find the line between realism and mild, subtle stylization. Scenographically, for example, the walls are white and empty, the rooms are not densely cluttered; we also followed this in costume design and make-up. We spent a lot of time dealing with the impact the wide format would have on the film’s look and with anamorphic lenses, testing them out and thinking about it. All of these things have a big impact on the visual style. And so the work of all inputs came together and resulted in the final image. It is very important that the film has its own style, otherwise it could appear very poorly made.

To what extent is this visual style also a comment on the Slovenian national character, the irony of the idea of a typical Slovenian that quickly falls apart in a larger global context? And to what degree, in terms of style and genre, does it ironize certain notions of Slovenian film, which has focused mainly on social-issue dramas in the past two decades?

I am really interested in Slovenian films, so it is fascinating for me to draw on this. The main character is really such a boring, neat and tidy little Slovenian; this image even seems a bit idealized compared to other Slovenian films. We mostly watch “trashy” social-issue dramas. There are very few comedies and attempts to make films a little funnier. We have consciously tried to distance ourselves from this, since film allows for so many other possibilities to explore. The ironic treatment of the Slovenian self-image also draws on concrete situations portraying our characteristic ready subordination to authority, our desire for peace and order and a certain humility: for example, in Boris’s attitude towards the dean.

Inventory is also a film about trust. The detective, Andrej, for instance says that trust is a matter of decision. And Boris chooses to trust him more than his own wife or son – even though Andrej is not a classic police authority, but rather a caricature that is both comic and tragic in its seriousness. Their unusual relationship thus ironizes both poles you mentioned: authority and humility.

What the detective says to Boris – that you have to decide who to trust – is a rationalization of trust, which by definition threatens trust. This absolute rationalization certainly puts pressure on interpersonal relationships in modern times. The definition of these relationships as economic, as a matter of interest, emerges in the film as well. Love is absolutely not related to any interest, although some interpret it that way. It seems to me that excessive rummaging through such strong emotions dilutes their power and calls them into question. Regardless of the fact that Inventory is a thriller, a genre that very often uses clichéd characters, there is no need for them to be as black and white as they usually are in film. Although you often don’t have time to develop a character very well in film it still makes sense to try, guided by what we experience in real life. Humans are very complex beings and react very differently in different circumstances. We often conceal our thoughts and character traits as well. Therefore, the situations we find ourselves in often turn out to be very funny. Of all people, it is the detective, who to some degree seems to be a self-contained “hotshot” worth trusting, that at the same time has a distinctly macho mentality and clings to esoteric, metaphysical crutches in distress. These are very interesting spices that filmmakers can play with when designing scenes.

Can such spices already be found in Karl Čapko’s short story Attempt at Murder, on which the film was based, or were you adding them while writing the script?

No, there are no such spices in the short story. The beginning is the same: someone is being shot at. The story is somewhat ironic, but it turns out differently, as the main character is a politician, a representative of the Czech elite. When he considers who might have attacked him he remembers all the injustices he has committed against the people around him. The short story thus becomes a critique of the alienated pre-war establishment. I was more moved by the strong, primal feeling of watching the people around you as you begin to be overwhelmed by doubts and fears. This feeling seemed very cinematic to me and I tried to keep it pure throughout the creative process. At the same time, I felt it was necessary to color it with humor, or at least with irony. Regardless of the fact that such feelings may appear in certain situations, in various times of crisis, they in my opinion are cogent and there is no need to run away from them. On the other hand, as people, as humankind we have a lot of experience that shows us they can also be ridiculous, as they are not necessarily substantiated. When we make fun of them, we relativize them. If I took the story seriously and tried to shoot a serious drama or thriller, building the illusion of identification with the main character, I would lose that level. Humor allows for two things: distance, as it intrinsically presupposes reflection and is metaphysical in this sense; and unification, bonding, as film is also a collective experience. This relationship between disintegration and reconnection was the right direction for me since it is very real. There is no unambiguous, definitive answer. And that’s exactly why humor is cathartic.

The main character is funny because he takes himself so seriously in his benevolence, which makes it impossible for him to maintain a sense of distance from himself. In this naivety he overlooks the multitude of privileges he enjoys as a man, as a representative of a generation that has actually done well, as a man living in his own nation-state. That’s why he finds himself trapped. And when he finally begins to realize that he’s not just some Good Samaritan, his self-esteem begins to crumble …

Yes, he has a lot of flaws, especially when he’s under pressure, but they throw him out of his routine and reinvigorate him. On the other hand, this grown-up good boy has very unusual impulses and tantrums: for instance, when he sacrifices his wife and, frightened, lets her into the apartment ahead of him, he also discovers his violent side. His universe is very distant from many of the world’s problems: women are mostly asexual and subordinate, except for the dean, who is his boss. But I didn’t feel the need for direct social criticism; I was more interested in the burden of relationships in the small-bourgeois framework of a closed world.

Is this world also confined to the framework of rationalization, which is simultaneously his privilege?

Yes, it is a privilege, but also a limitation. So I was very careful to ensure that the primal feeling I talked about earlier remained irrational until the end of the film. I didn’t want the script to be explanatory, to provide more concrete or justified reasons for his actions in the sense that Boris is like he is because of this and that, someone is his enemy because he did so and so … Likewise, I didn’t put forward any tangible psychological, social, or psychoanalytic arguments, as I did not want the film to be pigeonholed. But that’s not necessarily good for every film. I have made films with a clear idea of what I want to tell the audience before. This time, however, I followed my feelings rather than the idea. That isn’t to say that I didn’t have a whole bunch of rational decisions behind this irrational feeling at any number of stages during the making of the film.

How did you apply or work with this feeling with the acting duo Radoš Bolčina – Dejan Spasić, who together create the overarching atmosphere of the film? How did you even find Bolčina, who oddly enough has not had a prominent role in Slovenian film so far?

Every actor is different, so there is no one rule on how to approach working with them. Some want rationally pre-developed characters and are also very systematic and precise on set, which means they move very little within that framework. Others are more impulsive. It makes sense for a director to adapt to these needs, to look for ways to make the actors feel good. Radoš explores a lot from take to take so the various iterations were very different. He is sensitive and intuitive, but at the same time very intelligent and witty. He is also a fighter who does not look for shortcuts. He wants to do a character well, in all respects, so working with him is very enjoyable. I found him interesting all the time; I didn’t get tired of watching him, even after months of editing. As a person he is completely different from the character he played and that’s why he was very bothered by the fact that Boris was always hesitating and that he was so miserable, humble, and lukewarm. I got acquainted with him through the plays of Vito Taufer from the Slovenian National Theater in Nova Gorica. We in the industry have long known the kind of quality actor he is, but for some reason his potential has remained largely untapped in film here. Dejan and I have been friends since we met at the Academy of Theater, Radio, Film and Television. I think I even filmed the rehearsals for his first roles with Gregor Božič. He has also starred in several of my films. I tell him what I think, he also tells me what he thinks (laughs) and then we try to figure out what the character is supposed to be like, together. However, editing also plays a very important role in how the actor’s performance turns out in the end. Matic Drakulić and I worked hard to achieve consistency and fine-tuned the emotions so that they carried the atmosphere of the film.

It seems fair that they both won Vesna Awards and were thus awarded as an acting duo, since their roles strongly supported each other throughout the film.

It’s true. They had really good chemistry in the scenes they did together. However, there are also many other supporting roles that only make a single appearance in the film but have a big effect on how Radoš turns out, as they jointly paint the scenes they did together. His scene partners had to be very strong characters in terms of acting, as they had just the one long dialogue as their part. I was very happy that we had such an ensemble and that everyone was willing to respond, even for just one longer scene. Mirel Knez, who plays Alenka, Boris’s wife, also played a particularly important role. Actors do a very hard job: next to the camera they basically play the most important role in making the film; and they are also very intriguing and different people, so it is always interesting to work with them.

When discussing Inventory we mustn’t forget to mention the music, which can be seen as a real innovation in Slovenian film. It is used very selectively, but it always has a strong and distinct effect, giving a boost to the film’s narrative. At the same time it functions and speaks for itself, as if it wanted to overwhelm the viewer. What was your approach to using the music and collaborating with Matija Krečič?

Film music is the most difficult thing for me to direct because it is so important and at the same time so delicate that it can take the entire film in the wrong direction. I had strong, expressive music in mind from the very beginning – something exaggerated, pathetic, in line with the idea of the film in which the protagonist’s emotions are tragic to the point that they become ridiculous. Music played a very important role in allowing us to sway between compassion for him and the comedic nature of his situation. Matija and I have been looking for this direction from the very beginning; we also found inspiration in operas, and he had good ideas from the start because he understood from our conversations what I needed. The themes he developed, especially the main one, conveyed the intended feeling very well. And because he is a master at what he does he was able to play with various things, such as theremins, and adapt to the editing requirements. During the editing process the placement of music was one of the biggest issues. Despite being so expressive and strong, it has no room to reach a crescendo. It is used mainly during transitions, as there are no long sequences in the film where longer musical passages could be used. What kept happening was that it would turn out sounding like a jingle announcing the next event, but we didn’t want to reduce the music to that effect at all. We struggled a lot with this, and Julij Zornik also helped us a lot in sound processing and editing with his advice and concrete solutions. Matija was very persistent in all of this. He was constantly looking for solutions and adaptations to make the music fit the edit. But I also have to recognize myself in this, as at forty I finally discovered my true talent (laughs). When we ran out of copyright money I wrote some lyrics for the “hits” playing on the radio in various scenes and Matija set them to music. My girlfriend Lara wrote the lyrics for the children’s song. That was the most fun of all. I like to brag about it and play these songs on my mobile phone to anyone who’s willing to listen.

This interview was originally published in Ekran, November 2021.