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Unnameable Region: Interview with All the Cities of the North Director Dane Komljen (Video)

A still from ALL THE CITIES OF THE NORTH reveals the strange, liminal backdrop to the film's action. All photos courtesy of Dane Komljen.

By Sam C. Long

I’m an art film gambler and addict. The risk (of a not great experience) is always high, but when you hit? Huge reward. This is why I reached out to director Dane Komljen. His film All the Cities of the North absolutely blew me away. The film is “about” three men living in an abandoned apartment complex. There is no diegetic dialogue, all spoken word comes in voice over, one quotes Godard.
When I attended the US theatrical premiere at Anthology earlier this year, I experienced an amazing sensation. The theater was black and the images made me feel like I was looking out of a fish tank into another world. Like I was a camera in a strange place. The pacing, the mood, the performances, and the exciting directorial choices all culminated in a once in a lifetime reward. So although this is about a film you’ve probably never heard of and likely will never see, I wanted to share the singular vision of Dane Komljen. He joined us from the Casa Wabi residency in Mexico.

HONEYSUCKLE: I consider All the Cities of the North to be Art with a capital A. Do you consider yourself an artist? Or filmmaker or director or something else? 

DANE KOMLJEN: Perhaps it’s easier for me to talk about what it is that I do. I’m pretty sure what I make are films. Sometimes I make art, but even then it’s always to do with images.

Where those works are situated is another question. I went to a film school and I went to an art school, and both of those environments had to do with different approaches to image making, but I couldn’t really see neatly drawn out boundaries. The work I make gets shown in art contexts more and more often, and I’m curious to see how it works out.

That being said, I don’t really like the word director. It implies too much verticality for me.

What about All the Cities of the North made you want do it as a feature and not another short?

Once I started thinking of the place where the film would be made and about the two men that I wanted to be there, it became clear that there were too many images, too many things for a short work. I just wanted to dwell on them all longer.

All the Cities of the North trailer from dane komljen on Vimeo.

What was the script writing process like? Did you find an overarching “story” or a series of vignettes and images you wanted to see on screen?

It began with my encounter with the space. For me it was a discovery, stumbling upon this series of white cubes, an abandoned hotel complex I hadn’t previously had visited, but that held so many associations for me. It looked like a place I might have had visited, an idea of a place, something left behind and precisely because of that, still very much alive.

I wanted the film to reproduce this openness, the repetition of one form, one block, that somehow makes it possible to embrace other forms. I wanted to write together with Boban and Boris, who act in the film. I proposed a game where each of us describes a situation, we give it a number, and then we film all the numbers, but in a way that the situations remain interchangeable in the edit, and each scene could be placed wherever. That didn’t really work out, because they were reluctant to write—which was OK, it didn’t have had to be written in the end and perhaps it was necessary to abandon this idea.

So I wrote a script that was based on the situations I had written wrote for the dropped game. It involved further writing, playing around, adding new elements, but from the beginning, the text worked as a series of images, situations that were not clear for me and that I haven’t seen, but that I wanted to see.

There is a strong link between the script and the film, but in a way, the shoot was where Boban and Boris really started to write, to propose, to work. We would meet every evening and talk about what we were going to film the next day. The film emerged from these evenings.

I think everybody is mesmerized by the way you break the fourth wall. Are you surprised by the reaction?

It is in the film, and I tried to introduce it as any other element. Boban and Boris live in an unnameable relation and the film explores bonds we make, bonds that make us, and spaces of linking and relating. This space transforms through the film; there are more and more elements introduced. It seemed to me only logical to invite the making of the film itself into it, to see how this fiction, this game, would react once its own conditions of making become present.

I didn’t want to present a clear surface, a field of white. I wanted to also show how this thing came to be.

You come from a place with a complicated national identity, and then made a film ostensibly about “a place.” Within the world of the film, is there a nation that the location exists in?

Not a single nation, perhaps a place that is not defined by nations that inhabit it, somewhere that is conceived as transnational. In that way it points back to what has gone and at the same time at what could come.

But that is just what I think; we really didn’t want to give any precise pointers. It’s not about where these two men come from, it is about where they want to go.

Even when rehearsing with Boban and Boris, we refrained from giving any pointers to each other, neither historical, nor psychological. We didn’t try to imagine a background story of how they ended up at this weird place, or about reasons and traits. We really tried to keep it open, for ourselves as for others.

What is the genesis of a film for you? Is it an emotion, image, person, story, feeling or something else? What’s your process for fleshing that out into a film?

I would say it is an encounter with someone or something that prompts me to imagine, to work around, to keep pushing on.

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Samuel Clemens Long is not Mark Twain, in this incarnation. He is a photographer, filmmaker, writer, director, and mischief lover. Visit SamCLong.com for more information about his work or follow him on Instagram at @samuelclemenslong

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