“Hope Against Experience” by Naeem Mohaiemen

After an illuminating conversation between filmmakers Mila Turajlić and Naeem Mohaiemen during the New York-run of Mila’s documentary diptych: Scenes from the Labudović ReelsNon-Aligned + Ciné-Guerrillas at Anthology Film Archives this year, we invited Naeem to write something personal in relation to Mila’s films and his own work on the eve of her diptych’s premiere on OVID.tv. 

Born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, Mila is an award-winning filmmaker and visual artist whose documentary works draw on the intersection of personal and national memories. Her discovery of newsreel footage shot by Yugoslav President Tito’s official cameraman Stevan Labudović was so vast and rich with fascinating historical material that it became two documentaries instead of one. Scenes from the Labudović Reels premiered at TIFF and IDFA. 

Her film The Other Side of Everything (also streaming on OVID) won 32 awards, including the IDFA Award for Best Documentary Film and the IDA Best Writing award. Mila and Naeem have both exhibited work at MoMA. Mila received her PhD in cinema from the University of Westminster, and is a founding member of DOKSerbia, the Association of documentary filmmakers of Serbia. Naeem heads the Photography concentration at School of Arts, Columbia University and is co-editor (with Eszter Szakacs) of Solidarity Must Be Defended (2023), an anthology of visual arts projects exploring solidarity, realized and failed, within the Cold War era.

Without further ado, here’s Naeem’s essay below…

“Hope Against Experience,” by Naeem Mohaiemen

There is a vertiginous proximity to memory-keepers in both (2022) and, to a lesser degree, in (2022). These two chapters in Mila Turajlić’s rotate around Stevan Labudović, a cameraman for decades with Filmske Novosti in Yugoslavia and also, at various times, photographer for the Yugoslav partisans and a Soviet Red Army propaganda unit during World War II, official documentarian for Josip Broz Tito’s ‘Voyages of Peace’ ship voyages, and part of a mobile unit filming the Algerian Liberation War. Mila spends extensive periods on-screen with Stevan Labudović, in intimate interview spaces, rummaging through an endless archive, and in a necessarily sentimental return to Algeria. The comfort of confiding in a trusted listener comes through with Stevan, but even more clearly when his partner Ružica Labudović (a Holocaust survivor who later joined President Tito’s cabin crew) enters the screen and in sequences of immersive film reel gleaning moments with Jovana Kesić, the long-time Head of Archive at Filmske Novosti in Belgrade. In some of these scenes, the camera presence seems to have disappeared, as people lean in to share confidences with Mila. There is both a generational transmission with Stevan and a contemporary sharing with Jovana –as if to say: This easy familiarity and belief in a shared humanist project is also a space of divergence with at least some other global regions that share in the experience of the Non-Aligned Movement, but not quite the same nostalgia. 

I was first introduced to Mila Turajlić in 2016 by Vijay Prashad (The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, 2007) when she arrived in New York to film interviews with Budimir Lončar, the Croatian diplomat who had served as Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General to the Non-Aligned Movement. I had just finished filming Prashad at the UN General Assembly for the first chapter of my film, Two Meetings and a Funeral (2017). We had a rough experience with the UN Press Office, forbidden from recording any speech or dialogue in front of an official “backdrop.” Vijay had managed to smuggle in an impromptu monologue inside the Dag Hammarskjöld Library and underneath Sputnik in the lobby. Now, he wanted me to learn what Mila’s filming experience had been, as she was going down a slower interview path where there appeared to be a warmer welcome. Mila and I stayed in touch from that time on, and I excerpted fragments of the Labudović work in the anthology Solidarity Must Be Defended (edited with Eszter Szakacs, 2023) and again in a profile completed for the Oberhausen Film Festival. While Two Meetings, with a more staccato and less completist form, premiered the following year, Mila walked a slower, encyclopedic path that culminated in two films and an exhaustive digitization of Labudović’s film reels.

The confiding familiarity and durational largesse of Mila’s project underlines a difference in how the history of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) is remembered in former Yugoslavia, in contrast with how it is perceived in Global South countries that were the rank-and-file membership of this movement and moment. The title of Two Meetings and a Funeral derives from a cynical dialogue by one of my protagonists, “Non-Aligned Movement–born in Yugoslavia, raised in Algeria, died in Bangladesh.” My interviewee was referring to the fact that the embrace of Non-Alignment often reflected an unstable realpolitik, which, at least in my version of a retelling, was undone by the rise of the putatively Islamic, actually Oil power-driven, Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) as a rival and cannibalizing force. For historians of Bangladesh, it is challenging to think of NAM without also thinking of its slow-motion implosion (although Vijay Prashad does attempt to stay with the promise rather than reversals). Mila’s protagonists are able to stay in the golden light era, and this perhaps emanates from the fact, repeated in her film, that this was a moment when Yugoslavia was a primary protagonist of an emerging global history and alternate regional alignment.

This dynamic is reflected in the simultaneously melancholy and optimistic endings of both chapters of the Labudovic Reels. In Non-Aligned, the last scene is a slow-motion newsreel from the first Non-Aligned Meeting in Belgrade (1961), where crowds wave flags, including that of India, while Mila’s narration speaks of “the essence of what it means to me to have been Yugoslav” (though she does precede it with “a promise that has not been delivered”). Mila’s scripted ending resides within the beating heart of the 1961 summit, a starting point and zenith before the existential crisis on view in my own film’s focus on the 1973 summit, where celebrations of newly independent Bangladesh and soon-to-be-liberated Vietnam sit within an unwieldy gathering, where Yugoslavia is starting to hold less sway as newer powers such as Libya and Saudi Arabia begin to flex diplomatic muscle, and whose internal contradictions will soon explode into public view. Similarly, in Cine-Guerrillas, one final newsreel excerpt shows young men marching with flags of independent Algeria. The viewer does not have to consider the slow-motion erosion of the Algerian dream of a just society, that tragic symphony for so many peoples that overthrew brutal, extractive colonial masters but did not arrive into a fully liberated postcolonial condition. It is not the task of Labudovic Reels to trace both the rise of utopian projects and their tragic shortcomings because that would make for film documents that never end (Mila has already spent seven years on this project, an admirable feat of endurance and perseverance). Her earlier works, Cinema Komunisto (2011) and Other Side of Everything (2017), also strike an optimistic-nostalgic tenor; at the same time, contradictions that led to the wars, pogroms, and collapse of Yugoslavia are the dark shadows flickering at the edge of all her films. It is worth staying a while with the small snatches of bittersweet optimism within her films because they propose something increasingly out of reach in this burning world– resuscitating earlier hope against later experience.

Still above from Ciné-Guerrillas, from the reels filmed by Stevan Labudović during the Algerian Liberation War. Still and trailers courtesy Icarus Films. 

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