Robert Adanto’s new art documentary Born Just Now delves into the life and performance work of Marta Jovanović, a Belgrade-based artist struggling to cope with the pain accompanying the end of an eight-year marriage. Through several performances, she seeks confront and liberate her own pain in the name of art.
The film, which offers an intimate look at a fearless female artist, participated in the 2016 Sundance Institute Documentary Program’s Rough-Cut Lab, and was produced by Anthony E. Zuiker, the creator of the C.S.I. franchise. The film will make its world premiere next month at BELDOCS International Documentary Film Festival in the former Yugoslavia, where it will screen with Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow.
The Los Angeles-born, Miami-based filmmaker made his directorial debut with The Rising Tide (2008), a feature-length documentary exploring China’s meteoric march towards the future through the words and works of some of the Middle Kingdom’s most talented photographers and video artists, including Wang Qingsong, Cao Fei, Xu Zhen, and Chen Qiulin. His next film, Pearls on the Ocean Floor (2010) focused on Iranian female artists living and working in and outside the Islamic Republic. It features interviews with Shirin Neshat, Shadi Ghadirian, Parastou Forouhar and received the Bronze Palm Award for Best Documentary at the the 2011 edition of the Mexico International Film Festival. His films have enjoyed screenings at over forty international film festivals and have been presented at the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C., the National Center for Contemporary Art in Moscow, The MFA Boston, LACMA, The Hammer Museum, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, and The National Museum of Australia in Canberra, amongst others.
EMPTY KINGDOM: In your previous movies you explored art scenes and the work of different groups of artists. However, in your new project – Born Just Now – you decided to document the work of one artist – Marta Jovanović. Why Marta in particular?
ADANTO: Art scenes have never really been a focus of my films although when I was making The Rising Tide, back in 2006, there was a lot of attention being paid to contemporary art produced in China. The film’s subject was the rapid rise of China and its transformation into a global power, so the market phenomenon did find its way into the film. I consider my previous films (The Rising Tide (2008); Pearls on the Ocean Floor (2010); City of Memory (2014); and The F Word (2015), in many respects, essays that explore the ways in which visual artists respond to rapid, sudden, sometimes catastrophic change. Back in 2008 when I was researching Iranian contemporary, I felt there was no better time than the present to examine the Islamic Republic, a nation at a crossroads, and no better approach than through the visual imagery of female artists. It was women who had collectively bore the brunt of an oppressive regime and the bias of a western media that had repeatedly constructed one-dimensional images portraying them as humorless, repressed, second-class citizens in black chadors. So, looking at a group of women artists felt right.
I have chosen with Born Just Now, to look at one artist, Marta Jovanović. There are a few reasons why. In addition to being a talented multidisciplinary artist, Marta’s personal story encapsulates a great deal of Yugoslav and Serbian history. This coupled with her courageous attempt to resuscitate the Belgrade art scene at a time when unemployment is high, wages are low, and confidence in the political class runs even lower, makes for a compelling documentary.
EMPTY KINGDOM: Tell us a bit how and when you first encountered her work? What was the trigger that made you decide to do a documentary about her art?
ADANTO: I first encountered Marta’s work in New York in February of 2014, when I was still working on The F Word. My friend Kathy Battista had just curated REPUBLIKA, Marta’s first solo show in the city, and while I was reading Kathy’s book Marta Jovanović: Performing the Self, I was reminded how little we in the west are taught about the history of the Balkans. Personally, I love subjects that are going to take over my life when I’m in the process of making a film, and I knew I had one in Marta and the former Yugoslavia. Several of the works in REPUBLIKA addressed questions of identity, specifically Marta’s experience of growing up in communist Yugoslavia, a time when she and her classmates donned red scarves and navy blue hats with red stars, and marched as proud Pionirka (pioneers)–Tito’s young communists.
EMPTY KINGDOM: What aspect of her life and work is treated in the movie? What was important for you personally to show in the film?
ADANTO: When I first arrived in Belgrade in the winter of 2016, Marta’s eight-year marriage was coming to an end, and several of the performance pieces she created in the ensuing months were very personal explorations of her experience as a woman and as an artist. Marta was very open about what she was going through, her feelings, and the film depicts that period of her life, as well as all that she was producing as an artist. I was able to cover several important performances including Motherhood, The Beauty of Tight Binding, Pillow Talk and my own personal favorite: LJUBAV, which means “Love” in Serbian. This was a large-scale performance which on one level explored the darker days of the wars of the 1990s and the 1999 NATO bombardment of her native Belgrade, and on another, the need to remember that despite the fact that we live in a word filled with war and bloodshed, there is also a place for peace and love.
EMPTY KINGDOM: Could we say that your movies are empowering to women? Is that your intention from the beginning?
ADANTO: I am not the person to ask if my films are empowering to women. I think everyone who sees them will need to answer that question for themselves. At the very least, I would say I’ve done a good job in terms of numbers and representation. In The Rising Tide, four of the eight Chinese artists in the film: Cao Fei, Chen Qiulin, O Zhang, and Xu Shuxian, are women. Pearls on the Ocean Floor features interviews with sixteen Iranian female artists and every expert, historian, and curator in the film is also an Iranian woman. Half of the New Orleans-based artists featured in City of Memory are women, and The F Word looks at fourteen 4th wave feminist performance artists.
EMPTY KINGDOM: The title refers to…?
ADANTO: The title comes from something Marta mentioned in one of our initial interviews. She was discussing how she felt during Motherhood, a performance she did back in February of 2016. Born Just Now refers to being present in the moment, not in one’s head thinking about yesterday or what might be, but just being here now in this moment.
EMPTY KINGDOM: Do you already have an idea about your next documentary? In which direction in the future would you like to move your filming in terms of topics?
ADANTO: I do! I’ve already begun working on it, conceptually. This currently unnamed project will be an animated non-fiction work, based on oral histories that have recently been translated from Mandarin. I have begun scripting these first-person accounts so that they form a single narrative exploring different facets of a campaign enacted by Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution. That’s all I can say about it at the moment, but I am excited about the team of artists I’ll be working with, which includes a talented graphic artist Syd Fini, whom I met at one of my screenings back in 2014. I am honored to be telling these stories and working with this heartbreaking material.
Director: Robert Adanto
Executive Producer: Anthony E. Zuiker
Executive Producer: Robert Adanto
Director of Cinematography: Lazar Bogdanović
Editor: Michael Gonzalez
Composer: Kolja Brand
Featuring: Marta Jovanović, Ivana Ranisavljević, Kathy Battista, Ph.D., Director of Contemporary Art, Sotheby’s Institute of Art, NY; Anja Foerschner, Senior Researcher, The Getty Research Institute; Milica Pekić, Art Historian and Curator; Jovo Bakić, Ph.D., University of Belgrade; Vladislav Scepanović, artist; and Jean-Daniel Ruch, Swiss Ambassador to Serbia and to Montenegro.
2) Marta Jovanović as seen in Robert Adanto’s BORN JUST NOW
3) Marta Jovanović as seen in Robert Adanto’s BORN JUST NOW
4) Marta Jovanović as seen in Robert Adanto’s BORN JUST NOW
5) Marta Jovanović performs Motherhood as seen in Robert Adanto’s BORN JUST NOW
6) Marta Jovanović performs The Beauty of Tight Binding as seen in Robert Adanto’s BORN JUST NOW