Last Updated: July 30, 2011By Tags: ,

“Cinema Komunisto” is an exquisitely detailed, heartfelt look at the former Soviet Federal Republic of Yugoslavia’s thriving yet little-known film industry, circa post-WWII to 1980. Josip Broz Tito, the celebrated war hero, Prime Minister and eventually president-for-life during this time period, was a lover of grand-scale Hollywood films, which began to be shown in Yugoslavia after the country’s break from Stalin’s Eastern Bloc, and in turn Soviet influence, in the late 1940s.

Armed with newfound independence and chutzpah, Tito—who screened at least one movie a day, privately, for the next thirty-two years of his life—decided to make Yugoslavia a cinematic empire. The state-financed Avala Film studios would go on to produce ‘partisan films,’ insanely self-aggrandizing war movies that depicted Yugoslavia as an unstoppable, Nazi and Soviet-defeating force. (“A lot of these movies were absolutely terrible,” the actor Bata Zivojinovic admits; “I’m just killing Germans from start to finish.”) An Avala Film rep, Steva Petrovic, was hired to promote the studio around the globe, and gradually, foreign capital poured in, allowing international productions starring the likes of Yul Brynner, Kirk Douglas and Orson Welles to be shot in Yugoslavian countryside. In the 1973 pic “Sutjeska,” Tito demonstrated the full extent of his superiority complex by insisting he be portrayed, for the first time on film, by Richard Burton—who looks nothing like Tito.

Director Mila Turajlic took years to compile an exhaustive, undoubtedly hard to recover series of newsreels and film clips, and her passion for the subject is felt in every frame. While the war films themselves seem silly and jingoistic today, they retain an undeniable authenticity.
Real tanks and ammunition left over from WWII were pushed into rivers and ditches, and in one epic, 1969’s “Battle on the Neretva,” an actual bridge was detonated—a bridge that still dangles into the Neretva river today. It is endearing watching Zivojinovic, Petrovik and other crucial figures from that period boasting, eyes a-twinkle, about how no Hollywood film could achieve such realistic war footage.

There were, unsurprisingly, tyrannical sides to Tito’s involvement in Yugoslavian cinema—he edited every script furiously, discouraged even the slightest spin on events and eventually, as shadier figures were allowed into the industry, ruined the careers of anyone who dared criticize his regime. But it is clear from watching these candid, poignant interviews—particularly the ones with Tito’s personal projectionist, Leka Konstantinovic—that Tito’s general love of film, his kinship with artists, his pride for Yugoslavia—is sorely missed in what remains of the country today. Turajlic, amazingly, was granted access to Avala Film, which is now an abandoned, soot-filled, cobweb-ridden albatross; a wardrobe room and boxes of scripts are the only traces of its existence, and soon all of the land will be auctioned off. She also visits the once-booming Metropol Hotel in Belgrade just before its closing in 2007, and the remnants of Tito’s mansion, bombed by NATO in 1999. The swelling music and teary-eyed narrative in these scenes would feel manipulative in a piece of fiction, but this is the real death of a movement we are seeing here, the sheer dissolution of a country.

“Cinema Komunisto” could go on for three more hours and still not tell its whole story. The final portion, documenting the erosion of the film industry following Tito’s death in 1980, seems rushed and unfocused. While clearly Tito is the centerpiece of the cinema’s heyday, it would be fascinating to see how the movement crumbled between his death and the series of ethnic wars that broke the country apart in 1991; how did the people in charge of the film studio let it go to waste; and what became of the filmmakers and actors whose careers were suddenly ended? But “Cinema Komunisto” is still one of the most riveting, well-researched, elegantly-rendered chronicles of a fallen era to ever be captured on film—and a must-see for film aficionados.

Currently screening at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.