A Portrait of the Artist as a Political Dissident: The Life and Work of Aleksandar Petrovic

A Portrait of the Artist as a Political Dissident: The Life and Work of Aleksandar Petrovic

by Vlastimir Sudar


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ISBN-13: 9781841505459
Publisher: Intellect, Limited
Publication date: 04/15/2013
Pages: 366
Product dimensions: 6.90(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Vlastimir Sudar teaches film history and theory at the University of the Arts London.

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A Portrait of the Artist as a Political Dissident: The Life and Work of Aleksandar Petrovic

By Vlastimir Sudar

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2013 Vlastimir Sudar
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84150-545-9



1. 1. The State

1. 1. 1. Early Cinema in Serbia and Yugoslavia

After the Lumiére brothers had their first film screening in December 1895, it did not take long before this invention toured Europe like any other technological novelty of the time. The brothers' employees, André Carre and Jules Giren, organised the first film screening in Belgrade, then in the Kingdom of Serbia, on 6 June 1896, barely six months after its first screening in Paris. "The cinematograph" was very popular with local people; hence this travelling cinema stayed until the end of the month, and returned in February 1897 of the Julian calendar, or rather in March 1897 of the currently accepted Gregorian calendar.

As was the custom in the early days of cinema for the shows to travel like circuses, André Carre, a photographer himself, decided to film scenes of Belgrade life once he was back in the city. He did so following the style of his employers, the Lumière brothers, and first filmed a short newsreel – Workers Leaving a Tobacco Factory. He then shot numerous other episodes, including trams leaving the station and people greeting the king as he returned from his travels. These newsreels are the earliest films made in the Balkans.

Although these films from early 1897 are now lost, they made an enormous impact at the time. They seduced many local entrepreneurs and young adventurers into starting their own film businesses, hence the development of this new industry unfolded with steady progression in a "romantic" spirit of modernism. The first projection equipment was acquired by a local entrepreneur in 1900, and today the oldest surviving film is an hour-long documentary footage of the crowning of King Peter Karadjordjevic in 1904.

The most ambitious new film entrepreneur was Svetozar Botoric, who opened the first regular cinema in Belgrade in December of 1908. Before this, all the cinemas had been only travelling attractions whether from foreign or local individuals or their companies. Botoric was a hotelier who "took a note of great interest amongst the public, and the good proceeds travelling cinemas were gaining" and decided to open the first true film company. Botoric initially signed a contract with the French firm Pathé Frères, and was their representative for Serbia and Bulgaria, exclusively premiering their films and newsreels in his cinema. He also regularly produced local newsreels, with Pathé's assistance, who provided equipment as well as their experienced cameraman, or cinematographer, Louis de Beéry.

Botoric's interest in production would grow and was particularly inspired after he had seen the French film The Assassination of the Duke of Guise (L'Assassinat du Duc de Guise, 1908) directed by Charles Le Bargy and André Calmette. Botoric was quite impressed by this film, which is today referred to as an early example of narrative cinema, as its authors essentially filmed a theatre performance. Noël Burch discusses The Assassination of the Duke of Guise and its approach as one of the key elements that helped shape the culture of cinema as it is known today, a film culture based on narrative structures involving specific modes of representations.

It was Botoric's idea to make a film on Karadjordje, the leader of the first Serbian uprising against the Ottoman Empire, which historian Misha Glenny described as "the rebellion [that] marked the beginning of modern history on the Balkan peninsula." Botoric's intention evidently was to (re-)represent history in the new medium, recreating old myths in a way that was to characterise cinema's first century, a way that Burch criticises in his seminal work Life to Those Shadows.

As a pioneer of early cinema, Botoric faced numerous obstacles. In Serbia at the time, according to film historians Mira and Antonín Liehm, as in most countries, cinema was criticised as being mindless entertainment lacking any cultural value. In order to address this criticism, a film based on a famous historical event, dedicated to a forefather of the then Serbian royal family, appeared to be a project with great historical and cultural significance. To grant further cultural credibility to the project, and following the French example, Botoric employed actors from the National Theatre in Belgrade to play roles in the film. Furthermore, it was to be directed by the veteran actor Ilija Stanojevic, with whom Botoric had already made a few short fiction films. With De Beéry as cameraman, a large-scale production of this "historical drama" was completed and shown in 1911 under the title Life and Deeds of the Immortal Leader Karadjordje (Zivot i dela besmrtnog vozda Karadjordja), and was distributed and known simply as Karadjordje.

Botoric's idea of making cinema as art and part of "high culture", regardless of Burch's later criticisms of the modes of representation such practices initiated, may now be perceived as noble and advanced for its time.

According to the Yugoslav film historians Petar Volk and Dejan Kosanovic, Karadjordje was commercially very successful in Serbia. This was perhaps due to the fact that the Karadjordjevic family took over the throne not long before the film was released, and was welcomed as a way of re-establishing the myth of Karadjordje, the dynasty's founder, and the great leader and liberator. Botoric, encouraged by its success, immediately started another large "historical" production with the same crew and recipe, although the film Ulrih Celjski and Vladislav Hunjadi (1911) subsequently flopped. In itself, this would not have been such a problem had the previous film secured international distribution. Although successful at home, Pathé refused to buy it for foreign markets, and only the domestic profits could not cover the expenses. Both films also failed to receive any support from the king's government, even though their subjects were popularising what appeared to be nationally important historical figures and events. Botoric, who by this time had invested considerable amounts of his own money into these projects, flinched and decided to stop producing fiction films as they proved to be very costly. Ilija Stanojevic, his director, went back to theatre and stayed there until the end of his career, whereas Louis de Beéry went back to filming newsreels, documenting everyday life in Serbia. The last copies of Karadjordje were lost sometime in the early 1920s.

After World War I and the creation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (renamed as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in October 1929), the situation in the local film industry did not improve, but worsened. The new country Yugoslavia was conspicuously larger and economically stronger than Serbia had been, but still could not sustain a film industry based on the concept of market economy. Although attempts were made to introduce laws that would help protect the local industry – the most significant of which was passed in 1931 – the large American and German distributors, through their influence in the government, managed to disable the law within a few years. The country entered a period of what Nina Hibbin describes as "the sporadic nature of film production." In reality, the national film industry only came into being after the communist takeover and the industry's nationalisation in 1945.

Some film historians, such as the American Michael Stoil, express the view that "communist film historians" were intentionally ignorant of their national film production prior to the socialist revolutions. In his book, Balkan Cinema, written in the late 1970s, and in a tone somewhat reminiscent of the Cold War inspired ideological quarrels, he praises Karadjordje as an example of a Balkan history film, even though at that point the film had not been seen for decades. Other American scholars did not share Stoil's enthusiasm for Karadjordje, and Mira and Antonín Liehm therefore claim "the virtual non-existence of film" in the pre-socialist period in Yugoslavia. Daniel Goulding in his authoritative history of Yugoslav film reiterates this view, and further quotes the Liehms and their assessment that "motion pictures in Yugoslavia before World War Two were purely commercial and of no cultural interest, and were also outside the framework of national traditions." Such dismissive views of the early industry became prevalent and accepted in scholarly writing. Petar Volk, the renowned Yugoslav film scholar, defied such views, contrary to Stoil's assessment of what he called the "communist scholars". Volk had to admit that early cinema in Yugoslavia was meagre and not often of high quality, but claimed it was still worthy of scholarly attention, which indeed he pursued.

The established scholarly views on early Yugoslav cinema quoted earlier were all written before 16 July 2003, when – it could be said miraculously – an integral version of Botoric and Stanojevic's 1911 film Karadjordje was found in Vienna, in the Austrian Film Archive. Once the film had been restored and screened, it was evident that it was advanced for its time. It was a large-scale epic on a historical event of almost mythical proportions. This ambitious project was unrepeated in "the golden age" of later Yugoslav film production, although Aleksandar Petrovic himself wanted to direct a film on the same subject and even under the same title. Unfortunately, finances and sufficient interest were not forthcoming.

It is thus clear that early Serbian and Yugoslav cinema consists of work that has merit and certainly deserves more scholarly attention and respect than it has had in the past. However, these early works were rare and the result of great enthusiasm and love for cinema, rather than of organised production. The argument on "when does the national cinema actually start in Serbia and Yugoslavia?" could be concluded with the words of Aleksandar Petrovic, taken from a speech delivered in March 1971 addressing the Union of Film Workers of Yugoslavia, as their president:

The Yugoslav cinema industry was created as one of the results of the revolutionary changes instigated in Yugoslavia in the period between 1941 and 1945. Emphasising this fact, I have no intention of negating any of the pioneering attempts in the widest field of film work and artistry. However, I would like to draw attention to the date when the cinema industry emerged as an organised activity in society with established historical continuity, rather than an activity which only depended on the enthusiasm of a few individuals in particular circumstances.

Michael Stoil also, perhaps reluctantly, concludes that the "nationalization of the film industry under the socialist regimes can be viewed as a necessary step for the survival of national film industries rather than a mere act of political repression."

1. 1. 2. Socialist Yugoslavia and the Creation of a National Film Industry

Vladimir Ilich Lenin's well-known dictum on film as "the most important art" is generally accepted as the explanation for all the young socialist states investing vast amounts of their scarce resources and energy in hurriedly building up their film industries. Some historians, such as Mira and Antonín Liehm, have attempted to challenge this belief speculating that if Lenin had made a similar statement 50 years later, he would have identified television rather than film. I would be tempted to add that if Lenin said something of the sort 90 years after he spoke of film, he would probably talk about the Internet. However, I believe that such speculations are of little value. As the Liehms also point out, once these words were spoken they had an enormous impact on the countries later to become communist. The Liehms also claim that Lenin's nationalisation law of the industry was the second such law, as Hungary introduced an earlier nationalisation law after the communist revolution there led by Béla Kun in 1919. As this revolution failed within a very brief period of time, I would nevertheless identify Lenin's law on nationalisation of the film industry as the first and most important. It was the one that bore results and made a global impact, even beyond the realm of socialism. Lenin's doctrine led socialist countries across the world to build their own film industries even where previously they had been practically non-existent (as in Cuba or Albania) or where they needed to be completely rebuilt (as in Poland after World War II).

With the introduction of socialism to Yugoslavia during World War II, the film production swiftly followed. However, Josip Broz Tito and his Partisan fighters were not simply heeding Lenin's dictums as filmmaking had another perhaps more pressing purpose in their political struggle. Tito's Partisans were at first unrecognised on the international political stage as a resistance movement to Nazism. It was thus essential to convince, principally the leaders of the Allied countries, that the Partisans were at the heart of the resistance, rather than the Royalist Chetniks of Draza Mihajlovic who had initially been accepted and supported by the British government. Tito's Partisans therefore documented, as much as they could, their efforts against the German army in order to show the scale and ferocity of the struggle. Most of this filmed documentary material was destroyed in 1943 when the aeroplane carrying the young Partisan diplomat Ivo Lola Ribar, travelling to Italy to negotiate with the Allies, was shot down.

The importance of film for Tito and his Partisans was evident without the need of Lenin's dictum to remind them, and policies on cinema were introduced while the war was still raging. After forming the Partisan Film Section in 1943, Tito's cabinet formed the State Film Enterprise in November and a film section as part of the Agitprop Department in December 1944. The two sections were amalgamated into the Film Enterprise of the People's Republic of Yugoslavia in the summer of 1945. This was in turn disbanded in the summer of 1946 when the Committee for Cinema was formed and headed by the pre-war surrealist writer, Aleksandar Vuco. From 1945, cinema was under the Ministry of Education, which was also a radical change in practice from pre-war Yugoslavia, in which cinema had been under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Commerce. Therefore, the active attempt to create a cinema industry, which, in Volk's words, would treat "film as an art and agent of social force, of the widest influence and importance", commenced as soon as the communist Partisans began implementing their policies in the country.

Although the Yugoslav film industry surfaced to meet the needs of the Partisans, its development took place with the help of the Soviet Union, which in the words of Michael Stoil "supplied extensive assistance". As in the other emerging socialist states, the lack of trained personnel and equipment was resolved by Soviet donations, while Soviet filmmakers went to these countries to produce films that could serve as training opportunities for local filmmakers. One such film made in Yugoslavia was Abram Room's In the Mountains of Yugoslavia (V gorakh Yugoslavii/U planinama Jugoslavije) co-produced by the two countries in 1946. Among the Yugoslav filmmakers trained on this project was Vjekoslav Afric, who worked as one of Room's assistants and who directed the first Yugoslav post-war film, Slavica (1947), the following year.

Technical expertise was not the only knowledge Yugoslav filmmakers acquired from the Soviets. The more noteworthy realisation was, as the Yugoslav historian Petar Volk emphasised, the fact that Soviet "socialist realism" was inadequate for representing the complexities of the Yugoslav situation and its history. It is worth noting that socialist realism was never really accepted in Yugoslavia, even in literature. The cultural historian Andrew Wachtel claims that "the Yugoslav version of socialist realism as such, was only imposed between 1945 and 1952, and it was never imposed with as much uniformity as it had been in the Soviet Union", and continues to conclude that in the work of some writers "was practically absent". In the same vein, many film historians agree that socialist realism never played an oppressive or even restrictive role in Yugoslav cinema. Daniel Goulding elaborates that in the Yugoslav case it was replaced by a sort of "national" or "nationalist realism", particularly after Tito took the country out of the Eastern Bloc in 1948. The view that Yugoslavia had its own variant of the infamous artistic doctrine is accepted in scholarly work. However, Mira and Antonín Liehm described it as more moderate, although substantially containing some of the same attributes as the Soviet variety, these being "artistic dogmatism and intolerance".

By 1949, Yugoslavia had formed a national film industry in the same context as the other socialist countries by accepting Soviet help and doctrines. Due to its political development and the split with Stalin in 1948, avenues opened up for more independent and authentic development. Furthermore, as early as 1946, the Committee for Cinema had started a process of decentralisation of the film industry by opening regional committees in all the Yugoslav republics, as well as two film studios, one in Belgrade and one in Zagreb. John Lampe characterised this early development of the film industry immediately after the war as the result of an "inconsistent cultural policy". However, lacking the strict constraints of socialist realism, and with the industry becoming increasingly decentralised, the cinema must have appeared as one of the most attractive activities to join in 1949, when the young Aleksandar Petrovic did so.


Excerpted from A Portrait of the Artist as a Political Dissident: The Life and Work of Aleksandar Petrovic by Vlastimir Sudar. Copyright © 2013 Vlastimir Sudar. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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Table of Contents

Notes on Language

Chapter 1: Beginnings
    1.1 The State
    1.2 The Artist
    1.3 The State and the Artist
Chapter 2: Shoulder to Shoulder
    2.1 An Invitation from Vicko Raspor
    2.2 Raspor and Petrović: Rise and Fall
    2.3 Reclaiming the Experience
    2.4 First Films, First Problems
Chapter 3: Art as an Inquiry
    3.1 Two New Documentaries
    3.2 Three: Things “Invisible” in the War
Chapter 4: The Artist as a Feather Collector
    4.1 The New Direction
    4.2 International Recognition
Chapter 5: The Artist as an Agent Provocateur
    5.1 The Benefits of International Recognition
    5.2 Limelight as Light as Feathers
Chapter 6: The Artist as Master
    6.1 Aleksandar Petrović as the Master
    6.2 The Master and his Student
Chapter 7: The Artist in Exile
    7.1 Exile
Chapter 8: The Artist, Migrations, and the Last Days
    8.1 The Return
    8.2 Migrations and the Slow Processes of Rehabilitation
    8.3 The Lessons of Migrations and the Last Days


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