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Ciné-Guerrillas/Non-Aligned: Scenes from the Labudović Reels review – thoughtful and worthwhile | Movies


Ciné-Guerrillas/Non-Aligned: Scenes from the Labudović Reels review – thoughtful and worthwhile | Movies


These documentaries follow Yugoslav president Tito’s cameraman, who was sent to film liberation wars in Africa and Asia as part of Yugoslavia’s global anti-colonialist push

Mon 27 May 2024 04.00 EDT

It’s well worth watching this pair of pensive documentaries by Mila Turajlić, which, through the person of Marshal Tito’s preferred cameraman Stevan Labudović, highlight and question the role of film-making in forging political narratives. The first, Ciné-Guerrillas: Scenes from the Labudović Reels (★★★★☆), is directly focused on the lenser’s own history; in particular a key episode when, as part of Yugoslavia’s global anti-colonialist push, he was sent to cover the unfolding Algerian war of independence.

A one-time teenage partisan with a lust for adventure, Labudović, as Tito’s envoy, enjoyed unrestricted access to the Armée de Libération Nationale (ALN). Willing to put himself in the firing line to get the key angles on the fight against the French, he became a kind of Robert Capa or Don McCullin of the “third world” (in the late 1950s still an aspirational term referring to “non-aligned”, often newly independent countries looking for an alternative to might-is-right geopolitics). As Algeria had no film industry, Labudović’s skills were indispensable in counteracting the French depiction of the freedom fighters as brutal fellagha (bandits) and, beyond, emphasising their emancipatory nature to influence world opinion.

France attempted to obstruct discussion of, and legitimacy for, the Algerian question at international level, in much the same way as the US are currently attempting to with Gaza and Russia with Ukraine. But, as an Algerian lobbyist points out here, Labudović’s silvery images of guerrilla manoeuvres and assaults in the North African scrub helped make the conflict visible. Shortly afterwards, the UN passed the anti-colonialism resolution in 1960 that led to Algerian independence. While Tito had his plans for a new, less hegemonic world community, Ciné-Guerrillas inspiringly reminds us that global democratic machinery already existed, and functioned well when oiled by the right narrative.

The story arc is fully achieved in Ciné-Guerrillas, the hero decorated. But Turajlić likes to highlight the editorial choices made on the way, such as propagandist scenes Labudović was forced to stage, or his reluctance to put death on camera. This more self-conscious second segment, Non-Aligned (★★★☆☆), pushes more deeply into this aesthetic labour and whether it produces enduring political narratives. Confronted with the mouldering film cans of the Filmske Novosti (Yugoslav Newsreels) organisation for which Labudović worked, she wonders if these orphaned fragments have any meaning now, with the Yugoslav project long dead. The opening Walter Benjamin quote rings pessimistically: “History decays into images, not into stories.”

The contradiction is that Turajlić is obviously nostalgic for the clear narrative line; the idealism and moral clarity driving Tito’s 1st Non-Aligned Summit in Belgrade in 1961 (which was filmed by Labudović), the ocean-straddling romance of Galeb, the Yugoslav diplomacy ship in which the president courted his Asian and African partners (now rusting in a Croatian shipyard). Turajlić zeroes in on how Tito’s new vision was traduced by the superpowers and their subordinates hostile to deviating from the same old story. Shooting at Belgrade zoo, NBC describes the non-aligned leaders as “as unnatural a collection as the lesser animals gathered here”.

But wanting to salvage the story in the images, caught in her allegiances between affirming the message and interrogating the medium, Turajlić doesn’t produce a satisfying answer for why the non-aligned movement failed politically and aesthetically. As Labudović laments the realpolitik that crushed the Yugoslavian vision, the director retreats into hauntological poring over footage and fretting over technique.

Maybe Turajlić could have interrogated the movement more deeply. At one point in Cine-Guerrillas, an Algerian colleague of Labudović’s recalls being rebuffed by the new government when he proposed a documentary unit to show the whole truth about the war. He doesn’t say why. Perhaps new revolutionaries were still beholden to the old ways of power, and couldn’t commit to their own story of renewing human dignity. Turajlić seems disillusioned by the loss, and she misses an opportunity to come through with fresh insight for a time when new global players are looking to redefine the world order once again.

Non-Aligned: Scenes from the Labudović Reels and Ciné-Guerrillas: Scenes from the Labudović Reels are at Bertha DocHouse, London from 31 May.

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