Kids these days don’t really get encouraged to engage with the entirety of their national history – a critical apparatus is rarely deployed to deal with failures and instead mythical narratives take over the triumphs. This pick-and-choose method seems to be the weapon of choice of so many educational structures out there and it has far-reaching consequences: perhaps if imperialism was talked about more and thought about more, there would be less people claiming that no all-British GCSE reading list is complete without an Irish playwright who often wrote in French.
Yugoslavia: How Ideology Moved Our Collective Body is a statement against this epidemic of collective historical blindness, in the shape of an experimental documentary. The film’s director Marta Popivoda was born early enough to catch glimpses of post-Tito communism in Yugoslavia, but too late to be anything but an alert bystander to all the carnage that occurred once the left metastasised into the nationalist right. She belongs to a whole generation of former compatriots that grew up in 5, and then 6, and then 7 different countries, picking up images and sounds served up as the beginning and the end of recent history. There is little narrative beyond the ‘us against them’ one, because the events were so traumatic any details would likely shatter the illusion of a great nation (or 5 or 6 or 7) escaping the claws of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. This generation, now in their late 20’s and early 30’s, woke up to adulthood as if from amnesia, with very little to go on when it comes to establishing their history but surrounded by older generations who kept referring to it. I know because I, like Popivoda, am part of that generation.
Left with no detailed national narrative prepared to answer any questions, Popivoda goes on a search for her own, examining archive footage to find traces of ideology performed, rather than spoken. Focusing on post WW2 youth work actions, Youth Day celebrations and protests, this film shows a country coming together and then disintegrating. From a distance and through the patina of archival film, the way a collective was formed and then exploded seems only too obvious. The work actions, which held the allure of visible results, brought the people and the ideology together; 50 years later, after the death of the man slightly more equal than everyone else, the ideology was decomissioned by pointing out that collective meant an absolute lack of individual. The last Youth Day celebration shows for the first time a single dancer (Sonja Vukicevic) standing out from the crowd, with thousands of eyes staring at her only, rather than a mass of perfectly synchronised performers.
Much like large scale communist public performance, Yugoslavia… takes note of how effective certain formal decisions can be. It’s edited in long passages suddenly overtaken by crescendo-building staccato sequences that create an artificial tension; the only silence in the film is the one overwhelming Tito’s funeral. There’s also an insistence on avoiding nostalgia, with the flat, accented voice of the narrator seeming stunned more than anything else. Mostly however, rather than invoking theory to justify or explain her feelings, Popivoda gets theory, namely notions of the mass ornament, social choreography and social drama, and her experiences to collaborate. It makes the film all the more intimate – it’s not a prescription on how to read Yugoslavia, but an attempt to reconstruct national narrative through what the director happens to know and do, performance, film and cultural theory.
The film eventually progresses to the 1996-97 student protests, finishing with the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic. Popivoda, now old enough to partake, observes that what she thought was a fight for democracy turned out to be a fight for capitalism. She dedicates the film to her grandparents – the ‘original’ communists – and her left-activists friends in Serbia. This gesture illustrates the complexities Popivoda’s generation faces in constructing their political identities, that inevitably get conjured in between a lack of institutional intent to ever thoroughly look back in time, vague memories of the late 80’s (the only chunk of their – our – lifetime marked with any kind of stability) and transitional capitalism built on nationalism and the cult of omni-guilty communism. Poignantly missing from this equation, as the grandparents are slowly disappearing, are parents – the generation that didn’t build Yugoslavia but did live in it, take it to war and has been in charge ever since.