Until not so long ago, director Darko Lungulov appeared in the world of film as a complete outsider, even within the modest limits of Serbian cinematography. After a lukewarm reception in Belgrade, his low budget debut "Here and There" unexpectedly became the first Serbian movie to be screened at New York's prestigious Tribeca Film Festival. It won the award for Best New York Narrative and received outstanding reviews from both the critics and the audience.
Thereafter, "Here and There" will tour international film festivals for example in Karlovy Vary (the Czech Republic), Tokyo (Japan) and Indianapolis (USA). Lungulov believes that “Here and There” has proven that small-scale cinematography, such as Serbian, can indeed produce movies which are relevant on a global level.
"Here and There" was filmed two years ago in Belgrade and in New York, using mostly English and occasionally Serbian. Its cast consists of a group of Serbian and American actors and includes - albeit in a small role - a giant of the performing world: pop singer Cyndi Lauper.
"The film I made is above all honest. It is a small film from a small country and it deals with everyday things, but a lot of love, blood and sweat went into its every element, and that can be felt on screen. I find it good that this film is different from those that have represented Serbia abroad in the past, because the topic isn't war. We shouldn't be expected to make films only about war and desolation. We should bring other topics to the world as well," says Lungulov.
During the 1990s - a time of war in the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia - Lungulov left Serbia and went to New York, where he completed his studies of film at City College and, more importantly, enriched by his own immigrant experience, wrote the script for "Here and There".
"Here and There" is a story about people in love, lost between New York and Belgrade. It tells about Robert, a down-and-out New York musician who is asked by Branko, a Serbian immigrant, to travel to Belgrade and marry Branko's girlfriend Ivana so that she could get a visa to come to the United States. However, things get unexpectedly complicated when Robert, during his short stay in Serbia, falls in love with Branko's mother Olga.
Many viewers have been intrigued by this touching story of two-way immigration - where the young generation of Serbs eager to leave their homeland is contrasted with an American who discovers a new world in Belgrade.
Independent American producer Jim Stark, who works among others with filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, told Lungulov that he knew the ideal candidate to portray Robert: American actor David Thornton, who has appeared in TV series "Law and Order" and in films such as "Civil Action" and "John Q."
"When I decided on casting David, he told me that his wife might like to do a song for the film. When I asked who his wife was, David responded: Cyndi Lauper! I thought it would be great to get a song, but was even more interested in having Cyndi herself playing in the film. I knew she was an excellent actress," said Lungulov.
Convinced, like her husband, that Lungulov had a high-quality script, Lauper recorded a song for "Here and There" and agreed to play the small part of the main character's ex-girlfriend.
"I didn't believe she'd be in my film until the day she showed up for the shoot. Cyndi entered the character perfectly. I found it interesting to have a real couple playing ex-lovers," Lungulov recalls.
The New York scenes were shot over several weeks in the fall of 2007, while the second half of filming was planned to take place in Serbia in the spring of 2008. Thus, after Thornton came to Belgrade and joined his Serbian colleagues - Branislav Trifunović (Branko), Jelena Mrdja (Ivana) and Mirjana Karanović (Olga) - Lungulov finally brought filming into a successful end.
Produced by Djordjije Leković's production company Kinokamera, the film was co-produced by Penrose Film (Germany) in collaboration with Joroni Film (Germany) and Here and There Productions (USA). Financial assistance was also provided by Belgrade's Secretariat for Culture and the Serbian Ministry of Culture.
Although the premiere of "Here and There" had the honour of closing Belgrade's FEST film festival in March 2009, the Serbian public and critics alike paid little attention to Lungulov's work. Thus, the director was greatly surprised when "Here and There" became the first Serbian film to be invited to New York's famous Tribeca Film Festival - whose founders include among others actor Robert De Niro. An even greater shock followed as, after four sold-out festival screenings, "Here and There" was named "Best New York Narrative."
"The award means a lot to me. I got it from a New York film festival, for the best New York film, and that is an enormous compliment. In Belgrade people received the film as a Belgrade story, while New Yorkers felt it was about New York. It's a story that travels really well. People from both sides of the ocean find themselves in it," says Lungulov.
"It gave us not only New York, it gave us great characters, a great story, it gave us the world," the Tribeca jury said in explaining the film's award. During the festival "Here and There" also received outstanding reviews from leading magazines such as Variety and IndiWire. MTV founder Kurt Lauder wrote a splendid review, admitting he had gone to watch the movie twice.
The film's success continued in May 2009 when Thornton received the Best Actor Award at the Hoboken International Film Festival. In June, Mirjana Karanović garnered Best Actress Award at one of Serbia's leading film festivals, Cinema City. Explaining the film's reception, Lungulov says: "The viewers accepted the story without cynicism and recognized [its] honesty. The film is not pretentious, it deals with human fates. The reactions are extraordinary - people have said 'Thank you for giving us a normal and heart-warming film.' The emotions it evoked surprised me. Some viewers admitted it made them cry."
The formula used by "Here and There" - a combined Serbian-American cast and a plot involving both countries - seems to be popular, considering that another film with these ingredients is already in the works. Set to premiere later in 2009, director Nikita Milivojević's story “Jelena Katarina Marija” follows the fates of three girls who left Serbia in hope of better lives in the United States. The project's segment producer is Lungulov's associate Djordjije Leković.
After his success at the Tribeca Film Festival Lungulov told Serbian media that for his next film he is again contemplating a theme that links Serbia and the West in a particular – and topical - way.
"I'm considering making my next project "A Monument to Michael Jackson." The film would be about a young man who tries to save his dying village by raising a monument to the King of Pop to attract the media," revealed Lungulov.