Can you introduce yourself and what you do?
My name is Stefani Ilic, and I’m a 24-year-old digital creative from Switzerland. I work with illustrations, animations, analog photography, and video. First and foremost, I am a filmmaker that tries to capture stories about being human and the reality of life. My last project is EVEN ODDS, which is a three-part web series about young creatives in Hong Kong. It’s an atmospheric piece about the in-between, the future and that certain feeling of constant pendency that is so familiar to young creatives.
What drew you to Hong Kong initially?
I was born and grew up in Switzerland in the middle of nowhere in a small town close to the Austrian border. It was a small valley, and objectively you could probably call it beautiful and scenic. But to me, it was a town that made me feel horribly stuck. After finishing my foundation year at an Art School nearby, I applied and got accepted to two art universities and decided to pursue an education in Cast / Audiovisual Media at the design department at the Zurich University of the Arts. Since then, I’ve been living and working in Zurich. Two years into my studies, I felt like I needed to take the next step. Even Zurich had started to feel too familiar, too orderly and suffocating. I looked into Universities abroad, and when I had the list of all the cities I could apply for in front of me I made a very confident but also rash decision.
Hong Kong somehow stood out to me and the only thought going through my mind was “Absolutely. Yes.” I hadn’t been there yet at that point, however, what I was sure of was that it was the most polar opposite of Zurich that I could find. I applied for the Advertising Design course at Poly U (Hong Kong Polytechnic University) and two months later, I found myself standing in front of Zaha Hadid’s Innovation Tower at the Poly U campus. Hong Kong was just as different, loud and mindbogglingly chaotic as I had hoped for and during the next six months there, I spent no time thinking back to my home that I had left it for. I instantly and utterly fell for Hong Kong the moment I stepped into it. Huge cities like Hong Kong have always made me feel a certain way. The anonymity that I hadn’t had growing up in my hometown allowed me to sink into the city and disappear in its guts. I found those creative nooks and crannies that I had hoped for and during the following six months, I tried to dive into Hong Kong as deep as I could.
What was most interesting coming to Hong Kong and seeing the sentiment around creativity here?
From the first second on, Hong Kong felt like this big creative melting pot to me. At the same time, though, there is this parallel world of intense working culture fixated on optimizing everything from processes to the people itself. To me it felt as if these two parties were in a constant fight with each other. One of the instances where I experienced this happening was with Triple X. The history of Triple X shows this exact fight between passionate people trying to build a free creative space to share ideas and music and it being denied in every possible way and it eventually concluding in its closure. It was a space that I enjoyed immensely and where I had spend brilliant evenings meeting all kinds of people. Experiencing their last event and seeing it close felt like a blow to the creative scene in Hong Kong. An incredibly admirable thing about the creative scene in Hong Kong is their positive approach. Be it dealing with lack of creative spaces, lack of free time, family expectations and any other obstructions they encounter.
The artists I met were all incredibly ingenuous and take a lot of the issues they come across with a great sense of humor. As bleak as EVEN ODD’s episodes might seem at points it was important to me to leave some small moments in it that carry a more humorous note. My protagonists are honest and that blunt honesty is what we can all relate to. I admire their outlook and the perseverance they show with their crafts and projects and how they didn’t hesitate to share their life with me. I always felt welcome in Hong Kong’s creative scene just as I felt very welcomed during the filming of EVEN ODDS by everyone involved.
As an academic project, how does this change your approach and positioning? Would this have been different if it was a passion project?
EVEN ODDS being an academic project only had positives for me. The initial situation was that I was in Switzerland, but I wanted to do a project in Hong Kong. To make that possible meant having the needed money, facilities and especially enough time. Had I not had a small budget that I could use for my flight and accommodation and four months of not having to worry about work or studies and a space to edit my videos after, I couldn’t have done it. I was lucky that despite it being an academic project, I had complete creative freedom in terms of content, design, distribution and everything else concerning EVEN ODDS. All I had was a deadline that I had to meet. This creative freedom I used to the absolute fullest. From the first moment, EVEN ODDS was a very personal project to me, which is why I decided to do as much as could by myself.
During the post-production, Samuel Schmitt joined me and composed the incredible music for EVEN ODDS which added a lot of the atmosphere and intensity that I had searched for. Last March, I arrived in Hong Kong alone with a rough plan of what I wanted to do. A lot of research, some common sense and a little luck led me to meeting the right people. Of course, I had lived in the city for a while, which made processes like location scouting and getting around easier. At that stage I didn’t really know yet what the result was going to look like exactly. I was still looking for those personal stories and deep dives into people but I have always enjoyed leaving some things up to chance in projects and letting the city and its people shape it just as much as I did. The name EVEN ODDS being a gambling term certainly isn’t a coincidence.
What sort of learnings or developments do you think are applicable outside the context of Hong Kong’s creative scene?
Now that I am back in Zurich I realize that both my Swiss home and Hong Kong leave room for improvement regarding their support of the creative scene. Both places limit creative output at times by solely relying on laws and restrictions without considering if that is actually just and of advantage to the city and its people. The human element in those decisions is bound to fall short in favor of aspects like financial gain and comfort. There is a big fear of change and lack of consideration of the other side. But change is inevitable and in consequence we should aim to be a positive creative force for both places and push it into a direction that benefits everyone instead of a single side.
Despite the dystopian undertones of each of the creatives, what is the glimmer of hope?
I am fascinated by bleakness, the raw and the unedited. To me those words have no negative connotation at all. Take Charles Bukowski’s poems in “Love is a Dog from Hell.” Bukowski has an incredible bluntness to his poems. He knows exactly that he and his lifestyle are everything but admirable and his absolute candid delivery of stories fascinates and humors me exceptionally. It is so very human and without any attempt of concealing his seediness. It’s just so very far from what we are used to see on social media and media in general and that is why it excites me. It shows the human condition at its worst.
It is different, it is bold and it is very intriguing to me. My protagonists are chasing something that neither them nor me can put into words but that is what makes everyone able to relate to the episodes in EVEN ODDS. As used we are to watching things in film end in a way that makes sense, as seldom as it is in our own lives. Things don’t go as they should, we know a lot less than we wished we would and in the end it is all a bit messy. That is neither bad nor good thought, it is human. That is what EVEN ODDS is as well. It can only show you a small glimpse into three lives and leave you without the big answer. But it might leave you feeling a little less stressed about your own life.
What was your expectation prior to doing this project? What has been the reality?
When I was deciding on my topic I was told by my mentor to think big so that was what I did. I didn’t want to compromise before I had even started and I am very glad I didn’t. I wanted this topic, I wanted that city no matter how complicated it seemed and how far away it was. During the production I had some sobering moments. How else could it have been. My production slot in Hong Kong turned out to be a lot shorter than I had wished so my time with my protagonists was very limited.
Of course, I would have loved to spend more time with them and dig deeper into their lives and creative processes, but it simply wasn’t possible because of financial limitations. I was not expecting to be able to establish such an intimate and honest interview-situation with my protagonists in such a short time. They trusted me and spoke their minds and I couldn’t have wished for more. Looking back now, though, I realize that had I had even more time in Hong Kong producing even more footage, this project would have taken a bigger team and a longer time. Like this, I was able to decide every step by myself and make EVEN ODDS what it is now. That combined with the fact that I met three very great protagonists made EVEN ODDS turn into something better, something more intimate and comforting at the same time. A universal feeling captured in three stories.