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Shifting Through the Lens

When we recently penned our annual top 10 art list of 2018, it was without a doubt that the inclusion of artist Sophie Vuković's "Shapeshifters" seen last year and found to be one of the most touching exerperiences of the year, was going to be inevitable. Of the film was then said; "It’s a stunning feat of artistic vision intersecting various stylistic and formal choices to convey a universally relatable narration about identity as subject to negotiation, change and discovery in the wake and aftermath of migration." We catch up with Sophie in her studio at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm (Mejan) where she is currently finishing a MFA degree and learn more about her work carrying overlapping artistic identities.

Sophie Vuković, photo: Susanna Österberg

C-P: Let’s have a word on your debut feature-length film "Shapeshifters" that garnered you acclaim and marks a significant entry as a filmmaker. What served as the point of departure initially for the project? Was there a conscious decision to make a certain kind of film based on a specific narrative, or is the film the materialized result of various practices like writing and researching? S.V: Prior to "Shapeshifters" I had done a couple of shorts and assisted various film projects but with "Shapeshfiters" there was a strong hunch about wanting to do a film revolving around the notion of a state-in-between; of being found neither in a place of alienation nor inherent belonging. I wanted to through the visualization of the film medium capture and convey related feelings of disorientation. What interested me is also the relatability of such feelings in so far they are shared alike by many people who have had similar experiences. In the beginning, I had not yet found the form and the project began as a straight-forward documentary-feature for which I started filming my own parents; scenes that are now as well included in the final edit. However, when I was reviewing the footage relating directly to my family and I, there was a feeling that it did not quite correspond to the output I was trying to go for which ultimately was something less tangible and less literal. I was impacted a lot by the fleeting notion of memories and the documentary-angle did not feel quite feel resonant to that. That’s when I had the idea to materialize the project more in tune with an essay film.

As I began writing the narration for the voice-over I began a work of collecting imagery. It was all very intuitive informing my going through archives; personal ones of Hi-8 tapes found within my family and my filming various footage and slowly structuring the different “chapters” that the film is built on. The further I got, the more I realized the film needed an added layer of mise-en-scène; I wanted to try depicting some of these specific memories using fiction. I think the fictional element also corresponds to the whole notion of how memory is constructed and how it is a process of remembering, editing and recreating and thereby deviating from mere fact.

SHAPESHIFTERS (2017), photo: Iga Mikler

C-P: I will have told you before but for me the film was the most touching art experience I had the whole of last year. There were parts in the dialogue in the documentary footage that felt so on a par with dialogues I could be having with my own parents which says something about how universal the narrative and inherent sentiments of the film is. By the ending scene tears were streaming down my cheeks. It felt authentic and I would call reaching the end being led by the director and narrator through a journey leading to an ultimate reward and pay-off; which is the emotional state of cleansing.

Since the film isn’t your run-off-the-mill cinematic experience and is formally much more artistically-driven with a non-linear narrative, what might some of the challenges have been getting it out there after completion? It’s been very critically well-received, this is for sure, but I’m thinking about the stages between finishing the film in its initial distribution?

SHAPESHIFTERS, (2017), photo: Ratko Vukovic

S.V: I will definitely say that there were challenges and I might also have been naïve in not thinking excessively beforehand about things like distribution and how it works launching a film on a more widespread level in Sweden. I had my perceptions of what works and doesn’t but wanted to challenge them by staying true to my intent and vision as a director. Luckily I had two producers who believed in the work I was doing and were very supportive of my choices. It helps when you have financial backers who believe you are doing something visionary, worth standing by and promoting. Hurdles were met for example when it came to distribution in cinema and television where there is a reluctance to step outside of more traditional narratives and formats. It makes sense in so far from a commercial point of view it is hard getting people to pay money for a ticket at the cinema to see an experimental-documentary-oriented-film.

Few external people believed the film would command audiences at the cinema and it’s not that the film necessarily needs to have the greatest audience numbers but I do remember that getting people to believe in its theatrical viability was a challenge.

I believe in theory a lot more could have done to ensure the film’s finding its way to the sort of audiences for whom this sort of film generally could be received. We did efforts getting the film out at schools and that was very rewarding for everyone involved. Of course, it can be assumed teenagers would not normally have picked this film to see over some blockbuster-mainstream-film but the sort of discussions that were had with students at schools after the screenings were very impressive and eye-opening. I guess you could sum the answer up by saying that making this kind of film both has its advantages and disadvantages when it comes to distribution and reception which you learn in due time.

Jamila (2019), photo: Grand Slam Film

C-P: Since the release of the film, the film has expanded its scope through cultural spheres from cinema and television onward to the realm of contemporary art, through your current stint doing a MFA at the Royal Institute of the Art in Stockholm and the film’s inclusion in the very prestigious (quadrennial-exhibition) Moderna Exhibition 2018 at Moderna Museet. Has the film’s reception in art in any way impacted or changed the way you view the work yourself?

S.V: What has been so nice with having the film move fluidly between screening and exhibiting contexts this way is that I realized the response the film would generate would differ quite a lot depending on the audience. When the film was shown as a theatrical release much of the feedback would relate to the content of the film; the storytelling and the overall theme of it. In art there has been much more of an emphasis on the artistic and formal aspects of how the film is actually made beyond the storytelling. Up until recently I had been in a process of searching for artistic identity to figure out and grasp where my work is seated; if it is one thing over the other, and I think the greatest realization relating to the expansive scope of Shapeshifters is the feeling of not needing to worry so much or overthink or going to lengths to define the work I am doing.

Jamila (2019), photo: Grand Slam Film

C-P: How is art-school meeting your expectations and how are you relating to your time there?

S.V: I had been working so much before, both on other people's projects and visions and then my own, and there was always a rapid pace moving forward and I felt the need to slow down and make room and time to reflect about my artistry and where the work could go from there. Trying things out; the act of actually experimenting with ideas is much harder in reality than you want sometimes so it’s crucial you find a context that accommodates and allows you to do so. What art-school leaves you with are ideally healthy working processes that informs learning how to address your work, share your work, work with others to execute your work and to be the recipient of other people’s work. What’s generally hard to navigate yourself in is the art sphere itself; all the machinations that it weighs on and is composed of; all the things you are never taught and about which there are codes and customs that are uncertain until you are exposed to them.

MFA degree project (work in progress), due 2019 at the Royal Institute of Art, photo: Milja Rossi

C-P: I hear what you are saying and as we are speaking now, I think of how the artist often relates to the art sphere as being the furthest down in a food chain or hierarchy even though ultimately the whole sphere itself is reliant on the labor of the artist. And yet an artist often will see her position as incredibly dependent on mediators and second parties. Being an artist often appears like a forever-wait for something to emerge and to be shown grace by others. I realize the artist is more empowered than she often will give herself credit for but it comes down to exercising a certain power and acting it out. That’s why I often tell artists to get together and create their own opportunities and stress that together artists constitute strong networks that can benefit the collective body of artists. I also believe art-schools need to take greater responsibility in minimizing the gaps between the sheltered world of art-school and the realities that lie beyond the artist studio at school.

Lastly, I’m very curious about what you are preparing for your upcoming degree exhibition this year in spring and what is waiting in the pipeline in 2019?

S.V: For the degree exhibition I’m working with installations and film, revolving around notions of failure; failure when a individual falls short of their command and the scope that has been set out for their acting and achieving. Again I’m returning as well to ideas about memory and collective experiences that are often omnipresent for me, and perhaps also ideas about migration although this will not as be explicit or vocalized as was the case with "Shapeshifters". The film I’m showing departs from a relationship between a mother and daughter and there is an emphasis on how the body is the bearer of history and memory that can be passed on between generations. It’s quite existentialist altogether in relation to what it means to be an individual in contemporary society.

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