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Afterwater, conceived, directed and edited by Dane Komljen, is both as limpid as the water of the lakes that appear in it, and as complex as their, often, unfathomable depths. With an inventive, sensitive approach, the director invites us to plunge into a summery lakeside landscape infused with a light utopian breeze. Wistful and poignant in its disarming beauty, Afterwater presents our world as a kind of lost paradise, also suggesting the image of a distant future, when man will reconnect with the earth and water, recovering his visceral bond with the environment. Rather than following a plain linear narrative the film offers a kaleidoscopic vision made up of readings, thoughts, reflections, sounds and rare, evocative images. 

Starting with the idea of the lake, its cornerstone, Afterwater is structured in three movements with each one of them seemingly covering a different point in time. Beginning in the present, the first part was filmed between Berlin and Lake Stechlin. We then venture into the past, to 1930s Spain, around Lake Sanabria. The third part hurtles us into a science-fiction future, back to the shores of Lake Stechlin, absolutely transfigured by the magic of the setting. Afterwater’s dreamy, slightly hypnotic atmosphere is finely hewn around a series of recurring elements and subtle variations. All this visual, sound and perceptual material blends into an eclectic ensemble where texts, readings and thoughts converge, offering us a range of scientific and literary viewpoints and food for thought. 

The film’s main source of inspiration is G. Evelyn Hutchinson, the founder of modern limnology, whose observations are explicated in “A Treatise on Lymnology”, his masterwork compiled in four tomes (1957, 1967, 1975, 1993). The film’s driving spirit reflects Hutchinson’s unfettered vision, his inquisitive humanist personality, and his interest in lakes, which was not strictly scientific but overflowed into poetry and photography. Then there is the crucial adaptation of Miguel de Unamuno’s novella, San Manuel Bueno, mártir (1930), which takes up almost the entire second part, in addition to texts by Theodor Fontane, Karl Eduard Haase, Anna Tsing, Wislava Szymborska, Theodor Adorno and Arthur Russel. 

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Despite the abundance of disparate quotes, the film remains delicate and fluid. We are immediately seduced by the quiet and serene feel of every single scene, the splendour of the summer landscapes and lush nature. Respecting the environment, the director used a minimal crew, assigning Jenny Lou Ziegel the task of filming with natural light only to best capture the unique atmosphere of the lakes and their surroundings. The characters of these three episode-movements, also triads, seem to remain there forever in an ethereal, dilated time where man vibrates in unison with nature. In their quiet, absorbed manner, drifting off to sleep in serene communion with each other, placidly letting their bodies float on the lake’s water, eagerly observing the plants and insects around them, touching the earth and trees, all these characters involve us in a journey of the mind. The support itself changes from one chapter to the next, adapting to the reality it describes; digital for today, 16mm for the past, and Hi8 for the sci-fi future. 

In this floating film universe, alternative forms of communication equally surface: in the first part, like a tower of Babel, the characters read texts written in different languages to each other, sometimes not as native speakers; in the second part, three native Spanish speakers narrate off-screen from Unamuno’s novel, while in the third part, humans communicate solely through breathing and the sense of touch… 

The more we watch, the more we are carried away by a sense of wonder and bliss. A skilful, meticulous editing make the complex, sophisticated construction of Afterwater appear effortless.  We can choose – metaphorically speaking – to linger on the film’s sensory surface; we will then enjoy its unique beauty, the flair of the camera lingering on small insects, on the surface of a tree trunk, on the sun playing in the clouds and on the lake’s water, on blossoming shores, or the character’s wet skin. We can also choose to venture deeper, focusing on the dense discourse underpinning the images; a diverse conceptual background that urges us to reflect not only on the ecological-scientific aspects of our connection with the environment, but also and foremost on the very meaning of our existence.   

Some films imprison us, take us hostage; Afterwater, on the other hand, in its lyricism, in the mystery surrounding its images, the evocative words of the readings, creates a space where the mind can wander freely, letting itself be carried far away to the water’s edge with a genuine feeling of happiness. 

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Premiered at the Berlinale Forum in 2022, Afterwater was recently screened before a large audience at the Viennale. Its director and the producer Suzana Kyraly, Flaneur Films, were both present. The following conversation revisits some of the themes covered during the Viennale discussions and offers further insights.

– MGV

As a director, editor, cinematographer and actor, could you describe your artistic journey in broad strokes?

I think I just always wanted to make films. I studied film directing, because for me it seemed like the way to go, studying cinema and then moving on to making it. All these other things came more as a result of trying to figure out how to make the films that I want, not being stuck in a certain role. 

Your most recent feature film, Afterwater, which premiered at the Berlinale Forum and is now playing at the Viennale, is a complex, challenging work. How did this project get started?

All Still Orbit (2016), a short film I made with my partner James Latimer, was the beginning of this venture. It was about a specific location in Brasilia called Vila Amaury, a small town that workers hired for Brasilia’s massive construction site built for themselves out of scrap materials found lying around. Vila Amaury grew very quickly, yet it was eventually submerged by an artificial lake created in order to counter the extremely dry climate of this area. Even today, remnants of this city can be found at the bottom of the Paranoá lake. All Still Orbit was about modernism and how modernism always hides the story of its own making. For this film, we interviewed some people who had lived there when they were kids. Later, when we started showing this film around, people kept coming up to us and telling us about other submerged cities or settlements. At a certain point, we came to the conclusion that there must be something we could do with all of these stories. Then, over time, Afterwater shifted away from its original concept, becoming more focused on lakes, water and fluidity rather than submerged settlements. 

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What is it about lakes that appeals to you personally?

Picking up the thread of the previous question, I believe that moving to Berlin was what ultimately brought me to this film. What one does here so often in summer is go to one of the numerous lakes that surround the city. In a weird way, I think that Afterwater is a “Berlin” film, but I guess only people who have the experience of living in this city understand that. Maybe it’s also my love letter to Berlin, in a way. I was born in former Yugoslavia, and my family and I would frequently visit the Adriatic. My hometown was about four hours away by car from the sea, and we used to go there again and again. It wasn’t until I moved to Berlin that I realised that lake water suits me better because the sea is always too wavy and lakes are very calm and very cold, with some sort of peace that is eventually provided simply by the size of the lake itself. Oceans and seas have always seemed overpowering to me. When I enter the sea, I have the impression that the sea will swallow me up, whereas when I am in a lake, because it is smaller and I can see its borders, I will find my way through it. Lakes, on the other hand, can be extremely deep. Stechlin is very deep, which explains why it is so clear. This contrast is what makes lakes so fascinating; on the one hand, you can grasp the shores of a lake, but on the other hand, there is this depth that you cannot seize, where you can only project things, like in cinema.

The film’s title Afterwater is a made-up term that I find quite intriguing. How did you come up with it?

The film had a much ‘sexier’ title before. It was called A Treatise on Limnology, which is a book by G. Evelyn Hutchinson, the father of limnology, the science of lakes. The first words heard in the film are, in fact, an introduction to A Treatise on Limnology Volume One. There are Volumes One, Two, Three, and Four, and I was thinking that the film should be A Treatise on Limnology Volume Five, but I had the feeling that this film didn’t need such a dry title. I believe we were circling the idea of having the word ‘water’ in the title, and there were many different ideas, then it was something like ‘after water’. I was having dinner with my friends, we drank a little bit, and talked about the title, and there it was, Afterwater, in one word, like afternoon. It fits the film very well, I believe, because you have time and space converging into each other. Also, I like the fact that it’s a non-existent word because I believe it’s a film that proposes things, ideas, or images that are not there, which is why I ultimately found it very fitting.

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Afterwater is made up of three parts, with each part presenting a different triad of characters. Why did you choose this structure and what does it mean for you?

On one hand, there was the idea of working with different periods and different temporalities and to convey a feeling of floating through time. On the other hand, I wanted to move away from the representation of a couple, in the stories I tell, the images I show. Rather than giving meaning, I see these many trios as an opening of possibilities. 

Which criteria guided you in the choice of the extracts we hear in Afterwater? In this context, the reference to G. Evelyn Hutchinson (1903-1991) is crucial; what intrigued you most about his ideas and personality? 

I believe it was mainly the idea of fluidity, as well as the different approaches to the topic of lakes, that guided our selection. Hutchinson was a great inspiration in this regard because he lived and worked at a time when, I feel, the discourses were not as distanced from each other as they are now. He founded the scientific discipline of limnology and he is also considered to be the father of modern ecology. What I found most interesting about him was that, in addition to his strictly scientific interest in lakes, he was also interested in how lakes appear in poetry and literature, and he was keen on photographing them. I was thinking a lot about a time when disciplines or languages were not as separated from one another as they are now. Hutchinson was a scientist but all of these aspects merged together in his vision. He had this freedom and openness, to go in different directions; that spirit was something I wanted to bring into the film. I intentionally included a wide range of texts and viewpoints in Afterwater; in addition to Hutchinson’s scientific writings, there is also poetry, theory, literature, and fairytales. Finding these various texts was similar to meandering, but there was an intention to go in many different directions looking for what a lake or water could represent.

How should we imagine the screenplay you conceived with the collaboration of James Lattimer? 

There was no traditional script. Each part was written in a different way. The first part was simply a description of the scenes. For the middle section of the film, instead we had to adapt Unamuno’s novel, San Manuel Bueno, mártir (1930), which took us a long time to shorten and condense while also adapting some of the sentences. We wrote the ‘score’ for the third part, which is a collection of references as well as a kind of background story. Afterwater is a film with a lot of text, but it’s also written in a unique way. We received the funding with the intention note and the synopsis, and, in the end, we wrote something resembling a script only for internal use just before shooting, mentioning props or recurring situations that were actually enough for a coordination system to find itself in. That much existed, but it was on a line-by-line basis, with action and material required for the action. It was extremely simple.

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What inspired you to shoot each segment of Afterwater on a different support?

We could see that the film would be divided into various movements, or parts, and that each one would try to conceptualise a distinct temporality, both in terms of time and how time moves in its own way. Based on that premise, we chose to film each episode using a different type of film stock. The present was shot in digital with readily available modern digital cameras, while the past was shot on celluloid in 16 millimetres. We pondered what to do with the future.

We had several ideas at first, including filming the future with cutting-edge technology such as phones, go-pros, and drones, but I quickly realised that the support, the material, actually gets old very quickly; on the other hand, it is a little bit of my own generation’s story as well, which is not grounded in a specific material. In fact, as I grew older, I noticed that moving image materials were changing fast and that they were quickly becoming obsolete.

For example, the Canon 5D cameras that everyone was using for filming a decade ago, seem very dated when you look at their images now. We were aware that if we used current materials, it would most likely look out of date very quickly. This is why we thought it would be better to take a few steps back. In search of ideas, we looked at science fiction films, but not so much at how they were made as at how we watched them. I recall watching Hollywood film on VHS tapes, and there was something about the ‘non-transparency’ of these materials that was very appealing to me. The experience of watching films on tapes is something you accept as what is out there, but when you look at it more critically, you realise that this kind of image quality pushes you to imagine more because you can’t see everything clearly. Ultimately, these memories of science fiction films and how we saw them back then, as well as the lack of transparency of the VHS material, prompted us to shoot the final movement of the film on Hi8, which, like analogue video, is one of those last generation devices between VHS and Mini-DV. 

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How did you select the lakes featured in Afterwater?

We were conducting ongoing research, assembling a large number of stories, and it was clear that we wanted to do something with a specific Miguel de Unamuno novel, San Manuel Bueno, mártir. Afterwater’s middle movement is a very free adaptation of that text. Lago de Sanabria, where we shot, was the actual lake that inspired Miguel de Unamuno. I’d never been there before, so I had no idea how beautiful it was or how many yellow and violet flowers there would be. We were just fortunate enough to be there at the peak of their bloom. The lake seen at the beginning and end of the film was more difficult to locate because we were considering several lakes. But when I started thinking about Stechlin, many different things began to fit together. We discovered a lake laboratory that examines and researches various possible scenarios regarding the impact of climate crisis on the lake’s life. Apart from that, we found out that there is a dismantled nuclear power plant on its shores. Another interesting fact is that Stechlin was once the lake with the clearest water in Germany; while this title has since been lost, its water remains completely clear. That was also an important consideration for me. A novel by Theodor Fontane, Der Stechlin, which appears in bits and pieces in the film and contaminates the Unamuno adaptation as well, was also a key factor. This lake appears in Slavic folktales about submerged villages. I wanted to create a space where different temporalities converged into one another. Besides, Stechlin is very close to Berlin and very accessible. It only takes one hour by train and then a short bike ride to get there.

The recurring scene of the characters’ bodies floating on the lake’s water beautifully illustrates the concept of surface throughout the film….

That was what I wanted to convey, the feeling of floating in cold, calm water and trying to find a way to extend this feeling into a film.

There is an interesting blend of languages and cultures in the film. Was it an early decision or did it come while you were filming?

From the beginning, I thought that Afterwater would begin with a specific scene or material, in a specific language, and in a specific time, and then shift. The core idea of the film is transformation and fluidity. Once more, this feature of blending cultures and languages is related to my own experience of migration. I moved through various languages throughout my life and I had to learn how to function in each one of them, but I only realised this after the film was over. It was vital that I use non-native speakers, in the first act of the film, while in the third act, characters only communicate to one another through breathing. If you think of science fiction films, they essentially take place in the present; they merely use unique props, costumes, and sets, but otherwise, human interaction and speech patterns are mostly preserved. For me, language is undoubtedly involved when we contemplate how we relate to the environment. The breathing, which is essentially a suggestion of a potential alternative method of communication, is a component of a fiction-film of sorts in the third movement of the film.

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The characters in Afterwater never talk to each other directly and never look each other in the eyes while reading a passage. Why?

We have verbal language, we speak, and it appears life-like, but I am much more interested in people reading pre-written texts because, in my opinion, it makes the notion that language is always an effort much more tangible. In every word, in every sentence we say, there is this constant effort to make ourselves clear and understandable to ourselves and to others. When someone reads an already existing text, through the effort of trying to convey meaning or affect, language becomes more effective. The second point you raise in your question, that the characters in the film do not look at each other while speaking, is quite intriguing because only humans do so. We have this idea of looking someone in the eyes while listening to them, thinking that by doing so, we understand them. We decided instead that we will have people acting and performing but they will never look into each other’s faces. In these stories and these coexisting worlds, there is a way to understand each other outside of the given frame of a situation where you become aware of someone else’s humanity or non-humanity. 

What time period did you show us in Afterwater

Concerning the time frame of the film, there are some sorts of markers like the present day in the first part, while in the second part, Unamuno’s novel is set, let’s say, in the 1920s in Spain, and the last part of the film is some sort of future. But the more I was editing the film, the more I realised that these times are not so clearly delineated. At some point I was thinking while editing the middle part, is it really past? Is it something else? There was the intention to have present, past and future. The most stable time is, let’s say, in the first episode of the film where you could say that it’s most likely one weekend. But then again cinema somehow makes our understanding of time a bit bendy, not so strict. 

I really enjoyed the peaceful pacing and the multisensorial atmosphere you create in the film. Watching the actors and the camera work, one gets the impression that time was endless on set as if people were always there, carrying on living while they were sometimes filmed and sometimes not. 

I like the idea of being in an endless time because the three parts of the film feel to me like being in three parallel worlds that are just there and then you jump from one to the other.

Very practically speaking, I also think that every part was done in a different way because of the people I filmed. The first part was done with close friends and it pretty much came from my relationship to them, from what I knew about them. I was observing them and letting them do things that they like to do.

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The middle part, on the contrary, was very painstaking because we shot in 16 mm. By and large, I like to film as much as possible but I had to shoot with a stopwatch in my hand because each image could just be one minute long, since the celluloid was running out. The last part was done with a group of performing artists, dancers, and it was developed in collaboration with Rose Beermann. Working on the third part was very interesting for me because, it was the closest I’d ever come to working in a traditional way with professional actors, whereas I usually work with non-professionals. We had rehearsals and I purposefully wrote a text called ‘the score’ in which we explained the background of this future world to the three of them, assisting them in inventing a new language made of movements. It was improvised though; we would suggest the situations but they would ultimately decide how to move in the space. Jenny Lou Ziegel, the director of photography, had no idea where exactly they would go. In this third part, I built this world together with the performers but then we shot it like a documentary, letting things happen and this is, maybe, where this feeling of endless time comes from. In the whole film there is this sensation that what we see was always there but we are merely showing fragments of it. Then fragment by fragment, we come to something that is perhaps even bigger or longer but, anyway, something else.

The characters begin moving very slowly in the third act of the film. I wonder why.

We wanted to move to the future and the main question was, if we want to change our relationship with the environment, should we also change the way we communicate with each other and with other non-human entities? We talked a lot about the speed and the idea of slowing down rather than going back. This is how one thing led to the next. The actors of the third movement were trying to be completely in the present moment, to feel everything and to react to all the sensations that were surrounding them. They had to slow down in order to react properly, which is where this particular speed came from. But, at the end of the day, this was just our process, and while the process may not provide the answer, it was what we were doing in collaboration with our choreographer.

Regarding the shooting at Lake Stechlin, you shot non-stop for two weeks. What if it had rained all the time? Would the film have been different? 

We wanted to make a “green” film. We did not want this young April green, we wanted the June green, therefore we made the film in June. It was in Berlin and of course we were well aware that it can eventually rain for two weeks, even in June. If this would have happened the film would have been different. What I find weird about cinema is the element of control. It’s weird because there is truly something about it. Hitchcock’s Vertigo is crucial for that matter; it is ultimately a film about an individual – the male protagonist – refusing to give any agency to another person and just trying to fit, to adjust her to the image of someone else he would like her to be. All this is a bit odd, but cinema itself is about that: transform one’s ideas into images, this is also the reason why I got into it but I wanted to do it differently. I think that there is this impulse to control and to set things in a certain way. For me cinema is always about this tension about controlling and not controlling. I am setting a frame and then allowing things to pass, to flow through this frame. For me, it is something that is intrinsic, you cannot escape it. Of course, if you have a big budget you work in a different production system and you can control every single detail but this is not the kind of cinema that interests me. For me, it is all about this tension and also about not knowing. Not knowing means not knowing on a more abstract level, but not knowing could also mean not knowing if it is going to rain or if it is going to shine.

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How would you describe Afterwater in terms of genre?

I don’t put a label on my films. They can be whatever you want them to be. I think that there is a big influence of essay cinema on the way I make films, but I would say that I don’t make films that could be considered fiction, documentary, experimental or essay. For me what is interesting is the space in between, where one thing can become something else. My wish is to make films that can give you as much as you want them to give you.

What was it like editing the film on your own?

Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that I genuinely enjoy editing, both for my own work and for other people’s work. This, in my opinion, is the space where the film can really be reshaped. Although I wouldn’t claim that this film was entirely created during editing, as I got to work on it, a lot of stuff got changed around. It was a painful process at times since I ended up editing on my own, which is always a bit like going insane because you’re just looking at these images and listening to these sounds for days and weeks, trying to recombine them and getting lost in them. However, editing is a process that opens up a wide range of new possibilities.

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Was Afterwater shot during or before the pandemic?

We filmed Afterwater in May-June 2019. The shooting of each part lasted one week. But, of course, time passed in the meanwhile and I think that the fact that we were not able to share the film just after it was completed also did something to the film itself. These two years of pandemic were difficult for us because we took the decision that we made a film to be screened in cinema venues and not anywhere else. So, we were forced to wait and we waited for two years to have the opportunity to screen Afterwater. I think it makes sense. I recall that the first talk we had about the film was in 2016 or 2017 and then we were slowly building and working towards something. At one point, we got one funding decision and the other one followed maybe a few months later, when we got MBB (Medienbord Berlin Brandemburg) and it was like: “Okay, we are doing it now!” From that moment on, the work became concentrated, and we were moving in a very clear direction of making a film. For me, the shooting itself was full of joy and we somehow carried this joy into the editing process and it was very exciting. But then the pandemic came and, all at once, what we wanted to share with others was just taken away from us. This possibility was fading away and it was also a bit sad. Fortunately, this time is behind us now, we are finally screening the film and I’m happy. I think this is generally an interesting question because for me cinema has to be seen on a big screen. Am I to be considered conservative because of that?  Maybe. Of course, everything is changing and the history of cinema is linked to technology and to how technology shifts. It is, of course, what happened after the pandemic: a lot of people just didn’t come back to the cinema venues. They just realised that it is much more convenient to watch audiovisual content at home. Still, we were persisting. Afterwater was made for the big screen and now it is screened here at the Viennale and that’s good!

“(…) no more inside, no outside, we fall to you and you take us to surface.” The last sentence of the film is a ray of hope…

I think this is a hopeful film, but this is just my opinion. Considering the lake and the water, the discourse circles pretty much around depth, yet I don’t like to consider myself as a very deep person. I am more of a surface person. My favourite part of anything is surface. I work just with surfaces and I think cinema only deals with surfaces. We can’t really go deep with cinema. We must stay with what is there, what is visible and what is hearable. This is the only thing we have! 

What are your future projects? 

There are a couple of shorts I’m working on, one shot in Lagos, another in Berlin. And I’m supposed to film my next feature, Desire Lines, in a year or so, in Serbia and Bosnia.