The power of documentary filmmaking can often be found in its ability to make you fascinated and entertained by subjects that you either know very little, or absolutely nothing about. Sadly, this is not quite the case in Mila Turajlic’s directorial debut Cinema Komunisto (2010), which focuses on the history of former Yugoslavia through the lens of its prolific cinematic output under Marshal Tito’s rule. Set amidst enormous crumbling sets and cavernous production studios, we journey through a detailed history of Tito’s personal love of cinema and the films produced in Yugoslavia before its ultimate collapse in 1992.
These sets and studios are now sadly in tatters, but amazingly many who worked in the industry have meticulously kept papers, props and all manner of film paraphernalia from the era. Unfortunately, this fact is not given the attention it really deserves and despite its historical worth, such impressive archiving ends up coming across as dull subject matter. Regardless, Tito clearly adored cinema and each night would watch reel after reel of films with his loyal projectionist Leka Konstantinovic, interviewed throughout the film alongside notable producers and directors of the period.
There are many fascinating anecdotes provided, ranging from the destruction of an actual railway bridge during the shooting of partisan war film The Battle of Neretva (1969) (incidentally now a popular tourist attraction) to personal recollections of Tito’s idiosyncrasies. Much of the now non-existent country’s output were war films detailing the efforts of local militias to liberate their country, yet in the cold light of day these trinkets now seem little more than propaganda, feeding the cult of Tito’s Yugoslavia in his role as a hero of the people. Cinema Komunisto’s adoration of Tito is at times also hard to stomach, constantly tainted with a nostalgic slant upon what by many is still seen as an idyllic time – forgetting the massive debts that left the country in tatters after Tito’s death in 1980.
More interesting are the moments that show the flocking of American and British actors/directors such as Orson Welles and Richard Burton, cashing in on Yugoslavia’s movie enterprises, cast as billed names to sell the productions abroad. Equally fascinating are the moments examining the glitz and glamour of the Pula Film Festival (which still runs today in Croatia). This yearly spectacle was, and is, held in a Roman amphitheatre in what is essentially the Yugoslavian answer to the American Academy Awards. Yet despite the wealth of history at play here, with Cinema Komunisto only succeeds in providing a surface level treatment of the issues at hand.
Tragically, there is nothing here about the darker times; the conflicts that gave birth and subsequently death to the republic are constantly masked. If anything, this makes Cinema Komunisto feels like a piece of communist filmmaking, in the same way that Stalin would parade his huge armies and endless tanks masking the poverty and crimes that lay behind it. The worst sin of all, though, is that Turajlic’s documentary is simply dull to watch. There is little zest, no energy; just a groaning two hours of tremendous hard work for little or no reward.