The heady days of the Yugoslav film industry during the Tito years makes for a highly entertaining slab of social, political and cinematic history.
One of 2010's greatest films – and one that sadly failed to secure cinema distribution in the UK – was a documentary called The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu by the Romanian director Andrei Ujica. It pieced together an informal history of Romania during the fraught Ceausescu years using only footage captured by the dictator's own media department.
With the excellent, if far more user friendly and conventional Cinema Komunisto, director Mila Turajlic has pulled off a similar trick, only this time telling the story of modern Yugoslavia until its break-up in 1992 but entirely through its surprisingly gargantuan cinematic output.
Yugoslav president Josip Tito saw himself as something of a cinephile, and not only made great efforts to financially bolster his country's burgeoning film industry, but would organise private screenings of all the new films to ensure that he saw them first.
His personal projectionist was suddenly elevated to the status of royalty among the local film community, as he was the only one with a direct line to Tito's cinematic likes and dislikes. And if it happened that Tito was particularly fond of a film or an actor, back-room machinations made sure that those titles were nudged into the limelight or littered with awards.
Obviously, the agressive political influence on the film industry had a major effect on creative and ideological output, with most films offering a cheerfully celebratory vision of life in Yugoslavia. Lightly revisionist war films were also highly popular, with the triumphant ejection of the Nazis from the North of the country comprising the template for a huge number of gaudy and sentimental genre epics.
The breadth of Turajlic's research is palpably vast, and she has secured fascinating interviews with directors and actors who were a major part of this flourishing industry. Not only are their testimonies revealing and passionate, but they locations in which they are filmed – grubby apartments that overflow with dog-eared memorabilia and rusting film cans, the country's now derelict film archive – reinforce what a massive deal cinema was back then.
Of all the juicy anecdotes, the best revolves around the production of Veljko Bulajic's The Battle of Neretvi from 1969. An all-star Hollywood cast were flown in, including Yul Brynner and Orson Welles. All held court at the Belgrade Metropol hotel which became the country's de-facto nucleus for celebrity hob-nobbing.
At the climax of this epic film, in order to preserve the realism of the events being depicted, director Bulajic insisted that a real bridge be blown up instead of a model. The plan was to then turn the semi-smashed railway trestle into a national landmark. And it worked, as people still visit the site in costume to pay homage to the film.
So the film is a model of meaty social history, but it also suggests that when searching for the political history of now non-existent country, we can see it all refracted through the collected cultural output. But beyond the fractured Yugoslav boarders, the film works as a general celebration of the cinematic form and how it has become an invaluable way of documenting the past.
At last! A chronicle of the Yugoslav film industry. Woo-hoo?
An informative, funny and tragic account of a thriving national cinema that was killed off in its prime.
A great way to get the inside track on loads of weirdo sixties war movies without having to sit through them. Result!