The Song of Others

Interview with the director Vadim Jendreyko


What prompted your search for Europe?

I find it devastating that an entity, which whole generations have helped to build and which was supposed to secure fundamental democratic values in the aftermath of terrible wars, is being reduced to a tool for national self-interests. How is it possible that this unique historical opportunity, here in Europe, is being squandered? This concern was my motivation; it was the impetus for my search.

Are you talking about the EU?

I view the EU as an attempt to transform historical experience into something constructive. A project for a better future. That was the intention, at the beginning, when former wartime enemies decided to engage in economic cooperation to secure peace. But for me, Europe is much more than that; it is a gathering of diverse and unique entities in a relatively small space.

Could you elaborate on that?

My personal relationship with what I call 'Europe' is rooted in my childhood. Europe seemed like an inexhaustible treasure chest to me, accommodating people with the most diverse characteristics. Languages I didn't understand a single word of, foods that required courage to try. I grew up in Switzerland, at the tri-border area next to Germany and France. No matter which direction I headed in, there was always something different: other sounds, smells, atmospheres. There was more to discover than I could imagine, and I found it all incredibly enticing and welcoming. I knew: no matter what my name, my appearance, or thoughts, I had a place in this Europe.

And has that changed?

Yes, fundamentally. Not much of that feeling remains today. It was a gradual process which also involved a change in my own perspectives over the years. But the atmosphere that I experienced in many places as a teenager really has changed. Many years ago, I saw some graffiti at a small train station in Liguria: "Non si balla più, non si canta più" (No more dancing, no more singing). That pretty much sums it up.

So, was it a longing for a ‘lost time’ that drove you?

I would rather express it as a longing for time. People dance and sing when they have time. When they are not off chasing a purpose. And when they can live in peace! At the beginning of this project, I wondered if what Europe once meant to me was a naive projection, wishful thinking. But it was much more than that: the Europe of my childhood had been paid for dearly by the generation before us, it was a historical sigh of relief, following the war and persecution that had preceded it. I had simply had the privilege of growing up at a moment in history when any future seemed better than the past. And then suddenly, they came knocking again, these revenants from the past, in new garb. I think it's our responsibility now to strengthen what can protect us from the reopening of those abysses. Until recently, there were many witnesses to past atrocities who, like guardians, drew red lines that were not to be crossed. They had our backs, often without us being fully aware of it. Those people are now gone, and it's up to us.

Who are the others singing the song?

VJ: The others are those with quiet voices, not celebrated in history books. People who advocate for others away from the public eye. They're the dissenters who invite us to see different perspectives. The title is a quote from the film. After the Bosnian War, after the four-year siege of Sarajevo, people came together and formed a choir. Members of different ethnic groups, who had just inflicted great suffering on each other, began to sing their songs together, including the songs of the others. Their love for music made it possible for atheists to passionately sing Christian psalms, Muslims to sing Orthodox songs, and so on. It's not about conforming to the other, but about learning to understand the other side better, and thereby understanding oneself better as well.

How has the thematic development of the film evolved over time?

From the beginning, I wanted this film to be an enquiry, to expose myself to a process with a genuinely open outcome, and all the risks that entails. I wasn't interested in researching first and then retelling a completed process on film. Risks include, for example, filming something from a certain perspective, then having that perspective change over time and having to work with the material already shot. Or realizing I've hit a dead end and have to approach a question in a completely different way. That's why I chose a cineastic form that allowed for detours and dead ends. An essay, essentially. But that often wasn't easy for me...

Why is that?

Well, embarking on a journey with great enthusiasm and not knowing where it ends sounds wonderful. But it feels quite different when you've been wandering around in the fog soaked to the bone for days, finding yourself at the same fork in the road for the fifth time... And stylistically, it has consequences too.

Can you be more specific?

If I let the situation guide me, sometimes I can anticipate developments and movements, and I might manage an elegant, sometimes even magical swing. Wonderful. But sometimes I fall into a ditch and get stuck, everything shakes and jolts, and the light is too harsh but flat as well; and yet the scene is important in terms of content. This means quite a stretch in the editing for that part of me looking for those elegant, magical swings. On the other hand, it was important that the process of searching for and selecting a frame be visible and comprehensible. I didn’t want to just present results.

Back to the thematic development of the film over time...

At first, I was very concerned with how I could plausibly convey the urgency this film has for me. Together with Anna Götte, who was intensively involved in the creation of the film, we played through many scenarios on how we could bring across that central question: whether history, with all its nightmares, is bound to repeat itself over and over again. This starting point metamorphized completely over the course of the project, and our initial concern about conveying urgency seems almost absurd now in light of the new wars in and around Europe.

Another development was my personal orientation: At the beginning, I was searching in many different directions. Over time, I chose to follow certain leads. For example, I repeatedly ended up in former war zones. These places drew me in, even though I hadn’t been consciously looking for them. And it was in these places, that I often encountered men who were trying to transform what other men before them had caused there. It often seemed to me as if the men I met there were drawn to these old wounds to heal them, just two or three generations after the perpetrators.

And important to me: a few years ago, I would have placed terms like 'history' or 'memory' squarely in the past. Today, I see both much more in connection with the future. That was a clear learning process for me. The Bosnian writer Dževad Karahasan, who also appears in the film, sums it up this way: The past is the soil in which the plant grows. The present and the future draw their nutrients from it. In the film, I explore the question as to how we can break out of the pattern of recurring nightmares. How we remember which stories are key to shaping our future.

Which encounters have had a lasting impact on you?

It's still too early for me to answer that question. From my current perspective, I suppose I might say the choir. I mean that both concretely, in terms of the choir that appears in the film, with its wonderful character and vocal power and diversity. And metaphorically, in terms of the assembled protagonists in the film, each with their own peculiarities, who together also form a choir.

What does Europe mean to you today?

An opportunity. And a great responsibility.

Interview conducted by Anaïs Steiner.