Malitsky analyzes government-funded Yugoslav films

Ellen Glover • Oct. 17, 2017

Associate professor Joshua Malitsky, director of IU’s Center for Documentary Research and Practice, presented his latest paper, “Documentary Imaginary of Brotherhood and Unity: Nonfiction Film in Yugoslavia 1945-1951,” at Friday’s research colloquium.

In his research, he traveled to all the national republics that made up Yugoslavia – including Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia – and analyzed the documentaries, newsreels and nonfiction films that had been funded by both the federal government and the republics in the late 1940s and into the ’50s. In them, he found an incredible tension between Yugoslav identity realized through supranationalism (unity) and identity aligned with the individual republics through nationalism (brotherhood).

“The partisan’s foremost post-World War II solution was to create a supranational universal culture, fully reconcilable with the individual national cultures,” Malitsky said. “The goal, asserted continually and explicitly, was to fight for the ‘brotherhood and unity’ of the peoples of Yugoslavia.”

This idea started as a war slogan and evolved into a central pillar of the system. Malitsky said they chose to perpetuate this idea of a unified brotherhood through film because, not only does it allow people to actually see the system at play with their own eyes, but watching film in general is a social event. It provided a convenient way for people to come together and watch other people coming together, thus fulfilling their goal of unity.

These films showed celebrations, speeches, marches, memorials and tributes in order to bring about common messages to their viewers. They also showed laborers as representative of the new supranational unity.

Malitsky has done this kind of research before. He’s published a number of articles that look at nonfiction films’ role in nation-building. In this particular research, though, he discovered some unique aspects of these films.

One was the filmmakers’ use of children as a subject.

“Rather than highlighting the sacrifices the youths are making and connecting them to larger sociopolitical dimensions and developments, their labor is seen as social, communal and playful,” Malitsky said. “The overall message was one of cooperation, joyfulness, youthful sexuality – and I think the sexuality part cannot be underestimated – and vibrancy.”

The films did this by showing youth summer camps and placing emphasis on exercise and physical fitness.

Yugoslav nonfiction filmmakers were presented as productive laborers. But, in addition to being visible as textual organizers and class representatives, nonfiction filmmakers were national representatives as well.
—Joshua Malitsky, associate professor and director of the Center for Documentary Research and Practice

The films also made a point of showing non-mechanized labor, despite the mechanical advancements of this time period.

“So it didn’t have what we associate with that kind of communist, sort of productivist, machine driven, modernist image of progress,” Malitsky said.

Related to this focus on the importance of physical labor, Malitsky found that the films placed emphasis on the complete transformation of the land.

“These films celebrated the human’s capacity for completely rebuilding the natural world,” Malitsky said. “The natural world could be shaped to fit new, multinational demands, creating a new supranational body with new internal networks of connections.”

While the federally funded films highlighted these broad, sweeping ideas of unity, the individual national republics were also in charge of their own regional theaters and were given the resources to produce their own “monthly journals.” These newsreels emphasized their nation’s own local events, as well as their own industrial or agricultural developments. They also provided a training ground for documentary filmmakers at the time.

“Yugoslav nonfiction filmmakers were presented as productive laborers,” Malitsky said. “But, in addition to being visible as textual organizers and class representatives, nonfiction filmmakers were national representatives as well.”

Filmmakers were encouraged to work on films funded by both the national government and their national republics. Malitsky said collaborations across personnel and agencies were common.

Diversity in messages was apparent in showing these different nonfiction films. During this period, viewers would sit down to a federal newsreel, a republic newsreel, a short documentary produced at either the federal or national level and then a feature film funded at federal level. The individual messages were a bit different, but the overall emphasis on brotherhood and unity was the same.

“The point of course isn’t that people necessarily or fully buy into the specificity of the ideological arguments. What’s important is that they recognize that these are the terms of the conversation and that’s what’s getting established through their experiences with nonfiction film,” Malitsky said. “Its force comes from the fact that we see it in all its contextual specificity, experience it in all its materiality. And yet, we can’t quite say what it is.”