Cinema with moral foundations:
Interview with Saidin Salkic

by Bill Mousoulis

Saidin Salkic is one of Australia’s best filmmakers currently. A Bosnian refugee, finding a new life in Australia 15 years ago after surviving the genocidal war in his homeland when he was a teenager (where his father was murdered), Salkic has established himself as a multi-talented artist in the peaceful environs of Australia. But the scars remain, as we witness in his latest films, and also in his larger-than-life personality. After making 3 carefully-composed films in his first 10 years as a filmmaker, in the last 2 years he has unleashed an extraordinary series of 6 mini-features (most around 40 minutes) upon us. This series includes one absolute masterpiece, Waiting for Sevdah (2017, 40 mins), three great films, The Arrival of a Phoenix (2018, 40 mins), Silence’s Crescendo (2018, 40 mins), The Shocking (2019, 27 mins), and two lesser but still interesting films, Robbery of a Truffle Truck (2017, 33 mins) and The Return of Sucellos (2019, 22 mins).

Saidin Salkic, May 2019.

Your last 6 films, in the space of the last 24 months, are clearly the result of an inspired, prolific period in your career as a filmmaker.  What drives you here, to produce so many (intimate yet powerful) works?  What is your methodology – firstly when creating the ideas, and secondly when realising the films?

Well I suppose some of it is the strange evaporating mist that continues to seep through from the emotional core and from the subconsciousness, into the realm of consciousness, where all of it becomes too clear and too defined and powerful to ignore. Some of it is agony, some of it is ecstasy. But even the agony is ecstasy when it comes to art and cinema.

Like Chaplin, I'd kind of like to keep the specifics of the methodology a secret, but I do get inhabited by images, sounds and the rhythm. I get inhabited by the sensations; the whole film is kind of written, understood and lived in one breath and that feeling feels so special and powerful that the film has to be made. Some of it is inexhaustible disgust in regards to what has become mainstream "cinema", and a strange feeling of personal responsibility to attempt to set an example of how and what cinema can be. Mainstream cinema is not cinema, it is the cinema exposed to the radiation of small "human" pathetic ambitions and imaginations without moral foundations. It takes a certain kind of intelligence to have the moral foundations, and these "faces of mainstream cinema" are unfortunately too dumb to feel stupid about not having it. Imagination without moral foundations is a dangerous tool in the hands of these public criminals with the tools of imposition at their disposal. 

It's not only the issue of what cinema is to the average popcorn eater, I am not interested in that and wouldn't care what shit this spectator is being fed, but I think that this mainstream representational cinema, and the nonchalance with which they banalise the sacred phenomenon and irreversible uniqueness of one's identity is one of the crucial reasons for the metamorphosis of evil in society. This disregard of the crucial importance of morality and responsibility of one's identity is being destroyed by all this pathetic pretending, representation and charlatanism and the idea that you can pretend to "be someone else" because some guy Stanislavski said that. I mean it is pathetic and very hard to listen to this wildly-spread dumb blindness. Most of what I do is just because I love cinema. I am my cinema in many ways. 


Imagination without moral foundations is a dangerous tool.


Waiting for Sevdah


The dichotomy of light and dark in these films is quite clear-cut.  Obviously you’re not interested in any “middle-ground” of ideas or moods, etc.  We have either joy or terror, peace or violence, day or night.  I guess your main goal is to express these extreme states of life?  The states that “matter”?

I must say I do feel slightly foolish answering these questions because this concept of questions and answers/interviews has been over-explored and it never really solves anything. There is no possibility to establish an instant system based on somebody's sublimely brilliant answers and instantly solve any kind of problem that is being discussed. It kinda all evaporates into the air, and maybe means something to a few people, sometime in future history. One of my most cherished personal moments of that nature was after the screenings of The Arrival of a Phoenix and Silence's Crescendo at the Adelaide International Film Festival, when a young fellow came up to me and gave me a firm warm hug and said: "My life will never be the same again". There is no middle ground in art, there is only the inability to reach these as you said "extreme states of life" and then they have to settle for this dullness in between, which has defined and numbed generations. The less substance, the more popularity. But this firm knowing is certainly not constant for me, it is more than often disturbed by doubt, melancholy... I think there, in that space, that art is made. Disruption is very important for art. 


Robbery of a Truffle Truck


These films clearly seem personal and cathartic for you.  You yourself appear in them, acting out aspects of your life in a way, and your daughter Sevdah appears in them too.  Surely the “dark” films represent the trauma you suffered in the war as a teenager, and the “light” films represent your new life in Australia, the peaceful, loving life, bringing a child into the world?  It’s your “soul” we’re seeing on the screen?

I am very careful to say the word "represent" at any point. Because in the essence, in the soulessence, there is no true representation of anything. That is the whole issue. It is about how close we can get to eliminate representation completely and to see, yes, the soul, on the screen. This is where the art is separated from all else that uses the same medium, but that is as far it can get to art. I think all my art is Soulessencia. I first wrote that word when I made my first film Karasevdah: Srebrenica Blues. To further answer your insightful question, I think that even my "dark" films symbolise the light because I am the light making them.


The Arrival of a Phoenix

Whilst your work is both experimental and personal (which, surprisingly, is a combination few filmmakers attempt these days), you also throw genre into the mix sometimes, as when Robbery of a Truffle Truck becomes a thriller, or Silence’s Crescendo a horror film.  How do you see genre working with personal experimental cinema?

I am not sure about genre. Welles said a good thing, he said you can write a different story, but you are using the same alphabet. That is the issue, everyone out there is not only using the same alphabet but they are writing the same story with it as well. So things are even worse. What has cinema become in the hands of the dumb madmen?

I think both of these films you mention establish their own genre. Especially Silence's Crescendo. Dealing with the aspect of fear doesn't make this film "horror genre", but it certainly explores horror and kind of dives into this exploration bravely, in the emotional sense. There is 360 degrees of everything. The field of possibilities of discovery is vast. I was very touched by John Flaus' praise. In his emails he has called me "a pioneer in the art called cinema". We can only discover if we have no choice but to do so. They thought they would manage to keep me down by not giving me money to make films, what they did was help inspire me to make some of the most original work ever made with greater amounts of energy in it than any of their irrelevant multi-billion dollar budget pieces of "entertainment".

My films will find their way in history, they were never made for today anyway.  


Everyone out there is not only using the same alphabet but they are writing the same story.


The Arrival of a Phoenix


Also, whilst most of your films are quite “realistic” (set in suburbia mainly), you also like to present us with symbols, such as the flowers in Silence’s Crescendo, or the butterfly in The Shocking.  And there’s mythical figures too, like Succelos in The Return of Succelos, and the phoenix in The Arrival of a Phoenix.  How do you see symbolism and mythology working in your cinema?

The Return of Succelos
is not a finished film and in fact it contains some of my favorite pieces, in my cinema. It is the film I felt I needed to make after The Shocking. It does continue the innovation after The Shocking, which I feel you might agree, was not easy to do. It sort of came about. It is like an experimental night play. I am not sure if it is getting more clear to me, considering that I feel I can keep going with it at similar speed, that it is not that easy to make a completely different, new film, completely on your own, every 2-3 months. I suppose I am trying to give myself some credit here. I hope it won't be misunderstood for "arrogance", because in fact, I feel melancholy in the air today, some old melancholy defrosting in the air. Sucellos is a great film! It's the poetry, Bill, all the cinema of mine is the daughter of the poetry in me. The poetry is what unites all those films. 

Silence's Crescendo


You have spoken in your “Manifesto on my cinema” about what you call the “intimate sublime” in the cinema, where films get away from big and fake stories, and prioritise the small, the personal, in their frame.  Is there any hope that such a cinema can thrive, either in Australia or the rest of the world?

I am not sure what you mean by "thrive". If you mean will the crowds flock down and watch it at a large cheesy theater, with a mouthful of popcorn, then I truly hope that it will not. But if you mean will this cinema thrive on the stage really worthy of it, in history of cinema, affecting the evolution of it all in its way, slowly but surely changing the entire social perception of what cinema was there for in the first place, then I think, I believe, I feel it will. Naturally. There will come a time when people will realise that these public criminals using the mainstream cinema to brainwash budding minds is a criminal act of imposition and will start suing them for such sinful and criminal acts. People's minds are being defined for them before they even have the chance to develop any kind of unique thinking. And that is one of the great sacrifices that a human being can be exposed to. Mainstream imposition is a criminal act. 


There will come a time when people will realise that these public criminals using the mainstream cinema to brainwash budding minds is a criminal act of imposition.


Silence's Crescendo

In the same Manifesto, you proclaim yourself as superior to a group of other Australian indie filmmakers, asking to not be named with them in a particular listing of names.  And in radio podcasts with Mike Retter, you have labelled yourself a “genius”, and the “artist of the Century”.  Is this extreme self-affirmation the result of the trauma you have suffered in your life?  I.e. the regeneration of the “phoenix” in a way?

I wasn't just asking not to be named with them in that particular listing of names – I wouldn't want to be named with anybody, on any listing of names, under any circumstances, when it comes to cinema. It was nothing personal. And yes, those who have tried hard to kill us, those who have committed the genocide and those who have allowed it to happen should know that yes, I am the artist of this Century, the genius and the most beautiful man. 


The Shocking

Your young daughter Sevdah is a crucial component of your recent films.  She is, of course, the child that destiny gave life to, as you yourself almost lost your life.  The breathless wonder you show towards her in The Arrival of a Phoenix is one of Australian cinema’s most sublime moments (the “intimate sublime” indeed!).  Will you continue to feature her in your films?  What are your next projects do you think?

I have to say how much love I feel towards your ongoing profound understanding of the life I lead. I cannot say enough how much it humbles me to encounter someone saying what you have said, now and before. Your words for me are like seeing the inside of me in the mirror and that is probably the closest way I can explain it. Thank you. Yes I will continue to work with Sevdah! She is in The Return of Sucellos. I intend to work on a new film right after I complete Sucellos. I have it in mind. I am also trying to develop a documentary series focusing on diversity. And yes, I do have a feature that would appeal to the masses with the working title The Power of Two which I will slowly continue to develop, because I will need some help with that. 

The Return of Sucellos

POST-SCRIPT: Since this interview was conducted (early May), Saidin Salkic has re-edited his film The Return of Sucellos, and the final version is now called Trembling, with a running time of 24 minutes. You can see the trailer for it here. - Bill Mousoulis

Bill Mousoulis is a Greek-Australian independent filmmaker since 1982, and occasional writer and programmer.

Published May 15, 2019. © Bill Mousoulis and Saidin Salkic, 2019