Mila Turajlic's Cinema Komunisto screening as part of Vancouver International Film Festival's Nonfiction Features of 2011 program (www.viff.org/festival).
SERBIAN filmmaker Mila Turajlic didn't really know what she was getting herself into when she chose Belgrade's Avala Film Studios as the subject of her first documentary feature.
Although employees still worked at the complex, built by Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito just after the Second World War, Avala had seen better days and nothing had been produced there for more than a decade. Initially it was just the story of Avala that interested her however the focus shifted soon after she began researching the history of the studio and discovered its significance as a propaganda tool for Tito in conceptualizing Yugoslavia as a unified republic.
The president, an obsessive cinema fan, was in constant contact with Avala during the production of films. He personally steered the studio towards making "Partisan" war films which were intended to build up national pride in the newly formed country. Tito, the war hero, was also a regular fixture in a mythic cinematic mix equally inspired by Italian neorealist productions, John Wayne shoot-em-ups and Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will.
"There was a really strong parallel between the development of the studios and the development of the country," Turajlic says. "I realized that I could try and tell the history of Yugoslavia through the history of the film studios and that's when it became more ambitious."
The filmmaker began hanging around the Avala studios with her camera building relationships with the staff. "Even today there are still people working there," she says. "They haven't made a film in something like 10 years but I think they still have 113 employees. That's a real residual of the state system - people are employed and have nothing to do."
Even though Avala had been in operation for 60 years and had been responsible for at least half of all Yugoslav film production during that time little documentation was available on site. "They have three photo albums - the one's you see in the film - that's all that's left of their archives," says Turajlic. "That's why it was so hard to reconstruct the story."
Yugoslav cinematheques and Radio/Television Serbia provided much of the archival material in the film but she also looked elsewhere for footage. "I found a surprising number of things in French archives," she says. "I know for a fact they don't exist in any former Yugoslav archives because I went all over the former Yugoslavia looking for material. That was the real find. For some reason the French were really interested in what was happening in Yugoslavia in the '60s."
Turajlic also sought out people who had been connected with the studio during its heyday as a film production centre. "I started off talking to the Avala employees that were still there and they would tell me, 'Oh you should talk to so-and-so because he was around in the '60s.' I talked to around 50 people before I chose the characters in the film."
With the exception of former studio boss Gile Djuric all of the people Turajlic contacted for interviews were reluctant to talk about Tito's film city. "They initially refused for a variety of reasons," she says. "They're old men, some of them just couldn't be bothered, some of them didn't understand why I was interested. Some of them, like the film star (Bata Zivoginovic) and the director (Veljko Bulajic), were very concerned about their public image so they were kind of weary.
"The projectionist (Leka Konstantinovic) had never given an interview before and didn't really want to talk about the past. He was like a loyal soldier to Tito so he was really careful about not disrespecting his image or the memory. I think he saw his role as preserving that legacy and didn't want it to look like a tabloid thing."
Konstantinovic's participation opened up new areas of research for Turajlic. As the president's personal projectionist he kept a daily log of what films Comrade Tito watched over decades. His involvement also pushed the filmmaker to dig deeper into Tito's past.
"I didn't expect that I would go that far or that I would discover that much about his connection to cinema," she says. "In the former Yugoslavia it's commonly known that Tito was a huge film buff but it's only after I met his projectionist and heard the stories that yes he literally did watch a film every night that I decided to try and gain access to his personal papers. I was completely blown away by what I saw because I never dreamed I would find his comments on scripts or telegrams from film crews - it literally took the story to a whole other level."
Even though partisan war stories and other patriotic efforts dominated Avala early on over time the studio established a sophisticated film industry that generated a wide range of commercial and experimental cinema. Yugoslavian films in the '60s and '70s featuring stars like Milena Dravic and filmmakers such as Dusan Makavejev and Aleksandar Petrovic were on a par with anything being made in other film centres around the world and that was in large part due to Avala.
The brilliant, radical Makavejev - a nonconformist if there ever was one - used Avala's equipment and facilities on one of his early films, Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967), without any official connection to the studio. "That was a common thing," says Turajlic. "In the '60s there was this general loosening of social restrictions so a lot of these young filmmakers were supported by Avala Film. That kind of arrangement, where they could use the equipment but not shoot in the studios, would have happened quite a lot actually."
Makavejev's films are masterful examples of editing technique and Turajlic, working with film editor Aleksandra Milovanovic, demonstrates the same set of skills in the deft handling of the archival and new footage. Cinema Komunisto is a treasure trove for anyone interested in film as an art form in general (hence the nod to Cinema Paradiso in the title) but it's also a poignant look back at a time and place that no longer exists.
Like Orson Welles' camera in Citizen Kane going over the ruins of Charles Foster Kane's estate Turajlic got a chance to film inside Tito's residence. NATO had bombed the structure in 1999 and the section where the president, his wife Jovanka and their invited guests would watch films took a direct hit.
Konstantinovic, the projectionist, hadn't been inside the residence since the day of Tito's funeral in 1980. "He said, 'I would love to go back and find my machines,' " says Turajlic. "I tried to explain to him that it had been bombed in '99 and there was almost nothing left of the building but I don't think he ever fully processed that. It took me a year to track down who actually had the right to give me permission to film in the residence. We arranged a shooting day and I picked up the projectionist and he was really excited. He kept thinking he would walk in and it would be the same as he remembered it. I think that's what made it such an emotional scene because even though I tried to explain to him, to warn him, what to expect, he really didn't fully grasp that the building was gone until he walks in. It was really emotional."
Cinema Komunisto has been touring the festival circuit and had three screenings scheduled this week in Vancouver. The film has been well received wherever its shown even inside the former Yugoslav Republic. "This whole summer I've been travelling with the film," says Turajlic. "I've been to Slovenia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Bosnia and I thought the film would be a lot more controversial. I thought people would be more divided on the subject of Tito and Yugoslavia but I keep getting positive response. I think one of the reasons is people have a real wish to re-examine that era. It's been unspoken of in public discourse for over 10 years now."
The News spoke to Turajlic via Skype earlier this week. Her film had just had its premiere in Zagreb, Croatia and she was preparing to leave Belgrade for the Chicago International Film Festival. "I will be there to present the film, which is really cool, because Chicago has the largest community of Serbs living outside Serbia. I kind of thought by now, because we're almost a year into the (initial release), it would be running out of steam but it just keeps gathering momentum." The filmmaker has prepared a broadcast version for TV and is also working on a DVD release of her documentary.