Screens at CIFF: 10/8 & 10/9
World premiere: 19 November, 2010, International Documentary Festival Amsterdam

We all know, I should think, that one of the things most important to any authoritarian leader is the strict control of media; and that every dictatorial government of the 20th Century worth its salt had a dedicated state-run movie studio devoted to the creation of propaganda entertainment (and it's not limited, I fear, to overtly totalitarian regimes: there is no shortage of examples from democracies of concerted, government-influenced filmmaking, though very few state-owned production companies). In this regard, Cinema Komunisto is just one more log on the fire, without any genuinely shocking revelations. But that't not at all the same as calling Cinema Komunisto redundant or otherwise unnecessary: on the contrary, it's a remarkably fresh and at times incredibly entertaining study of the Yugoslavian film industry during that country's short life between 1945 and 1991.

The particular brilliance of director Mila Turajlič is that she's really telling three distinct stories that overlap from start to finish: first, Cinema Komunisto is about the manner in which a dictator can use cinema to tell an ideologically pure version of his government's history and present an appealing, white-washed idea of his government's present to the outside world. Second, the film is a quick and dirty and surprisingly comprehensive overview of Yugoslavian film history, a subject that is perhaps not terribly well-known outside of the former Yugoslavia except to the experts - had you any idea that in the '60s and '70s, Yugoslavia's Avala Studios had some of the largest facilities and most resources to be found in Europe? Because I absolutely did not - backed up with a tremendous collection of vintage footage: from the films themselves, behind-the-scenes material, interviews from around the world given during the heyday of Yugoslavian film production. Third, Cinema Komunisto is a documentary about Josip Broz, known to history as Comrade Tito, Yugoslavia's eminently charismatic dicatator, a man so personally charming that even now, he's remembered with unabashed fondness by essentially everyone Turajlič spoke to on the subject.

Under Tito's control, the film industry of that country moved from hacky tales of partisans fighting the Nazis in World War II (we're given a look at several of them, and they look absolutely giddy in their earnest badness: one of them features a stern-faced SS officer informing his associates that the partisans are dangerous because they're so idealistic and brave and filled with goodness, and must therefore be crushed) to playing host for the world's best and brightest after the split between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union resulted in an influx of Hollywood movies screening to the population at large, which in turn led to the adoption of Hollywood-style techniques and thence to the active courtship of Hollywood productions and the mountains of dollars they brought with. Orson Welles, in all his robustness, appears as a particularly evil Nazi (and in an interview, suggests that Tito is the greatest leader in the world), Richard Burton is hand-picked by the dictator to play himself in a biopic. And so it went, until Tito's death in 1980 deprived the country not just of the charismatic who was the sole force holding together a united socialist Yugoslavia, but of the cinephile-in-chief who first had the idea that using cinema to great a bright, happy image of his country was arguably more important than actually creating a bright, happy country.

It's this aspect of the regime and its propaganda arm that chiefly animate Turajlič's film: how Tito's overriding love of movies, as told by his long-time private projectionist Aleksandar Leka Konstatinovič (the only interviewee who was not a film professional, and a man who, as of 2006, had not budged an inch in his love of the late despot), became an insistence that Yugoslavia should not just have a functioning state film studio, but that this studio should be the envy of the whole world, Communist and capitalist alike. There's something oddly touching about it, and Turajlič presents that story with bright, bubbly good humor, even as the reality of an authoritarian, economically strapped country always lurks around the corner from the particpants' recollections about how great it was to work at Avala in the '60s.

In fact, the only time that Cinema Komunisto falters is when Turajlič opens the floodgates, and tries to end the movie with the exact same sober consideration of how authoritarianism and the control of media are eveil that her film has so neatly avoided. She's right, of course, that a state-run movie industry with an iron control of content is no damn good to anybody; but the movie's sharp turn in that direction is unexpected and imbalancing. Maybe that's her point; her film waking up to a sharp, ugly reality just as the nominally happy Yugoslavia realised that it was completely fucked as a nation. Whatever the case, it's not enough to wreck one of the spriest documentaries about a film industry that I have seen, and Cinema Komunisto as a whole is smart and insightful enough that it sort of doesn't matter where that insight came from.