Australia, Slovenia (MIFF 2022)
Director: Sara Kern
A 10-year-old must keep her grief-stricken immigrant family together in this moving Australian–Slovenian co-production.
In Melbourne’s outer suburbs, reticent Moja, her well-meaning Slovenian father Miloš and her volatile older sister Vesna all struggle to cope with the impacts of a significant death. But Vesna is in denial about the demands of late-stage pregnancy and Miloš barely speaks a word of English, so Moja is forced to assume the role of stabilising presence and cultural mediator – with little chance to mourn the loss of their mother.
Selected for the Berlinale’s Generation Kplus program, Moja Vesna is the MIFF Premiere Fund–supported feature debut from director Sara Kern. Magnificent newcomer Loti Kovačič illuminates the screen with a rendition of strength through quiet action that pairs deftly with Mackenzie Mazur’s study in destructive denial and Slovenian star Gregor Baković as a fallible dad, while Claudia Karvan (Love My Way) plays a kindly supporting role. This stirring film dramatises not just the life-sustaining faith that things will, in time, turn out alright, but the devotion sought from loved ones while waiting for the tide to turn.
“Some filmmakers have the drive to tell poignant stories that deal with the most difficult topics, and the talent to match … Kern is one of them.” – Cineuropa
[by Vladan Petkovic in cineuropa.org on 23/02/2022 at BERLINALE 2022]
Slovenian-Australian director Sara Kern discusses the process of making MOJA VESNA, her feature film debut which world-premiered in Berlinale’s Generation Kplus section and then had its International Premiere at MIFF 2022. It tells the story of a grieving migrant family from the perspective of a ten-year-old girl.
Cineuropa: Why did you decide to tell this story?
Sara Kern: I’m always trying to write about what’s most alive in me and, at the moment, it’s definitely something to do with childhood. This film isn’t autobiographical, but it has all the feelings associated with my own childhood. In a way, I was this kid, Moja; I made up all the events, but a lot of the dynamics are similar.
When something traumatic happens, a child has to do more than just be a child. I think this is because the child hopes to secure a special place next to the adult, and it’s a way of gaining intimacy with them when they’re going through something difficult. This means that you grow up too fast and you miss out on things like connecting with friends.
I’m also very interested in grief in general; it’s such a complex state. It’s a migrant story too: I drew from my own experience, because I moved to Melbourne eight years ago. It’s difficult to grieve when you’re in a different country. Moja’s family are closed in and don’t have much support from the outside world. When a trauma happens on top of that, it’s likely you close in on yourself even more. But I think there’s hope for Moja, for her to be able to connect with the world, and maybe find the things she couldn’t find within her family in other relationships.
How do you approach the process of writing the story and developing the film?
I like to keep things open as of the script writing phase, as people come into the project and as we find our various locations; with each new thing that comes along, I try to stay open-minded and not be hemmed in by my vision. I know what I want to do, but I try to keep shaping the film as new things come along, and I think that’s the only way to keep something alive.
How did you decide on the film’s visual approach?
DoP Lev Predan Kowarski and I immediately agreed to do everything with a handheld camera, because I didn’t want the actors to be limited by technical aspects. It was also easy deciding on the 4:3 aspect ratio: it’s perfect for shooting faces and it offers the level of intimacy I wanted to portray in the house. But also, as a migrant to Australia, we look at our new country with eyes from elsewhere. I was interested in boxing these huge beaches and the powerful ocean into this format, to show it in the same way the family sees it.
How did you pick your actors and work with them, Loti Kovačić in particular?
We were very lucky to find Loti. I didn’t imagine we’d find someone who could actually speak Slovenian and English, and also be able to act. But we found her straight away – it was like a miracle.
My first objective was to build trust with her so that she felt safe. I don’t like giving kids scripts, so she didn’t learn any lines. Instead, I talked to her before each shot and explained what we were doing in general terms, and then she used her own words. We crafted the lines together through repetition. I was looking for the kinds of moments where actors feel some sort of connection. Sometimes this happened after they’d done their scene, then we’d keep filming.
I was really happy when we found Mackenzie [Mazur, who plays Vesna] because she has something special about her too, but I was delighted that she and Loti had such chemistry and fondness for each other straight away. It wasn’t something I was looking for, but some scenes did eventually come out of that.
To help Loti and the other actors find a way of being natural together in front of the camera, we used a lot of improvisation, and then I would rewrite the script in the edit, crafting and paring back the dialogue right up until the sound mix. For me, it’s a really interesting and exciting process, re-watching the material and always trying to see things in a fresh light.