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Peter Bebjak • Director

"I would like to try every genre"


- Slovakian director, producer and writer Peter Bebjak premiered his third feature, The Cleaner, at the CinEast Film Festival

Peter Bebjak  • Director

Slovakian producer, writer and director Peter Bebjak recently presented his latest feature, The Cleaner [+see also:
film review
interview: Martin Žiaran
interview: Peter Bebjak
film profile
, on the festival circuit, and the film has already entered domestic theatres. He studied acting, subsequently starring in theatrical productions, television series and films. Bebjak began directing short films and soon started working on television projects such as Slovakia’s Greatest Crime Cases, the crime series City of Shadows and Convicted, a programme set in a women’s prison. Apricot Island, his feature debut, was followed up by the found-footage horror Evil, making The Cleaner his third feature. He divides his time between working on television projects and on films. Cineuropa sat down with him shortly after the premiere of his latest feature to talk about domestic cinema, genres and the making of The Cleaner.

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Cineuropa: Slovakian cinema is enjoying a successful period, judging from its recent presence on the festival circuit. How do you see this positive change as an insider in exporting domestic production beyond the country’s borders?
Peter Bebjak
: The fact that things have been going well so far in terms of exports may come down to the themes we have started to disseminate or that are prevalent in our films and in our style of storytelling. For instance, Koza [+see also:
film review
interview: Ivan Ostrochovský
film profile
leans more towards the documentary style yet is still visually appealing, with a simple story; it is easy for an international audience to watch, and that’s also part of its success. The film is very sensitive and humorous at the same time. The Cleaner tells a different story compared to other narratives created in our cinema or the characters they portray. But for us, domestic exhibition is equally important. The creation of the Audiovisual Fund kick-started the new form of funding. When you take Pro Slovakia under the Ministry of Culture back in the 1990s, only two or three features were produced per year, sometimes even none. Then the situation improved a little, but since the Audiovisual Fund has been in existence, the number has risen to six or seven films per year, plus the new ones already in the making.

Your features are quite different from one another. How do you choose your material?
First of all, it has to interest me in terms of the theme and what I want to recount; the style and the form will subsequently be adapted to that. I want to have a good time while making a film. I do not want it to be just a craft, a job that needs to be done. I have freedom when I make films, unlike when I’m on television projects, and I have even more freedom when I am producing my films on top of writing and directing them. I know what I can do for the finances I have available. I would like to try every genre because there is always something new, and there’s always a next step in the self-improvement process. I would like to return to horror, but I am also tempted by crime films, action films, fairy tales and so on.

Genre-film production is pretty feeble in Slovakian cinema. What do you think about the underdevelopment of this segment?
Well, somehow genre-film production did not work in Slovakia. Juraj Herz used to make excellent genre films, but he left for the Czech Republic. There was even one sci-fi television film back in the 1970s or the 1980s, but the tradition of genre films never really took hold in our cinema – not even comedies. Since the core of genre production did not exist, we only saw the occasional attempt, and unfortunately they did not give rise to anything that would continue into the present day. Maybe the situation will change over time.

How did The Cleaner come about? Was it inspired by actual events?
Sure; there are situations we know from real life that we based our script upon, but many of the elements also came from observations, things we had personally experienced or had seen around us. The basic idea behind the film is what can become of a person burdened with an unfortunate fate because of what happened to them and left them scarred.

How did you approach the combination of genre and drama?
We had been pursuing it ever since we started preparing the script, and our intention was to keep the film as arthouse as possible. A friend of mine read the script and said, “Jeez, what a teenage romance.” So I knew I had to be really careful with the storytelling. We were going for a fusion of arthouse and genre film.

The topos of the city plays an important role.
Yes, but it’s mainly because of the characters. Where can you hide and be totally individual, yet still have a job and live your life without calling attention to yourself? In a city.

The camerawork and images are quite intriguing.
Yes – my DoP, Martin Žiaran, was looking for a way for the space to narrate a character’s story. The city is one thing, but he was trying to discover the space of the male protagonist, how it would look, what the lighting would be like. We decided to pick just neon, just one colour, and then we chose a different approach for the female protagonist, which was tweaked to better serve her story.

Are you already working on a new project?
We are working on a project named Message, which focuses on a message that escapees Alfred Wetzler and Walter Rosenberg brought from Auschwitz. Their story, what they achieved, is amazing. It could have saved so many lives. Unfortunately, the officials did not believe them entirely, or did not want to believe them. We are currently working on the script, and the plan is to start principal photography in 2017. It’s quite a big project, so we want to get several international co-producers on board as well.

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