One-on-one | Film

Srđan Kovačević: The story just developed in front of me

By - 25.08.2022

Croatian documentary filmmaker talks about factories, workers and capitalism.

The emotional climax of Croatian filmmaker Srđan Kovačević’s documentary film “Factory to the Workers” comes when the director of the ITAS machine-tool factory is replaced with Dragutin Varga, the leader of the older generation of workers. As Varga stands in front of his colleagues as the new director, he promises the dissatisfied workers that if he does not manage to secure stable revenue and pay salaries on time, he will go on a solo hunger strike to demand help from the state. Varga’s principled stance and long-established authority convinces the workers to go back to work and keep production running.

Strikes and other forms of protest were not new to Varga, who in 1973, when he was still a high school student, started working at the ITAS factory, located in the northern Croatian town of Ivanec. Thirty-two years later, in 2005, he led a workers’ occupation of the factory to prevent its privatization. This was the only successful factory takeover in the former Yugoslavia and the story became a source of aspirational dreams about worker-run utopias.

When Kovačević arrived 10 years later, in 2015, to document the factory’s struggle for self-management, he found a complex situation in which day-to-day work and intergenerational disagreements among the workers were entangled with larger economic and political realities. Though the workers had seized the means of production, mismanagement, old machinery and the highly competitive neoliberal market made it almost impossible for the factory to survive.

The film’s ethnographic narrative covers five years of Kovačević’s research and shooting, and provides a nuanced and nonpartisan portrait of the workers’ agency within and beyond the factory.    

At this year’s Dokufest, the film won the Best Balkan Dox award for its ability, as the jury put it, to “reveal the complex and universal dynamics of a microcosm where human solidarity is challenged by brutal societal forces, using a sensitive approach and a precise observational camerawork.”

After the film’s first showing at Dokufest, K2.0 sat down with Kovačević to talk about his work process, the idea of the collective and documentary filmmaking.

K2.0: How did you first get in touch with the story of the ITAS factory workers and what pushed you to follow their struggle? How was the shooting process on the ground and how did the workers receive you?

Srđan Kovačević: I think the story caught my eye in 2012, after I read a long interview published in a leftist online platform in Croatia, called “Slobodni Filozofski,” which means Free Philosophical. It is a website which started in the aftermath of this struggle for free education in Croatia, which began at the Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb in 2009.

They published a long interview with Dragutin Varga, the main character of the film and the leader of this rebellion, which happened in 2005. The interview was really interesting. There is no other example of a successful factory takeover in Croatia, I mean in the whole ex-Yugoslavia. I thought that it was really interesting to go and try to figure out what is happening there now. What model of workers’ shareholding system do they have? How does it function? How do they make decisions?

I went there without any money. I managed to make a cheap system through which I could shoot the audio and video by myself. I shot the film with a Canon 6D, which is one of the cheap photo cameras. None of the shots are staged. It was a process of five years, 180 days of shooting. More or less, once a week I went there.

There is no other example of a successful factory takeover in Croatia, I mean in the whole ex-Yugoslavia.

Varga was really into the shooting. He said, “Yeah, don’t worry! Go and do anything you want.” The workers are not a homogenous mass. There are a bunch of different people. So, some of them really wanted to talk with me and make some kind of contact. Some didn’t want to. Some of them were really afraid of the camera, which is totally understandable. But with time, I kind of found my spot in the factory. Most of the workers didn’t mind me shooting and Varga and the factory’s director agreed that I can follow them around the factory and shoot whatever I want.

It seems to me that the film, on one hand, is a story of the worker’s victory and utopia, while on the other, one of defeat, despair and struggle against economic hardship. How did you put together these layers of the story? 

The story just developed in front of me. I didn’t know what I was going to follow when I went there. It was research, more or less. I just followed things in the editing room as they happened. We didn’t need to imagine anything in the process.

We had a really huge pile of good material. We were just throwing out good scenes and making a story, which is, I would say, really honest and truthful, in a way. 

Though not directly articulated by the workers, in the background, the film reads as a subtle critique of the privatization process. 

For sure. The world around us is crashing, wherever we look. The economic processes are, I would say, the foundation of a society. In the case of ITAS, some people tried to make things work differently, to share the factory’s capital and to make one small step toward a better world, I would say, a better society. And you can see that capitalism doesn’t want to take any chances. They’re trying in any way to destroy them — the state, the local community, the political elites are really doing anything to make it harder for the factory.  

Varga is a very intriguing protagonist — the personification of the struggle to keep the factory running. What role did his character play on how you framed the narrative? 

I wanted to show in the documentary a few levels of the factory’s microcosmos. One of them is surely Varga, who, still today, is kind of the leader of the factory. The other level is the business or economic perspective of the director. He’s struggling daily with a lot of different things. Then on the third level are the workers, who have their own interests, mainly to get a higher salary.

Today, there is no knowledge of collective actions in the factory or in society as a whole.

So, Varga surely shaped how the story would go. He did fire the director, after all, and that made a counterpoint in the film, which I didn’t see there, until it happened. This totally changed the thing. The story then went on a different path, which was really interesting for me while shooting, and which created a narrative story in the film. If that didn’t happen, I don’t know what we would do with the storyline.

In some of the workers’ discussions, there is a sense of Yugonostalgia. Can you talk about how you represent this sentiment in the film? 

I really wanted to make a point about that. I am a socialist and I saw that memories of Yugoslavian socialism were present in some aspects among the workers.

One quarter or one third of the older workers would really stand [up for] that period. Workers today are mostly disillusioned by the current situation and they don’t really recall what happened 30, 40, 50 years ago, but [some of the workers] really wanted to show this layer of memory there. If there is no memory of other times, which made the factory function, we cannot discuss any kind of collective future, I would say.

Today, there is no knowledge of collective actions in the factory. And not only in the factory, I would say, in society, as a whole. You have to educate people how to think differently, people are educated in a capitalistic liberal way. And if we think like that, there’s no future not only for our societies, but probably for the earth as a whole. 

Throughout the film, there is discord — ideological one might say — between the older and the younger generation of the workers that starts to erode their sense of collectivity and their shared struggle for the factory.  

I don’t know what to think about the idea of a collective because that’s really a tricky thing.

Even the nation is an idea of a collective, but then when you really look into the relations between people, you see that everybody stands for themselves, not for some kind of a collective. 

It’s, more or less, the same thing in the factory. During hard times when they don’t receive salaries, one part of the workers tries to think as a collective, but they don’t have the tools. They don’t know what to do. They are this group of people trying to do something, but they can barely do anything.

Because of how powerless they are in relation to larger market forces? 

Yes this, but also inside the factory, when they are fighting for their salaries, you can see [in that scene] how everybody’s afraid to go to the microphone. 

That’s why I kept that one shot at the microphone, to reflect on the idea of the workers’ collective voice. In a way, you have to be fearless to go and stand there, but they don’t want to do that, because everybody’s thinking like, “Maybe it’s better for me not to go into the light. You know, everybody will know that I did that.” 

I don’t know what to think about the collective anymore. It is this fluid idea, the same as that of a nation. People really need to see their interests reflected in a collective, to feel part of it.

The movie seems to hint at the idea that when the present is uncertain, it is attractive to romanticize the past.

For sure. You know, somebody said that in these areas here, you never know what is the future of the past.

I wasn’t quite thinking about it while making the movie, but I think it’s really present everywhere around us. The next project I would like to work on is some kind of archive film about the development of socialism in Yugoslavia.

It’s really a question, how do you approach this vast idea, this vast material? And what is basically the truth? There is no stable point, because perspectives are different on the things that happened. And every group in society is thinking they know the truth and they shape the narratives. 

If we speak about self-management in Yugoslavia, some things were good, the idea was good. Some factories, I’d say, were really successful in implementing self-management. But, on the other hand, the idea was to go from implementing self-management in the companies and factories, to the highest level of the state, the political system.

But that didn’t happen. Self-management happened only in the middle of the pyramid and then it stopped and crashed down. This fact is barely mentioned. In leftist circles, you will usually hear that we had self-management. Yes, we had it, but only on one level and that’s not how it was thought of at the beginning.  

ITAS now has another system, it’s kind of workers’ shareholders. A few things are really important for this kind of company to succeed. First, you have to be economically positive, you have to run the business and pay out salaries.

The second thing you have to do is to politically educate the workers. And thirdly, you really  have to develop a new system. In Croatia, we still don’t have any kind of system in which workers own the company because nobody developed it successfully. 

There are some examples in Slovenia, but they’re also still developing this, it’s a cooperative model. In Croatia, there’s nothing; probably it’s the same in Bosnia and in Serbia. So, for this kind of business to succeed, we really need to have a good model based on the law.

Have you followed how the factory is doing since you finished the movie?

They are still struggling, but the situation is a little bit better. Varga is now director. They’re trying to improve their prices, the cost of the labor and this kind of stuff. They paid out the late salaries, that’s a really good thing. And now the salaries are on time in the factory.

As we had some film screenings around Slovenia and Croatia, we made some kind of first contact with the Institute for Economic Democracy in Ljubljana, which is making these cooperative models throughout Slovenia and they are really interested to do something with ITAS.

That would be really good if it happens. We will see if they will find the money and if the workers are interested in education and this kind of stuff, but that will happen in the next year or two. Still the factory is there — 120, 130 workers are working. They’re paying out salaries.

At the beginning of the film, there is a brief note which says that the profit of the film will be shared among the film workers and the film protagonists. Can you talk about how that will work?

We made a new film agreement which we call the Solidarity Film Agreement. 

We developed it with lawyers and we made an agreement according to which the film production company shares the profits of the film with the film workers, film authors and the protagonists, in different shares.  

We are sharing the profits of the film. Let’s say “the profit,” because with documentary films it’s difficult to make any profit. This was my idea because each time I worked on other films, and it was the same with my colleagues, we would never get anything out of the film, only the money that paid out for our labor. So, I thought, when I do my own film, I will try to make things differently. 

What are you working on next? 

In my films, I work on things that really interest me. The next film I have to finish is about a small union in Ljubljana which is dealing with migrant workers. They are doing incredible work. They’re working one-on-one with people, doing things right there on the spot, calling employers, asking for the salaries, trying to solve any kind of difficulties these workers have. These are people from Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia, who are coming to Slovenia to find some decent work and are then treated there as animals, more or less. 

How did you decide to bring “Factory to the Workers” to Dokufest?

I was here 10 years ago, in 2012, but as a visitor. Dokufest has this reputation of a really important festival, so we really wanted to come here. We contacted Veton Nurkollari [Dokufest’s artistic director] and sent him the film, and he really liked it. That’s why we decided to come. 

I was really looking forward to visiting Prizren again, to see what has changed, and how the festival is going now, because the last two years for all the festivals in the world, I think, were really hard.

This article has been edited for length and clarity. The conversation was conducted in English.

Feature image: Agon Dana / K2.0.


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