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Interview with Denis Dobrovoda, director of Savage

Monday 19 April 2021, by Abena Clarke, Mydylarama team

Denis is the director of short film Savage, a dramatised account of the abhorrent but sadly little-known concept of human zoos, a practice that was part and parcel of Britain’s colonial empire. With great attention to detail and historical accuracy, Savage is an original, moving take on a phenomenon that plays an integral part in the development of modern institutionalised racism. Lead Florence Nzenwefi gives a touching and dignified performance as man cruelly uprooted from his home and country to serve as an attraction to a bemused crowd halfway across the world. The film is now available to watch online on Directors Notes.

How and why did you get started as a filmmaker?

I made my first film at the age of 9 with some school friends and my brother. It was a 5-minute crime thriller with an open ending, because my friends had to go home and so the last scene was very rushed. I wasn’t really satisfied with the result, so I am not sure why I persisted and made two more films at high school, and then another one at university. I really couldn’t tell you where the urge comes from, other than my enjoyment of films and a feeling of accomplishment when you finish making one. For me, a defining moment came after releasing my first seriously made short film L’Apparition in 2016. The film did quite well on the festival circuit and that made me think that perhaps I could try to make a career out of this.

What drove you to pick this particular idea for a film and why did you decide to tell the story this way?

The idea for Savage emerged when I first read about human zoos and colonial exhibitions at university. I remember being shocked by the concept. I tried to find out more, but at the time there wasn’t much one could read online and the literature was mostly academic. In the following years, I read virtually everything I could on the topic and the more I found out the more shocked I was that human zoos have largely disappeared from our historical education. I felt the topic would lend itself well to a documentary, but I felt that making the film with actors could perhaps increase the audience’s identification with the main character and lead to a stronger emotional reaction.

Where do you draw inspiration from as a filmmaker? Are there films or directors that have inspired your work on Savage?

Since Savage, I have been working exclusively on documentaries - recently I have been drawing inspiration mainly from reality. But for a fictional film, you need a bit more than that - I am starting to feel that to make something good you have to utilise the art form fully, and not just copy reality. The DP Andrew Alderslade and I wanted to give the film on air of the era in which it set - so the dawn of cinema. That’s why the film is in 4:3 and there is no camera movement at all, just one little slide. We wanted to work in a visually very austere way, which is probably something I have taken from Robert Bresson’s work. I was also inspired by Steve McQueen’s Hunger.

Did you experience any hurdles during the shoot or the pre-production process?

Yes, many, but it isn’t something I like looking back on, because making films in general is really stressful, and thinking about all that is quite dispiriting in terms of looking ahead and developing new projects!

How did you get your team together?

Most crew members came through the two producers - Ted Baybutt and Allison Edwards. Actually, Allison discovered our lead Florence Nzenwefi pretty much in the street, when she bumped into a group of acting students somewhere in Soho. It was Florence’s first major role and I was slightly nervous about casting him, but intuitively he felt like the right choice, and in the end he did an amazing job. He really became the main character - it was remarkable to watch that transformation.

Once the film was finished, how did you go about showing it? Were you keen to get it on the festival circuit?

The idea was to get it to festivals - we actually worked with the amazing company Festival Formula, who created a festival strategy for it and it ended up getting into quite a few festivals and even winning two prizes.

Your film is now free to watch on Directors Notes. What do you hope this will lead to for the film and for you as a filmmaker?

I always knew that I wanted Savage to be online for free, to reach as large an audience as possible. My hope is that it gets as many views and clicks as possible, and that it perhaps teaches the audience something interesting. And I would be thrilled if it lead to some work for me and those involved.

Can you tell us a bit more about your plans in the year to come?

I am in post-production on my first feature, a documentary about a man who has built a cathedral in Spain, pretty much by himself. My hope is to break into the distribution process somehow, and get it released properly - but if you don’t have contacts in the feature film world, and you don’t have a track record it’s really difficult. That jump from shorts to features seems massive. Although as we are nearing completion we’ve been getting some interest from other companies, so I am optimistic. I am also developing another documentary feature film for TV, which would be an expanded version of a film I made last year about a Holocaust survivor, called They Never Came Back. The lady unfortunately passed away recently - but I would like to return to her story and expand it with other characters, and create something that looks at the Holocaust from a wider perspective. The film has not been commissioned yet, so we will see how it works out. But if stars align this could be a really good year!

Finally, we’ve recently marked one year since the effects of the pandemic were first felt in the UK. What would you say were your top 5 film/TV picks of that year?

I don’t really watch TV series, so I have no TV picks - but the pandemic has been a good time to watch films - many of which have been really inspiring. I watched La Haine recently, which is a great example of a film that is very grounded in reality, but works with form in a really interesting way to create something exceptionally cinematic. I have also watched The Fabulous Baron Munchhausen by Karel Zeman, which I really recommend because Zeman is a forgotten genius of cinema, whose work should be much more renowned. At the end of the year I had a bit of a Werner Herzog obsession and I watched In the Land of Silence and Darkness, which is a documentary about people who are deaf and mute and is probably one of the most powerful documentaries I’ve ever seen. And another Herzog film that I discovered last year is Strozsek in which the main characters are all very striking amateur actors who have this remarkable onscreen presence - for me as a director, seeing that was very inspiring. Finally, to also include a new film on the list - I think everyone who likes filmmaking should watch Shirkers, which is a really brilliant film about the dark side and psychological repercussions of making art.

More about the film on its official website.

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