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“Cinema Komunisto is a trip through the fiction and reality of a country that no longer exists, and may never have existed, except in movies.” - Mila Turajlic
Often times, when I am asked “what I am” or where I’m from, the answer confuses people: “Well, Albanian… But, not from Albania…from Montenegro, which was part of the former Yugoslavia.” I still have the urge to simply say Yugoslavia, but it doesn’t exist anymore, and there never really was such a thing as Yugoslavian. Cinema Komunisto, an official selection for the Documentary Competition at the TriBeCa Film Festival this year, is a fascinating examination of a short-lived country whose narrative was not only defined by Yugoslav cinema, but whose narrative is virtually non-existent anywhere else.
A united Yugoslavia may have been doomed from day one, but one man had people from all regions sharing his Official National Dream. President Josip Broz Tito was able to create a sense of unity among several ethnicities and beyond borders, creating a fierce nationalistic sentiment for a nation that now seems fraudulent or ill-omened. Tito knew the film industry would have to play a significant role in creating the history, the character, the myth of the transient country.
Tito’s interest in film was more like an obsession, and Cinema Komunisto supplies us with several players in the game at the time, who give vivid accounts of not only of what had grown to be a pretty massive film industry in Europe, but of how involved the president was on just about every level. He screened a film almost every single night, read scripts and made changes to them, made casting suggestions. Giant government-funded studios were built, unprecedented epic war films were made, international stars like Orson Welles, Yul Brynner and Richard Burton (who was chosen by Tito to play him) shot films in Yugoslavia. A national film festival was even founded and housed in an ancient Roman amphitheater in Croatia.
Many of those films have been forgotten, the film studios gone to ruin and Yugoslavia itself split into several smaller countries. Director Mila Turajlic’s feature documentary debut illustrates preservation of a time that people are nostalgic for, but whose remnants have been deemed insignificant, because each new era tries to erase the previous narrative and create a new one from scratch.
From Leka Konstantinovic, Tito’s personal projectionist of 32 years to Bata Zivojinovic, the face of Yugoslav cinema, the anecdotes are engaging, enlightening and very humorous. Turajlic also pulls from a plethora of films from the Communist era, from the remains of Avala Film and from glamorous footage of Welles and Brynner deeply engaged and charmed by Tito to create a documentary that truly captures a sort of golden era— for cinema, for sure, but was it a true golden era for that region? That may always be difficult to determine.
Sanela Djokovic is a writer living in the Bronx
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