Mila Turajlic's Cinema Komunisto is a Serbian documentary that explores a fascinating piece of history little known outside Eastern Europe. Through the eyes of actors and directors, set designers, and studio bosses glimpsed both in archival footage and in present-day interviews, we're treated to the inside scoop on the golden age of the Yugoslavian film industry, one that not coincidentally coincided with President Josip Broz Tito's ironhanded reign. Filmmaking it turns out wasn't just an interest, but a top priority for this communist dictator, a cinephile who loved westerns, Kirk Douglas, and John Wayne. From the start of Turajlic's rigorously researched doc, which incorporates catchy upbeat music from the era, adding spice to the often-surprising images, we're told that Cinema Komunisto is about a country that doesn't exist—except in its movies. That politics and film are both delicate realms of illusion is something Tito intuitively seemed to grasp all too well.
Sure, Yugoslavia's film industry was a propaganda machine, but it was one that allowed artists to grow and thrive. In addition to the commie-praising pap, it also churned out flicks that "criticized things," as an elder gent states, noting that those types of movies aren't being made anymore. "With his permission you were free to do as you pleased," another adds, referring to all the stuff they got to blow up, including a real bridge. (Not even Capra could have gotten away with that while shooting his WWII propaganda flicks.) Tito created his own communist version of the Hollywood studio system at the time, concentrating talent to yield the highest results. As another talking head remembers, the sign on the door of the film actors association read: "If you don't think you are the best, don't come in."
But perhaps the most fascinating subject of Turajlic's film is Leka Konstantinovic, Tito's personal film projectionist for 32 years (who calculates that he screened over 8000 films during his tenure, since Tito watched a film every night), his heartbreak apparent as he reminisces at the site of the bombed-out residence where he used to work. Konstantinovic had a ringside seat during those wild glory days when the culture war was waged with cinema as its weapon. Originally, the Soviet Union's celebrated MOSfilm had joined forces with Yugoslavia, until conflicts with Russia—which were even played out on screen!—caused the Soviets to pull all their flicks from the country's theaters, which resulted in Tito's giving the finger to his former comrades by turning to Hollywood to fill the void.
By the '60s, a shady underworld figure was running the Yugoslavian film industry, bringing in foreign investors lured by the promise of low production costs—and modernizing it in the process. Suddenly, names like Alain Delon, Anthony Hopkins, Anthony Quinn, Kirk Douglas, Sophia Loren, Hitchcock, and Welles—who was a big fan of the cinephile dictator, naturally—started coming in droves. (The footage of these stars on their red-carpet visits makes Yugoslavia resemble Rome.)
When the Yugoslavia Film Festival launched, 10-to-15 thousand people packed its arena venue every night. Welles, Yul Brynner, and other Western biggies even acted in Yugoslavia's war epic The Battle of Neretva, the country's entry into the '69 Oscars, complete with a poster design by Picasso—only the second after his 1928 poster for Buñuel. And none other than Richard Burton, who arrived with a stunning Liz Taylor in tow, was selected to portray Tito on screen for the very first time in Sutjeska.
Of course, even Sir Richard had to consult with Yugoslavia's ultimate director, since Tito had input on every aspect of every film made in his nation. Since Yugoslavs had jobs and traveled freely, the country didn't have the feel of Iron Curtain poverty, and yet by the time Tito was elected president for life in 1974, artists still risked their lives and careers if they criticized the state. "There are films where start to finish I'm just killing Germans," laments an actor about the terrible partisan movies he starred in. But one can't help but wonder: Are mindless flicks that lull audiences to apathy any better?
When Tito died in 1980, the tributes poured in. "He lied to us a lot but we all loved him" is a line from one movie, which aptly sums up the general Yugoslavian attitude toward their departed leader. Sadly, today the country's film studio is in shambles and history is being lost. As a talking head says about the violence in the '90s that sounded the death knell for both the country and its cinema: "The house we were living in was wired to explode."