Neither East, nor West: The Borderless Yugoslav War Cinema

Dragan Batančev Concordia University

My project considers the supra- and trans-national trajectories of socialist Yugoslav cinema as attempting to construct Yugoslav national identity and connecting the Cold War blocs and the Non-Aligned Movement. I focus on Partisan Westerns, a generic hybrid of films about WWII and Hollywood and Western European Westerns. Unlike their Eastern European counterparts, Partisan Westerns, reflecting Yugoslav “third way” politics balancing between socialism and capitalism were not critical of Western culture per se, but infused the foundational myth of WWII as a freedom fight with spectacular entertainment. Relatively speaking, Yugoslavia had the largest victorious resistance movement in occupied Europe, larger than, for the instance, the French. While significantly outnumbered until the closing stage of the war when the Red Army provided the crucial contribution in liberating Yugoslavia, the country’s partisan movement – consisting of fighters affiliated with the Yugoslav Communist Party as well as other ideological orientations – did prove the strength of its grassroots resistance which, in turn, helped legitimize the Yugoslav position in the wake of the 1948 Tito-Stalin split when Yugoslavia started balancing between the capitalist West and the socialist East. Furthermore, the postwar Yugoslav historical narrative has outlined the threefold nature of WWII struggle as a resistance to the Axis Powers occupation, civil war against the collaborationists, and a socialist revolution, the second of its kind after the October Revolution. It should therefore come as no surprise that the war film genre, alongside monuments and literature, had become a cornerstone of postwar Yugoslav cultural identity. In fact, the war film (sometimes referred to as the partisan film) became the most emblematic Yugoslav cinematic genre, by and large promoting the state ideology of brotherhood and unity whereby numerous Yugoslav nations (Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, etc.) were kept together in the socialist federation.

My case study is a Partisan Western Kapetan Leši (Captain Leshi, 1960), directed by a Serbian director Živorad Mitrović, one of the most prolific Yugoslav directors. Produced by a Belgrade studio, Captain Leshi tells the story about the titular officer, a partisan fighter of Kosovar Albanian origin struggling against the Kosovar Albanian collaborationists, the ballists, including his own brother, in the southern Serbian province of Kosovo and Metohija. The long history of conflicts between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo, as well as the fact that the predominantly Serbian, if non-nationalist crew, produced a film about the sensitive topic of WWII Kosovar Albanian nationalism, makes Captain Leshi a curious transnational artifact. Particularly because Mitrović directed a few more of the Partisan Westerns situated in Kosovo and Metohija: Ešalon doktora M. (Doctor M.’s Echelon, 1955), Obračun (The Showdown, 1962) and Brat doktora Homera (Doctor Homer’s Brother, 1968), all of which gained a lot of popularity among moviegoers and the TV audience.

First of all, these films (as well as many others produced in socialist Yugoslavia) destabilize a (still) very common notion of national cinema. Already in 1968/9, a group of film critics from various Yugoslav republics started a debate on whether there is a Yugoslav national cinema, or whether it was actually a collection of distinctive national cinemas in each Yugoslav republic. This question is significant not only because it seems that in the case of Captain Leshi the Belgrade-based filmmakers had a superior position in terms of creating the cinematic image of Kosovo and integrating Kosovar Albanians into the Yugoslav state project, but also because it has larger implications for the issue of Yugoslav identity in general, as demonstrated by the recent wave of revisionist history seeking to re-nationalize Yugoslav culture and make it Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian, etc.

Along similar lines, Captain Leshi points to the comparison between the written history and history on screen. In this context, Mitrović’s film joins the echelon of Yugoslav war films showcasing the pluralism of historical views uncharacteristic of the written history of the same period. For example, while Yugoslav written history made a pretty clear-cut division between the “good” guys (the partisans) and the “bad” guys (their opponents), a lot of war films feature partisan anti-heroes. By exposing the constructedness of the mainstream history, Captain Leshi shows that film as a medium can be not only a source of written cultural and social histories, but also a legitimate, if distinctive, form of historical account which does not have to suffer from the lack of scientific apparatus typical of the written history.

Going back to film as a historical source, my research draws upon Radina Vučetić’s monograph Coca-Cola Socialism: Americanization of Yugoslav Culture in the Sixties. Vučetić demonstrates that Yugoslavia was a meeting point of Cold War cultural influences, rather than a stereotypical gray socialist country, by excavating interwar comics drawn by Mitrović and postwar magazine articles about the fan clubs and amateur filmmakers of the Westerns in Yugoslavia, not to mention international co-productions shot around the country. To this I would add interesting temporal intersections of the idealistic 1930s Hollywood Westerns shaping a Technicolor spectacle in Captain Leshi, while Doctor Homer’s Brother evidently refers to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns. In addition, unlike its Eastern European counterparts, Mitrović’s Westerns utilize the idealism of Hollywood Westerns without necessarily openly criticizing American imperialism, opting instead for advancing integral Yugoslavism.

In this context, I am also interested in breaking the Cold War historical paradigm according to which the omnipresent communist State was opposed by the liberal “dissident” Artist, in this case represented by the Black Wave filmmakers. Without any desire to abolish Yugoslav communists for their crimes and mistakes, I argue that the case of Captain Leshi reveals the shortsightedness of this dichotomy. Doing research at the Archives of Yugoslavia in Belgrade, in the archival fund of the Federal Committee for the Review of Films, the central film censorship body of socialist Yugoslavia, I found the evidence of censoring Captain Leshi for the obvious fear that the film would irritate Kosovar Albanian nationalists which in the end did not happen. This is interesting because other historians have investigated this fund before me – for the most part, to confirm their doubts about the totalitarian control – and, also, because Mitrović himself gave an interview in 1992 claiming the film censored. It is possible that nobody bothered to verify Mitrović’s claims simply because he was widely perceived as a “regime director,” a label he earned by being a high ranking Party official and director of a state-sponsored war spectacle Užička republika (The Guns of War, 1974). The censoring of Captain Leshi actually shows that in Yugoslavia the censors could easily become the censored, which comes as little surprise when thinking about the real socialist states; however, I did not expect that Mitrović and his production company would push back against the censors, not so much because of their political stances, but because they had already signed a lucrative export contract with West Germany and many other countries, and did not want to endanger their profits. In short, rather than a top-down mechanism, Yugoslav film censorship appears to be a negotiation process, and not a negative one at that as the censors of Captain Leshi actually helped clarify certain aspects of the film.

For our symposium I propose discussing three general topics:

1) Scarcity of archival sources and how to overcome it. The common feature of many Yugoslav archival sources is their incompleteness as a result of the poor archival culture; simply put, a lot of the sources have been lost due to negligence or even thrown into the garbage. On the other hand, many institutions, such as the aforementioned Federal Committee for Review of Films, were less than eager to leave too many traces of their inner workings. Granted, each historical context is a story for itself, but I think it would be interesting to see how the absence or incompleteness of sources may be overcome by deduction, looking at other, seemingly unrelated sources, and so on.

2) How to investigate the transnational impact of such objects of study. For instance, Živorad Mitrović’s films were exported and gained traction across the world. Anecdotally, Croatian historian Hrvoje Klasić once told me that the first thing he saw on Algerian hotel TV upon arriving for a conference was Captain Leshi. Another classic Partisan Western Valter brani Sarajevo (Valter Defends Sarajevo, 1972), became one of the most popular foreign films in China, thanks to the multidecade TV reruns. However, these findings remain on the level of verbal testimonies and it would be useful to discuss how different barriers (linguistic, financial, institutional) could be fruitfully overcome.

3) Questioning and re-evaluating the notions of the “center” and “periphery.” I am interested in historicizing transnational cinema from the vantage point of the seemingly “minor” cinema which is, particularly in the English-speaking academia, studied almost exclusively in terms of textual representation of post-Yugoslav nationalism. Here I am thinking of comparative historiography or, more precisely, asymmetrical comparisons highlighting cultural production and transfer originating from virtually invisible centers (also known as “periphery”) and creating historically marginalized spaces such as the Non-Aligned Movement. In other words, should the export of Captain Leshi into the Third World be perceived as the victory of the American or Yugoslav cultural and ideological model?

Leave a Reply