Remains of a Day

SARAJEVO, BOSNIA–The opening few frames of Mila Turajlic’s excellent documentary “Cinema Komunisto” states this is a film about a country that no longer exists. It’s a simple yet poignant epitaph to the tragedy that befell Yugoslavia in the 1990s—a country that now only exists on archival celluloid. Turajlic’s documentary, which chronicles the history of Yugoslavia through the lens of the country’s rich and successful feature film industry, has found critical acclaim on the film festival circuit since its premiere at Amsterdam’s International Documentary Film Festival (IDFA) last autumn. “Cinema Komunisto” has been described as, “the most riveting, well-researched, elegantly-rendered chronicles of a fallen era to ever be captured on film—and a must-see for film aficionado” and has won several prizes including the 2011 FOCAL Award for best use of archival footage in an arts production. Though I had heard rumblings about the documentary for several months, I finally saw it for the first time last week at its Bosnian premiere during the Sarajevo Film Festival. From pretty much the first moments of the documentary, I was blown away—it is at times funny, at times farcical and also it is heartbreaking portrait of a time and place that is, as director Veljko Bulajictells says in the film, disappearing into the fog.

During my extensive travels across the countries of ex-Yugoslavia, I have met with numerous people who view General Josep Broz Tito’s presidency (from 1953-1980) as a magical time for the country. Despite a certain repressive atmosphere especially right after Tito’s break with the Soviets in the 1950s — wonderfully chronicled in Emir Kusterica’s 1985 film “When Father was Away on Business” –there is still a strong nostalgia for those times. “Politically many of these countries are in this really bad place now—like Bosnia and Serbia—and so in a way this nostalgia for a golden past is more a reaction to the problems of the present than to a genuine rebirth of interest in Communist society,” Turajlic tells me during a phone interview. “I think it is more indication of the trouble of the present than a genuine desire to return to the past.” I asked Turajlic why she was inspired to make the film and about how she was able to gain access to Tito’s archives. Excerpts:

Where did the idea for “Cinema Komunisto” come from?

Initially it was going to be a film about the [Yugoslav] film studios; it did not have all these metaphors and meanings. I started exploring film studios and their archives and I began to realize that the story of the studios is parallel with the story of Yugoslavia. So I began thinking if I told the history of the film studios, could I tell the history of Yugoslavia? I began to see how central a role films played in Yugoslavia and how it was more enlightened than just saying cinema was used as the most important means of propaganda in all Communist countries. It felt like there was something more there. The icing on the cake was when I discovered that Tito’s projectionist [Leka Konstantinovic] was still alive.

How did you make contact with Leka, who worked for Tito for 32 years?

It was two years into the project and I was sitting in the film archives. Someone said to me, “Do you know his projectionist was still alive?” and I was like “What?” [Laughs]. It was so random. I met him and he told me all his stories and I realized there is a whole layer of Tito as a film director and it is his story that we are telling, he is directing the story of the country. And then it took over a year to get into Tito’s personal archive. There I found his telegrams and films scripts that had his handwritten notes and his correspondence with Richard Burton. Then it just all came together. It was kind of validation of my premise.

cinema-komunisto-movie-poster-2010-1020691627I never knew that Tito was so obsessed with films. Leka shows you at one point a list he made of all the films he showed Tito over the years, which tops out at an astounding 8,801 movies.

I have several theories. One is that Tito understood the power of film because he was in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution. This is my haphazard guess but I imagine he had seen what the Soviets were doing with cinema and he came back with a really vivid grasp of what you can do with cinema in terms propaganda. But also on the personal side, Tito was a great storyteller, which is obvious from the way he constructed Yugoslavia. I think he was a film director in many ways. There is a moment in the film when he says to Dan Tana [who moved from Yugoslavia to California and runs a successful eatery in Los Angeles], “Well you fled the country. [I] would have done the same if I were you.” And you kind of get the sense that in a parallel universe, if his political action had not succeeded, you could easily see him going to Hollywood to be a film director.

In the film you tell the story of Avala Studios—the first film studio founded in post-war Yugoslavia—which made over 600 films in its heyday and won over 200 awards both in the country and internationally. Now it’s facing bankruptcy.

Every time I watched an archive film from Avala and then I would go up there and shoot, it would hurt. I was recognizing things from the archives and I was seeing things on two layers; in the present state of decay but also really vividly seeing the archive of what used to be there. Most people who go in there have no idea of the film stars who were there and for me it was deeply emotional every time I went.

What has been the reaction to film across countries of the ex-Yugoslavia?

The reaction has been overwhelming. In some places, I expected to get a divided reaction, like in Serbia. And even though we got quite a few polemics in the press, we got a cinema release the very next week, which has never happened for a documentary here. People were going to see the movie with their parents so it opened this inter-generational dialogue between those who remember those times but stopped talking about it decades ago and a generation that does not know any of the story. They were asking their parents things like “Was it really like this? What do you remember?” It felt historically important. Slovenians have a different view of Yugoslavia, it is in the domain of pop culture and Tito is seen as something of a pop icon, not a historic figure necessarily, so they loved it but maybe in a campy way. In Bosnia you felt it, it was like sharing it with friends. There was a very interesting reaction last weekend at the documentary film festival in Prizren, in Kosovo. It is such a young country and the language is not a shared language. For 17 year olds in Kosovo, it was like watching a film about the moon. But for the older generation who still speaks the language, it was emotional, so it was a wonderful screening.

Western actors like Richard Burton—who played Tito in the 1973 film “The Battle of Sutjeska”—Orsen Welles, Yul Brynner, they all came to Yugoslavia to make movies. Was it sort of validation to the Yugoslav film industry to get these Hollywood giants coming over?

Absolutely. Many of the people that came here were intense left-wingers and they came to Yugoslavia because for them it was a successful experiment. There is a clip in the film of Orson Welles saying that, “Tito was the greatest living man of the 20th century.” That kind of leaves your jaw on the floor. But it worked both ways; these actors and directors like Nicholas Ray came to see if this Socialist paradise really worked and for Yugoslavia, these Hollywood stars were a validation of our international status.

milaThat rich tradition for filmmaking has continued though, despite the breakup of Yugoslavia. I am thinking about the international successes of Emir Kusturica, Jasmila Zbanic, Danis Tanovic and so on.

If you think about it from a real distance, the affinity in the Balkans for cinema has to do with the affinity in the Balkans for myths. Each of our national struggles for independence has been based on myth, this grandiose myth of the nation, so I think is an explanation of our love for cinema. After France, Yugoslavia in the 1980s had higher box office numbers for domestic films than Hollywood films. So that shows you—especially someone like Kustrica who grew up in that Yugoslavia— the tradition they are coming from.

Now that things are settling in the region, do you think we should expect to see more and more filmmakers making noise on the international cinema landscape?

Yes. There is a real generational shift going on right now. I guess maybe it is a question of timing, when a young generation has come of age and they can elbow out some room to make their own stories. During the 1990s, they were cut off from the world because of the wars and the sanctions. Cinema was developing but they were not able to develop along with it. There was a whole generation in the early 2000s who were making films that aesthetically were 10 years behind. So it has taken a whole new generation to keep abreast of the freshness, to make films that feel relevant and current. I think there is an exciting new wave coming from the region.

Photos courtesy of “Cinema Komunisto”–1st photo of Leka Konstantinovic, 2nd photo of movie poster, 3rd photo of MilaTurajlic