In Serbian political past, filmmaker finds art

Filmmaker Mila Turajlic said that while documentaries can communicate political messages, they are also a platform for artistic expression.
Filmmaker Mila Turajlic said that while documentaries can communicate political messages, they are also a platform for artistic expression. Photo by Blair Seideman.

How does one document the history of a country determined to erase its own past? Serbian film director Mila Turajlic discussed this problem at a Master’s Tea in Pierson College on Monday.

Turajlic’s first film, “Cinema Komunisto” tells the story of how Communist dictator Josip Broz Tito manipulated the Serbian film industry to create an illusion of a united Yugoslavian identity in the 1950s and ’60s. The narrative is told through interviews and clips from fiction films made in Serbia under Tito’s regime, and Turajlic said the movie “plays with the idea of a fictional representation of a country.”

Turajlic, who was born in Belgrade in 1979 to politically active parents, began by discussing her own journey to documentary filmmaking. She said she initially studied politics and worked with debate organizations, but after the 2003 assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, which Turajlic described as “really a failed coup d’état,” she became increasingly disillusioned with politics and more and more drawn to film.

Studying filmmaking in Paris left Turajlic “completely starry-eyed,” she said, adding that “cinema still has a very elevated status [in France].” Throughout the talk, Turajlic noted differences between the film industry in the United States and Europe. She said that in America documentaries are often thought of solely as promoting various social and political messages, while in Europe they are treated as an art form in their own right.

Turajlic also described her experiences working on various American films which were being shot in Serbia while developing “Cinema Komunisto,” saying she tried to get jobs as close to the director as possible, in order to keep learning the craft herself. Turajlic spent a year in Mexico working on hair and makeup for Mel Gibson’s film “Apocalypto,” noting that witnessing the large scale of the production and attention to historical detail was a key experience in her career.

While acknowledging the horrors of Tito’s regime, Turajlic said that her own attitude towards the dictator evolved from dismissal to respect over the course of her research. As Turajlic read through Tito’s private documents, including his correspondence with Hollywood celebrities such as Kirk Douglas and Richard Burton, she said she began to understand his vision for the country.

“He was a serious statesman … with a vision of how to brand and project [Yugoslavia] internationally,” she said. “None of that exists [in Serbia] today.”

Turajlic reiterated her disappointment with Serbia’s ongoing failure to reckon with its past, explaining that the frequent turnover in political regimes has led to “a cyclical erasing of the past.” She said that young people in Serbia today have very little understanding of the events the country saw in the ’90s, when Yugoslavia dissolved into small ethnic states and Serbia went to war with Kosovo.

Turajlic described the Military Museum in Belgrade’s closing of its exhibit about World War II as a symbol for Serbia’s lack of dialogue with its communist past.

“We have no new narrative for Serbia,” Turajlic said, “we are living in a vacuum, with no official story.”

However, Turajlic said that she tried not to allow “Cinema Komunisto’s” political message to overshadow the movie as a work of art. Turajlic said that when she began the project her approach was too heavily academic, and that she has undergone a journey to make it “a film in every sense of the word … moving, entertaining, often funny,” adding that the final product may be “faulty academically,” but satisfying artistically.

Justine Kolata ’12, who attended the tea, said Turajlic’s talk reaffirmed the idea that the arts are “a very powerful instrument for informing and educating.”

Blair Seideman ’14 said she was particularly struck by what Turajlic had to say about the differences between American and European approaches to documentary filmmaking, and that the talk inspired her to explore more European documentaries. Seideman is a staff photographer for the News.

“Cinema Komunisto” premiered at the Tribeca film festival and has won 14 awards to date.

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