Ivan Ostrochovský is a Slovakian screenwriter, director and producer. He has directed several short and feature-length documentaries, including the award-winning documentary Velvet Terrorists (2014). Koza, his first narrative feature, premiered at Berlin and won the FIPRESCI Prize at the 15th annual goEast Festival of Central and Eastern European Film.
In an exclusive interview with Filmatique, Ivan Ostrochovský discusses his real-life inspiration for Koza, martyrs, and Eastern European humor.
FILMATIQUE: The boxer Koza, translating to 'goat' in Slovak, recounts how he was raised on goat milk from his grandmother after being abandoned by his parents. What inspired you to write a film about this character?
IVAN OSTROCHOVSKÝ: I've known Koza since we were children, and the story about the goat milk from his grandmother, as well— as it is true. And though Koza's father and brother being boxers in the film is fictionalized, it is also true that Koza hoped that if he was good at boxing, his parents would make up their minds and take him back from his grandmother. He was quite small and became a laughing-target while going to the gym for training. Every time he got beaten up in the gym, he would then cry under the blanket at night. But eventually he made it to the Olympics, and still, his father never took him back.
There is a bit of Eastern-European sentiment and tragedy in Koza's story, but with a slight taste of Hollywood in the story of a 'small' person from a Gypsy ghetto who makes his way up to the Olympics. Knowing all this, I started to work on the script, as I like Koza and I hoped that he would be a great subject for my first film.
FLMTQ: The first dialogue of the film occurs in a luminous shot of Koza with his wife and child at the dinner table, the girl proudly pronouncing numbers in English. What motivated your choice to have the first words in the film come from the mouth of a child, and in a foreign language? Did you wish to imply that a brighter life exists outside Slovakia?
IO: The scene with the English homework is picked up and observed from Koza's real life. Of course, it offers many different interpretations. The fact is that for many people from Central and Eastern Europe living in the 90's, learning English and having a cell-phone became a symbol of coming closer to the 'West' and believing in economic growth. Koza himself, however, had a chance to stay and live in Western Europe several times, but he was always drawn back to Slovakia despite the problems that were waiting for him here. Thankfully, not all of us make our decisions based on economic benefits.
However, 25 years after the fall of the wall not everybody thinks that Western Europe is paradise on Earth. Every country has its problems. Some are economic, some are not. As for the film, two-thirds of the film is shot in Western Europe, mostly Germany and France— still, the audience rarely realizes when the story left Eastern Europe. West has its dirty places, too.
FLMTQ: Koza’s life transpires in a hostile landscape— the cold blocks of ice, the dilapidated buildings, the lack of a community. He is surrounded by solitude and indifference. The long shot of him running amid a wasteland would seem to suggest a fragment of freedom, except that he is framed as an insignificant detail against a massive vista of snow. Likewise, in the ring he is never cheered on: the crowd applauds his failure. What purpose does this isolation serve to distinguish Koza's particular path?
IO: Koza's passivity is given by a certain level of Gypsy fatalism, but also by an Eastern-European character which believes that things are set upfront, that one cannot change anything by trying. Koza's character, as it seems from the start, gave himself up to Zvonko, but then we see him fight and take more and more levels of pain. What is fascinating for me is that he lets himself get beaten up, though he knows right away that it will end ugly. Where does one get strength to do such a thing? It is much easier to fight when you believe you'll win. Koza knows the times of victories are long gone. In his life it's not important to win anymore, but to find the strength to survive an upcoming loss.
The function of the blank and cold landscapes was to evoke the inner world of Koza and Zvonko. We knew that their performances as non-professional actors would be limited and we decided to build their emotional life with the surrounding landscape. The length of the shots was determined by our decision not to present the boxing matches as attractive, which is the case of many films showing box. I didn't find anything attractive in Koza's real matches and with the cinematographer Martin Kollar, I wanted to translate this feeling for the audience by using long shots without editing and music and applause. A distance of the camera was also created this way, which allowed us to avoid pathos.
FLMTQ: Before he leaves for his boxing tour, Koza stands before an image of Christ. Also in frame is ‘Slovakia’ written on the back of his jacket, which we see many times throughout the film. Did you conceive Koza as a martyr, his resigned facial expression and unending acceptance of pain and sacrifice as a symbol for Slovakia at large? Rather, could Koza be interpreted as the scapegoat of an entire nation?
IO: Similarly to the English homework, so are both Koza's 'Slovakia hoodie' and the 'Last Supper Rug' real 'props' from Koza's life. In the editing room we discussed for a long time if we should leave this particular scene in the film, because the story of Jesus underlines the motive of Koza's self-sacrifice perhaps a little too much. As I was aware of this issue, I tried to suppress this parallel as much as I could— it was clear to me that every viewer paying attention to details would arrive at this interpretation. But, as I mentioned before— Koza's fatalism does result in a level of resignation which we see in his face and in his actions.
The 'Slovakia' sign on the hoodie is, as I see it, a criticism of the country and people who Koza once represented at the Olympics and who today are passively observing his misery.
FLMTQ: Koza faces one defeat after another— each time he gets up, dismisses his failure, and tries harder the next time. Over time his body becomes battered, the violence wreaked upon it more evident, but his spirit never shows signs of defeat. What keeps Koza going so relentlessly?
IO: You answered the question a bit yourself. Koza finds strength in knowing that he could save the life of his unborn child, even if he should pay the price with his own life. There is probably no greater instinct in the world than to protect one's child.
FLMTQ: The sound design is subtly articulated, moving from moments of ambient sound to instances of silence, their interchange informing Koza’s path. How did you conceive of this aural experience as a way to tell the character's story?
IO: I like the motto "Silence heals" and a story full of pain and sadness was asking for some healing.
FLMTQ: Koza’s life is suspended between the darkness of the night and the grey of the daylight, as the film depicts bleak journeys from one match to another and the trainings between. For the vast majority of the film, Koza is embedded in inexorable pessimism, until the final shot— colors, and a new landscape. How did this final shot come about within the context of Koza's story?
IO: The last shot of the film was created when we felt the need to set the story geographically. Koza travels from Slovakia through the Czech Republic, Germany and France and the story ends at the 'edge' of Europe, at the Atlantic Ocean. Of course, we were aware of the metaphorical 'depth' of the sea in the film.
FLMTQ: Could you please reflect upon the current state of filmmaking in Slovakia, and of your experiences and/or future projects?
IO: At the moment, there are approximately twenty feature films made in Slovakia per year, of all genres— crowd-pleasers, fairy tales, genre film attempts. Two or three of them usually get more significant attention at festivals, and it is usually greater than they get at home.
Koza is one of these films, similar to films such as My Dog Killer by Mira Fornay, which won the Tiger Award at Rotterdam, or Blind Loves by Juraj Lehotsky, which won the Art Cinema Award at Cannes. During the 90's, our national cinema only made one or two films per year.
*Interview conducted by guest curator Dr. Loreta Gandolfi.