Mila Turajlić on Mining the Archives of Stevan Labudović in Non-Aligned

IDFA 2022

17 mins read

Non-Aligned: Scenes from the Labudović Reels, part two of a diptych, is an archive-driven film about the creation of the Non-Aligned movement and Yugoslav cameraperson Stevan Labudović. The film follows director Mila Turajlić’s Ciné-Guerrillas: Scenes from the Labudović Reels, which premiered at TIFF this fall, and tells how the cinematographer recorded landmark moments of this global alliance in the 1950s and ‘60s.

The Non-Aligned movement invited newly liberated countries of Asia and Africa to join a new political project not aligned with either of the Cold War blocs, that aimed to create a more just and equitable world order. Non-Aligned: Scenes from the Labudović Reels celebrates the personalities who defined this movement as well as the power of cinema to express a political dream.

Turajlić is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and archival “artivist.” Born in Belgrade, she is now based in Paris. Her documentary The Other Side of Everything (2017), a film about modern Serbia told via a mother-daughter relationship, won 32 awards including the prestigious IDFA Best Feature-Length Documentary.

POV spoke to the director prior to the world premiere at IDFA 2022.—Megan Durnford

MT: Mila Turajlić

POV: Megan Durnford


POV: You refer to yourself as an artivist. What does this mean to you?

MT: For me, it has to do with the fact that I studied political science during the 1990s in Serbia. Yugoslavia was breaking up. I became very involved in the students movement and in creating an NGO, which would try to introduce parliamentary debate in Serbia. I was 21 when we had a so-called democratic revolution and got rid of our president Milošević. But for me there was a deep disillusion with political activism and engagement once I had witnessed the aftermath of the revolution and I realized how complicated was the idea of constructing a democracy.

And in many ways, I lost my faith in the language of politics. It is around that time that I became a documentary filmmaker. To me, it was a way to continue this engagement—there were questions that needed to be raised and stories that needed to be told—but via art rather than political debate.


Mila Turajlić | Photo by Miguel Bueno

POV: Your archive-driven diptych is a wonderful tribute to Stevan Labudović’s work. How did it all begin? What drew you to 60-year-old film archives?

MT: It’s what I have been doing since I started making films. My first film, which I started in 2005, was Cinema Komunisto. Initially, it was looking at an abandoned film studio in Belgrade. It had been the central film studio in the former Yugoslavia. I started making a project about how Yugoslavia’s political narrative had been constructed via cinema and that led me to archives because I was looking for material that had to do with “behind the scenes” film shoots, the use of cinema in Yugoslav society. And at the time that was a really strange place because the archives were a federal institution but we were no longer a federation. So they were in some sort of legal vacuum. This archive was starting to fall into the cracks of a society that was breaking up…and I dove right in after them. That was my first encounter with the Yugoslav Newsreels.


POV: Could you tell me about the first time that you met Stevan?

MT: I first heard about him in Algeria instead of Belgrade where we both lived. For me, that was already so intriguing that his cinematic legacy was celebrated in another country on another continent. I began to realize that he represented a bridge to a world whose story I did not know at all.

I first met him at a film festival in Algeria, in the lobby of the hotel, when he arrived as a special guest of the festival. I was there as a member of the jury. I approached him and said, “I am a filmmaker like you, I am from Belgrade like you, may I follow you around with my camera?” So, I started filming half an hour after I met him. Understanding who he was developed gradually. He was 87 at the time so I knew instinctively that I would have to “be there,” be incredibly attuned to what was going on, think through what I was seeing because there wouldn’t be another chance. We had the fortune to collaborate like that for three years. He passed away while we were still working on the film.

When I started to film with him, I didn’t have a clue about the vastness of his story. When I started filming with him, I knew two things—that he was considered a hero in Algeria (he was called the Cinematic Eye of the revolution) and that he had been assigned to be the cameraman for Yugoslav Newsreels, the person following President Tito’s journeys. But I didn’t even understand the link between those two things at the time. It was only at the end of those three years that I realized that he had been a witness, as the cameraman, to every essential political moment in the creation of the Non-Aligned movement. That is not something that he told me.

Once I had put together a timeline of how the Non-Aligned movement came together and then a timeline of where he had filmed, that’s when I had this aha moment. He was witness to the birth of this movement and his images gave birth to it in many ways. So there is this double play of witnessing something but also fabricating its image, bringing into existence visually.

The other big discovery was the extent to which Yugoslav cameramen had collaborated with newly created countries in Africa. That was a story that had never been told, never written about. In many ways, it was clandestine. I dug through paperwork at Stevan’s house, and what I could find at the Yugoslav Newsreel. I went through about 10,000 documents to piece it together: Oh he was sent there, then the reels came back, then they brought someone from Algeria to help write the voiceover. There wasn’t anyone alive, not even him, who could tell that story in a coherent way. The detective work was fun, but very labour intensive!

POV: What was it like to collaborate with Stevan?

MT: He had a very mischievous spirit and he was an adventurous soul. When I asked Stevan about his childhood heroes, he said Hemingway. That really helped me to understand how he had seen himself. He was so “up” for travelling together. He still had that spirit even when he reached 90. There was a real insight for me into the physicality of being a cameraman. I found that really striking in the archives, to see him running with a 35 mm camera in his hands and a battery pack on his shoulders.

And then there was this aspect of mentorship. Although I had started filming myself, I had always anticipated that I would hand the filming over to a DP. But (filming Stevan directly) so quickly it became this interaction and exchange, where he criticized me and said, “try this, try that.” I thought, ‘this really allows me to see who a cameraman is and how he sees things. It s adds an incredibly valuable layer to the film.’ So I decided to keep filming myself.


POV: In the 1960s, image and sound were recorded separately. Please tell me about the process of creating a synchronized version.

MT: For a long time, in the edit, we had structured the film in a way so that you just got the story. But on watching it, one thing that was clear was that you don’t understand that this story is being pieced together as I film it. So, now, it is an investigation and you follow me as I discover things.

For that scene when the sound and the image come together, it was incredibly important for us to actually witness the moment we do it, not just the final result. It was important to show the magnitude of what that meant to us.

He filmed without sound. So you’re faced with this sea of silent images. Everyone says an image is worth a thousand words. But at the end of making this film, I don’t think that it is. This film is proof that you can overlay the image with so many voices and make it say so many things.

So I did have the voice-overs that were written under political control and with political intention. In themselves, they are interesting to analyse. But what was the original sound? We found 26 reels of outtakes from the Belgrade Summit, and 10 of them were just speeches— but silent. You want to hear them (Non-Aligned members) speak especially because you know that they wanted their voices to be heard on the international stage. It was so striking that we were talking about voices, but not hearing them. Eventually I did get access to the sound archives at Radio Belgrade. Then there was this magic of bringing it all together. But It wasn’t easy. I ended up partnering with a UK-based company of deaf-mute lip readers. I found the transcripts of the speeches. And these lip readers helped me to pinpoint in the image where certain sentences begin. They had never worked on a historical archive (Deciphering dialogue from CCTV footage is more usual work). It’s the first time in 60 years that those speeches are heard. The payoff was really rich!


POV: What is the relationship of the IDFA live stage performance Fragments #2: New Voices from the Summit to this film?

MT: There is an over-arching research project called the Non-Aligned Newsreels. And we created a web platform to anchor all the research being done. First, I wanted to make the films because it was important for me to contextualize the archives: Why are these people from a country that no longer exists filming in Africa?

Now, the essential next stage is to solicit perspectives from people where the footage is from. OK, we have this archive, and we are starting to digitize it. How does it speak to the people who live there now? How would they re-appropriate these images if they could? So, about a year ago, at a CPH lab, we developed the concept of live performances. Silent screenings with poets, writers, activists from countries that are in the material—the idea that they will overlay the images with their own perspectives, interpretations, memories in a spontaneous, freestyle way. In live performances, it works and it doesn’t.  As an encounter around images, it is beautiful! There is an instinctive understanding between participants that has roots in the Non-Aligned movement.


POV: President Tito had high hope for the Non-Alignment movement. Why do you think this dream was never fully realized?

MT: There is a powerful analysis in Vijay Prashad’s The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World. He breaks it down to external sabotage and internal implosion. It’s really both. There was an obvious desire on the side of both blocs for this NOT to work. There was a lot of backstage manipulation. Newly liberated countries were never given the “the freedom to be free.”

And then there was a lot of internal contradiction which is incredibly painful. We have to be frank that there is something contradictory about leaders who lead their countries to freedom (with massive support from the populations, after spending years in prison) and were demanding equality on the world stage, but were not willing to accord it to their own population.


POV: Your mother is a veteran political activist. What did she think of the diptych?

MT: She learned things that she did not know, even though she lived through this period. The way that Yugoslavia was assisting African and Asian liberation movements was happening in a clandestine fashion. For her, there is this satisfaction that the story of Non-Alignment gets told, that the idea is—I don’t want to say resuscitated—but re “placed” in a sphere of public consideration.


POV: Is your next project be archive-driven?

MT: It is! There is part of me that wants to focus on other forms of filmmaking. But I keep coming back to archives because I keep thinking that we are not protecting them, we are not preserving them enough (especially in the former Yugoslavia). My next project involves international archives.


Non-Aligned: Scenes from the Labudović Reels premiered at IDFA 2022.

A born storyteller, Megan Durnford is a Montreal-based writer and documentary filmmaker. Her latest film, Last Respects, won the Betty Youson Award for Best Canadian Short Documentary at Hot Docs.

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