BY JOE TYRRELL
A movie whose very existence confirms and deepens its point, "Cinema Komunisto" brilliantly retells the story of a country through its films.
Midway through the annual Tribeca Film Festival, this surprising documentary from first-time director, Serbian Mila Turajlić, has claimed its place among this year's strongest entries.
As described even in its press materials, "Cinema Komunisto" sounds intended for a very narrow audience indeed. It ostensibly focuses on the aged Leka Konstantinović, the long-time film projectionist for Yugoslav strongman Josip Broz Tito.
But early in the movie, a series of titles announces Turajlić's real intention. “This is the story of country ... that no longer exists ... except in movies.” Between the words are scenes from those movies and life, often difficult to tell apart.
Konstantinović is only one of the fragile, aged men who Turajlić uses to mine the stories that the Yugoslav cinema told its people and itself. Drawing on the recollections of many who created its glory days, she assembles a memory palace that stands alongside the ruins left in the real world.
“I don't want to sound pathetic, but I feel like crying,” says set designer Veljko Despotović, looking around the unkempt and unlit Avala Film studio.
Most of "Cinema Komunisto" looks back to happier times, when lean, handsome versions of the interviewees appear as brave soldiers, happy laborers, or as themselves accepting acclaim from cheering fans, including Tito.
“We liked to work for our country,” recalls film executive Gile Durić.
“Cinema had the highest priority,” recalls the veteran assistant director Steva Petrović.
While some of that was for Communist propaganda, Tito may well have been the country's number one movie enthusiast. His favorite actors? Kirk Douglas and John Wayne.
Many early Yugoslav films looked back to the war years, naturally in triumph, or had happy workers calling the central committee to proclaim, “We've exceeded our weekly quota by 70 percent!”
“In some, the only thing I did from start to finish was kill Germans,” recalls iconic leading man Bata Živojinović, now mild but still proud.
Others recall going to factories to raise money for early films. The financial efforts succeeded, although the artistic results “were absolutely terrible,” admits top director Velyko Bulajić. But Tito was watching.
Hagiographic newsreels presented Tito as working round the clock. “I don't know when he slept,” Konstantinović agrees, but in part because the Marshal stayed up all hours to watch movies. Sure enough, Leka's records show he screened 365 movies for Tito and wife in 1957.
To find shows the couple hadn't seen, Konstantinović recalls driving to Belgrade moviehouses to borrow reels after the last show of the night, then racing back to Tito's mansion to set up his projector for wee hours viewing.
One of the most affecting bits shows him walking through the house, bombed by "NATO" -- that is, the United States Air Force -- in 1999 as part of the war in Kosovo, 150 miles away.
Standing in what is now an open space, Konstantinović points to where bushes are sprouting through exposed rebar. “My equipment was over there,” he says, before walking into a room that still has a roof and sitting next to a shattered piano.
At a time when many Hollywood directors resort to self-conscious tricks – “Hey, look at me, I'm making this movie” -- Turajlić is remarkably assured and adept. She seamlessly mixes these modern episodes with movie clips, newsreels, archival footage, radio interviews, still photographs, even documents, but all in ways that advance the story without distraction.
Once one of the world's leading film centers -- attracting actors and directors from Hollywood as well as Europe -- the Yugoslav industry almost disappeared with the dissipation of its independent form of communism.
Its hub, the huge Avala studio just outside Belgrade, survived the break-up of the Yugoslav Federation in the bloody wars of the 1990s. But with stacks of film canisters piled on shelves, the complex now faces destruction.
“I'm shocked to see this beauty, which is at the moment, ugly,” says a fixture of the Hollywood scene, Yugolsav-born restaurateur and producer Dan Tana, as he wanders the deteriorating grounds.
“Cinema Komunisto” revolves around Tito because so did the country and its film industry. The daring Partisan leader saved Yugoslavia in World War II only to remake it with the help -- often willing, sometimes coerced -- of a generation that saw new opportunities.
Following in the footsteps of Croat intellectuals in the previous century, as well as Marx and Engels, Tito was trying to infuse the Partisan spirit into the collection of small Slavic states collected into Yugoslavia.
It was fashionable now to dismiss this as illusion, as though any multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation is doomed to failure -- like Switzerland, the United States, Brazil and Canada. But Tito, who was already in his 50s during the war, was a very hands-on strongman, who left no clear heirs, only petty and murderous underlings.
Still, as the patron of the Yugoslav film industry, Tito's approved international movie outreach, resulting in projects like "The Long Ships" with Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier, whose Vikings were based in a Yugoslav fjord.
“If you want to work with Americans, never let them notice they are not in Hollywood,” Petrović says.
Under whatever name, the lands of the South Slavs are blessed with spectacular scenery. And the people, whatever their occasional tendency to kill close relations over religion and politics, rate at the high end of the human scenery scale with Russians, Chinese and Ethiopians.
And their international partners could rely on the full, if not always professional, cooperation of everyone who counted in the country. For Tito's desire for high-profile films paralleled his policy work with India's Jawaharlal Nehru and Egypt's Gamal Nasser. Their "non-aligned" movement offered the world a Cold War alternative to the Sopranos-style machinations of the United States and Soviet Union.
In an era when some places were off-limits to Americans and Russians, “Wherever we went, we were welcomed with open arms,” studio boss Durić recalls.
An annual film festival held in the Roman coliseum at Pula, Croatia, lured celebrities from Hollywood and across Europe. The lucky ones got invited to another of Tito's mansions, on the island of Brioni. And the luckiest heard Leka's reports on his reaction to the movies.
Perhaps the peak of this global approach was the international cast -- including Orson Welles, Yul Brenner, Sergei Bondarchuck and Curd Jürgens -- recruited for the Partisan epic "Battle of Neretva."
The battle itself was Yugoslavia's equivalent of Valley Forge, Gettysburg and the Battle of the Bulge. Facing German, Croatian, Italian and royalist Chetnik forces, Tito ordered the destruction of the bridge that seemed to be his escape route across the Neretva River.
But as their enemies concentrated forces on their side of the river, the Partisans hastily threw up a flimsy replacement bridge, and evacuated their entire force, including their mobile hospital with 2,000 wounded.
In Yugoslavia, anything was possible with Tito's support. For the movie "Battle of Neretva," that meant blowing up a real bridge, and dumping trucks and tanks into the river, just as the Partisans had done to prevent their capture.
"Without actually destroying the real bridge, the scene would not have played as well in the film," director Bulajić explains with no trace of irony.
Yugoslavia was a communist country whose citizens could travel, even find work with banks. Where education was free, and inland children got annual trips to the seaside.
But it was also where hidden microphones might catch casual comments, and free expression on film might be taken as subversion. Durić tells of hastily quitting after getting a private warning from a friend, the mayor of Belgrade, about a pending crackdown.
Tito's Yugoslavia survived scarcely a decade after his death in 1980. His latest replacements are doing their best to erase all trace. But Mila Turajlić and the Tribeca Film Festival are upholding what Bulajić calls the first law of the cinema, honesty. "Cinema Komunisto" keeps a time and place alive on film.
The last chance to see "Cinema Komunisto"as part of the Tribeca Film Festival is 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 27 at the AMC Village 7. It is also playing at festivals in Toronto, San Francisco and Munich.
But for a movie fan, this is worth searching out future screenings here.