Village without women

Three brothers are the only inhabitants left in a remote Serbian village of Zabrdje. The brothers never got married and the only way to save their decaying birthplace from dying out is to find a woman. The director Srdjan Sarenac speaks about the process of making his remarkable award-winning film

Akin to fairytales, Village Without Women follows three unmarried brothers living in the remote mountain village of Zabrdje in the south-west Serbia in their quest for love. Zabrdje had once been a thriving community; however, out of its three hundred original inhabitants only the Jankovic brothers remain. Living in a dilapidated house, having shared the same bedroom for the past thirty five years they have so little to offer to potential mates; and so, with limited options at their disposal the brothers turn their attention across the Albanian border to where there are, as they hear, many women living in similar conditions, and many villages without men.

This heartwarming documentary premiered at the IDFA, documentary festival in Amsterdam and screened at forty other film festivals such as Documenta Madrid, the American Film Institute Silverdocs in Washington, Sarajevo film festival and Astra, Romania. It won twelve awards in total, including 3rd Jury Award at Festival Caméras des Champs, Pont-à-Mousson, Audience Award at the Gdańsk docfilm festival, Best Documentary Selection at Scenecs, Netherlands and the Best Director at Bir Duino in Kyrgyzstan.

In the director’s statement you wrote that the film follows “mixed marriages in the area wrought with conflict and prejudice”. At first glance the film seems to talk about loneliness and the hopeless pursuit of love. Nonetheless, as soon as you scratch the surface it becomes obvious that there are other issues at hand here, like bare survival – not only of the Jankovic brothers but the whole region. Was this intended?

I was greatly interested in the fact that all three brothers wanted to marry Albanian women. The truth is that Serbian women are just not interested in moving to villages as remote as Zabrdje. Albanian women are used to those living conditions, as many live in the mountain villages, without men. The Jankovic brothers seem to ignore the ethnic conflicts between the Serbs and the Albanians who were heavily at war in Kosovo, which is a pretty good indicator that mixed marriages are still possible.

Where did the idea to film Village without Women come from? How did you get in touch with the brothers?

In 2008 I was awarded a three month residence in Montpellier, or the village of Moulin d’Andé near Paris which was virtually uninhabited. I could not communicate with the other award winners, because I did not speak French, and so I felt pretty lonely. That’s when I started working on a screenplay about solitude and the mountain villages that were slowly dying out.

Afterwards I travelled to south-west Serbia in search of these abandoned villages; I heard that some of these places were only inhabited by animals. A shop owner told me about a place on top of the hill called Zadbrdje, where of the original three hundred inhabitants only three brothers remained; he also said that all three brothers had been sharing the same room with three beds for the past thirty five years. It sounded a bit like a fairytale to me; I decided to pay them a visit.

The trip had to be taken on foot as there were no roads leading up to the village. After two hours of hiking I was attacked by six dogs (there are now twelve as they multiply pretty fast). A man came to my rescue; as it turned out, it was Zoran Jankovic – who later on became the main character of the film. He informed me that not one woman had set foot in this village for the last fifteen years. As soon as I saw the magazine cutouts of girls pasted on their wall I knew – these were the only women I would see in this place. Zoran also told me that they had a rooster, single as well, who would remain that way until all three brothers got married.

What was their initial reaction to being subjects of this documentary?

After one year of negotiations we came upon the situation where the eldest brother was willing to participate, but the other two had changed their minds and refused to, while all the animals remained neutral. The first day of filming we spent with only one sibling.
The very next day the youngest brother got jealous as we had paid all this attention to the eldest one and so, he decided to participate as well; we had two brothers who were willing to be in the film, one who was not – the animals remained neutral.
After seven days of filming all three brothers decided they no longer wanted to participate; we spent several days filming the animals, waiting for the Jankovic brothers to cool off. After two years of ups and downs we managed to complete the filming. The post-production took about 6 months.

Village Without Women has been showcased at numerous documentary film festivals in Europe, Asia and North America; it has also received many awards. What were the reactions so far? Were you anticipating such great success?

The film has been showcased at forty festivals and has received twelve awards so far; each award presented a boost to my motivation; making films like this requires a lot of time and sacrifice. Each documentary you see takes about three years of hard work. Unfortunately, in this country, there is no such thing as film distribution; people just don’t go to film theaters and do not purchase DVDs. The only way of exploiting this medium is through television. Our films simply do not generate money. When I began distributing Village without Women in movie theaters, the cost would often override the ticket sales. The awards did not bring any money either, but presented high recognition in ways of acquiring strange sculptural objects.

I did not become rich or successful material-wise, but in ways of travelling and meeting people. In the last two-three years I had travelled for free to so many different places that I would otherwise never get a chance to visit; for example, when I received the Best Director award I had a chance to visit Kyrgyzstan. Trips to South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Carolina, and California were also quite memorable. The greatest honor of all was having the film presented at the American Film Institute- Silverdocs in Washington.

At the end of the trailer one of the brothers Jankovic proclaims: “When you make and show this movie how many women will come here? Not one!” Are you still in touch with them, have they had any luck in finding love?

I am still in touch with the Jankovic brothers and, unfortunately, nothing has changed in their pursuit of love. This movie was made with an aim to show the slow decay of mountain villages and with hope that it would bring some kind of improvement to the lives of the main characters, such as building the road to the village. However, nobody in the government showed any interest in helping; this is quite disappointing.

What are you working on presently? What is your next project?

Every film is like embarking from one bank, rowing, hoping to reach the other side, and never being quite sure if you’d make it. I am interested in strange stories, the kinds that raise the question “Is this possible?” The Jankovic brothers live completely isolated from the rest of the world and without any comprehension of the urban way of life – I am still in awe. I plan to write a screenplay for a feature film, Zabrdje, the Unmarried Village. The film will explore the prospect of one of the brothers marrying an Albanian woman, and how this would affect the sibling relations, which remain idyllic before the woman comes into the equation.