“No one’s thinking about the future. All we do is fight each other to rewrite the past.”
This text comes with a disclaimer. Mila Turajlić‘s The Other Side Of Everything has something to do with my geography, even destiny, the maimed life paths of hundreds of thousands of my generation – I even share a (nick)name with the filmmaker, and a politically charged bond with my mother.
In other words, it’s too close to home. And home is where the heartbreak is.
It lands on a piece of me that is yet to accept loss – the devouring of a chunk of my life, of many lives, by the gods of lesser value. This is why I could not take it in any other way than lightly. Giving it my full attention meant giving in to a lack of meaning. A blank canvass of a memory of a home(land) that invites everyone to draw in their own conclusions. All of them true and entirely wrong.
Nothing quite like Yugoslavia probably ever existed before – equally reviled and beloved, conjured by idealism and tragedy, wrapped in cozy sentiment, stitched in illusion – a merging of kindred people forged on passion and fury. An undeniable bond turned gore, twice – its guts ripped apart from without, its heart imploding from within. A bloody sleight of hand that employed the magic of the spheres.
So onwards then, casually, into the Turajlić home, conveniently of similar social milieu as parts of my own family, thus I am able to read the unspoken more clearly. This was a miniature version of a kind of an upper class in socialism, moderate in means, but heavy on intellectual expectations, somewhat part of the doomed red bourgeoisie, but not quite. It had within it an element of old-school exactness, that phantom burden of relevance the new, red bourgeoisie tried (and mostly failed) to emulate.
This is the strata of society that found itself nose-diving into the great bloody abyss of the civil war at first slowly, and then all at once (as the saying goes), pulling its Persian rugs and old world status crashing down the rabbit hole with them – along with their salon socialism, family silver, and humanist ideals turned conformist platitudes.
Thus is the bewitched inheritance of almost every family in the Balkans, no matter its social position: the wheel of fortune takes everything after each turn of generation. There is no historical movement forward, the night takes what the day has built, like the veela tears down Skadar city walls in dark medieval lore. The forest nymph demands human sacrifice for the walls to stay. And the rulers comply.
However, The Other Side Of Everything is somewhat less grim a tale, as it’s a story of a good heart, a loyal one, steady through time, rooted honourably in family soil, valiantly obstructing the long, shameful 1990s march towards oblivion.
It’s also unapologetic about where those loyalties lie.
The story starts with a locked door, one which Srbijanka Turajlić, the heart in question, a university professor, public figure, political activist, dissident, firebrand mother of a much more timid Mila, the filmmaker, swears she never thought she would open. Seventy years had passed since it was closed.
That door divides their sprawling stately family flat in Belgrade, Serbia, into two parts. One large, one small. The smaller bit was given to another family (rather families) a few years after the liberation of 1945 – during the nationalisation of private property of the upper classes, i.e. anyone that was not de facto destitute. The entire building belonged to the Turajlićs, and was now state property. The pre-war proletariat, and the pre-war bourgeoisie, in one home, uncomfortably sharing the same space in entirely different circumstances, with a simple shut thin door in between. The key is still in the lock, and in need of ungluing.
Srbjanka articulates the blatant metaphor: the city of Belgrade was a divided flat.
It’s a curious skew in public perception that the break-up of Yugoslavia was taken as purely a matter of warring ethnicities, and just how much it had to do with class warfare gone underground, the simmering divide between the rural and the urbane, those shameful remnants of capitalist practice that nested themselves so comfortably in their new socialist abode. The winners stripped off the garments of the losers, and instead of burning them to ash, tried them on for size – thus yet again proving that any revolution can turn to thievery in a blink of a greedy eye.
Then they closed ranks, and a new ruling class had been defined.
Of course the old money Turajlić family was spied upon by the newly arrived proletarian tenants, in a mix of righteous anger at the inherent imbalance, and the much stickier emotions of envy and fear.
In a society of smoke & mirrors, and camouflaged divide, it is no wonder you really don’t get to know the people you’re living amongst. So they surprise you, one day, by voting in someone who will blow your lives apart. Someone that promises them respect. And retribution. The twin flames of all terrors unleashed.
Now it’s 2015, and the door is ready to be opened. But there is no one remaining on the other side. Except, paradoxically, a videotape with a collection of speeches by Slobodan Milosević, compiled lovingly by the last of the proletarians, the now deceased old lady tenant who declared herself a Serb and an atheist (i.e. communist) in the census, and was clearly a fan.
The Turajlić’s declared themselves Yugoslavs, until the term was made defunct. They are the descendants of people who forged the original Yugoslavia, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes – social-democrats, not nationalists. Easy to forget this was in 1918.
The images of our joint pasts roll out like a ragged nursery rhyme. Mila documents history unfolding beneath her dining room window, a place smack in the centre of events courtesy of her family’s auspiciously located POV.
Unfolding amidst the mother/daughter philosophical digressions, faded family photographs, polishing of the family silver (as a kind of Zen comic relief), and poker parties to ease out political tensions between friends – roll out the burning of embassies post Kosovo independence declaration, ominous Party conferences, Milosević at Gazimestan, Yugoslav Army tanks on the streets of Belgrade, bread lines, empty supermarkets, demos upon demos upon riots, NATO bombing in 1999, toppling of Milosević in October 2000, and that marathon 1996/97 student protest against Milosević’s election fraud… One of the longest anti-government protests in recent European history, yet barely covered by Western mainstream media, as at that point in time the later dubbed ‘butcher of the Balkans’ seemed to have been considered a factor of stability in the region by the leaders of free world: Srbijanka wraps it up for the uninitiated. Mic drop.
It’s now present day, and being given an award for her freedom-fighting ways, the perpetually feisty, yet battle-weary old uni professor ruefully responds that this is the first time that she has been commended for complete failure.
There is one more thing, before I fade out of this labyrinthine rewind…
Srbijanka and Mila discuss the idea of stasis reality, one of the greatest traps of living in an opaque system like Tito’s Yugoslavia – this idea of not being part of the structure one inhabits, either because it is entirely manufactured, or because you refuse to participate in it. Frequently both.
Srbijanka insists on dealing with reality such as it is – remaining within the structure or country to bring about change. Yet this wishful transformation eludes her, and she finds peace in the quest. Mila is always leaving, unwilling to chain her life to a bloody chimera, never rooted, or settled, but free to fly.
The lopsidedness in conviction and energy transfers to the documentary itself, Srbijanka nailing audience attention to the screen in every single frame, Mila a sweet voice off-camera, never fully present in the narrative, because she never fully is. She is perpetually in transit.
This is somehow right, in the overall scheme of things, but the power balance is missing. The dominant one is the older fixed element, not the younger one in orbit. It’s easy to forget what constant movement requires of an individual, what it takes to maintain velocity. Change from without also delivers change from within. Sometimes, it’s the only way out of the maze.
The Yugoslav model in many ways is a template for a global metaphor, and this doc repeatedly boomerangs the audience back to a place of universal unease – the witnessing of an individual history appropriated by the collective brain. An existential riddle with no right answer.