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One-on-one with Filmmaker Jelena Ilic - "Hard to find a visual concept that's not re-traumatizing"

Jelena Ilic lives and works as a director and photographer in Cologne, where she has been studying at the Art Academy for Media since 2014. Her award-winning film 'Euphrat' has been shown at various film festivals. She is currently working on her diploma film 'Kein Etwas', which is funded by the BKM.


iFilmFestival: Tell us a bit about your most important film so far.

Ilic: “I would consider 'Euphrat' to be the most important film I made. It's an collaboration with the archeologist and curator Jabbar Abdullah. The film is a poetical testimony in which Jabbar remembers an intact Syria. In 2011 he experienced the outbreak of war and escaped until a river led him to his new home. We had long conversations about how we could create a film that encourages the audience to listen to his words and how the river could be a guidance for his narrative. The film consists of two takes in which subtle movements follow the flow of his words without illustrating their meanings.”


Jelena Ilic Euphrates filmmaker film festival
Euphrat (2019)

iFilmFestival: What were the key challenges making it?

Ilic: “Jabbar does not only speak for himself. His story represents the escape of millions of refugees. It was hard to find a visual concept that's not re-traumatizing. So we decided to only show hands and tender movements that get carried by the narration and the music of the film.

Hands are something we see everyday, they are universal and yet they are able to express strength, weakness, fear and courage without reproducing images of violence. The movements are abstract and still allow the viewer to interpret the gesture.”


iFilmFestival: What’s one aspect that you’re particularly proud of?

Ilic: “Our film is an experimental, poetic documentary - a genre that is not often used to tell the stories of refugees. Jabbar tells his story within three minutes in a way that the audience can connect with. Our film is more about listening than watching - it encourages to listen to people who fell and lost their homes. It's a film that connects - just like the two rivers - the Euphrates and the Rhine.”


iFilmFestival: How did you get involved in filmmaking?

Ilic: “I started with photography when I was young. It was and still is easy for me to connect with people and their stories. I enjoy listening and asking and love to capture the feeling of the moment in a picture. For me it's all about empathy for the people I am working with. Research is a big part of it. Either I help people tell their stories or I tell something that feels close to me and my experience.”


Jelena Ilic Euphrates filmmaker film festival
Euphrat (2019)

iFilmFestival: What new projects are you working on or are you hoping to work on in the future?

Ilic: “Right now I am working on short feature film. It tells the story of a woman who is in love with her answering machine. The story is told without labeling the relationship - it simply shows the highs and lows of a being in love with an object.”


iFilmFestival: What role do film festivals play?

Ilic: “'Euphrat' was shown at around 15 film festivals and only one could take place in person. It was a dream - like a really happy bubble. It was summer and the Corona infections were low. We were wearing our masks all the time but we were in a cinema! I miss it so much! Festivals are the best way to get inspired and encouraged by other artists, they are great to get in touch with new people and of course they are one of the biggest cultural events!”


iFilmFestival: What is your advice to filmmakers tackling the festival circuit?

Ilic: “Apply everywhere and don't get sad if it doesn't work right away. If you apply to 100 festivals there will be around 8 that will select the film. But those 8 festivals will appreciate every second you spent with this film, they will respect it, love it and support it and that's enough. You will see how fulfilling those moments are.”


Jelena Ilic filmmaker film festival
Jelena Ilic

iFilmFestival: How do you see the future of film?

Ilic: “I really hope that cinemas will make it through Covid. I love tv series but as I've said before - there is something magical about cinema.”


iFilmFestival: Which filmmaker do you admire and why?

Ilic: “Oh there are too many. But I love Krzysztof Kieślowski and Miranda Penell. In both of their works I see this strong artistic view on the truthfulness of the people they portrait - it touches me deeply. They both have their own aesthetic and yet it's perfect for the persons they show.”


iFilmFestival: What film have you recently seen that you have admired in one way or another?

Ilic: “'Human Radio' by Miranda Penell is one of the films that encouraged me to study film. She wrote an announcement in the newspaper looking for people who like to dance when they are on their own. The pureness and freedom of those dancers is truly inspiring, touching, liberating - it's so intimate and in the end simply beautifully imperfect.”


Thank you Jelena for answering our questions!

Interview by iFilmFestival on 24 February 2021