"Cinema Komunisto" (2010), which recently screened at the fourth Panorama for European Film in Cairo, is a true feat of archival documentation and storytelling. The Serbian film narrates the construction of the image of the former country of Yugoslavia based on a compilation of archival footage from film productions and film that were made at the legendary Avala Film Studios under the patronage of Yugoslavian statesman Tito.
The documentary has been warmly welcomed on the international scene having screened at a variety of film festivals around the world, notably attracting a lot of attention at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. It was presented with the prestigious FOCAL International Award for Best Use of Archival Footage in an Arts Production in May 2011.
"Cinema Komunisto" was no small task to pull off. Mila Turajlic is the young visionary behind the colossal undertaking, which was five years in the making and edited out of 1,500 Yugoslavian film clips taken from 320 films that she tracked down from archives strewn over the many countries that once made up Yugoslavia.
With this film, Turajlic felt that the importance of documenting the cinematic history of Yugoslavia transcended a mere film-lover’s interest in old movie memorabilia. During the Q&A that followed the screening, Turajlic waved off comments implying her desire to promote a positive image of Tito and offered a succinct vision of her country’s ailment.
"The real issue is not do you like Tito do you not like Tito. [It’s about] how the whole history of Yugoslavia was erased so violently that, today, people who are 18 don’t know what Tito looks like.
“How do you create a normal country if you’re always erasing the past? We cannot allow these studios to disappear. …I think we will forever be schizophrenic as a country if we keep doing this.”
One hopes that the screening of "Cinema Komunisto" in Belgrade and other former Yugoslavian cities will reignite interest in this forgotten period of history and that the studios will receive a treatment worthy of their former glory. Turajlic’s powerful documentary excels in its task and will keep audiences riveted from start to finish.
Daily News Egypt sat down for a captivating chat with a gracefully effusive Turajlic.
Daily News Egypt: How did you become interested in this subject?
Mila Turajlic: I grew up in Belgrade and these film studios are on a hill pretty much in the city center. All my life I used to pass in front of these gates that said Avala Film Studios and I always found it incredibly intriguing and mysterious. The first time I went there was in the late 90s and I was already a film student and for me it was a complete shock in two ways: At first, I didn’t realize they were so big, I didn’t realize this place had existed. But I was also shocked because of the state that it is in …a very bad state.
I became interested in making a documentary about the studios today: what happened to them, how they became destroyed. When I started researching the history of the studios I realized there was a much more important story to tell about the way the film studios were used to construct the image of Yugoslavia.
Did you need to get special access to the studios?
In theory, they’re open to the public but nobody goes in there. Nobody’s really interested in the studios and they don’t make films there anymore so very few people will go there. It took me some time to get their trust that I would do something important, you know. They were also kind of concerned about how I would present the studios because they have to be sold.
Because they were national property so they [now] have to be privatized. …It’s a very difficult thing to do because [the question is] do you sell it to someone who is interested in them as a studio? Or do you sell it to someone who’s going to destroy them and build a shopping mall? It’s a very complex situation so they were a little worried how the story of the film was going to be told.
Ideally they would try to keep them as studios?
Not really. The problem there is they have no concept of preserving our history, which is for me very upsetting and you see it in the film.
Have they not tried to rent them out?
They have but it’s also very sad. They rent them out for office space to companies that make things like toilet paper so it’s not used for film at all, so that’s really a big shame — that was the main inspiration for the film.
Then it became much more, it became this history of Yugoslavia through the story of Yugoslav films. I started researching and trying to reconstruct the way the history of Yugoslavia was told in fiction, playing with the idea of a country that was a fiction and also how this fictional story was told.
Tito played a big part in that?
The final layer of the film, which wasn’t there at the beginning at all, was Tito’s involvement. Everyone in Yugoslavia knows that Tito loved cinema but what I didn’t know was that Tito was directly involved with the making of those films. When I found his copies of the scripts where he wrote notes, change this change that, I was really, really amazed.
The final link in the making of this film was when I found Tito’s projectionist, a man I had no idea existed and I didn’t know he was alive — so it was a complete shock to me. He had never given an interview so persuading him to participate was hard. He’s basically the heart of the film because his story is so emotional and he had a really historically phenomenal position. He basically stood behind Tito every night for 32 years so he brings an insight to the film that’s really incredible.
What other surprises did you encounter?
Definitely these papers of Tito where he sends telegrams to the film crews and they send him telegrams telling him how the filming went.
There’s another scene in the film which was really fascinating for me: One of the most famous episodes of Yugoslav cinema is this huge partisan epic where the government gave them all the money they needed and the army and the equipment and it was a film about this famous moment in the second World War when Tito had beaten the Germans by destroying this bridge. What’s really incredible is that, for the filming of this film, they destroyed the bridge again, the real bridge. …I found the bridge in Bosnia so we went to film at the bridge and there’s a wonderful scene where you see people who come, in a way like a pilgrimage. It was funny because it was the [veterans of] the battle and the people who had been the extras in the film all coming to the bridge at the same time.
Were Tito’s notes artistic in nature or censorship-based?
Both. He would watch the dailies, the rushes from the shoot and then he would say, ‘Oh you know that partisan girl her fingernails are too clean.’ He would notice details, or for example, he would say this is one of my generals, he wasn’t so prominent in the battle so he was kind of correcting them historically, with ego… (laughs).
How is the cinema culture now in Serbia? Is it still a big industry?
For a small country it’s a surprisingly big industry. Serbia makes more films per year than all the ex-Yugoslav countries put together. It’s hard to explain because, obviously, there’s very little money for film so it’s a big mystery how these films get made — but they do get made and quite a few of them have now been traveling around the world in big international festivals.
I think it’s a very good promotion for Serbia. It’s a little bit like ambassadors maybe, to try and change the image of the country a little. But it’s a very vibrant film culture. People really love cinema in the Balkans. It’s similar to [Egypt]; people get very attached to film and film becomes part of popular culture and quite a few dialogues become part of everyday speech so it’s a very inherent part of society.
Serbia is quite popular now with American movies. A lot of American films are being shot in Serbia because in a way it has this history, this tradition of making big films. Also because it’s very cheap compared to other countries in the region.
What kind of problems did you encounter while making ‘Cinema Komunisto’?
Everything was a problem. I mean, all of my characters with one exception said no when I asked them to be in the film. It was hard to persuade them. Some because they thought this was the past and people are not interested in the past; some because they find it hard to talk about this time.
Also getting access to the archives was hard. I have a real love for archive and I had a real desire to research and they’re not used to that. You come, they give you their standard tape of material and you leave, and I was very insistent on demanding and getting [what I wanted]. There’s a lot of material in the film that’s never been seen before.
I wanted to go to every archive in the former Yugoslavia, so I went to the archive in Serbia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, everywhere knocking on doors.
Front gate of Avala Film Studiods. (Courtesy of Cinema Komunisto)