‘Class Enemy,’ the début film of the young Slovenian director who was named one of Variety’s Top 10 directors to watch, has already been screened at some two dozen film festivals
Rok Biček did not succeed on his first attempt to get into film school. His school mate, Nejc Gazvoda, was successful with his application, but Biček would only be accepted the following year. Biček’s début feature, Class Enemy (Razredni sovražnik), premiered in August at the prestigious Venice International Film Festival in the International Critics’ Week sidebar in August, where he won the special Fedeora Award from the Federation of Film Critics of Europe and the Mediterranean.
Class Enemy is set inside a high school, where a strict new teacher demands discipline and attention instead of the status quo, which is to let students pass even if they know their subjects very poorly. When a shy girl named Sabina commits suicide, shortly after an emotional altercation with this teacher, the students revolt in ever-more dramatic ways.
To date, the film has played in some two dozen film festivals around the world, from Bratislava and Vilnius to Cleveland and Palm Springs, racking up many accolades along the way, including the Audience Award in Angers, the Grand Prix in Bratislava and eight awards at the Festival of Slovenian Film, including the Audience and Critics’ Jury awards and the Vesna Award for Best Feature Film.
Biček’s talent is such that he was noticed by the influential U.S. entertainment trade magazine Variety, which included him in its most recent list of “Top 10 directors to watch.” The 28-year-old director worked with two well-regarded Slovenian filmmakers on the screenplay: Gazvoda, who had attended the same high school as him, and Janez Lapajne. All three are graduates of the Academy of Theatre, Radio, Film and Television, Ljubljana.
“We split the day into three parts,” Biček told The Prague Post at the 2014 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF), where Class Enemy was screened in the Variety Critics’ Choice: Europe Now! sidebar. “With Nejc [Gazvoda], I was writing Class Enemy. Nejc and Janez [Lapajne] were writing Nejc’s second movie, Dual [Dvojina, which was screened at KVIFF in 2013], together, and Janez and I were editing Janez’ short.”
The young filmmaker describes the process as long but ultimately very rewarding. He spent many months interviewing children at schools and collecting material about events similar to the one he had experienced some 13 years ago, when a group of students at his school made serious allegations against numerous teachers. Lasting some two years, the actual writing of the screenplay also utilized the considerable talents of Gazvoda “to establish good dialogue that would not tell too much but at the same time tell much more than just those lines,” and of the slightly older Lapajne, who Biček said served as a kind of “third eye” and whose much greater life experience was an enormous benefit to the development and the credibility of the script.
Real events that had previously taken place at other schools, as well as the personal stories of many in the cast, played a very big role while the three were writing the film, a fact Biček sums up by saying “real life is always the best solution” to the process. “We had all the ingredients, so we just had to prepare the lunch. If you don’t have good ingredients, you can be a perfect chef with Michelin stars, but if you don’t have good ingredients, it’s not going to work.”
In the end, it was decided that the conflict of the story would be much more powerful if the students’ anger and frustration were focused on a single target, who turned out to be the German teacher, Robert Zupan, played by well-known Slovenian actor Igor Samobor. Whereas many of the teachers in the film are professional actors, the students are all amateurs, and Biček took great care to keep the two groups separated for the sake of maintaining the tension in the film. While the younger actors spent a significant amount of time getting to know each other, they all met Samobor for the first time on the day of shooting their first scene together, when he enters the class room and is introduced as the rowdy students’ new teacher. This distance was kept throughout the production, as it was important for Biček that the two groups don’t become friendly or used to each other.
There was no “open call” for casting all the teenagers, as Biček wanted to find the introverted character of Sabina, who is a key part of the story, by visiting classes to ask who would like to appear in a film. By asking this question, he was able to notice those individuals who were more withdrawn, and in this way he discovered Daša Cupevski.
The film was shot over 26 days, with a budget of about 500,000 euros, of which the Slovenian Film Centre was the main investor, and the Vipa film studios provided services such as lighting, sound, and so forth.
Currently, Biček is working on his first feature-length documentary, which expands on an earlier topic he covered with a student short film back in 2008. Tentatively titled The Family (Družina), it explores the childhood of a boy in his teenage years taking care of his two parents, who are mentally challenged, and a brother who has Down syndrome. Biček says he started shooting footage again two years ago at an important turning point in the story, and he is looking forward to sharing this story with the world. At the moment, he is using the buzz of Class Enemy’s stunning success to get in touch with programmers regarding this project at all the festivals where his film is being shown.
“I think [the documentary] is a good link between Class Enemy and my next feature movie. I’m still working; I’m not sleeping and getting fat. It’s like being a marathon runner: If you’re not practicing every day, you won’t run 42 kilometers. And a feature movie is like a marathon: You have to practice every day.”
Biček has already logged many hundreds of miles to promote Class Enemy and to be on the receiving end of nearly a dozen prizes for his work, and his is by far the most exciting film to come out of Slovenia in the past few years.
About the Author
Hailing from the Cape Winelands in South Africa, André spent his student years at home and all over France before making the move to Prague in 2011. He has worked as a film critic and copy editor, and is a member of the renowned international association of film critics, FIPRESCI.