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Les États généraux du film documentaire 2019 Doc History: Yugoslavia

Doc History: Yugoslavia

In 1943, Marshall Tito ordained the founding of the Film Association as a part of the National Liberation Struggle. In 1945, when the war ended, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia started its first National Film Committee. As in the USSR, cinema was considered a powerful means of mass propaganda and a pedagogical instrument in a new society that was creating a new people’s culture dealing with widespread illiteracy. The very first films showed the tragedy of the war that had just ended. The newsreel monthlies were the first documentaries produced by the State in socialist Yugoslavia: the main topics were issues regarding Communist political doctrine, enthusiasm for rebuilding the country, agrarian reforms, the heroic partisan struggle, the People’s Liberation War and the Tito cult; they were always screened in cinemas before feature films. At first, after World War II, cinema production and distribution from Slovenia to Macedonia were managed by the State Film Company of Yugoslavia, but soon after, according to the governments’ intentions to decentralize film production, new companies came into being in each republic and autonomous territory. Some of them specialized in producing documentaries and shorts (Dunav film, Zastava, Bosna, Duga, Kinoteka 16, Zagreb film). Films were produced, distributed, and owned by the State, so censorship was an obvious aspect of the film business. Nevertheless, it was far less rigid than in other Eastern-European countries. A certain degree of freedom was always present when it came to themes, and especially style. Filmmakers were exposed to cinema from the West, and some of them followed new trends such as direct cinema: the Yugoslav New Wave was called the “Crni talas” (“Black Wave”). The authors could travel with their films to Western and Eastern European festivals and were in touch with new cultural movements. After making “politically correct” films in the fifties, which glorified the revolutionary struggle and the working class and denounced the bourgeoisie, most of the filmmakers switched in the sixties to visually strong and poetic documentary portraits or analytical essays that were critical of Yugoslavian society. Most of these short films were visually powerful and verbally ascetic: Yugoslav audience always held the documentary genre in high esteem.
The film infrastructure of Bosnia-Herzegovina was not very well developed, especially when compared with the film centres of Belgrade and Zagreb. The Sarajevo School of Documentary Film arose in the context of the work of Sutjeska company. During the extremely productive sixties, the focus turned more and more towards social criticism. The Black Wave (1961-1972) examined the glorification of the past and exercised criticism of social conditions under socialism, de-mythologised the People’s Liberation War and devoted itself more to contemporary themes. The hidden sides of Yugoslav society took centre stage. A hitherto unknown aesthetic pluralism and radicalism developed. Alongside the documentary film styles and schools, vibrant cinema-club, film criticism and amateur-filmmaking scenes came into being. The Sarajevo School did not have a fixed theoretical basis: it developed relatively spontaneously, influenced by the production conditions and the profound transformation of the society it tried to document. The Sarajevo films from the sixties, seventies and early eighties observe with empathy and remain at eye level with their protagonists. Even if a certain pathos is sometimes to be noticed, the basic attitude is one of solidarity and empathy. This empathy characterises the films of Vefik Hadžismajlović, the true master of the school. His main focus is the life of children in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Hadžismajlović’s view of children’s hard labour is not a moralising one, but instead shows recognition and solidarity. In comparison with Hadžismajlović and Vlatko Filipović as well, Petar Ljubojev and Zlatko Lavanić developed a more experimental style. It is the everyday life of the sub-proletariat and the rural population, of old people and street children that comes into view – without any worker-and-peasant kitsch or glorification. The films preserve the integrity of their protagonists. Without sentimentality, they convey a certain sadness and melancholy. Struggling against the authorities, Aleksandar Petrović, Dušan Makavajev, and later Aleksandar Ilić and Jovan Jovanovic introduced a radically new political vision and a very free cinematic approach of reality.
In Croatia, a director who introduced a new way in treating little, everyday subjects was Krešo Golik. Through the destiny of an individual, Golik portrays socialist society in many of its dark shades. A director from the younger generation, Krsto Papić, was a maestro in portraying the mentality of the people from the area of Herzegovina. Following the cinéma vérité style, Papić treated every issue critically, giving a profound analysis of the social milieu: emigration, crime, unemployment were explored by documentary cinema for the first time. During the movement in the early seventies known as the Croatian Spring, a short period of liberalisation, filmmakers such as Ante Babaja and Eduard Galić ran the risk of making films that went beyond the Communist Party codes and norms. This time of national “awakening”, with attempts at political and cultural decentralisation towards the different Republics of Yugoslavia, was rooted in the struggle for a more liberal socialism. As a reaction to these tendencies, the political establishment stopped many filmmakers. President Tito reacted severely, attacking the filmmakers as “anarcho-liberalists”, and they had to go back to their previous ideological and aesthetic positions. The Serb Želimir Žilnik and the Slovene Karpo Ačimović-Godina both suffered a similar fate: most of their films from the seventies were immediately censored. Žilnik, who took an active part in the cultural movement of the Black Wave, was considered by the authorities as a dangerous and provocative political rebel. Even if he was highly appreciated for his directness and visually expressive film language by film critics at home and abroad – his first feature, Rani Radovi, won the Golden Bear at Berlin International Film Festival in 1969 – he had to emigrate to Germany in order to work. In the same period, a younger generation of filmmakers became more involved in film aesthetics than political issues. Zoran Tadić made sophisticated documentaries about human solitude: his films were made in a rigorous minimalism, and his highly composed visual portraits were odes to the values of a simple and ascetic lifestyle. Experimental filmmakers such as Ivan Martinac and Ivan Ladislav Galeta tried to avoid the traditional narrative linear structure and followed an unconventional and uncompromising way of telling stories, characterised by surrealist and structuralist influences. Two directors who gained a special place were Vlatko Gilić and Živko Nikolić. Both were born in Montenegro, lived in Belgrade and were often concerned with aspects of life in their home country such as rigid traditionalism, hard workers, and the tough life in deserted mountainous areas. They both had a strong personal touch in crossing the borders of film genres and mixing the real and the surreal, documentary and fiction. Their contemplative, slow films, characterised by anxious moods and atmospheres, were based on metaphorical levels of reality, and the mise-en-scène was used in order to get to the invisible side of life and society. Nikolić made beautiful miniatures of rural life, a life outside history and very far from socialism: he recreated the ancestral primitive world, with its laws and imagery. In Nikolić’s and Gilić’s films, one finds only few words and a minimalist soundtrack, but a powerful visual aspect. In Macedonia, the most remarkable filmmakers were Stole Popov and Ljubiša Georgievski, two visual poets trying to free the film form from the weight of ideology.
The years after the death of President Tito (1980) brought a certain degree of disobedience and rebellion. Some political issues were more directly addressed; others, not being previously touched upon at all, were now courageously depicted: social and political changes, emigration, injustice, and people’s dissatisfaction. In 1991 and 1992, peaking conflicts led to war and the final split of Yugoslavia into five independent States. The cinema industry was heavily hit both by the transitional structural socioeconomic processes and by the poverty caused by war.

Federico Rossin

Screenings introduced by Federico Rossin.
With support from Archive of Jugoslovenska Kinoteka, Dunav film, Hrvatski filmski savez, Filmski centar Sarajevo, N.U. Kinoteka na Republika Severna Makedonija, Slovenski filmski center and Zagreb film.
Special thanks to Sarita Matijević and Želimir Žilnik.