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Mila Turajlic: Cinema Komunisto

Join the director of this cinematically historical doc as she takes you through decades of Yugoslavian cinema; it's like touring a country that no longer exists.


Tribeca: Tell us a little about Cinema Komunisto, in your own words.


Mila Turajlic: Cinema Komunisto is a trip through the fiction and reality of a country that no longer exists, and may never have existed, except in movies. Using films and the stories behind-the-scenes to reconstruct the rise and fall of Yugoslavia, it takes you through the silver screen into the time of communist Yugoslavia. Under President Tito, who was a huge film lover, the film industry was given the task of creating a narrative for a new country, and they did it in the most megalomaniacal way—creating one of the largest film studios in Europe, bringing stars like Orson Welles and Sophia Loren to star in the films, and in one case even destroying a real bridge to re-create a famous episode from the war. Through the stories of Tito’s personal projectionist, who showed him a film every night for 32 years, we begin to see Tito’s role in a new light—as Chief Illusionist, at once both director and biggest fan of the story taking shape on the screen.


Tribeca: In your film, you really tell a 50+-year history of, as you say, “a country that no longer exists.” As someone so young, what inspired you to tell this story?


Mila Turajlic: I was born into Tito’s Yugoslavia, and many aspects of the personality cult and the communist system shaped my childhood—like being inducted into the ‘pionir’ movement, and swearing my loyalty to Tito (who at that point had been dead for 7 years). I vividly remember the day his picture was taken down from our classroom wall, and the portrait of Milosevic that replaced it. Tito’s Yugoslavia was so emphatically erased during the 90s that by 2000, very few traces of it existed. And then in the last ten years, a lot has been done to erase Milosevic and all we went through in the 90s from official memory.


So, my motivation was a revolt against this pattern of erasing things and starting from zero, because I really think that’s the origin of most of the problems Serbia today faces.


Tribeca: What did your research entail? How did you find your subjects?


Mila Turajlic: Researching this film was a lot like detective work. My main source were old film workers who know better what you can find in archives than the people working in them today, and they would give me leads on things that maybe still existed, which I would then chase. A lot of stuff disappeared or was burned in the bombing in the 90s, so often there was no way of knowing what was in a box or vault, and I just persuaded them to let me look at everything—that’s how we found some incredible archive no one’s ever seen before.


Gathering 320 old Yugoslav films took over a year, and I had to go and barter them with these intense collectors who wouldn’t give me films unless I could offer them something they didn’t have. I then wrote time-coded notes while I watched the films and pulled scenes from them that I thought were good illustrations of life in Yugoslavia, the ideology, or just plain fun.


In the end, we had a database of around 1500 clips from feature films, which I indexed so that in the edit room I could find things quickly—for example, if we decided to do a montage of ‘funny deaths from partisan films,’ I could just enter those search words and I’d get 50-60 such scenes.


I talked to around 50 people before I settled on my characters, and for the most part they turned me down when I asked them to take part. It took some time to find the right argument to persuade them to participate—I think they realised that I was just going to keep coming back, with new pieces of archive that I found or new questions, and that I was incredibly passionate (obsessed is probably more accurate) about making this film.


Cinema Komunisto


Tribeca: This was clearly an ambitious project, on a huge scale. How were you able to make it so personal?


Mila Turajlic: For me, it’s always been a personal story. The idea to use clips from feature films came because I saw these films as a family photo album, a place where I could find images from my childhood.


The sight of the film studios today, the run-down state they’re in, drives me to rage and tears, because it’s a personification of what has happened to the entire idea of the country I was born in. Going to the film studios always felt like I was entering my own secret garden, and I just wanted the freedom to explore it and record what I saw.


Tribeca: What's the craziest thing (or "lightning strikes" moment) that happened during production?


Mila Turajlic: The whole shoot was pretty intense, because in most cases we knew we were the last people who were going to be filming in that particular place, or talking to that character, as many of them are quite old. Actually, several of them died after we interviewed them (which is when my crew members announced they would never let me interview them). So there was a sense of historical importance in what we were doing.


The biggest turning points in the film were getting access to Tito’s personal archive (which took a year of lobbying), where I discovered the extent to which Tito had been involved in the making of the films, and discovering that his personal projectionist was still alive. That’s when I realised that we could take the story to a whole new level.


Tribeca: As this is your first feature-length film, what's your advice for aspiring filmmakers? And for women, in particular?


Mila Turajlic: I think the biggest lesson I learned is that having time is almost more important than having money, because time is what allows you to build relationships with your characters and collaborators. Something else I would advise is: don’t be afraid of having people think you are crazy—I went back to the archives so often to look for things, and insisted so much on being shown outtakes and discarded reels, that all the employees there looked at me as if I was some lunatic who just wouldn’t go away.


Cinema Komunisto


Tribeca: Who are some of the documentary filmmakers who influenced you?


Mila Turajlic: Agnes Varda stands out in terms of her sense of play in approaching documentary form—and form to me is as important as content. For me, the biggest challenge was to make a historical documentary that feels fresh, and to make archival material feel relevant and alive, and in this I was very inspired by documentary filmmakers who have really played with using archive—particularly Errol Morris and the work of Erik Gandini and his editor Johan Soderberg. Oliver Stone’s JFK also had good examples of how a lot of factual information and paperwork could be made visually stimulating.


Tribeca: What are your hopes for Cinema Komunisto at Tribeca? Do you think New York audiences will be surprised by it?


Mila Turajlic: I definitely think people are about to discover a story they’ve never dreamed of—because the combination of Hollywood film stars and Tito’s Yugoslavia is so bizarre. And while I think they will love the anecdotes and be surprised by this coming together of reality and fiction, I also think that it offers another way into understanding the whole nature of Yugoslavia and why it collapsed.


Tribeca: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead), who would it be?


Mila Turajlic: I wouldn’t be that interested in having dinner with a filmmaker as much as having a chance to shadow them while they work—just to see them in action for a moment—like Errol Morris in the cutting room, or Agnes Varda on the night before a shoot, or Paul Greengrass planning his shot list with his DP, or Fellini and Nino Rota trying out ideas at the piano.


Tribeca: What piece of art (book/film/music/tv show/what-have-you) are you currently recommending to your friends most often?


Mila Turajlic: The Selected Works of TS Spivet has been keeping me spellbound for a while—but I’ve been keeping it to myself like a secret, instead of sharing it around.


Tribeca: What would your biopic be called?


Mila Turajlic: I had one good title in me—Cinema Komunisto took that.


Tribeca: What makes Cinema Komunisto a Tribeca must-see?


Mila Turajlic: You haven’t been surprised or moved to both laughter and tears by a historical documentary like this in a long time. And you’ll be boring your friends by re-telling them all the anecdotes you heard, so it’s better if you bring them along as well.


Find out where and when you can catch Cinema Komunisto at the Tribeca Film Festival.


Browse all this year's Festival films in the 2011 Film Guide.


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