Four friends, warm-hearted would-be gangsters from rural Slovenia, need money. They hatch a scheme, but it requires a cash advance of 100,000 Deutschmarks. So they turn to a local loan shark, and get their cash, which they promptly leave on a bed, while celebrating their future wealth. An angry girlfriend finds the money and takes it. The friends wake the next morning, now in the hole for an unimaginable sum, and with only a week to pay off the loan shark.
So begins Tu pa Tam (Here and There ), written, directed, filmed (and much more) by the young Slovenian director, Mitja Okorn. This is a classic student film—clearly home made, with a group of buddies standing in as actors. And yet, it is as good a student film as I have seen: totally unpretentious, refreshingly simple, but created with evident passion, humour, and an enormous amount of talent. It was made for the astonishingly low sum of $2000 – when Okorn was only 19 years old – but this teenager managed to organise and rally over 100 actors and crew, none of them professionals. Then, after his requests were rudely rejected by the Slovenian Film Fund, he charmed and tricked his way into having Slovene cinemas cover the $30,000 fee to blow-up the film into 35mm for cinema screening. Tu pa Tam became the most popular film in Slovenia in 2005. Anyone, from Hollywood to Bollywood, seeing this film will see a bright career for Okorn. And his career, a few years later, turned very bright indeed.
Mitja Okorn is instantly recognisable, but from his outward appearance you wouldn’t guess that he is an auteur filmmaker. He began his unlikely rise to filmmaking stardom (at the moment only on a modest European scale, but a larger stage is surely a short step away) as a skateboarder in his native Kranj, a mid-sized city in northern Slovenia. He filmed his skateboarding tricks and fell in love with the format. In fact, he still looks like a skateboarder, favouring baggy clothes, bright solid colours, and a ubiquitous, slightly-oversized baseball cap.
While he filmed numerous music videos and advertisements in Slovenia, he was unable to secure funding to make a feature film. In a country where the vast majority of film funding comes from the government (and where no film in history has ever broken even, to say nothing of making a profit), funding is hard to come by. There are politics involved, as Okorn is quick to explain, and his approaches to the Slovenian Film Fund were met with derision. Tu pa Tam’s credits open with a joke at the expense of the Slovenian Film Commission. Films funded by them are obliged to include them in their credits. Okorn pops their name on the screen and then quickly crosses it out, underscoring their distinct lack of funding for his early feature.
Despite the homemade feel, Tu pa Tam is wildly stylish, particularly in terms of editing. There is stop-motion, freeze-frame, shifts in film speed, and other techniques that give the film a rough realism that draw comparisons to the early work of Danny Boyle. The film is a homage without being derivative. Okorn also clearly drew inspiration from Tarantino-style dialogue among less-than-clever gangsters (there’s a great scene in which a pair of thugs argue over the propriety of spitting indoors), from small-time crime films like The Usual Suspects (1995), and from pacey, auteur works like Run Lola Run (1998). But while sources are evident, Okorn creates his own, original vision, aided by the incongruous setting of teen hoodlums in a gorgeous, fairy-tale landscape of rural Slovenia (a country essentially without crime, when compared to Western nations). The film should be approached with an understanding of its origins: it was made for pocket money, by a group of amateur actors and crew, and a wildly driven, very clever director/writer/DOP. With that in mind, it is perhaps even more surprising that, in 2005, this was the most-viewed film in Slovenia, and was lauded in a string of film festivals abroad.
But Okorn was frustrated by the lack of opportunity in Slovenia, a problem that is not reserved for the film industry. In recent years, Slovenia has seen a ‘brain drain’, wherein top talents and minds go abroad for work and professional opportunities, as jobs, salaries and, occasionally, attitudes at home can be neither welcoming nor forthcoming. There, as in all post-Habsburg countries, a weight is given to degrees and certificates that seems bizarre to westerners. The general impression among Slovenian employers is that, if you did not study a specific field, you will not be able to work in that field well. That may be true of medicine and plumbing, but the attitude extends to the likes of journalism, painting, and filmmaking — three disciplines that, by Western standards, anyone could do, provided they have talent and drive. Having attended an academy to study these fields is sometimes even seen as a disadvantage (in the art world, for example, it is decidedly uncool to be labelled an ‘academic painter’, and has been since the 19th century). Okorn studied at the Berlinale Talent Campus twice and, more importantly, demonstrated his ability with Tu pa Tam, but it was not enough. Okorn set off for Poland, where he was invited to direct a television show by one of the hundreds of people to whom he passed a business card at the Cannes Film Festival. When the first episode was a success, he was commissioned to direct more, in a popular TV series called 39 and a Half. After two seasons, he was offered the directorship of what would become the most popular film in Polish history, and one which clearly demonstrates that Okorn is ready for any stage – from London to Hollywood.
Listy do M (Letters to Santa ) is a romantic comedy that follows five men and five women on Christmas Eve. An ensemble cast of Polish actors weaves together a story that is overtly based on the charming British comedy, Love Actually (2003) but is, in my opinion, far better – more heartfelt, and less consciously manipulative. Okorn pulls heart-strings, but ever so gently. For example, in one scene we see a view into the Christmas Eve of a young delinquent who has stolen the cell phone of a shopping mall Santa, an ugly brute who is nevertheless a local Don Juan. Just briefly, we see the boy’s apartment—his single mother lying passed-out on the couch, surrounded by a mess of bottles and wrappers, watching TV. That is what awaits the boy at home, we understand, so no wonder he is out wandering the streets, looking for some attention. A lesser filmmaker would have lingered over the scene, increasing the pathos and whopping us over the head with sentimentality. But Okorn is practically Brechtian in his willingness to show us something, however briefly, and rest assured that we will see it and understand it, without him having to rub it in our face. Even potentially melodramatic scenes, as when an Ice Queen businesswoman breaks down and shows us why she is so cold and distant, a defence for a tragedy that befell her, is handled with heart, but without wringing out the moment.
The film ends with the ten lives portrayed in it intertwined in surprising ways. There are a few moments that don’t quite strike one as realistic, juxtaposed against the majority of the film, which is believable within the context of the Christmas magic of the plot. For example, a badly estranged family has a snowball fight in the forest, and all is suddenly well. But despite this, one cannot help but smile at the end of the film, and it is packed with haunting images. That same family snowball fight in a night woods might not make much sense to a psychologist, but it looks great on film. Would a stranger really invite a family whose car broke down into his home, to join his Christmas party? Probably not, but we are in the world of Christmas comedies, where anything is possible. The film is not afraid to approach darker matters, like spousal infidelity and suicide attempts, but Okorn handles everything with a deft hand, and a restraint that shows his maturity.
Listy do M also looks fantastic — with the sound off to mute the Polish, I would certainly believe that this was a high-budget Hollywood film. In fact, it was made for the entirely reasonable sum of $2 million, and it made over $14 million at the box office. These may not be Avatar, eye-popping numbers, but any producer will welcome a film that raked in seven times its budget (particularly when we recall that no Slovenian film has ever broken even, much less profited). To date, the film has won 10 awards, and Okorn is in-demand, with producers eager to work with him. Regular meetings in Los Angeles suggest an American project in the not-so-distant future.
Okorn continues to live in Poland, but one has a sense that his career is just at lift-off, and a decade will not pass before his first big-budget Western film comes out, whether in England or the United States. Proving his ability, as he did in Listy do M, both making a solid profit and creating a film of the highest level of professionalism, will not go unnoticed. In fact, when I finish this article, I’m going to recommend Okorn to my own TV and film agent at CAA…
Noah Charney is a professor of art history and a best-selling writer of fiction and non-fiction. He encourages you to join him on Facebook or through his blog, or through his blog, The Secret History of Art. ‘>