Director Iva Radivojevic talks to realscreen about making Evaporating Borders (pictured), a Laura Poitras-produced documentary which enjoyed its North American premiere at SXSW and takes an unconventional approach in telling the stories of Cyprus’ asylum seekers.
Growing up in Cyprus and the former Yugoslavia, and settling in New York, director Iva Radivojevic always figured she would use film to tell stories about immigration, belonging and displacement.
But it wasn’t until she noticed the growing political and social unrest in Cyprus that her feature documentary Evaporating Borders (pictured above) – a project she says has been simmering for a long time – became an urgent priority.
Exec produced by Academy Award-nominated documentarian Laura Poitras, the film – which received its North American premiere at SXSW this week – is a poetic visual essay that presents an unconventional glimpse into the experiences of asylum seekers in Cyprus. The island country, which largely consists of Greek and Turkish Cypriots, receives a number of Europe-bound immigrants from the Middle East and Africa due to its geographic location between the continents.
In recent years, however, the influx has aggravated native communities that believe newcomers are depleting the country’s resources, and a growing intolerance is giving rise to violence and oppression.
The documentary, divided into five vignettes woven together by Radivojevic’s own narrative, is rife with searing encounters with neo-Nazi fundamentalists, anti-fascist activists, Iraqi asylum seekers and others struggling to co-exist in a fractured society. For the filmmaker, who immigrated to Cyprus as a child, it was a challenge to maintain distance from some of her subjects, with whom she fundamentally disagreed – an experience she maintains is rewarding in theory, but taxing in practice.
Realscreen spoke with Radivojevic about re-immersing herself in Cyprus, maintaining an objective lens, and the social and political outcomes from the film she’d like to see.
When did you start work on the film?
Three years ago I made a short exploring the idea that wasn’t very crystallized. And then I really started work on it two years ago.
When you left Cyprus for New York, you were 18. Did you return often enough to see how the country was shifting?
Yes, because while I continued to study, my family was still in Cyprus, so I would go back very often to visit. And this was why I kept noticing this shift. Especially in the recent years, there was quite a big difference to the way it was when I was growing up there.
What was it like to be re-immersed in the culture?
It was the most time I’ve spent there in a long time. It was different because I had a specific goal I wanted to achieve. I have a lot of friends there, and it was a great experience because everybody came together and collaborated and pushed the film in different ways. And I also met a lot of people that were passionate about the cause and wanted to see things change and it was a really beautiful experience actually.
Things have shifted in many ways in Cyprus since the time I was growing up there due to these migration issues, but also in a sense of, there are now alternative movements, there are people working to change things there. There are anarchists I wasn’t aware were there before, so I think it has to do with things changing all over the world, with the Arab Spring and all kinds of movements that are happening in general.
You are intimately connected to this film given your background. What was it like to work with some of those characters whose values are fundamentally different from yours?
I think you have to put distance between yourselves and be open to listening to the other point of view, because if you come to the table with preconceived assumptions and a pre-determined mind, you’re shutting off any possible communication. Of course I don’t agree with some of the people in the film, but I think it was important to figure out what they were saying and what they had to say.
How did you feel after those interviews?
It was definitely emotionally draining. Especially after leaving from the reception centres and just listening to some of the stories. It was very difficult. I would go home at the end of the day and I would try and have discussions with friends and explain and it was really impossible to try and explain what these people were going through. You have to connect the reality of my own, which is more privileged. It was difficult. And it also makes you think about your life in a different way. There’s also a lot of guilt and self-reflection that goes into it.
The images in the film are very poetic. Was that aesthetic intentional?
The film critic Luciano Barisone makes the point where you’re either telling the story in a doc format, where it’s informational, or you take it as a cinematic expression and you look at it for its emotional potential. So when I’m making films, I do it because it’s the best way I know how to express myself. The journalistic doesn’t speak to me. I did a five-minute short based on the film for The New York Times and it was very journalistic, and it’s good to put yourself out there, but it’s also squeezing a very complex story into five minutes.
Is there a political or social outcome you’d like to see as a result of the film? Will it be screened in Cyprus?
Yes, after SXSW we’re going to Thessaloniki, then Human Rights Watch, then to Cyprus to screen it at Cyprus Film Days. I’m excited about the Cyprus screening because it’s about Cyprus, but it’s a larger issue, and I think the people there still need to see the film. I really hope that even if one person has some kind of transformative experience, that – for me – is enough. I hope it can be used as a tool for self-reflection and thinking about our own actions because we’re all guilty of prejudice, so that’s what I’m hoping for.
What is next for you?
I’m shooting the next film in Serbia. I’m going there in September for about a month to start researching and thinking about it. There’s going to be two films. One is a documentary and one will be fiction narrative, and they will kind of talk to each other. But it’s still in the very early stages.
- Check out the film’s trailer below: