Thursday, April 21, 2011

Tribeca ’11: Cinema Komunisto

It was a country that never really existed with an economic system that never ever worked. Obviously, Communist Yugoslavia needed constant distractions. Avala, the now decrepit Yugoslav state film studio responded with a constant stream of propaganda pictures, varying widely in quality. Mila Turajlic revisits the films and filmmakers who brought Tito’s version of reality to Yugoslavia’s movie-houses in Cinema Komunisto (trailer here), which screens during the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival.

It was good to be the Marshal. A lifelong film buff, Josip Broz Tito had a private screening almost every night of his reign. Unlike other Communist strongmen, he enjoyed Hollywood films as well as the Avala productions he took such an active interest in. According to his personal projectionist, one of his favorite actors was none other than John Wayne. He probably appreciated the Duke’s World War II films.

Indeed, the war was nearly ubiquitous in his state propaganda pictures. According to actor Bata Zivojinovic, many of his films simply consisted of him killing Germans from beginning to end. While not exactly ambitious, there is something to be said for the red meat approach. However, Avala also produced some legitimate prestige pictures, including the epic Battle of Neretva, featuring major stars from the West, including Yul Brynner, Orson Welles, and the Zagreb-born Sylva Koscina. A darling on the international festival circuit, Pablo Picasso was convinced to create the film’s poster.

Neretva was not an aberration. Western studios co-financed several productions with Avala and shot a number of films on location in Yugoslavia, often because of the country’s ready supply of vintage WWII era military hardware and their willingness to blow it up when required by the script. The Hollywood-Avala connection arguably reached its pinnacle when Richard Burton agreed to play Tito in the first sanctioned bio-picture of the soon to be declared President-for-Life. (With Elizabeth Taylor in tow, he looks distinctly woozy in vintage publicity footage unearthed by Turajlic.)

Komunisto is a fascinating film, but it is important to recognize its limits. Unlike the instructive press notes, Turajlic focuses exclusively on the Avala studio and its state-sanctioned films. The so-called “Black Wave” movement of dissident filmmakers will have to wait for their own documentary. Since nearly everyone interviewed was associated with Avala or the Marshal, they are usually rather circumspect in their criticism of the old regime, if not outright worshipful.

While the Polish and then Czechoslovakian film industries were arguably more accomplished, they also produced more significant troublemakers, like Andrzej Wajda and Vojtrech Jasny. Still, Komunisto makes a strong case for a systematic reissue program of the Avala catalogue, starting with the full theatrical version of Neretva. Largely skirting wider political and historical issues in favor of safer cinematic terrain, Komunisto is still one of the more engaging and informative documentaries at this year’s Tribeca. It screens tonight (4/21), Saturday (4/23), Monday (4/25), and Wednesday (4/27) in lower Manhattan.