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‘78 Days’ Director Emilija Gasic Will Lift a Curse in ‘Atmospheric and Tense’ Psychological Thriller ‘Witches’: ‘I Want to Merge Genres to Tell Untold Stories’ (EXCLUSIVE)

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Serbian director Emilija Gašić will follow International Film Festival Rotterdam premiere “78 Days” with the “atmospheric and tense” psychological thriller “Witches,” she reveals to Variety exclusively.

“I’ve always been drawn to scary elements in films — especially if there are moments of comic relief. Growing up in Serbia, I was surrounded by stories and legends. There are so many superstitions and traditions that date back to pagan times.”

Her new film will focus on a woman going through menopause, without support from her loved ones or the healthcare system. Desperate, she turns to an elderly woman for help, a folk healer from a nearby village. Soon, she is asked to perform a series of rituals in order to lift a supposed curse.

“In some villages, there are still these revered healers. I am interested in tapping into this heritage because it’s so rich and really unlike anything else we have seen,” says Gašić, eager to explore her country’s “unique traditions” while also echoing the likes of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s “The Double Life of Veronique” and Michael Haneke’s “Hidden.”

“I love films that invoke an eerie atmosphere and make you a bit uncomfortable. That’s why I find the work of Ruben Östlund particularly inspiring. He can make a family drama feel like horror and then make you chuckle,” she adds.

“Serbia has such specific mythology and folktales. Its culture is a fertile soil for these types of films. I want to merge genres to tell untold stories — just like in my debut feature [’78 Days’].”

In “78 Days,” Gašić — who studied at NYU Tisch School of the Arts — goes back to the 1999 NATO bombings of Yugoslavia during the Kosovo War.

“78 Days”
Courtesy of IFFR

“I am interested in telling local stories and providing them with a universal flare. I would like them to be seen outside of the country as well,” she stresses.

“I’ve lived through these events myself. I started by writing down what I knew and then shared an anonymous questionnaire with other people. Through that, I found out that tenderness and togetherness still existed, despite that situation. It’s so human to try to remember only happy things. Or, in the case of my film, to record them on camera.”

Playing with the concept of a found footage documentary, “78 Days” — although completely fictional — was shot on Hi8 tapes, with cinematographer Inés Gowland using equipment from the late 90s.

The film shows the daily activities of three sisters (played by Viktorija Vasiljević, Milica Gicić and Tamara Gajević), who start a video diary in their countryside home; we see them killing time in-between air raid siren blasts, fighting and putting on a show, all the while waiting for their father to return.

From left: Milica Gicić, Emilija Gašić and Tamara Gajović.
Courtesy of IFFR

“There was definitely a learning curve to the experience because it’s a dated technology. We spent a lot of time researching and talking to different technicians in New York, but I enjoyed every moment of it. We always had to think about who is behind the camera at every given moment and then try to replicate their ‘style,’” says Gašić.

In order to prepare, she turned to old home videos — including her own.

“I realized that when children filmed something, they would usually come close to their subjects as opposed to zooming in. Also, as spontaneity was one of the key aspects because of this ‘found footage’ aesthetic, we would often give the cameras to our actresses.”

“We could experiment a lot and we were really free in this process,” notes Gicić, who played one of the girls. “They really became my sisters and my family. It was fun to grow up with them.”

Gajević adds: “During the shoot, I kept listening to the music from that time. But I didn’t even know this film was supposed to look like a documentary. My father went through war, too. Because of the stress of it, he lost all his hair.”

“Emilija shows children having fun, playing with their friends during this awful time. I liked that she decided to preserve these innocent moments,” Gicić says.

Produced by Andrijana Sofranić Šućur and Ivanović Miloš for Set Sail Films, the film is sold by Lights On.