Thursday, April 30, 2009

Tito and I , A Classic Yugoslav Film

It seems almost archaic to to describe a film today with the adjective "Yugoslav", since the country no longer exists. Even Montenegro with a population about a quarter of Brooklyn's has gone its own way.

Despite the discovery, affirmation and celebration of the vast differences within and between the six former Republics, the 35 years that Tito ruled Yugoslavia remain a common denominator and a legacy. If Yugoslavia is but a state of mind, Josip Broz Tito is a dominant figure in the dreams of its brief existence in the 20th century.

Americans had a picture of the former Yugoslavia that it was a mellow, gentle type of communism. The freedom to travel abroad tended to validate this impression. What was less frequently discussed was the widespread unemployment that made absorption of Yugoslav workers into Western Europe's work force a political and economic necessity. When I was in Zagreb in 1973, I was astounded to see works of Leon Trotsky in the display windows of bookstores. A Serbian friend with whom I was travelling reminded me that Stalin loyalists and Croatian nationalists were languishing in Yugoslav prisons. Although the codex of banned opinions differed vastly in Yugoslavia from the USSR, the consequences of crossing those boundaries could be every bit as dire as they would be in Czechoslovakia or Poland.

I am very interested in the perceptions created by mass media. When speaking with people from what was Yugoslavia, I like to recreate as much as I can of their daily lives. Little fragments of memory like the tin cutlery in cheap restaraunts and Opatija cigarettes that smell so differently from Italian cigarettes are crystals around which memories accumulate into something visible.

"Tito i Ja", (Tito and I) is a movie set in the fifties. It is about a boy who is hoping to win an essay contest for an essay praising Marshal Tito. The prize was to be a trip around Yugoslavia in the company of communist youth. The central character worships Tito. His family is however very cynical about Tito and about communism. The boy dreams of winning the contest. In one cute scene, he is watching Tito in a newsreel and studiously imitating his facial expressions and movements. The extensive documentary footage from the period portrayed creates a vivid picture of the Tito personality cult, of what people were bombarded with on a steady basis. It is only one of many facets of life in what was Yugoslavia, but one that was downplayed in the American media.

The movie also had subplots revolving around the protagonist's relationships with his peers. It is as much a coming of age film as it is an exploration of a critical chapter in the history of what was Yugoslavia.

I was fortunate enough to locate a copy of this movie in the Brooklyn Public Library. It can also be purchased on line. Given the chance, it is one of a handful of movies I would gladly watch again. Whether viewers from the former Yugoslavia agree or disagree with its underlying premises, this film jogs a lot of recollections. In some ways, it serves the same purpose as does "We didn't Start the Fire" by Billy Joel in jogging collective memory. The film moved me deeply. As an American I grew up with an airbrushed picture of Tito that assumed hues of realism as age and knowledge intruded upon my fantasy. I hope that this five minute clip will inspire some of my readers to check this classic film out for themselves.

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