What’s that old show biz adage? Open with a bang? Well, Cinema Komunisto opens with a near-lethargic fizzle, pairing dated Yugoslavian footage (e.g. a bust of President Tito being put in place, a busty, pig-tailed blonde leaning over a bar counter, a man in a gray suit rushing and checking his watch, etc.) with out-of-rhythm, Lana del Rey-esque “freak folk” music (“Lyla” by American duo CocoRosie, with the choice lyrics “You guessed Yugoslavia. Well, it’s not Yugoslavia.”).
With the thesis of “This is the story of a country that no longer exists, except in movies” spelled out onscreen, Cinema Komunisto sets out to document the history, the shared near-forgotten memory, of Yugoslavian filmmaking and Avala Film (the national film studio), a cinema generally brushed aside by film scholars in favor of the Czech and Polish New Waves. Rather than taking an incisive look at the politics at play or distinguishing filmmaking techniques, the film forms a disconcerting love letter to Marshal Tito’s cinephilia and American-involved co-productions, littered with jarring graphics, off-putting music and ill-fitting nostalgia.
Once the song ends, we break into interviews running the gamut from leading man (and later politician) Bata Zivojinovic to Avala Studio boss Gile Djuric, each introduced with subheading graphics more fitting of an Ocean’s-esque heist film (“The Producer,” “The Studio Boss,” “The Screen Legend”). These bits are interspersed with brief clips from old Yugoslavian films (unlabelled for the entirety of the film, with the final credits acting as endnotes). Amidst the general hailing of Tito’s governance and involvement with Avala (it was government-funded after all), a few telling soundbites escape, including producer Steva Petrovic saying, “The idea of communism, like the idea of Jesus Christ, these are all grand ideas which need a lot of support” and Bata saying that he could spot bugging devices at Tito’s Brijuni holiday residence.
On the whole, the film is laced with a heavy, near-saccharine nostalgia for Tito, heightened by the inclusion and focus on his personal projectionist Leka Konstatinovic, a sweet, Ian Holm-looking man who is brought nearly to tears at Tito’s statue and stands aghast at the sight of the now-ruined former presidential residence (which suffered N.A.T.O. bombings in 1999). As Leka looks around at the decrepit conditions (“What have they done?”), the film intersplices with footage of the home’s lush, more bedecked past. Leka tells the camera about how Tito watched at least one film a day and we get a peek at Leka’s official log, which showed that Tito watched somewhere between 250 and 350 films a year from 1949 to 1980 for a grand total of 8801 films logged. So what if “President for Life” Tito inhibited his citizens’ rights and sought to extricate ethnic Germans post-WW2? He liked movies, right?
After years of promoting the studio to make partisan propaganda films, the government changed tack around 1962, looking for an influx of foreign currency. They put in new studio head Ratko Drazevic (aka “The Hollywood magician from the Balkans”) and began encouraging Hollywood and European investors to come to Belgrade, often to stay at The Metropol Hotel and sometimes to sup with Tito himself. This is where the film (and Yugoslavian cinema) gets a few Hollywood cameos, from ever-glamorous “It” couples Liz & Dick and Sophia & Carlo to the monumental likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles, the latter calling Tito the “greatest man in the world today.” This era produced The Long Ships (the 1964 Jack Cardiff-directed viking picture starring Richard Widmark), Marco the Magnificent (the 1965 bio-epic starring Horst Buchholz and featuring Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif, and Welles), and War & Peace (the 1972 mini-series version starring Anthony Hopkins). In terms of scale, Avala reached a pinnacle with the Battle of Neretva (1969) and Battle of Sutjeska (1973), melding the partisan politics of characteristic Yugoslavian cinema with Hollywood names like Yul Brynner, Welles and even Richard Burton playing Tito in the latter film.
Early on in Cinema Komunisto, we see a clip of a female soldier motivating her rubble-moving comrades by playing the accordion and singing, “Carrying stones is not so bad, try it for yourself.” Later, we’re shown footage of Yul Brynner playing the accordion with cast and crew onset and in the final cut of Battle of Sutjeska. Both moments, though of different eras, fall under a distinctly Yugoslavian umbrella of political propaganda; the first being blatantly overt and the second easing its way with a European-Hollywood veneer. Rather than delving into this issue and the bigger issues of government-led cinema, the film glosses them over, waxing nostalgic over a “studio” era of Yugoslavian film. Foregoing any real conclusion beyond “we miss those days,” the film goes on to skip over everything from 1980 (Tito’s death) to 1991 (the collapse of communism) with a literal ticker in the corner of the screen.
While the film appears to have a plethora of sources (including the now-dilapidated Avala studio still standing), it fails to follow through with the sort of analysis that would make this history relevant to a current-day audience, whether through politics or filmmaking. Why should we care about Yugoslavian cinema? Yes, the documentary is filled with fascinating factoids, but to what end? Why would we want to know more about a cinema whose crowning achievements (according to this documentary) appear to be little more than Soviet-esque propaganda films and Hollywood B-movies uprooted for better funding and locales?
As a Serbian filmmaker, director-writer Mila Turajic tackled a noble cause with Cinema Komunisto, attempting to shine a light on the “glory days” of Yugoslavian cinema. Unfortunately, she over-dealt her hand by betting on an audience sympathetic to the charms of a lost time and place without being able to show us why we’d want to be there in the first place.
Cinema Komunisto is currently available on VOD.