Director Mila Turajlić’s debut documentary, “Cinema Komunisto,” has screened around the world, garnering her a multitude of awards and international recognition.
Turajlić spent four years hunting down archival material, often saving footage from complete abandonment and physical disrepair. Through her fervent efforts, Turajlić found and filmed President Josip Tito’s personal film projectionist. It is through his stories that audiences gain a view of Yugoslavia, and Tito’s involvement as the country’s master storyteller, that has never before been seen or heard.
Mila Turajlić: Basically, “Cinema Komunisto” is a documentary about the way cinema was used in the former Yugoslavia to create an official narrative, or an official dream, for the country. The whole story’s framed by the old film studios that were built by the communist government and by the fact that Tito, who was the Yugoslav dictator, was a big film fan.
Tito was in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution. So I think he kind of had a firsthand insight into this whole philosophy of Lenin that film was the most important of all the propaganda forms. And definitely when dealing with a population that was largely illiterate, film was definitely a more powerful way of projecting this message of, you know, the new social order than any other media.
Man (translated): This new, better life that we are building with our own hands – this is the socialism into which our party and Tito are leading us!
Crowd (chanting): Tito rapido! Tito rapido!
Turajlić: The research for this film took about four years, which I didn’t dream of when I started. I simply thought, “OK, let’s try and reconstruct the history of the studios.”
So I went into the Yugoslav newsreels, which were our biggest kind of archive that documented the events from 1945 onwards. And it was really difficult to do the research because none of it has been digitized. In many cases, the archive was either flooded or suffered some kind of destruction. So it’s kind of impossible to physically find the reels.
So what I did was, I would talk to the people who were the characters in my films, or I would talk to other old film workers, and they would tell me of events which they believed must have been filmed. Then I would go into Tito’s private archive and figure out the probable date when these took place. And then I would go into the newsreels and say, “OK, can I look at everything you have from this month? Or everything you have from that year?” And that’s when I started finding material that no one’s ever seen before.
The biggest discovery, in terms of the way the film took shape, was when I realized that Tito’s personal projectionist was still alive. This was a good two years into my research.
Tito’s projectionist (translated): Comrade President Tito, I was your projectionist for 32 years, and I am grateful for every one of them.
Turajlić: He’d never given an interview before. He – uh – and he didn’t want to give an interview. Really, when he started kind of exploring the space that he hadn’t been back to in 30 years, he started opening up.
He stood behind Tito every single night for 32 years because he showed Tito a film every single day for 32 years. But through his stories, you really begin to get a picture of Yugoslavia, or of Tito, that I don’t think has ever been put together before.
Filmmakers had sent him scripts, where he had written notes on the margins, his own kind of personal commentary – particularly in the war films which dealt with Tito’s role in the war.
Man reading Tito’s notes (translated): “This is not what really happened.”
“I will read the script and give my opinion. I should not be shown in the film.”
Turajlić: The intertwining of politics and film became very clear when I went into his archive. They revealed the extent to which he really was the master storyteller of Yugoslavia.
I don’t think “Cinema Komunisto” is a true representation of the history of Yugoslavia. But I think it is a study in how a government used fiction and illusion and cinema in order to create what was the official narrative of the country.