Tijana Zinajić and Iza Strehar: “If men menstruated, menstruation would figure in all the films made so far”
Tijana Zinajić and Iza Strehar are women of different generations. Tijana, born in 1973, is a theater director who, after studying French and philosophy at the Faculty of Arts in Ljubljana, graduated from the Academy of Theatre, Radio, Film and Television by staging Medea by Dane Zajc. Since then she has directed over forty stage productions in theatres such as Ljubljana City Theatre, Mladinsko Theatre, the Slovene People’s Theater Celje, Koper Theatre, Ptuj City Theatre, and the Slovene National Theatre Nova Gorica. She has also worked extensively in non-institutional theatres like Glej, Bunker Institute, Šentjakob Theatre, and attended festivals abroad. She has participated in Slovene films as a crowd scenes director, a casting director, and an assistant director, acted in over twenty films and theater roles, and in 2014, together with her partner Gregor Andolšek, made her feature film debut Toilet Stories (Zgodbe iz sekreta).
Iza, born in 1992, graduated from the Academy of Theatre, Radio, Film and Television in dramaturgy, where she also got her master’s degree in screenwriting, and already during her studies received four Grossman awards for her screenplays. Her graduation text A Log on a Motorway (Hlod na avtocesti) received an honorable mention in the competition for the Slavko Grum award. Her writing – with the exception of the comedy Every Voice Counts (Vsak glas šteje), for which she received a noble comedy pen in 2018 – deals with the worries, challenges, and lack of prospects among young people who have found themselves on the edge of the abyss of the capitalist system. Psychological problems, isolation in relationships, drugs and alcohol, uncertainty in the labor market, and not understanding the world in which we wander lost and without a real goal, are the themes that often mark her texts; and Bitch, a Derogatory Term for a Woman (Prasica, slabšalni izraz za žensko, 2021) is, in this regard, no exception.
We met in the hectic weeks following the film’s premiere at the Festival of Slovenian Film, where Bitch, with its uncompromising bursts of energy, drugs, sex, art, irony, and affection for its wonderfully unadjusted characters, took home as many as seven Vesna awards, amongst which were awards for best feature film and best screenplay.
There is an unwritten rule in Slovenian cinema that directors write and direct their own films. In this aspect alone, you’ve already done something completely new with Bitch – What challenges did you face in placing the screenplay into another person’s hands on the one hand, and of directing a story, which reflects the zeitgeist of a different generation on the other?
Iza: I’m not a director, and I don’t see things like one either, so there was no debate about directing it myself. But there is a problem to even find directors interested in other people’s stories, which I already noticed at college. As early as on Scenarnica (a well-known Slovenian screenplay workshop) my mentors and classmates were asking themselves who would direct this … and suggested that I find someone abroad. In the end, they even tried to convince me to direct the film myself. So I was really happy when Vlado Bujalić recommended Tijana, whom I didn’t know personally but naturally had seen some of her plays. But I think there was a difference here, because Tijana is a theater director and is used to working with other people’s stories. She has a respectful attitude towards other people’s texts, while film directors are only used to directing their own screenplays. Which makes sense: when you’re dealing with one film for five, six, seven years, you naturally make sure that this is really your story, the one in which you’re entirely invested.
Tijana: I don’t know how to write that well (laugh), and ever since we finished filming Toilet Stories, I was searching for someone who would write a quality screenplay. Of course, I know what I’m interested in and what kind of characters I would create, but still, it was great luck that this screenplay proved to be right up my alley. Everything fell into place somehow, the producers truly created this great bond between us, and I never felt like I wasn’t telling my own story with the film. I could only be happy that I had such a good script in front of me and that I could so easily adopt Iza’s story. But this kind of practice is rare here, because it is practically impossible to get by if you’re doing only one thing, film directing or screenwriting. We were doing twenty other things alongside this as well. I’ve been doing things like this for the last 25 years already … Good thing they even let such an old person make a debut. (laughs)
Iza: So many things fell into place with this project, which rarely happens. That I was on Scenarnica precisely that year, that Vlado was at the pitch, that he called Tijana, that the two of us got along well, that it also went through financially at the Slovenian Film Centre … And even the film turned out great in the end! It is difficult of course, especially if you’re young and you’re not also a director. It’s not easy to give your “baby” away.
Tijana: It is difficult, I agree. But at some point, your baby also became a little bit my baby, our baby, and then it went out into the world. And now she’s a big girl, a rude girl. Bitch! (laughs)
The film initially carried the working title of the protagonist’s name: Eva. It’s a name that carries an almost biblical charge, of an unadjusted woman who doesn’t abide by the rules, who does things her own way, hedonistically pursues pleasure, creates chaos … When and why did your Eva change into Bitch?
Iza: The script initially carried the title We don’t have eggs, but we have their boxes, which Tijana hated. So we first changed the title to Eva, and then, in the course of editing, it became Bitch. I had a few problems with that … But now I’m all right with it. (laughs)
Tijana: About Eva’s biblical dimensions … I thought about it a lot myself, but then she would have to be Lilith because Eva is almost not enough for what this character embodies. But this would already be too inaccessible, because then it would bring with it interpretations about Lilith and who she is … all these stories of women whom God destroyed, punished. So through some religious connotation it’s really genius that her name is Eva. The first and only woman who lived through and survived exile from paradise. But considering what I’m like, I naturally searched for a more provocative title. And this really got on Iza’s nerves! But now I’m at peace with the fact that the thing went through well and that I wasn’t wrong. And that Iza can now sleep peacefully with this title, even though she didn’t initially like it.
Bitch somehow establishes itself as Eva’s journey to empowerment, to standing up for herself. It is largely a subverted insult, with which the Slovene film gains one of the most unadjusted, robust, politically incorrect and nonchalant female protagonists to date.
Iza: I don’t find this character particularly incorrect or provocative at all! Of course, we can find some autobiographical elements in it, since in high school I peed under the statue of general Rudolf Maister too … (laughs) But I never planned to make a character that would resemble me in this way. Then my brother watched one of the early versions of the edit and he asked me if this actress had done a character study of me. “This is just you.” (laughs) I don’t know, it doesn’t seem like it to me! I did draw from a mix of behaviors that I’m used to, in myself and my friends of course, with which I pushed the whole thing a bit further and realized some silent fantasies. Like let’s say in a bookshop, at work, when you’d love to tell a customer to get lost, but you don’t dare to … If we did this in real life, every single person would find us thoroughly unlikable, but on the film screen you can enjoy it a little.
Tijana: Exactly. I would never dare to be so rude (laugh), but this character really gave me courage. Even today I wish I would tell someone to get lost like that when they’re giving me a hard time. When I have anaphylactic shocks followed immediately by a thousand and one questions – what have you been eating, what have you been doing … I’ve been doing everything wrong, leave me alone, I’m suffering right now! Yeah, I don’t live healthily, OK, fuck off. That’s why Eva’s scene at the gynecologist is really liberating to me. Because why do we as women have to constantly apologize? We go there because we have a problem and we don’t need guilt on top of that because we were supposedly doing everything wrong.
Iza: But of course, Eva is a big hypocrite. She is constantly complaining about everything, while she herself isn’t actually doing anything! (laughs)
Menstruation, or rather the lack of it in some way represents the main theme of the film. It’s interesting to build the story around something so taboo, invisible, hidden, but which in the context of your film symbolizes Eva’s existential spasm, her terrible stress.
Tijana: To me, this was really awesome. Especially because the boys’ reaction to her situation was completely wrong, like she basically doesn’t have a problem. So what, she just doesn’t have her period! This is why I thought it was important to get rid of this taboo and that in the film we finally see how someone is pushing instruments inside her during the gynecological examination. That we see how even one such “innocent” examination is invasive and stressful for a woman. I gave birth four times, which really hurts, but every time they started pushing these fingers inside me during the final gynecological examination I asked if they could please at least do it without that. Because this is a really extreme situation, in which you think you’re going to die – but then you give birth. Good thing you forget afterwards and that it’s followed by something so beautiful, otherwise everyone would only have one child. (laughs)
Iza: Women my age spends on average a sixth of our time menstruating, five days a month. And when on Scenarnica Matevž Luzar hinted that this script needed a moment like what after Trainspotting he called “sobering up with a dead baby”, I decided to use menstruation as this element. Then all the boys said no, no, this is not enough, something worse has to happen to her. Wait a minute, she doesn’t have her period, she may be infertile, this is a total catastrophe! But we’re just not used to menstruation. If men menstruated, menstruation would figure in all the films made so far.
Tijana: Exactly! And if men menstruated, sick leave would be mandatory for as much as three days afterwards. So they would only work part-time, and the poor guys would be invalids. (laughs) But don’t get us wrong, we like men.
Eva’s character seems as if it were written for Liza Marijina, and is also nicely complemented by Nina, played by Anuša Kodelja. I don’t know if we’ve ever seen such a complex and comprehensive display of the dynamic that is women’s friendship in Slovenian film … and of life with flatmates too, in which all three actors seem absolutely natural.
Tijana: As soon as I read the script, I knew that this was the role for Liza. Iza recommended Tosja and then we started looking for the others. The fact is that we rehearsed a lot and we went to our family home in Brestanica for a couple of days. The production could afford to cover the cost of food for the week, so we held rehearsals, created scenes, got to know each other, connected. Liza, Anuša, and Tosja were there the longest, and Jure Henigman and the artists were also with us for a while. I thought it was really important that they create a genuine bond between them, because if they’re flatmates the dynamic has to be right. All the things were very well thought through and perfected in advance, so we came to the shoot ready. We stuck to the set text, no improvisations, only some small details were personalized. For example, a little piece in this friendship I drew from my own experience with my sister, when we got into a fight for the last time in college. I see the relationship between Eva and Nina as a similarly sisterly one, and in this context, I thought it was the right thing that we also touch upon the stigma of settling scores physically. Where is that right boundary, where you can vent your aggression but not hurt anyone? So during their argument, it seemed to me that they have to pull each other’s hair, and she pushes Blaž away at some point too … there is a physical rage building inside her, and she’d love nothing more than to hit someone. Otherwise, I still basically believe in the sort of craft that we do: we prepare things well and as authors, directors, we let ourselves be sincere. Like Iza was sincere when she was writing these relationships between Eva, Nina, and Blaž. And like I had to be sincere so that I didn’t make anything prettier, but simply accepted things as they were. And as they were I idealized them – glorified a bitch and really cared for her.
Iza: I wrote the script four years ago and I’m a little older now, but in our college dormitory we all had these kinds of relationships at some point. So I thought it was all quite normal until my mentor on Scenarnica said that my script was a good display of how young people today have an entirely wrong picture of interpersonal relationships. How we’re in more of a relationship with our best friend than we are with a boyfriend. And only then did I start thinking that our generation really has a problem with where – and on whom – to focus our attention. Because it’s no longer cool to be too attached to your boyfriend, a lot of attention is given to friends and it quickly becomes a mess – when you’re in love with one person, but “fucking” another, as happens to both Eva and Blaž in the film.
Tijana: We did that all the time, and I’m not a boomer like your professors, but a Gen-Xer. I assume they were doing the same, but it is a generation of shame that likes to pretend it’s better than it really is. (laughs)
Iza: When they had a few drinks though plenty of things came out. (laughs) I actually had a really hard time defending my script. I cried almost every night because I couldn’t understand how nobody got this story, everyone found it weird … And after we became friends with the professors and classmates from Scenarnica, sometimes we had some drinks together and they’d be telling me stories from their youth, and I found it harder and harder to understand how they didn’t understand this script. How were their stories any different? You probably suppress these things a little with age. Maybe in ten years’ time I’ll deny everything too. But despite their initial reluctance, the others in the workshop also started developing a sense of empathy towards Eva and rooting for her, which I considered a big personal victory (laughs).
Did the negative reactions to the script come largely from the male mentors?
Iza: Mostly from men, yes, though some female classmates were also a little reluctant at first. One of my classmates for example was really against it and at the end of the pitch he said to me that it was well told, but the producers would still be reading a script that sucks …
Tijana: Before the projection, he came to me and said that if the film was going to be good, it’s probably because of me. And I said: “No, the film has a brilliant script, but maybe I can comfort you by saying that many men your age reacted the same way.” And after the film, he admitted that I was right. That it’s a good script, but he simply didn’t get it. He didn’t know how to read it.
Iza: Only after I’d heard how many directors hadn’t been reading the script correctly did I start to realize how lucky we were that we received financing from the Slovenian Film Centre that year – even though the committee consisted of two men and one woman.
The visuals of the film are also impressive: the scenes are saturated with colors, cramped spaces, music, art – the complete opposite of the shades of gray, gray, and grayer that Eva ascribes to the life of an ordinary person in one of her outbursts.
Tijana: It’s true. I decided that I didn’t want any monotony, any peace. I wanted to achieve the warmth of the story and the characters with costume design and scenography; I wanted these elements to affect us like peace, almost like some sort of home, and not like chaos, coldness, distance. I am a child of the Metelkova alternative culture complex, spaces filled with smoke, house parties that sometimes stretch out over several days; to me, this is a really beautiful world. I really love all the nonconformists and I work towards them being accepted. Not in the way that they adjust and become the same as everyone else, but that they stay as they are, seen in all their color and greatness. We were really lucky to have chosen great actors, because every one of them brought some color to the creation of this whole. Blaž’s spare, slightly absent manner of speaking, Nina’s baroque, and Eva’s 1001 angry glares. And from this came the intention to embark on this chaos that in the end becomes home and warmth, peace.
The dance scenes at Metelkova seem like a musical on drugs, which to the audience suggests the explosions in Eva’s head at that moment. These are complex, energetic, hypnotic night scenes with refined choreography and dancers. How did this idea come up and how did it come to be realized?
Tijana: I’m really a fan of musicals, though every time I say this everyone thinks I’m joking. There was one montage sequence in the script where Eva and Blaž are wandering around and having fun, and this was the moment when I said there has to be a musical scene here. It just seemed to fit. When I was happy, I always felt like the whole world was dancing with me. That everything around me fell into place, that everything around me was made just for me. The music on the radio, the landscape around me, the passing cars. I presented this to the producers and the assistant director – and there was a problem every single day up to the first day of shooting, and they were asking me: how are we going to do this? Let’s scrap this. The dance scenes were made with the help of dancers, who volunteered for us, including Leja Jurišič … We met twice, made the choreography for the song, and after half an hour of shooting everyone from the team who had been nagging me on a daily basis said OK. I’m happy I persisted. Because I really knew this is how it had to be.
Iza: If I’m being honest I thought this was quite a terrible idea at first. (laughs) But now that it’s shot I’m a total fan. This is the main problem if you’re “only” a screenwriter and not a director as well. You simply have to trust. Because I wasn’t in Tijana’s head – and only she had the whole of it in her head.
You can find a whole intersection of art forms and creators in the film – from the dancers and choreographers to the painters and the bands that have marked the domestic music scene in recent years. How did it come to these collaborations? Where did you get the idea for the provocative paintings for which Eva poses for her mentor?
Tijana: All the content indications for the paintings were already in the script: from Jakob’s paintings, which are totally Nazi, to sensory painting and Nina’s painting of sexually transmitted diseases … Idea-wise the things were set, and then through the painters the idea of who goes where all fell into place. I thought it was really important that we not hire a single person who would paint something for everyone, but that we find real young people who are creating at the moment. Deja Crnović researched the thing, went to a few exhibitions and recruited young artists who became the painting “doubles” of our film characters. Ivian Kan Mujezinović and Gregor Andolšek, one half of Čao Portorož, did the research on music … with the help of my sons. Generally, one big group of people contributed their ideas and suggestions to the music that appears in the film. Which I think is great, that there is a whole musical imprint of a generation on it, which is real, strong, alive. And that a sort of alternative in this sense is still alive. As long as there is resistance, the world will go on. That’s why I thought it was right that we do all this thoroughly, dedicatedly, that we don’t adjust things to my taste. Because of course I can’t say that all the songs were according to my taste, but let’s say that in the course of the whole process that changed. I became a bit musically enlightened too, and I didn’t nag people with the music from my time. We really went into the here and now with all the art.
Iza: I don’t really know anymore how I got the idea for Jakob’s paintings. This script came into existence like some angry explosion and sometimes I didn’t even think so much about what I’m writing, but I put the scenes together more associatively. I do remember though that one time my friend was telling me about a documentary about the Playboy mansion and their strict schedules and how on another occasion my friends and I were debating whether you shave down there completely or do you not shave? What does it mean if a guy demands something like that from you? And then this idea emerged, which of course elicited responses like come on, you can’t make fun of Nazis, what’s wrong with you! (laughs) Why not?
Tijana: Up until the end of editing they wanted to throw things like that out, but to me this was precisely genius! Because in truth all of us tell racist or inappropriate jokes, but if she says it in a film, then fuck, we really suck. When I first read the script the thing that stayed with me most was this drive of Nina’s, who paints sexually transmitted diseases. What insanity is this, what courage! And this situation, when someone says to her that they don’t like getting head because it’s disrespectful to women … I died laughing. Because everything about this statement is wrong; sexual practices are the way people like them, there aren’t any absolutes. And nobody is going to tell me what to do or not to do. This is kind of double feminism which in the end only negates itself.
And if I refer, in fun, to the brilliant making ironic of the pretentious art scene while quoting Hegel, do you think you managed to create a film that fulfills both the criteria of timelessness as well as contemporary socio-political relevance?
Iza: Sometimes I quote Hegel too and I probably sound the same. (laughs) I think that I started making fun of everything a little at some point, because already before and during my writing of the script people were constantly loading me with complexes, saying that there are more appropriate themes for a film. Why don’t you write about cancer, war, xenophobia, LGBTQ+ themes? Why are you making a film about a woman who doesn’t even have a real problem? So I was left with no choice but to start making fun of it, because you know, “xenophobia sells”. (laughs) Pardon me, but if a woman is 27 and her whole life is supposed to be still in front of her, yet she feels like she’s 72 and there’s nothing out there in front of her, then this is a fucking tragedy.
This interview was originally published in Ekran, November 2021.