For 35 years after the end of the Second World War Josip Broz Tito ruled Yugoslavia and encouraged the country’s filmmakers to re-write its history in his image.
In the late 1940s he was instrumental in setting up Avala Film, a mighty studio complex that would eventually produce hundreds of flag-waving war movies – often starring handsome Velimir “Bata” Živojinović – about the glorious revolutionary fervour of Tito’s wartime partisans.
By the 1960s production had exploded, attracting international figures of the calibre of Alfred Hitchcock, Kirk Douglas, Yul Brynner and Sophia Loren. And with Hollywood came the dollar, further propping up Tito’s regime and his image as a benevolent dictator.
Tito’s word was law. “No problem” was the standard answer to any challenge. Some conscripts spent their entire military service working as extras on state-funded propagandist “superspectacles” like Sutjeska, an epic recreation of a key wartime battle starring Richard Burton as Tito in what was a thinly veiled biopic.
Today as former producers, studio heads and film stars reminisce, Avala is slowly rotting away – a sad testament to a country long gone and to the brief golden age in Yugoslavia’s homegrown film history.
Both a fascinating detective story and a powerful spotlight on what was once a powerhouse of film production, Mila Turajlić’s documentary is a reminder of how far and how fast the mighty can fall. From Tito’s death in 1980 his studio complex began to decline. And with the murderous divisions of the civil war came a wish to wipe away memories of the past.
The film’s most poignant moment comes as Živojinović tours a musty museum devoted to his films. Barely any of them travelled outside Yugoslavia, and even his hits are now considered passé.