Anthems for dead nations: ‘Cinema Komunisto’ and ‘The Miners’ Hymns'

Still image from The Miners' Hymns. ()
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The Tribeca Film Festival, established by Robert De Niro in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center to revitalize the economy of Lower Manhattan, has screened more than 1,200 films from over 80 countries since its first iteration in 2002. The 2011 festival goes from April 21-May 1, and over the next couple of weeks, Sheila will be reviewing as many of the screened films for Capital as she can possibly see in a two-week period. See the schedule of public screenings and purchase tickets here.

Cinema Komunisto begins with white words on a black screen: “This is the story of a country that no longer exists except in movies.” A cinephile’s dream, Cinema Komunisto, written and directed and produced by Mila Turaljlic, is an elegy not only to Yugoslavia, which no longer exists, but to the intense and focused movie industry that once thrived there during the reign of Franz Josip Tito, a movie buff if ever there was one.

Lenin had said, famously, “Cinema is the most important of all the arts for us” (“us” meaning Communists); he recognized the propaganda power wielded by images. Tito followed this dictum to the letter, giving cinema a very high priority in Yugoslavia (not to mention seeing up to 300 movies a year in his own private screening room). Not only is the giant Avala Studios, founded by government order in 1945, now disintegrated, but many of the films themselves have turned to dust.

Turaljlic’s haunting, melancholy documentary is an attempt to reclaim that past, to show us its many images, to introduce us to the films of that lost land. 

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The cult of personality surrounding Tito was all-encompassing, and was added to by visiting Hollywood stars, like Orson Welles, who is seen in one clip in Cinema Komunisto declaring to reporters with hilarious seriousness, “The greatest man in the world… [dramatic pause] is Tito.”

But Tito was actually very much admired for being an independent global actor, as when, in 1948, he refused to follow Stalin’s orders and Stalin threatened to invade Yugoslavia in retaliation.

He poured money and resources into the film industry, and in 1947 ordered a “film city” to be built in Belgrade, where Yugoslavians could produce their own films. Avala was the biggest studio in Europe, which also made it attractive to foreign film companies. Their sets were massive, their costume shop was an entire warehouse, their resources were inexhaustible if Tito had signed off on the project. Avala’s co-productions with foreign film companies brought money pouring into the coffers, and made Yugoslavia a regular pitstop for foreign stars who all stayed at the Metropole Hotel in Belgrade (Sophia Loren, Kirk Douglas, Alfred Hitchcock, and the list goes on and on).

Turaljlic’s documentary is meticulous and eloquent, utilizing old footage from early Yugoslavian films, mostly war films, showing the courage of the Partisans in fighting Hitler, and then, in promoting the Socialist cause. She has tracked down the major players of the time, all old men now, who speak about their glory days in Yugoslavia’s film industry as though they were yesterday.

Velimir Bata Zivojinovic starred in over 300 Yugoslav films, and is still considered the face of Yugoslav” cinema.

He was the John Wayne of his country, the actor who articulated the myth of Yugoslavia to itself, who presented a heroic, gritty demeanor in the face of insurmountable odds. He was Yugoslavia. He says during one of his interviews with Turaljlic, “We had no idea it could collapse so quickly.”

Veljko Bulajic was one of the most successful directors of his day, and his films, along with Bata’s performances, helped not only express the “story” of the country’s short past, but create it. In this, he had Tito’s complete support.

Tito was quite a busybody, apparently, and all scripts had to be run through him. He would put notes in the margins, saying, “This didn’t happen this way!”

One of the most unforgettable people interviewed is “Leka” (Aleksandar Leka Konstatinovic) who was Tito’s personal projectionist for 32 years. Every day he would go to Tito’s palatial home, and run movies for the Yugoslav leader. Sometimes it was a struggle to even find a movie anywhere in Yugoslavia that Tito hadn’t seen, so Leka would find himself racing around Belgrade pulling reels off of editing machines before they were even finished, just to be able to show Tito something. Leka is now a halting old man, but he has a lot of pride, still, about what a good job he did. In one of the most extraordinary sequences, he walks through Tito’s old house, which was bombed by NATO in 1999 and not been repaired since, telling the camera that “here is where the screen was” and “here is where I would stand”, all while the sunshine streams through the giant holes in the roof. He sits amid the rubble, holding a dusty can of film. He spent his life in service to a man who is dead andand rapidly fading from the collective memory of each the constituent peoples of his former country.

The film footage Turaljlic has found is woven together in a superb and never-ending collage of black-and-white stills, movie scenes, fragments of dialogue (one soldier says to another, “What time is it?” and the other soldier replies, calmly, “Time for revolution”), giving an impression of the sheer volume of films being made in Yugoslavia during that era. Beautifully, and helpfully to film fans, as the end credits roll, there is a long list of the must-see films from Yugoslavia, for anyone who would like to go on and check out some of the movies from this drowned Atlantis.

Joan Didion famously wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” You get the sense, while watching Cinema Komunisto, that that was a strong drive in all of these artists. They devoted themselves to telling their own stories in order to live. Without our stories, we have nothing. Any country with a working film industry is telling the world, through its movies, “This is what it is like for us”,and saying to themselves, “This is who we are, or who we would like to be."

Cinema can be a repository of cultural memory, which is why the footage of the film vault at the abandoned Avala Studios, filled with shelves and shelves of rusting damaged cans of film is so upsetting. Yugoslavia no longer exists, but its story still does. Who will tell it? Turaljlic begins the conversation with this beautiful film.

BILL MORRISON'S THE MINER'S HYMNS IS ANOTHER DOCUMENTARY that looks at a world that has now passed from the earth: the coal-mining region of the North of England. With no voiceover, and a sweeping, sometimes-bombastic score by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson The Miners’ Hymns is just what its title suggests, a hymn in praise to the men who worked in these mines, and the women who supported them, helping to create and sustain the vibrant industry England is so known for.

Opening with a slow aerial pan over the area that used to be the Durham coalfields, now overrun by strip malls and parking lots, Morrison uses a very modern technique to open what is a very old-fashioned story. Jóhannsson’s music is electronic and insistent, featuring huge crescendos, perhaps meant to call to mind the tradition of colliery brass bands in England, but also reminiscent of a giant church organ droning a hymn in a vast, unpeopled space.

Morrison has used archival footage to make up the majority of his film. The grainy newsreel images of union parades and family picnics back in the early 20th century are slowed down, stressing the idea that all that is gone now. Morrison lets the images stand in their fullness of time and length, as a camera follows a procession, or scrolls across a crowd of faces. What is so incredible about much of the footage is the direct gazes the coal workers’ give to the camera, intense and personal in a way that seems perfectly contemporary.

There is some incredible footage of the men descending the elevator down into the pit, and much detailing of the grueling, meticulous work the men did down in those harrowing tunnels. Morrison does not provide context for what we are seeing with a voiceover or with text on the screen. The images speak for themselves. There’s a bit of monotony to The Miners’ Hymns, despite the fact that the film is only 52 minutes long. But it has an undeniable power.

Read more reviews of Tribeca Film Festival selections by Sheila O'Malley.