Monday, 28 January 2013

Cinema Komunisto (2010)

When he wasn't busy oppressing the people and leading North Korea into starvation and ruin, Kim Jong Il loved to relax with a movie, either from Hollywood or from his own subsidised state dream factory. However, he was by no means the first Communist dictator to do so. Over in 1940s Yugoslavia, Marshal Josip Broz, better known by his nickname, Tito had similar ideas, lapping up Westerns starring John Wayne and Kirk Douglas, and planning to harness the power of cinema to promote and build his authoritarian Communist regime. Cinema Komunisto tells the fascinating and poignant story of the Avala Studio and the Yugoslav film boom of that era, an industry that at its height attracted the likes of Orson Welles, Richard Burton and Yul Brynner.

What is obvious from the beginning is how much pride so many of the people involved in the industry still have in the work they did, some of which revolves around the opportunities to rub shoulders with the big Western stars of the day, and show them that their work was just as good as anything from America. Where their Hollywood counterparts might have had to use model work to show a bridge being blown up, in Yugoslavia, they would simply ring up their beloved leader Tito, who would grant them permission to blow up the real thing.

What is not so obvious is what to make of the films themselves. The clips provided are too fragmented and diverse to be able to judge the style or quality, and most seem overly derivative of Hollywood war films and Westerns of the 1940s to 1960s, with their easily definable good and bad guys, and bloodless shootings. The propaganda is pretty blatant and unsophisticated at times, with songs about how breaking rocks is fun, and endlessly quotable dialogue such as "Tell the Communist party we have exceeded our quota by 70%"

The figure towering behind all of this is Tito, with his love of film and understanding of its use as a tool to invent the story of the revolution. This understanding would sometimes see him getting involved in the production side of things, personally annotating scripts with handwritten suggestions, or corrections to things he felt were factually incorrect. Tito is still held in genuinely high regard by many of the interviewees, perhaps not surprisingly, given how well they did professionally out of their leader’s cinematic obsession. Some of the Hollywood types seem a little star-struck themselves, with Brynner singing Tito's praises in a French TV interview and, in a particularly unedifying clip, Welles proclaims that “…it is a self-evident fact that Tito is the greatest leader on earth”. To his credit, Richard Burton, who ended up playing Tito in The Battle of Sutjeska, seems, from the footage shown, more reserved and detached, with the real life Tito fawning over him like a breathless fan. Only towards the end of the documentary do we get an admission of a darker side to the Utopia, with hints at the repression, and purging of dissidents and enemies of the state, all too familiar in totalitarian regimes.

Nothing lasts forever though, and with the death of Tito, the once mighty Yugoslav film industry began to disintegrate. More chillingly, as we are shown, without his presence to unify and bind the country together, so did Yugoslavia itself, descending into barbaric conflict that led eventually to NATO intervention (including bombing the very mansion where Tito sat watching films nearly every night). The studio now lies rotting and abandoned, the films lie rotting and unwatched, and the communist revolution that powered them has been consigned to history. Cinema Komunisto does an excellent job of shining a light on a previously neglected side of World Cinema, and by charting the rise and fall of Avala Studio, presents a perfect metaphor for the rise and fall of the country of Yugoslavia.