Mila Turajlic’s docu about Yugoslavian cinema traces the simultaneous, interconnected creation of a nation and its film culture. With excerpts from some 80 films, “Cinema Komunisto” charts the rise and fall of a country — and a government — that embraced celluloid, interviewing studio heads, directors, actors, international deal-makers and Tito’s personal projectionist. An avid film buff, Tito gave the movie industry a mandate to celebrate, support and normalize his fledgling nation’s existence. Skewed toward historical ironies, Turajlic ignores major filmmakers and studios that belie her thesis, but her marvelously coherent tale should nonetheless travel far on the fest circuit.
Joseph Broz, aka Tito, the partisan hero who emerged from WWII as the leader of the newly formed communist country of Yugoslavia, was acutely aware of the crucial role played by cinema in the Soviet Union’s early days. Initially, that meant making films in the collectivist mode, promoting the euphoria of future-building, celebrating production quotas, extolling worker zeal and exhorting all citizens to pitch in and help.
Later, after his split with the Soviet Union, Tito did a 180, favoring Hollywood films, particularly those glorifying individual heroism (he was a sucker for Westerns). Yugoslavian films endlessly replayed the same victorious acts that brought the nation into being, generally starring the same actor, Bata Zivojinovic, as a heroic partisan in the Broz mold.
More than simply encouraging moviemaking, Tito poured state resources into designing and constructing a gargantuan film city, only a small part of which, the Avala studio, was actually built — but even that fraction ranked it as one of Europe’s largest facilities. Directors making war films could access all the planes, trucks and tanks in the Yugoslavian arsenal, many soldiers spending their entire military service acting in movies. Tito established an annual film festival in Pula to showcase local production alongside the fruits of world cinema.
Soon Hollywood saw the advantages of shooting in a country that answered, “No problem,” to any grandiose request. With a huge artificial lake, a stable of 500 horses and a costume department willing to fulfill any order, Yugoslavia soon became the favored location for historical epics including “Genghis Khan,” “The Long Ships” and “Marco Polo,” welcoming the likes of Sophia Loren, Orson Welles and Anthony Quinn.
Tito chose Richard Burton to portray him in Yugoslavia’s biggest extravaganza, “The Battle of Sutjeska.” Turajlic unearths amazing footage of Tito on the set, checking angles and critiquing performances.
The film’s last section finds Tito’s personal projectionist Leka Konstantinovic, who ran film for Tito nightly, wandering around the palace ruins, posing beside statues of his erstwhile leader. Directors, producers, actors and other pillars of the Yugoslavian film industry bemoan the demise of the Avala studio, where equipment, costumes and countless reels of film, the last traces of a now-nonexistent country, rot untended.