People are having their flats taken away, are they not? On The Other Side of Everything

Image from the film; Source: othersideofeverything.com

‘Political horror film’ named The Other Side of Everything has gained significant international attention, won certain awards and filled the cinema seats. Mašina uncovers all that has been unsaid in the film and unveils the lurking class antagonisms beneath what it claims to present.

Evening after evening, audience of Belgrade Cultural Centre cinema has been whispering, shedding tears, sobbing, sighing, and laughing together with the Turajlić family, protagonists of the film, going through their 70 years-long drama. Mila Turajlić’s film, The other side of everything, one of the most significant documentaries both Serbia and the world have seen in the past couple of years – as officially announced – is a complex and ambitious story of a social–political context in which the family trauma is embedded, presented through anticommunist lens.

The dominant phantasm of the film is Yugoslavian socialist regime expropriating part of a family flat. However, the film also strives to give it a historical perspective so it takes the viewers all the way from interwar capitalist Yugoslavia through socialist period to contemporary Serbia and back again. This time travel is made of a combination of a distinct middle-class narrative, a crafty selection of frames and editing manoeuvres. Even though it strives to present the ‘other side of everything’, a plethora of historical mystifications and a social-political decontextualisation, in effect, present us with a confusing and foggy liberal perspective on private property restitution.

The other side of film production

Just like the director’s debut – Cinema Komunisto (together with the next one, named Labudović files– according to the official announcements), The other side of everything received financial support from the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Serbia and the Film Center Serbia (FCS). Mila Turajlić’s films even draw international attention, above all European – the film was awarded at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), while it made a significant impression on both the audience and the jury at the Toronto International Film Festival, as we are informed by the national media. FCS has supported Mila’s filmmaking on a regular basis, which is not surprising, if we take the current strategy of this institution into consideration: it encompasses popularisation and comercialisation of the local film production and striving for international placement (link) that go hand in hand with Eurointegration and imposing new rules for the local film industry workers. We are told by the head of FCS that the ‘professionals working in the field of culture are very flexible people. If they managed to work under a totalitarian regime (referring to socialism, translator’s note) and under many other impeding circumstances, they will find their ways today as well, as long as we work in a consistent way that does not change every year.’

In Cinema Komunisto, Turajlić uses recordings from the Yugoslavian archives, trying to develop a thesis on how Tito – a ‘great illusionist’ – used the filming industry to build an official narrative of the ‘cinematographic illusion called Yugoslavia.’ Here, the author wishes to tell us a story of how films were made in ‘a communist way’, claiming that the State partook in their production up to an unimaginable point from today’s perspective. At the same time, she fails to mention material conditions under which these films were produced and key factors such as politics of decentralisation that were implemented through workers’ self management. Moreover, the author contradicts her own thesis of absolute authority of Tito and the State over cinematography by presenting integration of Avala film (the first and the most proliferous film studio established in socialist Yugoslavia after WWII, translator’s note) into Western capitalist production relations, as observed by Slobodan Karamanić and Ivana Momčilović. In that period collaborations with the Western film studios were established, many films coproduced, Avala film gained status of ‘Eastern Hollywood’, Yugoslavia frequented by international film celebrities, its film industry workers became a cheap labour force for capitalist employers, a significant competition between local actors started to develop, etc. In spite of the film wanting to tell a story about communist megalomania and Tito’s authoritarianism, it involuntarily tells one about capitalist megalomania and shows how Yugoslavian film entered the Western capitalist market.

In an interview about her new film, The other side of everything, Mila Turajlić claims: ‘Historiography has failed in this country. It has not succeeded in creating a historical narrative of this country. I think that the documentary is trying to do that now, using its own language, its own methods. Personal memories, intimate stories. The official historiography has always been at the hands of politics and this is why it has failed.’ The author claims a position of an objective subject through this post-ideological approach to documentaries, the one that is to present the Truth and right history’s wrongs. Nevertheless, what we can see in both these films is a revision of history with abundant use of a vast body of authentic sources from the very Yugoslavian archives. Furthermore, with the aid of the public funds, she has interpreted the existing sources through the now usual anticommunist discourse of the so-called Eastern European arts. This is, of course, in accordance with the free-market logic of supply and demand, relations of centre and periphery, all of which enables these films a successful placement on the European market.

Mirjana Dragosavljević

Image from the film; Source: othersideofeverything.com

The bourgeois side of everything

Speaking of revisionism, we could ask what links the new Mila Turajlić’s film to the process of Milan Nedić’s rehabilitation and the related article 8 of the European Parliament resolution on the 2015 report on Serbia.1 It is de facto material interest in restitution of private property that was nationalised during the socialist revolution in 1940s. Restitution and privatisation are two counter-revolutionary strategies to resurrect the holy private property – one of the pillars of newly established liberal-democratic hegemony in former socialist countries. It is not at all easy to maintain this hegemony, especially due to the memories most of the inhabitants of these countries have of a much better and a much more just life in socialism (let us mention just a few aspects of it – modernisation and industrialisation, free access to healthcare, education, more decent work and pensions, much better housing and so on). It is thus necessary to ceaselessly increase the anti-communist rhetoric and revise history based on a cold war ideological matrix, for the sake of prevention at least, since there aren’t any political subjects strong enough to challenge the notion of private property and the consequential class inequalities in Serbia or wider for that matter. This hyperproduction of revision from an anti-totalitarian outlook (and the equating of communism with fascism) has been growing stronger with the deepening of the economic crisis on the periphery of European capitalism2 and corresponding strengthening of its brutal exploitative mechanisms.

Even though this film represents – just as so many other cultural products do (link) – another opportunity for the bourgeois class to construe one more narrative about itself and its role in social processes through a romanticized tale of its prewar ancestors and the context they lived in, historical data tell us a different story. Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, where the family’s material wealth around which the plot of the film evolves was accumulated, was, as a matter of fact, a poor and a predominantly agrarian monarchy, a deeply conservative and patriarchal society with dramatic class inequalities determining lives of its inhabitants.

Around 112,000 people inhabited the capital in 1920, 70-80% of which were the poor who lived in miserable living conditions, such as slums, shanties, dens, sheds, basements, attics, huts, joints, while the more affluent ones belonged to the remaining 20-30%.3 Around 1/10 of the inhabitants had a high social status, economic and political power, used as means to appropriate most of the national product.4

And what did secure the easiest way to acquire and keep the high social status and power, further deepening class inequality at the same time? Of course, it was renting that brought more profit even than bank interests or production investment. Beside respectable citizens such as the ancestor of the Turajlić family – Dušan Peleš – who built the edifice where the ‘comfortable three-room flat’ is located, many companies, banks, Serbian Orthodox Church and The Serbian Royal Academy, numerous public institutions and charities were too in the rent business. Dušan Peleš, a PhD in Law and a Serbian MP in Budapest before World War I, held the position of the Minister of Justice as a member of (Nikola Pašić’s) People’s Radical Party during a month and a half in 1920.

However, we will not encounter these and many other facts that are crucial for getting the whole picture of the social context in the film that aims to represent the point of view of those who deservemore and better than the rest as the dominant culture of remembrance.

And while the family breaks the door of the flat open at the end, restituting what had been given to the proletariatafter World War II, this film closes them – for what, we may ask. The answer is really simple – to the fact that the surplus wealth of the rich was legallyredistributed to the poor so that the majority could have a better life. And the great majority could indeed live better until the counter-revolutionary wars against the socialist society and its basic principle – gaining more equality through a more just distribution of property – didn’t get us back to the state that is not best represented by the silver cutlery and finding of a long lost painting depicting the formation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes together with the respectable rentier ancestor, but by the pauperised and subjugated society standing behind the closed door barred by cultureitself, waiting for new cinematography to represent its problems and interests, as well as offer a systematic alternative instead of demonising it.

Nenad Porobić

Housemaids waiting for employement in prewar Belgrade; Image from the book ‘Život na ivici’

Representation of workers

Audio recordings of the phone calls that the Turajlić family receives, which the author uses throughout the whole film, demonstrate the kindness of bourgeois families, their interest in the oppinion of the protagonist of the film, as well as concern for each other’s welfare. Thus, in one of the voice mail recordings a woman informs the family that her cellar was broken into and that they had better check if they had something stolen, too. People store so many things in the cellars, some of which sometimes get stolen. When this happens, one can never be sure who the perpetrators are. But the author implies that the thieves could be the passing collectors of secondary raw materials in a tractor carrying loads of old furniture, whom the camera films from the window as this sequence is used as a cover shot for the neighbour’s warning against robberies.

A similar interplay of sound and image was used in filming another conversation about valuable possessions, in a scene where the mother of the author, Srbijanka Turajlić, answers her daughter’s question about what happened to the furniture after the flat had been nationalised after the War. While Turajlić is telling us how she does not know anything about it, we can once again observe a similar scene from the window – a group of rubbish collectors are taking away bulky pieces of waste that have been left in the ‘expensive’ street where the flat is located. Thus, the suggestive editing symbolically presents the workers – rubbishcollectors breaking large waste (that once used to be someone’s furniture) into smaller pieces so that they could load them on their lorry – as mythical highlanders–partisans–communists who robbed decent houses after the liberation of Belgrade.

Another worker gets a bit of space in the film. It is a man who cleans the building where the Turajlić family lives. Just like his predecessors, so was this worker with a minimum (and probably irregular) wage, represented through a high-angle shot. The camera is not on the same plane with him, but rather films him through a handrail from above while he is cleaning the ground floor. This scene is shot from the uppermost floor where the heir of the owner of the building in the city centre left himself a flat, precisely at the top, so he could ‘occasionally glance on the street below.’ Nevertheless, unlike the other workers in the film, the cleaner was in a way subjectivised. He is again depicted from above in another scene, this time in a conversation with a lady who is offering him some old clothes of hers (that she probably wanted to dispose of while she was decluttering her wardrobes). But this act of kindness from the neighbour’s part will at the same time serve to infantilise the cleaner – he appears indecisive at first, but accepts the offer in the end and takes the clothes. The whole exchange is reduced to his seemingly irrational reluctance to take the gifts, while the material situation of the worker nor the class discrepancy between him and the lady are by no means questioned.

Apart from the collectors of secondary raw materials, the rubbish collectors and the cleaner, another usual liberal phantasm of people in Serbia finds its place in the film – with no teeth and a sense of direction, uneducated, they kiss an effigy of Slobodan Milošević, they queue in front of banks waiting to get their forever lost savings back, they steal antique furniture from the Parliament building, etc. This representation of the majority is in juxtaposition with the respectable intellectuals who visit the flat in Birčaninova Street and who have kind discussions, even when they disagree with each other. Even though Srbijanka Turajlić directly accuses the intellectuals, her University colleagues, for having lost her job, the author does not look upon them from above, she looks them right in their eyes and respectfully considers their standpoint.

The other side of everything is by no means the story of all of us, as has already been said more than once. It is a story that creates phantasms for the weakened bourgeois class about their purity and the eternal sins of the people who forever undermine their personal and, hence, Serbia’s development. Mila Turajlić has not wandered about how, even during the socialist period, her family owned a flat larger than average, or how her family members kept their status, acquired higher education diplomas, had decent salaries and more. Nor does the film question the very fact that the members of the bourgeois class, of the cultural and intellectual elite, were the key to bringing and maintaining the rule of Milošević–Đinđić–Koštunica–Tadić–Vučić. And why should she, when all these beholders of power enabled her and her family to regain the taken property, keep their positions and carry on with their political agenda. It is easy for one to complain when he or she has the material preconditions that can at least enable him or her to safely leave that pitiful Serbia. The ones who do not have these preconditions are the collectors and the cleaners whom we observe from above in the film and who were taken away their salaries, pensions, factories, dignity and, more and more often, their whole flats, by the very members of the bourgeois class and the political elite.

Marko Miletić

The other side of communism

Other films made after the decline of socialism in Yugoslavia also demonstrate that anticommunism has been a common component of the ruling political spectrum ever since (of both the liberal Centre and the Right). The other side of everythingreveals a peculiar political confusion that, aside from a clear anticommunist stance, lacks any clear political orientation, which is characteristic of both liberal Serbiaand the newer generation of liberals in the country. By carefully piecing visual and audio material together, Mila Turajlić offers spectators a nebulous, liberal, people-phobic and above all ahistorical perspective on the social processes that took place in the past fifty years.In the middle of the vortex of confusing political stances (the author insists on democratic principles while at the same time criticises political choices of the unworthy and uneducated, for example), in which the State is conceived as a rightful representative of all and every collectivism as a political and social failure, again lies the anticommunist imperative.Thus, at the beginning of the film, mum Turajlić laments over the fact that after World War II a communist revolution took place and that ‘the communists thought that the bourgeoisie had too much of everything, including living space, which should hence be distributed to the poor.’ Aside from implicit insisting on the unquestionable right to private property, professor Turajlić clearly states that the bourgeois families had the god-given possessions taken away from them by force. Beside the never ending liberal grieve for democracy, the author expresses fundamental ignorance when it comes to socialist housing policies that were driven by the idea of social justice and were an aspect of a much wider social project of modernising the country. Needless to say, this kind of glossing over may as well be treated as falsifying.

As a matter of fact, anticommunism in the film is not implicit, but rather openly expressed, for example in one of the scenes where Srbijanka Turajlić says: ‘My family indeed held an anticommunist position…’, even though of pro-Yugoslavian inclination, as she claims further on. However, the whole paradox of the film does not solely lie in the commonest and the most hollow of narratives of the mainstream politics – the anticommunist liberal stance – but in its ahistorical approach, which is imposed through the plot. First comes the dark communist age (i.e. totalitarian, represented by a uniformed ‘udbašica’5 that appears out of nowhere to take away the possessions of the family – narrative so reminiscent of the familiar Gestapo representations), followed by the dark age of Milošević (that is uncritically represtented as an extension of the previous, communist period, even though it is in fact in discontinuity with it – Milošević was the first one to introduce privatisation, let us name but one of the incongruities of the two politics), ending with the dark age of Vučić (immediately after the inglorious democratic rise and its even faster decline). Representing the communist period of Yugoslavia as a totalitarian one explicitly characterises communism as an ademocratic enemy of the so-called ‘middle class’ that is unrightfully depriving it of capital and is violating its freedom and its rights. Unsurprisingly, neither the author nor professor Turajlić, the protagonist of the film, mention fascism. Ahistoricity as well as the author’s ideological standpoint are made clear in the representation of the Milošević regime as continuation of socialism. The only discontinuity that the author recognises (a positive one, undoubtedly) lies in work of Zoran Đinđić. One could note that her further critique of Vučić, who is in fact a consistent implementer of Đinđić’s politics, is another indicator of the confused political stance of the author, as well as of the whole generation of liberal Serbia’s children.

Linking the aforementioned regimes is by no means questioned or contextualised in the film. Quite to the contrary, they are represented as parts of a whole, in a cause-and-effect relationship with one another. The only thing that remains clear is that in all the dark times friends ring the bell thrice.

Irena Pejić

Translation from Serbian: Ivana Anđelković

This article was originally published in Serbian on January 16, 2018.

  1. For one of the reactions to the report see.
  2.  Look up Kristen Ghodsee’s work for comparison with the situation in Bulgaria.
  3. Vuksanović Macura, Zlata. (2012). Život na ivici. Stanovanje sirotinje u Beogradu 1919-1941 (Life on the edge. Poverty and housing in Belgrade 1919-1941), p. 28
  4. Petrović, Ljubomir. (2000). Problemi stanovanja u Kraljevini Jugoslaviji 1918-1941, Istorija 20. Veka (Housing issues in Kingdom of Yugoslavia 1918-1941, 20thcentury history), 26, 2, pp. 23-44.
  5. Udbaš (m.) and udbašica (f.) were members of UDBA – the State Security Administration, referreed to as the secret police of Yugoslavia by liberal sources (translator’s note).
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