Courtney Sheehan Speaks with Serbian Director Mila Turajilic at the Toronto International Film Festival
A standout in TIFF Docs, Serbian Director Mila Turajlic’s The Other Side of Everything (Druga strana svega) mines the depths of family history to offer an untold story of Yugoslavia’s past. Turajlic’s first film, Cinema Komunisto, detailed a richly textured history of the Yugoslav film industry. In her follow up, Turajlic turns toward her family’s story, adding personal layers to her original historical perspective. Turajlic shines light on the archive of personal memory that is critically missing from media representations of 1990s Yugoslavia. She does this through a nuanced portrait of her mother, Srbijanka Turajlic, a leading activist in the movement to overthrow Slobodan Milosevic.
In 1945, when Srbijanka was a child, the Yugoslav state seized her family’s apartment and divided it into multiple living spaces. Into the next century, the family continued to live with a door in their home they could not unlock or open. The title evokes all that lies on the other side of this symbolic barrier: the lives and struggles of everyday people that have not been narrated by the media, the deep political divisions in Serbia and throughout the region, and the unknown sacrifices that people like Srbijanka made in the name of social change, risking at times her family’s security, her job, and her life in order to stand up and speak out against the violent regime. Shot almost entirely in the family’s otherwise unassuming apartment, Turajlic’s film captures Srbijanka’s profoundly powerful presence, presenting a stirring portrait of one of the most galvanizing voices for political action in contemporary documentary cinema.
I spoke with Mila at TIFF about her filmmaking process, her family’s fascinating story, and the role of documentary in representing and reflecting upon cultural complexities.
To begin, given your mother’s experience as a political activist organizing against an unjust leader; what is your mother’s advice for us in the U.S.?
No one’s ever asked me that. I think it would be the same as it is for me, which is that someone needs to speak up and the other thing is you can’t lose faith. It’s worth the effort.…daring to say things no one else would dare say…it’s worth it in the end…I don’t think she’d ever doubt that. Whatever can be done, should be done.
Even though she struggles with self-doubt, she’s not depressed or nihilistic.
I find that amazing because she’s not. And I sometimes wonder, is that linked to the fact that my mom was a student in 1968, and she was in Paris and Yugoslavia? Is it just a generational thing where they have the dream?
At the end of the film she is called to make an appearance in court, seemingly to defend her past actions. What was the aftermath of the court appearance?
Nothing really happened. She went to court, and they started by asking, “Do you feel threatened?” And she said yes. She has said every time a list is published people should be afraid. Even if their names aren’t on the list, they should be afraid of the singling out of people, which I know has been happening here in the U.S. Ultimately nothing came of it. It’s all proof of the rising climate, which is for the entire region and not just Serbia.
Your last film was about the history of the Yugoslav film industry. In terms of the region, is your work in conversation with other documentary makers and do you notice trends?
Trends for sure. I think there will be more of these personal docs coming out. For lack of an official narrative of what has happened to us, my generation and maybe the generation before me, we grew up to see the country disintegrate. For lack of a narrative of how that happened and why that happened, and for lack of a mediated space that would allow for really complex conversation about this issue I’m wondering if other filmmakers working on first person docs, family stories, we’re finding our own way through that so personal memory will now carry that narrative. The usual channels of communicating the past are not working, and maybe this is the one that will work because it also speaks to their lived experiences.
After a screening of Cinema Komunisto at the Sarajevo Film Festival in 2011, I remember you talked about how there was no World War II exhibition at a museum in Belgrade because there was no agreement about what story the exhibit should tell.
You remember that! On an official public level almost none of the post Yugoslav republics have managed to narrate their old identity or their new identity, and we really have a problem narrating our own past. I really think that maybe documentary film allows you to say: OK, there’s a new arena in which we can open a conversation. One that can be more nuanced and subtle and to me makes no truth claims. I’m not going to tell you the truth of what happened. That’s where we really get stuck. Every time someone decides to tell you the truth of what happened.
You’ve no doubt been thinking about this film for a long time and working on it for a long time. Was there a moment when you knew you were going to make it?
This was actually supposed to be my first film. I started working on it before making Cinema Komunisto. I grew up in this apartment, and I was maybe 26, 27 when I was telling a stranger in Belgrade who asked me where I live and tried to explain how we live where we live because the story’s even more complicated than what you hear in the film. I was trying to explain this and they were like, “wait, what? There’s a door in your house that you can’t open?” I started thinking how much I’m able to explain who I am and where I come from when I tell that story. You get to explain everything: how the political situation shaped our personal lives, you get the convey the idea of a society divided, this idea of fast revolutionary changes that left traces.
Why is the story more complicated than what is in the film?
For a long time I debated whether I would show you the other side. When I started the film there was no possibility of it ever opening, so that’s something that happened over time. But I had this whole idea of leaving things unseen, leaving things unspoken, and how much space to leave for the audience to participate. And ultimately, in the end, I hope we found the right balance.
At first, I found it odd that the neighbor on the other side of the door, Nada, was mentioned, so I thought she would be the next interview, but then she wasn’t so I thought it must just be a contextual detail. Then meeting her later in the film was really striking. And, of course, the most striking contrasts were the census interviews with her and your mother. Were you surprised by your mother’s answers at all?
I never watched her answer the census questions before. I didn’t know how she was going to answer the questions. I knew what interested me. I knew there were 3 things: your nationality, your mother tongue, and your religion. I found it so striking to compare her and Nada’s responses and use the census to build this idea of identities. I was really taken aback.
Did you talk to her about it later?
Yes, and what’s really funny, and what you don’t see in the film, is that after her census interview, I had to answer the questions as well, and so did my sister. So it’s this thing of who decides to say what.
You had a previous career in debate. how does that inform your filmmaking process? Especially since there’s a bit of a Socratic dialog happening in this film.
One thing that debate really taught me is the validity of two opposed points of view. The beauty of debate that most people don’t understand is that actually when you’re a competitive debater, which is what I used to do, is that you don’t get to choose your side, you get assigned. So you have to prep both sides of an argument and you have to be able to defend both, which is to say that you have to be able to really grasp how inherently debatable a question is. In Cinema Komunisto and also in this film the point is to acknowledge that there is another side. One thing that the region I come from suffered from is this idea of one side being able to claim the truth. I believe that an actual step forward for all of us would be the day that we agree that you can have a positive and a negative view of Yugoslavia, you can have a positive and a negative view of Tito. If debate taught me anything it taught me this: that most questions that are that complex have multiple points of view, which are valid. There’s always this balancing that I’m trying to achieve in the films, which some people have an issue with in Serbia. “You didn’t come out against this” or “you didn’t come out against that” or “you didn’t advocate for this or that,” and I think but actually that is the advocacy. Until we open up to accept that we can have differing opinions about things, I don’t know if we’ll ever make progress.
That’s part of our larger political issue in so many societies right now. The inability or refusal to engage with nuance beyond one side or the other. Hence, the power of film, its ability to hopefully open eyes to being able to relate to someone else’s story. So in terms of what you’re hoping for young Serbian audiences, the first generation that doesn’t have those lived memories, what do you hope to specifically happen?
Two things: one is you kind of hit it on the head when you talked about lived experiences. They haven’t lived through the war; they haven’t lived through Milosevic. They never saw the demonstrations in the 90s; they don’t quite understand the context of the bombing that happened. And so they’ve grown up, and we haven’t discussed any of that as a society. The problem with that is you can talk to someone who is 22, and they will say what is the problem? So they will see that history being told from a point of view they’ve never had the chance to see. Media never covered it that way—western media or Serbian media—and so the hope is that they will go, “I didn’t know that.” And that will provoke in them to ask their parents or dig into that past. One small caveat is that the visual archive doesn’t exist. It was a huge process for me to construct what I managed to find. So if you wanted to know that there was an opposition to Milosevic, you don’t really have any way to see that.
The other thing is much much wider than Serbian or ex-Yugoslav audiences, which is encapsulated by this conversation that my mother and I have at the end of the film where you get the feeling from her of “Ok, I’m old and I’m retiring and the floor is yours.” And the film makes it very clear that I absolutely do not know how to answer that challenge….Of the handful of people we’ve shown the film to so far, two were 23. One was Serbian and one was French. They both came up to me after to say “I thought she was staring ME in the eyes.” I just thought if this film can do that, if it can offer you this little moment of reckoning, I’ll be more than happy.
Even though there’s a lot of specific resonance for audiences in the region, she’s such a powerful person, it should really inspire that very same question for anyone who watches it. I imagine one thing that prolonged the process for you was navigating questions like, What’s my role in this? Am I going to be in this film? It’s a very different project from Cinema Komunisto in that way. It works very organically and casually whenever you’re entering the film as the filmmaker. Can you talk about that process?
As a filmmaker there was a real desire to go beyond the language I used in Cinema Komunisto to find a different style. I decided to shoot it myself to allow the space to become a character; the apartment comes to life and the idea of the space inhabited by ghosts, by memories, that the objects in the apartment tell this story of transmission of generations and roots and so on. So I really worked on the visual language of the film for a long time, and then there was this question of narration. How am I going to tell this story? When I started I didn’t know my mother would be such a central character in the film. I really thought the apartment would be. I never thought she would take on such a central role. It’s the force of her personality that situated her at the heart of this story. And then for me I never wanted her to be the narrator and then I thought what’s at the heart here is an inter generational dialog, so let’s build the film around this idea of dialog. So I’m prodding and asking all these questions. Once I hit on the idea of dialog, I knew how I wanted to narrate the film. I didn’t want voice over narration. I settled on this idea of an opening card that would position you to enter the film through my point of view and leave it at that.
One of the most powerful examples of that is when you’ve left the room and are still talking to her and we’re seeing her reaction to you, which makes us think about how you’re later going to see it when you’re looking at the footage and editing it, but that you didn’t know it then.
Exactly, and all of that works. When the editor sat down and looked at it, she was like “look at all this stuff. First, it immediately brings you into the intimacy of the mother-daughter relationship, and second it helps set up the dynamics.” I thought, she’s absolutely right, and that’s when I knew we found the narrative structure for the film.
When you were a child, what was your experience of your mother’s activism?
I attended my first protest with my mother when I was 11, and definitely for the decade that followed, I was with her everywhere. I thought that would be my life, and I studied political science and through this NGO we created I was debating and super active going around Serbia and advocating. And then I had a moment of total loss of faith. A year after the revolution we had this big convention organized by the resistance movement to say one year after the revolution, Where are we? What should we be doing now? There was such a breakdown of the movement into two wings: one that wanted to institutionalize it and make a political party out of it and the rest of us were more hippie in our idea that no, this was organic. I was 22 at the time, still at university. I had this complete moment of loss where I was like, “I don’t believe in any of this” to the point where for a long time I thought I would never even attend another political demonstration in my life. So I left the world of political engagement, and I studied film.
Was it just seeing the strife?
It was understanding the limits—the moment at which resistance hits against institution, and understanding this is natural, this is the natural way. It’s a way that I cannot believe in. at the same time it was a moment of realism but for me total pessimism. The language of debate, the language of political speeches and all these things I used to do with my mother that I actually don’t want to speak that language anymore, and I needed to find out my own language that I do believe in. That language turned out to be documentary cinema. My mother didn’t have that. She still had the language of politics, so we parted ways sort of at that point. That’s a brief answer.
Why documentary, why film at that time?
I saw a film. I saw Agnes Vardas’s The Gleaners and I, and it’s an uncanny film. It reveals the nature of documentary film. That’s how I perceive it. That’s a deconstruction of what it means to be a documentary filmmaker. And, at the same time, it’s political. I just thought, here’s someone who speaks the language I want to speak. I was studying film at the time, but with that one film I thought, I can do this; I want to do this. So it started from there.
Can you talk about your next project, The Labudović Files?
It fell into my lap and because I’m an archive junkie; it’s unbelievable. The story of the man who was Tito’s cameraman. I thought I was done with Tito, I never thought I was going back to that. I went to a film festival in Algeria with Cinema Komunisto, and there was such an emotional reaction from the audience, and I was thinking why would Algerian audiences have this reaction? I realized there was a whole historical episode I wasn’t aware of which is that Yugoslavia was incredibly active in supporting the Algerian movement for independence, but not only that, supporting many liberation movements around the world. I was always interested in this role Yugoslavia played in the creation of this kind of borderline movement of third world countries coming together in the 1950s, 1960s. I’d been tempted to make a film about this for a while, but I was trying to figure out a narrative structure for these diplomatic summits and meetings. And then, in Algeria, I discovered that the man who Tito had sent to film all these summits was still alive, that he was 90 years old, that he lived in the suburbs of Belgrade, that no one has ever heard of him, and that he was a hero in Algeria. His camera is in the national museum. It’s all there. The entire story is there, the role of cinema, liberation—so that’ the next film.
Will you continue to be drawn to this reflexive aspect of films about film?
I love that. I love this meta aspect, and maybe this goes back to The Gleaners and I. You can tell a story and at the same time examine the role that you are playing as a filmmaker in the sociopolitical context. I’m really drawn to the idea that a film is self-aware to the point that it understands the role that cinema is playing.
Do you think you’ll continue to focus on stories from the region?
In some ways isn’t it normal that artists are always working through their roots, their background, their stories, their contexts because it informs your view of the world? But I don’t think so; I think it’s a trilogy. I think I may really be done after this, but at the same time, so much has not been told, that the parallel to the next generation, I don’t want to call it a duty.
You clearly feel a sense of responsibility.
Absolutely. Because unless we take charge of telling our own story, we end up with this museum that’s closed because no one knows how to tell it.
What did you learn?
There were a lot of things I never really asked her about. She’s always been the family storyteller. She made all of this history and she …I never asked her about her own moments where she had to pay the price. When she couldn’t figure out how to feed us or lost her job. It never occurred to me to ask what age was she when these things happened, how close is that to my age now?