Bosnian Cinema in the Socialist Yugoslavia and the Anti-Yugoslav Backlash

By Nebojša Jovanović

© Nebojša Jovanović, 2012

Let me start by expressing my darker purposes. When Trevor L. Jockims kindly invited me to contribute to the KinoKultura issue on cinema of Bosnia and Herzegovina, my reflex was to deliver an article on Bosnian cinema in the socialist Yugoslav state, as something that is the subject of my on-going research anyway. The piece would amount to a standard historical panorama, unravelling from the late 1940s, when Bosnian cinema was founded as a substantial part of the socialist cultural revolution in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a federal unit within the post-World War II Yugoslavia, to the early 1990s, when, in the process of the dismantlement of the Yugoslav federation, Bosnia and Herzegovina was internationally recognized as an independent state. The overview would have rounded up the most important and iconic filmmakers, institutions, film titles, and events; an occasional curio would pop up here and there, like, say, Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin frolicking in a 1971 partisan film in all of their “Je t’aime (moi non plus)” sassiness.

Yet the present-day historical narratives about Yugoslav cinema, with Bosnian cinema as its integral part, have initiated me to do otherwise. I will not dwell here on the relation between history and ideology: to say that the writing of cinema history, like any other history-writing, is an interpretative and ideologically invested activity, must ring as a commonplace today. That being said, the predominant post-Yugoslav historical accounts of Yugoslav cinema do not simply showcase how history-writing can be dramatically shaped by the present-day ideological imperatives. Instead, they push it to the point of paroxysm. The assumption that Yugoslav cinema ought to be wiped out as an object of historical inquiry, held by some of the most influential film critics and historians in “Yugosphere,” hardly will surprise anyone who knows how thoroughly the anti-socialist and anti-Yugoslav ressentiment suffuses the post-Yugoslav ideological landscape.

Can this anti-Yugoslav backlash in film criticism and history be neutralized by the conventional chronological overviews that would go immediately for the historical facts, and pay no heed to the dominant ideological outlooks and mechanisms of the present? Not really, I believe. I will thus approach the history of Bosnian cinema by polemically assessing the backlash narratives on Yugoslav cinema. Accordingly, this article will not aim at unearthing and chronologically arranging the past of Bosnian cinema “as it really was.”[1] Instead, I will use the names, titles, and events from the past of Bosnian cinema as the elements in a conflict of interpretations that should reveal which aspects of Yugoslav/Bosnian cinematic past are being falsified and censored by the anti-Yugoslav backlashers, but also by some of their unintentional fellow travellers, as it were, among the international scholars.

The Ethno-National Imperative

In her dwellings on the post-socialist cinematic Eastern Europe, Dina Iordanova noted that after the breakup of Yugoslavia each of the former Yugoslav federal republics extracted its own fraction of the Yugoslav cinematic legacy and published its own history of national cinema. Nataša Ďurovičová aptly described the post-Yugoslav cinematic reshuffling “as a ‘proliferation of new film-historiographical entities to match the various continuously redrawn state boundaries,’ aiming to establish a new, principally Serbian (Croat, Bosnian, etc.) canon as well as a set of distinct ‘national’ aesthetic criteria” (quoted in Iordanova 2005: 235).

The political context of this operation is known all too well. The post-Yugoslav states (dubbed by Iordanova—not without irony, I believe—as “newly emancipated”) are exemplary of the rise of the ethnic Gemeinschaften in the post-socialist Eastern Europe: “although some of them are formally constituted as sovereign states, they are no longer states in the proper modern-age European sense, since they did not cut the umbilical cord between state and ethnic community” (Žižek 1994: 2). The sphere of culture being one of the privileged domains where this umbilical cord is guarded, many of the film critics and historians in the post-Yugoslav context recognize themselves as the guardians of the ethno-national Thing. If Vida T. Johnson was right asserting that “[n]owhere was the idea and reality of ‘Yugoslavia’ more fruitful than in its cinema” (2009), we should not be surprised with the zeal with which the nation-centered historians and critics started to re-write the history of Yugoslav cinema in terms of their own ideological preferences.

It was Belgrade film critic Bogdan Tirnanić who came up with arguably the unsurpassable backlash statement regarding Yugoslav cinema. He unrestrainedly called for “the cinematic delimitation” (filmsko razgraničenje), i.e. the retroactive partition of the historical legacy of Yugoslav cinema along the lines of the political division of the country in the 1990s:

the historical fund that one—Yugoslav—cinema created during a half century of its existence, with its clearly profiled social milieu, has to become part and parcel of the process of succession in the former Yugoslavia, a part of the division balance sheet of the newly created states in the region. This has received as yet no consideration in these states, whereas the question of the new constituting of the national cinema histories is left to self-proclaimed, random and unreliable arbiters, i.e., to nationally overzealous persons, who are in this sensitive enterprise least guided by the facts. Thus many Serbian films will have become Croatian ones, and vice versa, while something like Bosnian cinema has been pulled apart from both sides for years now (Tirnanić 2008: 8–9, original emphasis).

While cynically finger-pointing at those nationally overzealous ignoramuses, Tirnanić carefully conceals how he came to see the dissolution of Yugoslav cinema as a common-sense option with no alternatives in the first place. His modest proposal actually upholds the premise that Yugoslav cinema was nothing more than the sum of its ethno-national components. That notion is closely linked with the assumption that national cinema channels a unique ethno-national substance, as vividly expressed by another well-known Yugoslav-emancipated-into-Serbian film critic: “our key question is: what is that ‘something’ which is specific and characteristic about the spirit and being of Serbian cinema?” (Munitić 1999: 9). The answer is rather simple. Differentia specifica of ethno-national cinema is nothing but its presupposed ethnic Substance: that elusive “something” of Serbian cinema is “Serbness,” of Croatian cinema—“Croatness” etc.

It is hardly surprising, then, that criticism by Iordanova and Ďurovičová does not rank high in the post-Yugoslav climate, which is shaped by the above logic. Jurica Pavičić insinuates that Ďurovičová might be justified when mocking the recent attempts of writing Slovak film history at the expense of Czechoslovak film history, but when it comes to, say, Croatian cinema—his own field of expertise—criticism of that kind he deems misplaced. According to Pavičić, the dilemma suggested by Iordanova and Ďurovičová—Yugoslav cinema versus a myriad of national cinemas—is not really a dilemma:

Due to the specific, Yugoslav form of federalism, each of the eight federal units had its own film studio and government film fund. Each of the local studios had an obligation to shoot films in the local language […] and build a local pool of skilled professionals. The Pula festival […] always had included an element of competition among the federal states, and the distribution of prizes was always politically tricky and nationally sensitive. At the same time, the national studios were trying to hire the best directors and the most popular stars, wherever they came from, hoping for commercial success (Pavičić 2011).

However, I doubt that Iordanova and Ďurovičová are ignorant of the decentralized structure of Yugoslav cinema. Iordanova’s use of the concept “national cinema” in the Yugoslav case clearly refers to “nation” as a state (a multi-ethnic one, for that matter), not as an ethnicity: Yugoslav cinema was “one internally diverse yet integrated [cinematic] national tradition” (Iordanova 2005: 234), in a way reminiscent of, say, British national cinema, with its internal diversity (English, Scottish, and Welsh cinema). One might argue that Iordanova and Ďurovičová problematize precisely the effects of the semantic slippage of “nation” from a state to an ethnic community, and, also, the nationalist assumption that each ethnic group should have its own state. In other words, Iordanova and Ďurovičová criticize the way in which the histories of national cinemas contribute to such teleological national narratives.[2

Not to beat around the bush: if the politicians who dismantled Yugoslavia caused the actual death of Yugoslav cinema, it is the practitioners of “the cinematic delimitation” who are responsible for its second, symbolic death. This claim may seem an exaggeration to those who might consider Yugoslav cinema and its history to be an indisputable fact. Yet, it is high time we acknowledged not only that the literature on Yugoslav cinema is becoming dwarfed by the recent soaring “nationally aware” literature (e.g. Munitić 1999, Ognjanović and Velisavljević 2008, Pajkić 2010, Škrabalo 1998, Škrabalo 2006, Tirnanić 2008, Volk 2001), but also that this nation-focused optics has started affecting the work of the international cinema scholars with, I believe, a genuine penchant for Yugoslav cinema.

The case of American scholar Greg DeCuir Jr. offers a cautionary illustration. In the conclusion to his Yugoslav Black Wave, DeCuir questions the very Yugoslav character of the “Black Wave:”

The most problematic limitation of this study is the very notion of a “Yugoslav” Black Wave in light of the recent string of national and political controversies that have hampered the region in the past two decades […]. It is a possibility that the Yugoslav Black Wave never existed, or at best was a faulty concept emanating from a flawed state (DeCuir 2011: 252).

horoscopeDeCuir entertains the idea that “Black Wave”—instead of being a Yugoslav film phenomenon— was actually a Serbian affair after all. However, addressing the same issue in his foreword to DeCuir’s book, Belgrade director Slobodan Šijan criticized DeCuir for leaving out the films that, being produced outside Serbia, would testify to the Yugoslav character of “Black Wave.” The only film extensively analysed by DeCuir and not produced by a Serbian film company is Horoscope (Horoskop, 1969), produced by Bosna Film. Describing its director Boro Drašković as a director “of Serbian ethnic origin” (DeCuir 2011: 252), DeCuir turns Horoscope into another piece of evidence to the Serbian character of the “Black Wave.” The fact that Drašković could be seen as a Bosnian filmmaker completely eludes DeCuir: it is the ethnicity of the director that eventually counts. In other words, the concept of an ethno-national cinema creeps even into the work of those international scholars who should have known better than to reduce the concept of nation to some presupposed ethnic essence. 

Bosnian Suspense

DeCuir provides us with a cue for a close up of the cinema of Bosnia and Herzegovina. For Iordanova and Ďurovičová, Bosnian cinema is merely one among the post-Yugoslav national-cinema entities that establishes itself through an allegedly distinct cinematic cannon and an ethno-national aesthetics. However, it is precisely in this detail that their otherwise cogent account falters. In stark contrast to the other post-Yugoslav cinemas, Bosnian cinema remains undefined in ethno-national terms. No volume on Bosnian cinema was produced in a way that would correspond to the doorstoppers on Croatian and Serbian cinema. One more look at Tirnanić is instructive here. In his call to the cinematic delimitation, Tirnanić symptomatically mentions not simply Bosnian cinema but “something like Bosnian cinema:” an elusive object that suggests the impossibility of such a construct, which thereby challenges the very logic of the national delimitation in cinema. Thus, instead of seeing it as analogous with the other post-Yugoslav national cinemas I propose that Bosnian cinema should be acknowledged as a cinematic entity that defies the ethno-national imperative that dictates the proliferation of national cinemas described by Iordanova and Ďurovičová.[3]

Does this specificity of Bosnian cinema not recall the formula of Hitchcockian suspense as elaborated by Pascal Bonitzer? The suspense in Hitchcock’s films is triggered by an anomalous object that, though barely perceptible at first, eventually disrupts the visual field: “Everything is proceeding normally, according to routines that are ordinary, even humdrum and unthinking, until someone notices that an element in the whole, because of its inexplicable behaviour, is a stain” (Bonitzer 1992: 20). Bonitzer not only provides us with a whole gallery of those stains and specks idiosyncratically dispersed throughout Hitchcock’s opus, but also pins down the structural function of Hitchcock’s stain. At first, it appears that “The-object-which-makes-a-stain is […] an object which goes against nature. The object in question invariably shows up against the background of a natural nature—of a nature that is, as it were, too natural” (Bonitzer 1992: 21). However, on closer look, the spectator reveals not only that the stain-object does not defy the natural order, but that it actually reveals its underlying truth. The function of a Hitchcockian blot is to reveal that seemingly benign social conventions and naturalness are a façade hiding corruption and evil that people prefer to hide.

kozaraBosnian cinema and its history can be described along the same lines. Similar to the windmill in Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, Bosnian cinema goes “against the wind” of the dominant post-Yugoslav history writing, that is, it confronts the “too natural” nature of the national cinema as the embodiment of some innate ethno-national substance. This way the ethno-national dictum is revealed to be a façade that covers something that historians of national cinema prefer to hide: the elementary fact that histories of their national cinemas actually were not guided by those ethnic principles that they inscribe into them today, i.e. that the histories of Serbian, Croatian etc., cinema are not teleologically guided by some natural development of their respective national cultures to which the socialist Yugoslavia was merely an obstacle. In a nutshell, the “Bosnian suspense” is an uncanny reminder that cinema history can be articulated in other ways than as a mere segment of ethno-national history.

Should we then be surprised that such an eye-poking smear frustrates the local advocates of national cinema to the point that they aim to erase it? The strategies of the erasure are neither subtle nor secret. Here is how Nenad Polimac, a renowned film critic from Zagreb, argued that the films produced by Bosna Film, the first Bosnian film company, should be claimed by Croatia:

True, Kozara is not exactly a Croatian film, since it was produced by Bosna Film, a film company that once was very prestigious in ex-Yugoslavia, however [Veljko] Bulajić is nonetheless the Croatian director, Croatian film workers also contributed to the film, and back in those days the film was even the biggest hit of the year in Zagreb, so, therefore, why not claim it? In fact, American critic Andrew Sarris unscrupulously enlisted in his famous book American Cinema among American directors each and every Englishman and Frenchman who would spend only half a year in Hollywood. I do not know why we would be such puritans in this regard (Polimac 1999).

Except three lead actors [who were born in Bosnia] and production designer Đemo Ćesović [who was living in Bosnia], who justified the Bosnian character of the production, the bulk of the film crew was Croatian […] and the very film was shot at locations in Croatia […]. Under suspicion [Pod sumnjom, 1955] thus deserves by all means to be included in the corpus of Croatian cinema (Polimac 2005: 143).

It is anything but plausible that a critic of Polimac’s stature does not realize that his reference to Sarris is utterly misplaced. What Polimac perceives as the unscrupulousness of the American critic is the simple fact that Sarris defines American cinema in terms of production, and not in terms of the filmmaker’s ethnicity, nationality, or citizenship. Polimac, however, does the opposite. Any critic who pressed this argument by claiming, say, Hitchcock’s Rebecca as a piece of British cinema, would be deemed beyond the pale of film criticism and history. Yet in the post-Yugoslav context the immanent foolishness of such claims is passed by in silence because of their blatant patriotism.

The Founding Guests

major bauk Some elementary data will illustrate how that sort of reasoning would affect the history of Bosnian cinema. Out of thirty-three feature films produced by the Bosnian film companies from 1951 to 1968, only one third was directed by directors who were Bosnians in terms of their place of birth and/or residence, such as Toma Janić, Boško Kosanović, Milutin Kosovac, Hajrudin Krvavac, Pjer Majhrovski, and Gojko Šipovac. The list of directors from the other Yugoslav republics working for the Sarajevo-based film companies is incomparably longer. It starts already with the very first Bosnian feature Major Bauk (1951), directed by the Belgrade director and actor Nikola Popović. The other Belgrade directors employed by the Sarajevo film companies were Vojislav Nanović, Stole Popović, Boško Bošković, and Radenko Ostojić, while Žorž Skrigin and Radivoje Lola Đukić made two features each; the amateur trio Marko Babac, Kokan Rakonjac and Živojin Pavlović realized two loosely arranged omnibuses. The guests from Zagreb were somewhat less numerous, yet equally visible and important: Fedor Hanžeković, Branko Belan, Fadil Hadžić, and Veljko Bulajić with his two films. From Slovenia came Igor Pretnar and Jože Babič, while Jože Gale and František Čap each made two films. Montenegrin director Milo Đukanović also joined the Bosnian cinema club with one entry. A special mention goes to Slavko Vorkapich, a theorist and film-maker of Yugoslav origins, the greatest and most important part of whose career was in Hollywood where he invented montage sequence and worked with Dorothy Arzner, Frank Capra and George Cukor, among others. His post-World War II visit to Yugoslavia reached its zenith—or nadir, depending on one’s perspective—with his only feature Hanka (1955). Incidentally, Bosna Film had originally offered Hanka to another guest, Zagreb director Krešo Golik.


Not all proponents of national cinema share Polimac’s appropriative impulses. Ivo Škrabalo, the most influential cinema historian from Croatia, is generally dismissive of the professional migrations in Yugoslav cinema. First, he rebukes the production companies for employing those directors who had previously made their name with some popular or critically acclaimed film—an unfathomable reproach indeed. In addition to that, Škrabalo claims that “[t]he outcomes of such guest visits would usually fail to meet the expectations of producers [and that] also has to do with the lack of sensitivity to what challenges are at stake for an auteur to work out of his regular work environment” (1998: 246).[4] This strikes me as doubly problematic. First, it genuinely underestimates the very directors, and, second, the Bosnian cinema output in the 1950s and 1960s testifies that the Bosnian films of the many visitors were anything but bad or unimportant.

doors openFrom Škrabalo’s perspective, the guest directors are seen as the “others” who intrude upon “our” cinema, and, vice versa, as “our” filmmakers who are wasting their talents in some foreign milieu. Generalisations of this kind inevitably obfuscate many differences and characteristics that in a particular context might be far more important than the “us versus them” dichotomy. For example, Major Bauk, Čap’s The Doors Remain Open (Vrata ostaju otvorena, 1959), and Drops, Waters, Warriors (Kapi, vode, ratnici, 1962) by Pavlović, Babac and Rakonjac, are surely all directed by non-Sarajevo filmmakers, but the three productions were shaped by different historical contexts. Major Bauk was an outcome of the ambition of Bosna Film in the late 1940s to prove that the “Bosnian debut feature” can offer a patriotic spectacle of the same quality as those already produced in Belgrade, Ljubljana and Zagreb. Ljubljana-based Czech émigré Čap was invited to direct The Doors Remain Open in the late 1950s, as a director capable of attracting wide young audiences with the “contemporary theme,” i.e. the film that, beyond a specific plot, corresponds with the advent of consumerism and spectacle in the late 1950s Yugoslavia (as he previously did with his Vesna (1953), and Don’t Wait for May (Ne čakaj na maj, 1957). Sutjeska Film had an altogether different agenda in the early 1960s: in an attempt to profile itself as distinct from Bosna Film, it gave an opportunity to three film amateurs from Belgrade who simply put together three stories that were not even originally planned as an omnibus. Although at first glance being “merely” the cases of non-Bosnians in Bosnian cinema, the Bosnian productions directed by Popović, Čap, and Pavlović, Babac, and Rakonjac show that a whole set of historical, ideological, economic, aesthetical etc., specificities awaits to be explored, from one case to another, in a way that can hardly fit the essentialist presumptions of the “natives versus foreigners” dichotomy characteristic of the “nationally aware” approach.[5]

Totalitarian Paradigm

The ethno-national dictum in post-Yugoslav criticism and history is inseparable from the totalitarian paradigm that postulates the socialist Yugoslavia as a totalitarian state in which a dogmatic and corrupt regime tyrannized its subjects by means of top-down repression, deploying a panoply of harsh constraints and cunning manipulations. The interrelatedness of these twin discourses captures the premise shared by all anti-Yugoslav nationalist narratives: the socialist Yugoslavia was simply an artificially imposed totalitarian abomination that with its politics of interethnic solidarity impeded the Yugoslav nations (the Serbs, the Croats, etc.) from accomplishing their “natural” aim—having a nation-state on their own. This narrative is buttressed with the arguments that resemble those originally deployed for many descriptions of Stalinism:

The Soviet system under Stalin consisted of a nonpluralist, hierarchical dictatorship in which command authority existed only at the top of the pyramid of political power. Ideology and violence were monopolies of the ruling elite, which passed its orders down a pseudo-military chain of command. [...] At the top of the ruling elite stood an autocratic Stalin whose personal control was virtually unlimited in all areas of life and culture, from art to zoology. Major policy articulation and implementation involved the actualization of Stalin’s ideas, whims, and plans, which in turn flowed from his psychological condition. By definition, autonomous spheres of social and political activity did not exist at all in Soviet society. [...] In any case, the Soviet populace and rank-and-file party members remained outside the political process, objects acted upon or manipulated from above but never historical actors in their own right (Getty and Manning 1993: 1–2).

One merely needs to replace “Soviet” with “Yugoslav” and “Stalin” with “Tito” to get the contours of the Yugoslav-Titoist totalitarian paradigm. However, its proponents have made an additional turn of the screw, as it were. Let me illustrate it with the bizarre exchange at the Sarajevo promotion of the Bosnian translation of the Black Book of Communism (Courtois et al. 1999), when the editors of the translation attacked their guest Karel Bartošek, the Czech historian who wrote the chapter on the Eastern Europe, for having a soft spot for Tito’s Yugoslavia. Bartošek responded that Yugoslavia hardly met the Black Book criteria of a totalitarian state, and admitted that back in the 1960s, when he could not enter Czechoslovakia to meet his family, they would use Yugoslavia as the meeting point. The response only additionally ignited Bartošek’s hosts: the very fact that he did not experience Yugoslavia as a totalitarian state was the indisputable evidence of how cunningly totalitarian Yugoslavia actually was. “Tito was such a master that he surpassed Stalin in hiding the traces of his crime,” exulted a local presenter (Hećimović 1999: 37). Yugoslav totalitarianism thus resembles the proverbial Satan who spreads word that he actually does not exist only to additionally cement his power. The very absence of totalitarian traits is the trick by which the Yugoslav regime concealed its truly totalitarian core, i.e. the fact that it was actually far worse than the overtly totalitarian regimes. The premise that Stalin pales as an amateur in comparison to his Tito turns Yugoslav socialism into arguably the most perverse type of totalitarianism in the European East. 

Many a backlash film critic and historian followed suit, describing Yugoslav cinema under socialism with two homilies: first, that Yugoslav cinema was one of the principal propaganda tools of Tito’s totalitarian regime, and, second, that it was an arena in which the regime brutally exercised absolute repressive power in order to protect its dogmas. An illustration may be emblematic here. When Daniel J. Goulding’s study on Yugoslav cinema Liberated Cinema (2003) was translated in post-Yugoslav Croatia, the original title was tellingly changed. The subtitle of the original—The Yugoslav Experience 1945–2001—became the titular The Yugoslav Cinematic Experience, while the phrase “liberated cinema” wound up as a subtitle that cannot even be seen on the front cover (Goulding 2004). Wherever there was “liberation,” “repression” followed: nowadays Yugoslav cinema figures as the incarcerated cinema, the post-Yugoslav trope of Yugoslav cinema being the one of bunker, the dark and locked dungeon where forbidden films were imprisoned (hence the term bunkerisani film).

In this regard, let me recall a lucid remark on the status of the Eastern German Verbotsfilme in the unified Germany: “it is as if the forbidden films, had they not existed, would have had to be invented, so perfectly did they fit into the re-writing strategies of West German cultural institutions” (Elsaesser and Wedel 2001: 6–7). Had Yugoslav bunkerisani films not existed, they would have had to be invented in order to provide post-Yugoslav film historians and critics with the key argument for their anti-Yugoslav ressentiment.[6] To quote Tirnanić again: “All that comprised Yugoslav cinema was politically disputed in all sorts of ways, but a heavy price was paid for this: the society which defended itself by repressing its best films was sentenced to live the fate envisaged by those very films” (2008: 198). Certainly this is a preposterous lie, yet since hardly anyone disagrees, it might win out.

Binary Socialism Goes to the Cinema  

little soldiersSince the cases of thwarting the past of Yugoslav cinema so as to fit the bed of the totalitarian paradigm are too numerous for this article, I will only paint them in wide brushstrokes and illustrate with a few examples. For that purpose I will rely on the criticism of the totalitarian paradigm in the non-Yugoslav context. The analysis that I find particularly useful is Alexei Yurchak’s trenchant account of the Manichean depictions of the social reality in the USSR. Elaborating the notion of “binary socialism,” Yurchak criticizes not only the thesis that “socialism was ‘bad’ and ‘immoral’ or had been experienced as such by the Soviet people” (2006: 5), but also a whole set of dichotomous categories such as oppression versus resistance, repression versus freedom, the collective versus the individual, to name just a few. As if anticipating Yurchak’s account, Anikó Imre also noticed that a set of dichotomies—good vs. bad, liberation vs. oppression etc.—“continued to guide and simplify […] the interpretation of East European films” (2005: xiii); consequently, the post-socialist perspectives on Eastern European cinemas are still “determined by the epistemological parameters of the Cold War world order […], privileging films and directors who took an oppositional stand in relation to communist totalitarianism” (Imre 2005: xii).
little soldiers The ultimate dichotomy that subsumes many of these binaries and projects them in the sphere of culture in socialism is surely the one of Artist (or Author) versus Regime. According to it, the Regime is vicious and tyrannical since these features are not unfortunate side effects of socialism but its intrinsic qualities. The totalitarian terror is the inevitable expression of its malign essence. Being founded on absurd and amoral dogmatic premises, the Regime must rely on massive propaganda to keep them alive, and on all-pervasive censorship to counter any criticism.[7] Opposed to these ideological manipulations and deceptions is the Artist who is guided by an innate sense of freedom, humanism, and democracy. Although he—not surprisingly, the Artist is, by rule, a male auteur—might have some personal idiosyncrasies (as the definite proof of his genius), the Artist is untainted by any ideological misgivings. Since the Artist bespeaks the truth, the Regime cannot but oppress him. Artist is a suffering victim, yet he triumphs morally and intellectually.

scenes Its premises might be clichés by now, but the dichotomy is still effective. What it actually demands of us is to slot the film-makers under socialism into two categories only: they are either Artists, or not; they are either subversive dissidents who debunk the regime’s lies, or the film-makers who, subscribing to socialist dogmas, serve as the spineless servants of propaganda. Accordingly, anything that Artist does could be acknowledged as politically subversive, while nothing that non-Artist does can suffice to be recognized as critical and relevant.

The post-Yugoslav histories of national cinema boil down to the elevation of particular authors (groups or movements) to the privileged place of subversive Artists. If there ever was a Bosnian filmmaker who fit the Artist profile, it is Bato Čengić (1933–2007). He established himself working closely with the provocateur writers and filmmakers from Belgrade. His debut The Little Soldiers (Mali vojnici, 1967) was written by Mirko Kovač, with Borislav Pekić, Bora Ćosić and Živojin Pavlović being involved in the script development at different points. The screenplay for his second feature, The Role of My Family in the World Revolution (Uloga moje porodice u svjetskoj revoluciji, 1971), Čengić wrote with Branko Vučićević, whose impeccable writing credentials had already included instant classics of the Yugoslav New Film such as Love Affair, or the Tragedy of a Switchboard Operator (Ljubavni slučaj ili tragedija službenice PTT, 1967), Innocence Unprotected (Nevinost bez zaštite, 1968), and Early Works (Rani radovi, 1969). The film stirred a controversy with its perky story and sarcastic images of the first days after World War II, which included a scene of the eating of a cake in the shape of Stalin’s head. Vučićević also penned Scenes from the Life of Shock-Workers (Slike iz života udarnika, 1972), Čengić’s third film that was censored and relegated to the bunker after its screening at the Pula festival in 1972. Although Čengić would not make his fourth feature until 1983, with Head or Tail (Pismo-glava), one can hardly talk about the hiatus or retreat from the public. The TV films that he directed in the late 1970s arguably reached a larger audience than his feature films would have in cinemas,[8] and his short Man with the Watch (Čovjek sa satom, 1981), won the Grand Prix at the Festival of Yugoslav documentary and short film in Belgrade, and The Silver Dragon at Kraków Film Festival the same year. After Head or Tail, he also made the TV film Sighting of the Holy Mother in the village of Grabovica (Ukazanje Gospe u selu Grabovica, 1984), and The Silent Gunpowder (Gluvi barut, 1990), which turned out to be his last feature.

scenesHowever, I would argue that Čengić’s biography should not be framed as just another chapter in the Black Book of Yugoslav cinema. Of course, this is not to say that the problems that he had with the State/Party apparatus should be passed over in silence; it is just that they should not be framed within the Artist vs. Regime dichotomy, because it would actually belittle Čengić’s life and work by reducing them to evidence of the Regime’s terror. My guess is that some aspects of Čengić’s biography could be eclipsed or downplayed in favour of upholding the dichotomy. We could even miss the main mystery: how is it that despite all his trials and tribulations, Čengić is nevertheless the most prolific of all Bosnian filmmakers? His five feature films, five TV films, and thirteen documentaries and short films remain the most opulent oeuvre in Bosnian cinema – not only under socialism, but in its entire history. 

The Spectres of Stalin

Of course, another question also arises: if there is no doubt that Čengić is the Artist, how about the other Bosnian directors with no “Black Wave” credentials? A recent article by Benjamin Halligan on the films of the “Sarajevo documentary school” (SDS) offers a sordid answer to that question (2010). The works of Vlatko Filipović, Vefik Hadžismajlović, Suad Mrkonjić, Petar Ljubojev, and other filmmakers who made documentaries in the 1960s and 1970s for Sutjeska Film were, according to Halligan, nothing short of Stalinist. Although Halligan’s misleading account begs for an extensive counter-argument, let me here address only what I see as its main faultline.

Reacting to the fact that some people did not deem the SDS films Stalinist propaganda, but actually anti-authoritarian, critical, and ironic (e.g. Stevens 2009), Halligan argues that ascribing  such dissent and subversion into different texts made in socialism is untenable:

Did Mrkonjić and Hadžismajlović, then, smuggle in dissent, while Filipović engaged in cinéma-vérite? Such an auteurist approach to cold war Eastern European and Russian cinema tends to eek out dissenting elements to prove the presence of a guiding and individual—and individual’s—intelligence. [According to that approach] the connection between the auteur as an individual, freethinking intellectual and his or her therefore automatic condemnation of the realities of existing socialism is automatic (Halligan 2011: 212–13).

The implication that “a guiding and individual—individual’s—intelligence” is absent from the SDS films I find appallingly condescending. Although the rest of the argument suggests that Halligan criticizes the use of an auteurist approach in Eastern Europe as such, the rest of the article shows otherwise. Not only does Halligan express an absolute praise for—so predictably—Makavejev, Žilnik, and Pavlović as the undisputable Holy Auteur Trinity of Yugoslav cinema, but he also actually derogates the SDS films precisely by contrasting them with the classic Novi Film works. Hence, in comparison with the SDS films, “[t]he sophistication of the Novi Film and the subsequent Black Wave of film seems from another time and country together;” the SDS peasants and the rapist peasants in Early Works “could not be more different;” even when the SDS films and Pavlović’s films show virtually the same social conditions, “the very tenor is entirely different;” the sexologist from Makavejev’s Tragedy of the Switchboard Operator “seems to satirize the heavy-handed didacticism of films such as those of the SDS, and the satire of Tito’s personality cult in Innocence Unprotected skewers exactly the kind of communal adoration of Tito seen in [the SDS] Facades” (Halligan 2011: 211–12).

All these comparisons testify that one can still comfortably ascribe criticism, subversiveness and satire (and a bit of the individual and the individual’s intelligence, I guess), but only to those directors whose auteur status had been established as incontestable before the demise of socialism. Apparently, the gates of the pantheon of Eastern European auteurs now should be closed: the rules applied to those already inside must not be applied to any new candidates. A more shocking display of the persistence of “the epistemological parameters of the Cold War world order,” as Imre aptly phrases it, I can hardly imagine.

Halligan’s strategy thus boils down to upholding the Artist vs. Regime dichotomy, as embodied in the “Black Wave” vs. the SDS opposition. That might explain why one author is tellingly absent from Hallingan’s account. It is no one else but Čengić, whose documentaries such as Man without a Face (Čovjek bez lica, 1961), The River People (Ljudi sa rijeke, 1961), Krilati karavani/Winged Caravans (1961), Life is Beautiful (Život je lijep, 1976), are most certainly the SDS part and parcel. However, if Halligan had introduced Čengić’s documentaries in his SDS account, he would have sabotaged its underlying dichotomy. Hence, instead of explaining what a dissenting figure like Čengić does in the company of the Stalinist didacts, Halligan has conveniently erased any trace of Čengić from his article.

When Halligan warns that the SDS films should not be read straightforwardly along dissenting lines, I cannot agree more; however, I believe that a crucial addition must be made: just as they are not to be easily read as Stalinist fair. In other words, we should finally try to grasp these films beyond binaries such as dissent vs. propaganda, miserabilism vs. hope, individuality vs. collectivity etc.; we should develop a penchant for nuances that would dissolve many preconceived notions about seemingly monadic and irreconcilable elements of the dichotomy. Then it would be easier to grasp that Čengić is by no means the only link between the SDS and the so-called “Black Wave.” With the three documentaries produced by Sutjeska Film in the early 1960s and realized with his Sarajevo colleagues, Dušan Makavejev surely is the SDS fellow traveller, Žilnik appreciated the work of Vlatko Filipović, while the films of Petar Ljubojev are the pastiches of something that Branko Vučićević might have written. The opposition between the tenors of the SDS and of the so-called “Black Wave” should be replaced with more refined analyses that would question the homogeneity of each of these two “tenors.”[9

Who’s Afraid of the Big Red Regime?

However, an analogous gesture also should be made regarding what the dichotomy labels “the Regime” and deems a monolithic site of power. To state the obvious, Yugoslavia and its ruling Communist Party were not monolithic either in their structure or in their ideological aims. The power was administered via a complex net of agencies and institutions, which neither necessarily shared the same goals nor interpreted the ideological principles in the same way. The relation of the State and Party to Yugoslav cinema thus cannot be reduced to a one-way stream of top down pressure.

Let me exemplify it drawing on Šolaja (1955), the film about the antifascist resistance in Western Bosnia in World War II. As it assigns to the Party a substantial role of leader of the antifascist rebellion, the proponents of the totalitarian paradigm would probably see Šolaja as definitive proof of communist propaganda. Yet, how are we to explain the curious fact that the film has had two alternative endings? The one ending showed the titular partisan hero Simela Šolaja leading his battalion out of his native province, while the other showed him being killed while fighting on that piece of soil. The different endings were supposed to cater to two different, mutually irreconcilable perspectives. The first ending was demanded from the central Yugoslav (i.e. federal) Party institutions from Belgrade, that wanted Šolaja to embody the Yugoslav revolution as the antifascist struggle that literally did not recognize boundaries (the prototype of this sort of struggle was a mobile guerrilla battalion that was not “rooted” in a particular province but was roaming around). The second ending, however, was closer to the historical facts, and was made with a local audience in mind: the republican officials—the cinema administrators in Sarajevo—wanted to make a film that would be recognized by the Bosnian partisans as the account of what actually did happen to them. To offer to these local fighters a picture of the war that did not reflect the reality of their own wartime experience, even if that picture would concur with the officially propagated universal socialist values, would be to betray the partisans who participated in the rebellion, or to belittle the loss of the families whose members were killed. Also, in this way, an opportunity to foster the local, Bosnian identity would be lost.[10]

Another illustration of the mutually conflicted interest of the supposedly homogeneous “Regime” tackles the films that are usually perceived as the main instrument in conveying hegemonic dogmas: a group of partisan films in the late 1960s and early 1970s that were mockingly branded as the “Red Wave.” Crediting the Red Wave films with the status of a genre of its own (“partisan superspectacle”), Pavičić defined them as the “highly propagandist and populist Tito’s war spectacles” (2006: 13), in which everything serves the function of the cult of Josip Broz Tito. Since the cult of Tito was ultimately ideologically sacrosanct, such spectacles were protected from all impediments: although these films were highly expensive, the regime did not skimp, restaging as it did in this format all important historical episodes in which Tito took part, whilst recasting the battles in which partisans clearly lost as victories on screen. Again, rather than engaging in an extensive refutation of a series of Pavičić’s claims about the “partisan superspectacle,” I will focus on a significant detail that Pavičić omits.

After shooting The Battle of Neretva (Bitka na Neretvi, 1969)—the then most expensive partisan film spectacle—and starting work on The Battle of Sutjeska (Sutjeska, 1973), the highly expensive film projects became a burning issue. High production expenditures hit the Bosnian republic film funds especially hard, because both films were, substantially, Bosnian productions. The issue was introduced in the press and opened up in round-table discussions, with film critics publically denouncing the spendthrift directors (e.g. Štaka 1986: 148), ultimately to become a major concern of the highest political order to be discussed in party leadership sessions. The Bosnian party officials itself made a decision to cut the budget and several of these partisan epics were never made.

However, when speaking about the “Red Wave,” the fact that the expensive films became a major public issue, and subsequently were stopped, is as a rule omitted, I assume, because it in many ways denies the premises of the totalitarian paradigm. At their most general, the public debates remind us that the public sphere in socialism was much more lively and pluralist than the advocates of the totalitarian paradigm would like to admit nowadays. More specifically, the debates show that the “Regime” itself was split in this issue, and that the ideological premises of Titoism were not the final horizon of cinema production. Economy was the only real game in cinema back then, just as it is today—the symbolic capital that the spectacles might have had as celluloid monuments to the glorious war past became secondary when compared to the actual production cost. These omitted facts also challenge the image of the evil totalitarian despot who manipulates filmmakers, demanding from them more and more cinematic monuments to his cult. As some directors themselves said in the debates, things were the other way around. The “Red Wave” was actually launched and maintained by the maverick filmmakers who cynically benefitted from the commodification of the revolutionary legacy. Is that the whole truth about the Red Wave? I suppose not, but already this suffices to dispel the narratives about the absolute control of the regime whose power radiates downward, subjugating the disenfranchised and disempowered film workers.

Do You Remember Kusturica During Socialism?

My final musing on how recent film criticism, theory, and history are re-shaping the history of Bosnian and Yugoslav cinema in socialism will again address the international scholars who certainly cannot be implicated as supporters of the local backlashers. This time I will tackle a more subdued yet significant variation of the Yugo-totalitarian paradigm that can be traced in the way Emir Kusturica’s Underground (1995) influenced critical reassessment of the films that Kusturica made during socialism. While the Underground controversy revolved about the film’s pro-Serbian bias, the film’s representation of the totalitarian nature of Yugoslav socialism hardly raised any remarks. Even those who were highly critical of Kusturica’s siding with the regime of Slobodan Milošević failed to criticize Kusturica’s Yugo-totalitarian cellar, as if that hasty allegory actually was unproblematic in itself. Consequently, Do You Remember Dolly Bell? (Sjećaš li se Dolly Bell?, 1981) and especially When Father Was Away on Business (Otac na službenom putu, 1985) were in hindsight recognized as Kusturica’s unequivocally critical depiction of what historian Judith Keene crassly summed up as the “bunker of Tito’s Yugoslavia” (2001: 234). My point, of course, is not that Kusturica’s films of the 1980s—or his work in the 1970s for that matter—were not critical of some aspects of Yugoslav socialism; it is just that they did not expound the political and social problems of the times in the terms imposed by the critical accounts that seem to take Underground’s vision of Yugoslavia at face value.

Let me demonstrate this by challenging a thesis about Kusturica’s early films about which there exists a wide critical consensus: Kusturica’s films juxtapose the public and private spheres as mutually antagonistic. The public sphere is a theatre of political repression and dogmas, in which the individual puts on a show for the ever-inquisitive gaze of the state/Party, while the family serves as the private hinterland to which people retreat to reveal their authentic face, safe from political pressure (Iordanova 2002; Keene 2001; Krasztev 2000). And yet, Kusturica’s work in the 1970s and 1980s resolutely defies the clear-cut public versus private (familial) divide. If anything, these films insist that the private and the public are rather caught in a constellation resembling a Möbius strip: separate as they may seem, they form a seamless continuum. The exemplary When Father Was Away on Business confirms this already by the semantic slippage in its very title. For “father is away on business” does not only refer to father’s imprisonment on political grounds, but also to his whore-mongering. The two are impossible to separate: the father becomes a political prisoner precisely because he was cheating on his wife. As if in a supreme act of irony, the only way to keep the father from debauchery is to incarcerate him as a political prisoner. Also, the notion of family as safe haven is subverted in the scene revealing that the father had been imprisoned at the most notorious prison camp in Yugoslavia, the island of Goli Otok. Humiliated by his on-going cheating, the mother rails at the father that she would have been better off if he had stayed on Goli Otok; the father responds by cursing the island and then beating the mother. “The return of the repressed” in a scene of domestic violence testifies that, far from being a safe little haven to which those stigmatized in public can withdraw, family functions as another stage for the playing out of power relations, with its own dynamics of oppression and violence.

The public/private dichotomy also designates public appearance as something malignant, in opposition to the alleged authenticity of conduct “in private.” The argument disregards the elementary fact that the private sphere relies on performativity just as much as the public sphere does. Furthermore, even if we adhered to the assumption that our public roles force us to wear masks that are completely alien to us, we should be reminded that putting on an appearance could also be empowering. Drawing on Leo Braudy’s appraisal of Rossellini’s General della Rovere as the film that showed how “acceptance of artifice—role-playing, the assumption of disguise—[can serve as] a way toward moral truth” (quoted in Žižek 1992: 33), Slavoj Žižek develops a dialectics of the mask: “there is more truth in a mask than in what is hidden beneath it [...]; what is effectively false and null is our ‘inner distance’ from the mask we wear (the ‘social role’ we play), our ‘true self’ hidden beneath it” (Žižek 1992: 34). This dialectic of imposed-yet-accepted role is one of the basic ingredients that shape Kusturica’s cinematic universe.

Finally, the aforementioned thesis is problematic with respect to its premise—the cornerstone of the totalitarian paradigm—that people living in socialism simply could not believe in its ideas and values, which, for that reason, had to be constantly reinforced by overwhelming state propaganda. That is why the claims about withdrawing into the private family circle miss the point. The patriarchs in Do You Remember Dolly Bell, Father, and the Kusturica-written The Magpie Strategy (Strategija švrake, 1987) truly believe in socialist principles, even when they are targeted by the system. Furthermore, they cling to their beliefs not only when out in public, but precisely within their family milieu. The lessons that fathers confer upon their sons testify not to manipulation, but to the most passionate attachments to socialist ideas and mores.[11]


The critical interventions compiled in this article map out a set of presumptions that need to be challenged if we would like to pull ourselves out of the hegemonic backlash narratives of Yugoslav cinema, and contribute to the thriving theoretical and historical perspectives on the socialist East European cinemas (e.g. Feinstein 2002, Haynes 2003, Kaganovsky 2008, Mazierska 2008, Näripea and Trossek 2008). Analyses of Yugoslav cinema in socialism, which challenge the “totalitarian” presumptions, are still quite rare—and for that all the more important—in the post-Yugoslav context (e.g. Šakić 2004, Turković 2005, Turković 2009); their thrust still awaits amplification by new researches that will aim beyond the totalitarian paradigm. 

Allow me one last remark: to discard the national imperative and the totalitarian paradigm must not mean its replacement with the Yugo-nostalgic view that would change the spectre of the totalitarian hell for the spectre of the socialist Arcadia. I deem Yugo-nostalgia to be the underbelly of the totalitarian paradigm. With their opposite modalities, they are perfectly complementary, as both are depoliticizing strategies that avoid the inner tensions of Yugoslav socialism. Dismissing the twin strategies of both the anti-Yugoslav backlash and Yugo-nostalgia constitutes a necessary step towards a comprehensive articulation of film theory and history as disciplines that produce knowledge rather than ignorance about cinema in this region. Once we recognize Yugoslav socialism as a complex socio-political system suffused with numerous antagonisms and conflicts, we will be able to analyse the ways in which they affected and shaped Yugoslav cinema as well. Only after we make this epistemological break will Yugoslav cinema become the object of theoretical and historical research proper.


I am privileged to express my gratitude to Damir Arsenijević, Howard Feinstein, Trevor Laurence Jockims, Natasa Milas, and Cynthia Simmons, for their intellectual generosity and friendly assistance in amending the draft version of the article. All photos are provided courtesy of the Archive of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Arhiv BiH).


1] For chronological accounts of Bosnian cinema in socialism, see, Stojanović (1986), Volk (1986: 365–389), and the special issue of Sarajevo-based film journal Sineast, Stojanović (1974). For the most extensive account on the “Sarajevo documentary school” films, see Ljubojev (1973), while the most elaborate and accessible filmography of Bosnian documentary films is compiled by Šuta and Hibert (2004).

2] It seems that Pavičić prefers to normalize the effects of nationalist imperatives rather than to challenge them. It is not only that Ivo Škrabalo, the exemplary national-cinema historian, remains his major undisputed reference, but by describing Škrabalo as a liberal film historian, Pavičić purposefully conceals that Škrabalo’s liberalism is of a nationalist kind. For an account on how Škrabalo’s ideological preferences decisively shaped his history of Croatian cinema (1998), see Radić (1999).

3] The only history of cinema produced in Bosnia and Herzegovina is penned by Belgrade historian Dejan Kosanović (2003; 2005). However, describing film-making on the territory of nowadays Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1897 to 1945, Kosanović does not chase any “spirit and being” of Bosnian film. His work on cinema in Bosnia and Herzegovina thus functions as the paradigmatic example of history-writing that cancels the national imperative in cinema history.

4] This might be the reason why in his Kino Kultura article (2011) Škrabalo conceals the fact that Popović had also directed the very first feature film in the socialist Croatia, This People Will Live (Živjeće ovaj narod, 1947). Elsewhere Škrabalo treats the film as a necessary evil: although it was “officially” considered to be the first Croatian film after the World War II, “this film about the development of the partisan movement in Western Bosnia has few criteria for the inclusion in the opus of Croatian film” (Škrabalo 1998: 163).

5] The analogous story that would focus on actors would be even more telling. Even with the dominance of the guest directors withered away by the 1970s, the circulation of thespians from the other republics remained undiminished until the very end of Yugoslav cinema.

6] Actually, the most ludicrous of these accounts do not even tackle the banned films, but argue that entire genres—like horror or crime movies—were banned according to the communist dogmas (Ognjanović 2008; Bajić 2008). The non-existance of Yugoslav science fiction films has not been addressed. Yet.

7] Škrabalo’s history of Croatian cinema opens with a reference to communist propaganda. In a slapdash manner Škrabalo juxtaposes communism and Catholicism, embodied, respectively, in Lenin as the “infamous” leader of the revolution “which set off an avalanche of violence and respression in our century” (1998: 7), and Pope John Paul II, as intellectual titan who deems cinema admirable. Two of Lenin’s sentences disclosing his propagandist agenda—one is, predictably, the famous line on “the most important art”—are overshadowed with extensive paragraphs of the Pope’s “inspiring thoughts” on cinema, spirituality and responsibility. The bizarre opposition suggests that just as socialism is propaganda-based, the Catholic Church is inherently anti-propagandist.

8] Čengić directed four TV films during the period: Jagoš and Uglješa (Jagoš i Uglješa, 1976), My Name is Eli (Zovem se Eli, 1977), Love in the Age of Eleven (Ljubav u jedanaestoj, 1978), and The Bite (Ujed, 1979). For the most detailed account of Čengić’s work, see Širca (1996).

9] For just such an exemplary analysis of the so-called “Black Wave,” see Chapter 1 in Levi (2007); the tenth issue of the Ljubljana film journal KINO! made the very first step in the same direction with regard to the Yugoslav partisan film (2010).

10] On the “double life” of Šolaja, see Ljubojev (1995).

11] For a more elaborated criticism of the public versus private divide in Kusturica's early films, see Jovanović (2012).

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Updated: 24 Jul 12