Serbian Director Nikola Spasić Brings Trans-Identity and Religion Together in Docu-Fiction ‘Kristina’

“First, I will ask you to take 10 big, deep breaths.” Elegant Kristina attends a regressive hypnosis session. Lying on the floor, blindfolded, a woman’s voice guides her through the process. Time seems to be suspended. The spectator is immediately drawn into the scene, bewitched by the suave voice and the perfection of the image. The therapist then asks, “Now look down and tell me what you see?” “I see male feet,” Kristina says. “Take a deep breath and fully occupy that body.”

These first breaths open the film “Kristina,” selected in international competition at the Torino Film Festival. The care given to the composition in the opening scene never leaves this first feature film by Serbian director Nikola Spasić, starring Kristina Milosavljević as herself.

Kristina is transgender and left her hometown to live her truth in Belgrade. She collects antiques and lives alone with her cat in a refined apartment fit for a decoration catalog. It is there where she receives her clients: Kristina is a sex worker. Her life, like her appointments, is precisely timed. Until the day when she meets by chance, Marko, a former theology student. Chance then keeps inviting itself into her well-ordered life: Kristina and Marko keep running into each other. Feelings develop. “But is this man even real?” Kristina wonders.

Distributed by U.K.-based Reason8 and produced by Spasić and his scriptwriter Milanka Gvoić’s production company, Inkubator Rezon, docu-fiction “Kristina” had its world premiere at FIDMarseille in July where it won the First Film Prize. In Seville, Spasić received the award for best director for a first or second film.

“For my third festival in Turin, I’m competing with first, second and third films directors,” the 31-year-old tells WmLeader happily. “We never applied for a world premiere. We applied with a rough cut for the FIDLab, the industrial program of FIDMarseille. After some time, the festival contacted us and said they wanted to program the film. We didn’t sleep for a month but managed to finish it on time. We got a prize at the festival, and this is how everything started!”

In fact, the journey of “Kristina” began six years earlier: Gvoić discovered Milosavljević in an online TV show and told Spasić about her. At the time, both had already been working together for four years. “I had to do a docufiction for my PhD and I was looking for a strong character. We contacted Kristina and met with her several times in a café. Milanka and I asked her loads of questions about her life experiences, her dreams and hopes. Then, one day, she invited us to her home. When I saw how she decorated her apartment with so much elegance, detail, and that religious feeling that was there and was so important to her, that’s when I knew we had a film,” Spasić tells WmLeader. “She is a great character to break the prejudice for all people who are different and that inspired me.”

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The film was shot every fall for five years with cinematography by Igor Lazić and a screenplay by Gvoić that kept evolving. “Milanka and I are both producers which let us have complete freedom. We were updating the script after every block of shooting because we had structured scenes, but we also had observational scenes that we didn’t know how they would turn out.”

They allowed for improvisation and Kristina also gave her input. Although it is centered on a real character and shows her inner progression, it isn’t a documentary. “We really wanted to make a film where you get to meet her as a real person, a movie that’s sincere. Kristina is a non-pro actress who has a real background in the role she portrays and shot scenes in her own apartment, but all the events are fictional,” the director, who also teaches at university, explains.

Kristina only saw the movie a few days ago and played it over and over. “She loved it. She had complete confidence in us and in the film. Kristina, Milanka, Igor and I are really the core of this project. We developed a strong connection, and we all became friends.”

Omnipresent in “Kristina” is Belgrade, where the main character and her two best friends spend a lot of time. “Most of the films in Serbia are centered on Belgrade. But Milanka and I are not from Belgrade, so we wanted to show our province too. Many of the scenes are inspired by impressionist art, explains Spasić, also because the French impressionists treated sex workers in their works as objects of art.”

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Pleased with the reactions received abroad, Spasić is looking forward to finding out how the film is received in his home country where it is unveiled on Nov. 26. “There are people who distance themselves from transgender issues, who look away. But things are changing in Serbia too and we talk a lot about it.”

Religion, which is also of great interest to the director and the scriptwriter, is also a sensitive topic. “Kristina is very attached to religion, and I wanted to bring these two subjects, trans-identity and religion, together in my film. It could be risky for an international release, some people might reject the film, but I had the courage to try. In Serbia there are two different countries: one is traditional and the other is more open. With my film, I wanted to confront these two worlds. We don’t give answers. We wanted to ask questions for our society to think about.”

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