“The complexity of a disorder”: Svetislav Dragomirovic on I’m People, I Am Nobody
Svetislav Dragomirovic’s first feature film I am people, I am nobody is a film that I was not ready to watch. From its shy DOC NYC synopsis, we learn that it’s the story of a 60-year-old retired porn performer from Serbia named Stevan who finds himself stuck, Kafka-style, in a Maltese prison, charged with molestation. What we don’t learn from this brief description is that Stevan is in fact Dragomirovic’s stepfather, and that the filmmaker received a series of “audio letters” that Stevan had sent from prison, which constitute the base of I am people, I am nobody, an experimental collage that takes us on a shocking journey through the twisted (and often twisted) mind of Stevan.
To learn all about the project, including caring for a family member suffering from one of society’s most taboo disorders, Director reached out to the Belgrade-born director-producer shortly after the film premiered at DOC NYC on Nov. 16.
Director: How did you first encounter these “audio-letters” and decide to use them as the basis for a film?
Dragomirovic: For the first time in my life, I wasn’t looking for history, but history found me. The film’s protagonist, my father-in-law, was arrested for public exposure in Malta. He contacted me from prison asking for help. Since he couldn’t send letters, he thought it would be a good idea to talk about his problems over the phone, so that we could record him and then send these recordings to different NGOs on his behalf to try to help fight his case.
At first I was completely shocked by what he was talking about. Disgusted, even. But as we continued to talk and I continued to listen, I realized there was much more to his story. What caught my attention was that the public display made it feel “alive and visible again”. He was lonely and miserable and had started to die inside. Instead of fighting, he let the darkness devour him. It’s something I think all of us, or most of us, can relate to. It’s hard to fight your inner demons, and part of this movie is about that.
Director: How does your family, including Stevan, feel about you making a film that could very well be considered airing dirty laundry in public? Have you ever worried that the doc will serve as an additional platform for Stevan’s pathological attention seeking?
Dragomirovic: The laundry was already out, spread out in the garden for the neighbors to see, before we even started making the film. It was difficult for all of us to talk about it, but it was important not to let this still taboo subject disappear.
I spent a lot of time discussing with the film’s editor, Nemanja Mlojević, how to approach it. We came to the conclusion that since exhibitionism is a strong desire to be observed by other people, we would “watch” it. In this particular case, we would listen to it. It was very important for me to create a platform where he would be free enough to say what he wanted.
What happened was that he used this platform to lie in order to defend himself. At the same time, he used it to talk openly about his problem and admit what he had done. Once he did that, he started feeling guilty, hating the new version of himself. From then on, he begins to bury himself under a pile of lies. Ultimately, the movie isn’t about whether he’s right or wrong. It’s about the complexity of a disorder, its effect on a person’s behavior, and how we as an audience respond to it.
Director: I found myself completely mesmerized by the combination of artistic hypnotic imagery and the truly disturbing voice-over that structures the film. Which made me wonder if you were careful not to “embellish” the visuals, and potentially tone down the ugliness of Stevan’s words.
Dragomirovic: It was hard to go that route, but to create the full effect – to paint the roller coaster of emotions and cause unpleasantness – we had to do it that way. I could only guess what was going through his head, and that’s how I described it. It is a film composed of broken expressionist images.
Director: The other aspect that makes Stevan’s story so ethically problematic is the fact that he got caught up in the notoriously corrupt Maltese justice system. In other words, he is a culprit who does not have the right to a fair trial, a liar who tells the truth about injustice. It also reminded me of the fate faced by suspected terrorists detained at Guantanamo. How to reconcile wanting to help a member of the railroad family who also needs to get away from society?
Dragomirovic: As I said before, we all need space to talk. Much of its space was taken up with the history of Malta’s corrupt judicial system. It’s obviously not working properly, and because of that, it’s not doing anyone any good. My mission here was to try to create an environment that would be nurturing for him. I can only imagine the trauma these children – his victims – went through, but I am no advocate of ostracism. What I would like the most is for I am people, I am nobody to encourage public discourse on a taboo subject, and in turn help release those traumas.
Director: Did you consult any psychiatrists specializing in Stevan’s disorders during the production? Do you plan to involve the medical community and/or families with relatives like Stevan in future screenings?
Dragomirovic: We thought about including the medical community from the start. We even contacted a few psychiatrists and psychological publications, and convinced a few to do more than just give us literature to read. The general opinion was that it is difficult to give any diagnosis without coming into personal contact with Stevan, which was impossible.
We also reached out to several organizations that deal with traumatic sexual experiences to see if they saw any value in the film, or a chance to use it as an advocacy tool. We have certainly not abandoned the idea of including the medical community. Currently, as the film is just beginning its festival tours, we are applying for funding for distribution. We always want to rely on these potential audiences.