BEFORE I FALL ASLEEP
Producer: Marija Stojanovic / SENSE Production (SERBIA)
Total Budget: 640.000 Euro
She was born in 1982, in Belgrade, SFRY.
She graduated in film and television directing at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade with the composite film “October” (2011). She is currently completing her master’s degree in dramaturgy at the same faculty. For years she has been working as a director, screenwriter, casting director, or assistant director on film and television projects of various formats. In addition to this experience, her artistic development and personal growth moved in the direction of an engaged film, whether it be a film d’auteur or commercial film. She won several awards with her debut documentary “Occupied Cinema” (2018). The film was screened at numerous local and international festivals and distributed through the European network of independent cinemas “Kino Climates”. Her short feature film “We Didn’t Start the Fire” premiered at the “Free Zone” film festival in Belgrade in 2021. She is currently working on the development of a screenplay for the feature series “Wild Flowers” and the essay film documentary “Second Place”.
She lives and works in Belgrade.
A young cleaning lady balances the urge for emancipation from her demanding family and the moral dilemma she finds herself in, after the rich family she works for gets tangled in a corruption scandal.
Milena, a cleaner from Krnjača, is living in a cramped family house with her parents, brother, sister-in-law and niece with whom she is sharing a room. Frequent disagreements and a lack of privacy make Milena find respite and comfort in spending time with her girl friend and in seeing Siniša, a local taxi driver who is a bit older than her.
When she unexpectedly gets a promotion at the cleaning company she works for, cleaning two apartments of a rich married couple, Dejana and Petar and their underage children, Milena thinks that this opportunity may bring her benefits and speed up the process of becoming independent.
Despite working overtime, she spends her working days in luxury and harmony. The material luxury, the parties attended by powerful people, the leisure and the trust she has gained make Milena more relaxed in her work routine, and she gives herself the right to intrude just a little bit more into the intimate space of her employers.
While eavesdropping on conversations, stealing small amounts of money and things that they have in abundance, and planning to leave home, she accidentally learns from the media that Petar is being accused of corruption. Although the media are buzzing about a serious corruption scandal, the wealthy family is trying to conceal the pressure they are facing. In parallel to these events, the situation in Milena’s private life becomes more complicated, she breaks up with Siniša, her niece falls ill, her brother breaks her leg in a construction site accident, and Milena is faced with a new request – to establish herself as the head of her family.
While trying to find a balance between her family’s expectations, new situations at work, and her own ambitions, she discovers that she is pregnant. That knowledge suddenly forces her to resign, pack her belongings and her diploma, and leave her family home.
I had the opportunity to visit an acquaintance who lives in a luxurious and controversial neighborhood in the center of Belgrade. It has multi-story buildings with receptionists, spaces for entertainment and recreation, swimming pools, conference halls and spacious plateaus, which in no way resembles the remainder of Belgrade, let alone Serbia in a broader sense. And while our acquaintance proudly showed us the exclusive contents of this Disneyland for adults, we met a young woman, a cleaner who in a Sisyphus-esque manner kept cleaning the busy foyers. Our guide discreetly told her that there was a time when that work should be done, and she just smiled politely at him.
The visit ended, and the euphoria was replaced by a kind of revolt towards the arrogant host and his sense of higher value. And as my resentment towards the arrogance and self-sufficiency of the world of the privileged grew, I began to think intensely about the only outsider in the story, not myself, but about that girl-cleaner and the context in which I met her. Who is this girl, where does she live, how did she get the job and is she satisfied with it, what does she think about her workplace and the people who live there, is she angry, indifferent, and would she ever dare to oppose an arrogant asshole like our host? I slowly began to add layers to that girl’s world in my imagination.
Theme and idea
“Before I Fall Asleep” examines women’s experience of emancipation in a world full of exploitation and abuse. The story follows the heroine’s intimate journey in realizing her own needs and desires as she moves through two deeply polarized social strata, the working-class milieu of the suburbs and the controversial luxury neighborhood in which she gets a job.
The decision to give a voice to this girl lies in the desire to humanize her and present her as an equal human being with virtues, flaws and integrity. The essence of life, reflexes and the culture of survival in the Balkans is not in the establishment, but on the social margins.
The film plays with the motifs of labor exploitation and self-exploitation, but also with a psychological and sociological analysis of the relationship between the servant and the master. This drama questions the instinct for belonging, closeness and emancipation, but also the scope of that realization, with the goal of outlining the psychological profile of a girl from the Belgrade suburbs that we meet every day on the street, but never notice.
Milena (25) is strong, direct but also assertive and servile when needed. She can endure a lot, people in her surroundings knows that, that is why expectations and tasks are set before her, and no one ever asks her what she really wants from life. Since she is forced to constantly defend her personal space, she can be defensive and rude. Milena’s lack of trust in people keeps her alert, while she finds a sense of control in physical work and constant movement. Despite all that, Milena is sure that there is still a piece of free sky that awaits only her.
Her spoiled brother and unambitious sister-in-law (27) make Milena’s position in the house difficult. Her brother (34) compensates for his inferiority by constantly belittling her choices, and the sister-in-law is jealous of Milena’s because of the relationship she has with her daughter. Only in the presence of her friend Danica (25) can she be “disobedient”, while with Siniša (36), with whom she has a kind of open relationship, she can express her feelings, making her unusually vulnerable in that relationship. When she gets a new job, she easily gains trust, especially of Dejana, and for the first time she meets a person who respects her ambition to become a professional make-up artist. Dejana (50), a woman from an old civil Belgrade family, is married to powerful nouveau-riche Petar, who is involved in murky affairs at the city level. Although she seems satisfied at first glance, Dejana is a lonely woman who doubts both herself and her choices. Her relationship with Petar (48) is more like a business partnership than a loving relationship. Petar, the boy-toy guy, is focused on his body and self-image. He sexually objectifies Milena, and has an ambivalent attitude towards her.
“Before I Fall Asleep” is a psychological and social drama that portrays the raw and contrasting world of post-transition Serbia in a realistic style.
The information we receive would come mainly from Milena’s point of view, creating her atmospheric view of her immediate surroundings. It is fresh, curious, focused on the characteristics of the person and the surroundings – Dejana’s silk blouse, Siniša’s earring, Jasna’s body language, a full fridge, her niece’s scribbles on the wall, the neighbor’s loud children, people in the street, her own body. It explores the characteristics of people and the situations in which they find themselves. Despite that, there is no such sensitivity in her work routine. Through her work, Milena is decisive and dominant, establishes control and conquers space.
The atmosphere in Milena’s house is cramped, full of things, children’s toys, objects. The camera would follow the complex mise-en-scène more directly here. Here, the characters would constantly pass each other, making contact, which would create the impression of Milena’s lack of personal space, while with the wealthy family she is at a distance, the space between these bodies is larger, and thus Milena’s view becomes more voyeuristic and contemplative. The camera would be calmer here, and the mise-en-scène would bring more suspense.
The rhythm and poetics of the film would be built on the changing between these viewpoints, i.e. the main flows of the story, in medias res and through the intensity of the main character. As Milena’s situation becomes more complicated, and the space for decisions narrows the mise-en-scène, it would become more complex, and the shots longer. From Anja’s escape from home, Milena’s brother’s accident on the construction site, the last gathering at the luxurious apartment, Milena’s view of her surroundings changes, she becomes more and more absent while deep inside her there is growing internal pressure to make a final decision and find a way to escape the gloomy and predetermined environment.
The film’s color palette would separate the two social milieus and create two separate emotional tones. The working milieu would be warmer and with more contrast and color while the world of the rich would be simpler and colder. Simplified natural lighting, taking into account the third dimension, contrasts, transitions from light to darkness would provide a realistic representation of the characters.
The summer period in which the story would take place is to evoke the fullness of city life, on the one hand it is a scorching ambience of a family house and a poor neighborhood where people are sweating and cooling down with fans and old air conditioners, while on the other hand we have well-cooled, practically cold apartments of the wealthy.
Film references: Fish Tank; American Honey; Don’t Look at My Plate; Elena; The Celebration
The films of Andrea Arnold, American Honey and Fish Tank, are a good example of the way I would like to portray the social margin, the viewpoint of the main character as well as her need for movement, action and interaction. Also, these films are important in the context of treating female sexuality, and relationships with older men (Fish Tank).
Don’t Look at My Plate is a good reference for the way the home atmosphere is presented, patriarchal family relationships, mental and spatial claustrophobia and the atmosphere of summer. The maturity of the main protagonist is also important here, which in some aspects corresponds to Milena’s character. Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Elena is a good example of how to portray the relationships within a rich family at the level of production design, atmosphere, spaciousness, coldness, while the film The Celebration by Thomas Vinterberg is a great example of portraying dysfunctional family relationships of rich people, regarding the way celebrations in their apartment would look like, not so much in terms of visual style but of the noisy atmosphere, physical appearance, passive-aggressive behavior.