Weaving Serbian myths into film

Luka Tomic. Photo: John Borren.

What began as an idea of four vignettes for a group of Tauranga’s Apex Academy of Performing Arts’ actors and filmmakers to hone their craft has become ‘The Book of Vesna’, a feature film with a powerful resonance.

The atmospheric cult folk horror is being filmed in locations around Tauranga including an abandoned house in Matapihi, an ex-deputy mayor’s home and a farm in Pyes Pa.

Developing a story based around ‘when a powerful book leads to the rise of a dangerous cult, its origins must be explored’ opens up a range of possibilities for the diverse cast and crew who are made up of Kiwis from South Africa, Malaysia, Philippines, Vanuatu, England, Russia, Serbia and Chile.

“The development of a logline for the film was not initially part of the creation process but came later,” says director Luka Tomic, who along with Dhaivat Mehta and Stella Cooke, at first worked on the individual stories for three of the vignettes.

I was excited as the essence of the story was Serbian folklore. I find the mythology behind Serbian myths fascinating and I wanted to do stories based on that,” says the Serbian-born 19-year-old Mount Manganui resident who has evolved his passion for the arts from creating comic books to filmmaking, directing his first film at age 13.

At 14, a film he wrote, directed and edited won the Serbian city Nis’ Regional Filmmaking Contest.

At 17, after moving to New Zealand with his family, one of his films was shown at Camera Zizanio, the international Film Festival for Children and Young People in Pygros, Greece.

Luka met Apex Academy director Harry Oram on the set of another film, with Harry quickly recognising Luka’s potential.

“We are so impressed with Luka, he is so talented at a young age,” says Harry. “We wanted to film something and said to him: ‘These are the resources we have, what story are you able to tell with that?’”

Being able to utilise their diverse range of actors and crew was an important element. “The stories we pick need universal themes for us all to be engaged,” says Harry.

The four vignettes follow the creation of a powerful book – ‘The Book of Vesna’ – that affect people in different ways, changing the world.

Entwined into the creation ‘The Book of Vesna’ are four fame-hungry kids, an idealistic commune, a group of dangerous revolutionaries and an unstable family man.

“The plot explores the impact of ‘The Book of Vesna’ which sweeps New Zealand, giving rise to a dangerous cult,” says Harry.

“One of its leaders accepts an invitation to a famous talk show, but her intentions are malevolent. Meanwhile the remainder of the Army of Vesna are waiting back at their compound, their future to be determined that very same night.

“The origins of such a powerful book are explored – from who wrote it, to who found it and who published it.”

Luka says the original short films had to feature all the actors in the Apex classes.

“Dhaivat and I love horrors, and as we started writing it we saw that each story was connected and together could be a feature film.

“The criteria of using so many different characters and having a limited range of locations started out as a hindrance but we used it to our advantage,” says Luka.

Blending the myth of Vesna into the story became a core idea, where seemingly nice people can be something else entirely, with the main protagonist becoming the book itself.

“This story is about media and the way it impacts us. That’s at the core of ‘The Book of Vesna’ – the misinterpretation by a group of people. They see in it what they want to see,” says Luka.

“It’s similar to how opinions and politics are applied to text like the Bible and how people interpret that.”

The concept that powerful ideas can shape and change the world, affecting people’s behaviour in mild or extreme ways, is at the film’s heart.

“There are lots of religious similarities throughout. Within Christianity, there are so many schools of thought, all originally from the same text. Some are great and some are terrible.

“Just because religious symbolism is used in the film doesn’t mean I’m criticising everyone who has applied their own vision to the Koran, Bible or other texts.”

The cast of nearly 20 includes Connor Johnston, Shaun Michael, Janine Westraadt, Harry Oram and Shane Murphy, with an opportunity for extras to be part of the television studio scene.

Thanks to the generosity and support of Kelvin and Kathryn Clout, Maxine Rogers, Huntaway Horse Trek Farm and Tauranga Boys’ College and others making their properties and time available, much of the filming has been completed with about five more days remaining.

A Boosted campaign has been launched to assist with the remaining film costs and post production work. To help support the making of ‘The Book of Vesna’, visit: boosted.org.nz/projects/book-of-vesna

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