The fall of Yugoslavia was a historical event of huge importance for the Balkans, but also for the rest of Europe and the world. Different accounts and explanations of how and why the former Yugoslavia collapsed, and even speculations of possible historical outcomes, have dominated documentary representations of the once existing country.

There is certainly some danger hidden in the act of oversimplifying historiographies of the post-Yugoslav documentary genre, meandering in different directions throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s, but I would still claim that the films dealing with memories of the country are often renegotiating the past through representations. Ambiguity and antagonistic positions can be accommodated within one and the same ideological discourse, which means that cinematic representations can be constructed but also interpreted in many ways. In other words, films are very rarely interpretable from a single position. 

Today, two main discourses can generally be distinguished when analysing representations of Eastern Europe in post-1989 films: nostalgic and/or totalitarian. The time that is (re)presented is seen either through a nostalgic, longing lens or as a terrible, oppressive period. But these two paradigms connect and are inseparable in some ways. This is most visible in the broad, popular documentaries depicting pop culture during the communist era, such as Cinema Komunisto (Mila Turajlić, 2010), Elektro Moskva (Electro Moscow, Dominik Spritzendorfer and Elena Tikhonova, 2013), Sretno dijete (Happy Child, Igor Mirković, 2003), Disko ja tuumasõda (Disco and Atomic War, Jaak Kilmi, 2009), Cold Waves (Alexandru Solomon, 2007), and Chuck Norris vs. Communism (Ilinca Călugăreanu, 2015). These films almost constitute a transnational genre in their own right, expressing a sentiment that can appeal to both Eastern and Western audiences, suggesting that notions of freedom are always linked to Western popular culture.


Nostalgia – homesickness in Greek – is a temporal and spatial operation. One travels back in time to recreate a place. Nostalgia can also be used as a very powerful rhetorical tool and is very rarely – if ever – innocent melancholic longing. It places the individual and the collective in different socio-cultural contexts depending on who is remembering and in what way the past emerges in the present. People long for different reasons. Nostalgia can be private or public, and it is selective, which also makes it suitable as a basis for various dialogues between individuals and surrounding collectives. We can make an ideological distinction between collective and private nostalgia, where collective nostalgia refers to symbolic objects that are well known and of a generally valued nature. In contrast, private nostalgia focuses on allusions to the past that tend to be more idiosyncratic, individualized, and particular. 

Nostalgia is born as a result of different contexts at a specific time. Therefore, it may be useful to examine the development of nostalgia into a collective movement. It can be a sign of disappointment, social exhaustion, poor economic development, but it can also express a criticism of the present. The poet and literary critic Susan Stewart, in her book On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (1993) – among many things a study of nostalgic memorabilia – has tried to analyse longing from several perspectives.1 For her, nostalgia is always ideologically conditioned, since the past that needs to be recreated only existed as a narrative. 

A nostalgic discourse is created when the past is placed in a fairy-tale world through various stylistic and narrative strategies. Through the opening of the tale of “once upon a time there was a country,” notions of a time that cannot possibly come back are invoked. It is also placed in contrast to our modern times. The discourse of “once upon a time” is more about manufacturing the past than recreating it. Therefore, the story is as utopian as it is imagined; it both points back in time but also carries the futuristic element of utopianism. 

Nostalgia can also be easily commodified and turned into a consumer product among many others. Popular culture is particularly suitable for nostalgic expressions. Nostalgic films often fetishize the popular cultural past. Archive clips and anecdotes about the good old days create a symbolic story. The country’s destruction, however, required a multi-headed mobilization effort. Therefore, the spread of Yugonostalgia appears as a strange phenomenon. The blame for the country’s collapse is not borne solely by a small academic and political elite but by a broad front of diverse subjects who either voted for nationalist forces or made no major effort to prevent them. One cannot but state that a great many actors were needed to dismantle an entire country. Yugonostalgia consists of complicated ideas, thoughts and attitudes that exist in parallel with nationalism, neoliberal capitalist initiatives, and a paradoxical longing for the way things once were. 

The Totalitarian Paradigm as a Description of the Past 

An opposite approach to nostalgia is the totalitarian paradigm. This concept refers to a system of complex ideas that implies an ironic distance from socialist traditions. The hallmarks of socialist Yugoslavia, such as “brotherhood and unity” and the system of self-management are reduced to an empty ideological form without content. The totalitarian paradigm assumes that people who lived under socialism could not believe in socialist ideas and values. Yugoslavia is thus described as a false, hollow, and illegal construction, created by manipulative leaders. The specific thing about the totalitarian paradigm in Yugoslavia is that it can serve as an explanation and basis for all kinds of theories about different conditions in Yugoslavia: the rise of nationalism in the late 1980s, but also the violent and bloody end of Yugoslavia, are simply the price that must be paid for the existence of such a totalitarian system as socialist Yugoslavia. 

Milan Nikodijević and Dinko Tucaković’s film Zabranjeni bez zabrane (Censored without Censorship, 2007) is based on a book with same name. It describes the most productive and most famous epoch in the history of Yugoslav film and focuses mostly on political and ideological prohibition established by the Yugoslav regime in the 1960s and 1970s. According to the book and the film, the only film that had officially been banned was the film Grad (The City, Kokan Rakonjac, Živojin Pavlović, Marko Babac, 1963) because of its pessimistic view of everyday life in Yugoslavia. Censored without Censorship focuses on controversial films that were cut, hidden, and censored in various ways without the system actually prohibiting them.

The film is based on vague statements, little evidence, and montage principles that imply a systematic oppression from the omnipotent Communist Party that controlled the entire Yugoslav film industry. Even though some films were banned and hidden, film censorship did not belong to an overall centralized system, but was in fact part of the decentralization of cultural institutions in former Yugoslavia. Local film centres were, in fact, much more influential in censorship processes, and production companies learned after a while how to please local film censors by cutting away controversial parts of their own productions. 

In Mila Turajlić’s Cinema Komunisto, we follow Leka Konstantinović who was the personal film projectionist of Yugoslavia’s president Josip Broz Tito for 32 years. Along with Yugoslav directors, film stars, and studio bosses, he tells the story of how Tito gave form to the post-war federal state of Yugoslavia, while at the same time setting up a productive film industry for his country. With the state supporting filmmakers, “no problem” was the standard answer for whatever a director needed, with soldiers serving their entire tour of duty as extras on war films, and even blowing up a real bridge when needed, if that would help creating an Oscar-nominated film such as Bitka na Neretvi (Battle of Neretva, Veljko Bulajić, 1969). Tito followed these film shoots closely, watching one film a day in his private theatre. After his break with the Soviet Union, he invited Hollywood stars to come to Yugoslavia; soon, Richard Burton, Orson Welles, and Sophia Loren were commissioned to participate in massive productions, often about the heroic struggle of Tito and his partisans against the Nazis.

Mila Turajlić uses both nostalgic and denouncing discourses in Cinema Komunisto, depicting the former president not just as a film director but even as the main star and film critic. It was Tito who decided what films were to be released. Cinema Komunisto invokes notions of what Svetlana Boym calls “popular nostalgia” to label the longing for past glory as opposed to the current state of affairs.2 In this function, the discourse of nostalgia – in positioning “once was” in relation to a “now” – creates a frame of meaning and is about the production of the present rather than about the reproduction of the past. At the same time, the film directly blames Tito for creating socialist realist films that were used for re-evoking the public version of history of World War II. While doing that, Turajlić fails to mention the existence of critical films in Yugoslav cinematography, oversimplifies different genres of Yugoslav war films, thus making them all look like something created by Andrei Zhdanov himself.

Both Censored without Censhorship and Cinema Komunisto carry some oversimplifying features. In both cases, fragmented parts of the country’s film production are highlighted. The gaze is both longing and critical. One misses the good old days, but at the same time they are portrayed as tyrannical. Yugoslav cinema becomes a symbol for the whole country, for its consumption and its mix of socialism and capitalism. Tito is, depending on who is analysing, the great star, the main director, but also Yugoslavia’s most powerful film critic and censor. The metaphor of country/film industry is inviting for both totalitarian criticism and nostalgic revisions. Both films seem to have analysed film history from similar premises but depict different aspects of the industry, which may mean that the industry itself was more heterogeneous than their claims. In these specific cases, the revisions of film history serve to re-frame film historiography into new nation-based narratives, an important part in the creation of new cinematic nations.

The Hermeneutics of Film Memories

Still, there are films about Yugoslav film history that contain a number of other stories about the country. Here I want to highlight alternative depictions of the past which, by being consistently subjective, deconstruct the view of documentary film as a tool for objectivity and distance and paint a somewhat more nuanced image of Yugoslav cinema. 

In the mid-1990s, a number of films appeared where the directors tried to depict the past through their own early works, made while Yugoslavia still existed. The directors preferred to correspond with their own memories and cinematic works than with historiography itself. The historical narration was incorporated into film materials, but the interpretation was extrapolated from a cinematic dialogue between the creators and their previous films. The films are Zalazak stoljeća: Testament L.Z. (The Decline of the Century: Testament L.Z., Lordan Zafranović, 1994), Rupa u duši (A Hole in the Soul, Dušan Makavejev, 1994), and Serbie, année zéro (Serbia, Year Zero, Goran Marković, 2001). 

Rupa U Duši

The Decline of the Century is a personal documentary about the fascist Independent State of Croatia as it existed between 1941 and 1945. Lordan Zafranović uses found footage material borrowed from cinema newsreels and propaganda films and mixes it with material from 1986 of the trial of war criminal Andrija Artuković, as well as feature-film fragments from his own work, in order to discuss the rise of Croatian fascism in the beginning of the 1990s. 

Part of the series The Director’s Place produced by BBC Scotland, Hole in the Soul is a 52-minute autobiographic documentary with Dušan Makavejev behind and in front of the camera. It also features family and crew members, old friends, and collaborators. It is a self-portrait documentary where Makavejev travels to former Yugoslavia and charts the changes of society which parallel his own life.

Serbia, Year Zero is a documentary film by the famous Serbian director Goran Marković, in which the life of Serbian citizens during the reign of Slobodan Milošević is seriously analysed. It is an analysis of a man who was a dedicated and consistent opponent of the regime, but who still feels guilty about its terrible crimes. Marković goes through his own career and the history of the country in order to find possible answers to philosophical questions on responsibility and guilt.

In these three films, collective experiences have caused the directors to try to understand their works in a new era. Actively remembering serves as a moral act in troubled and uncertain times. Inner truths and phenomenological interpretations of historical events are in these three cases resistant to and independent of official historiography that followed ideological paradigm shifts. The individual’s struggle against a collectivist environment characterizes all three films. Makavejev draws his own story of oppression both inside and outside of Yugoslavia, while Zafranović and Marković start from their “own” collectives. Basically, the directors stand for their own irrevocable ideals. The filmmakers also incorporate their own works. These can underline an autobiographical tone but also destabilize official historiographies, something all three films do. The directors, as already noted, correspond with their own memories and cinematic works, rather than with history itself. 

The films are strongly autobiographical and the use of one’s own voice is important to all three directors. Marković interprets older film clips in a teleological way, while Zafranović questions film’s ability to represent history at all. An interesting distance and a gap arise in the interaction between old images and retrospective interpretations. When Makavejev watches his exile home-made video, he is faced with the role of observer and witness to his own life. The problems that caused his exile are long forgotten and ephemeral. Seen from the Serbia of the 1990s, the images of exile appear happy. The original motives are gone; what remains is the interpretation and the memory. The “camera-eye” thus turns into a “camera-I”. 

Trying to depict the history of a country through one’s own experiences broadens the autobiographical experience and makes it a common human experience. A country’s history is channelled through the directors, with the help of their voices, comments, memories, reconstructions, and new interpretations. If there is anything Zafranović 1990 knows about Zafranović 1965 – and the same applies to the other two directors – it is that a new layer of his own experiences has coloured the interpretation of images.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Tito in Films

More than forty years after his death, Josip Broz Tito is still as popular as ever. Films, books, TV shows and different commemorations are held in various regions of the former Yugoslavia, reminding us that Tito’s symbolic persona has outgrown his political significance. Tito is no longer just a former president of a country that couldn’t survive his death. He is also an ideological watershed, viewed either as an utterly good character, a leader who wanted the best for the country, or as a tyrant who ruled with fear as the most effective weapon. The nostalgic paradigm is once more inseparable from the totalitarian one. Both discourses belong to a fascination for Tito’s persona and are two opposite sides of what Max Weber called “charismatic authority.”3 Either exaggerating Tito’s role in the world of 20th-century politics and the benefits of living in a united Yugoslavia, or showing him as a tyrant, they are parts of problematic representations that reveal different standpoints and alternatives to official historiographies in the region. 

The third perspective – and clearly the most endemic one – comes from the Serbian director Želimir Žilnik. In Tito po drugi put među Srbima (Tito Among the Serbs for the Second Time, 1994), a local actor is disguised as Tito and is wandering through Belgrade. He meets and talks with random people on the streets. The tone is light and comical at first, but it shifts into a more melancholic and gloomy mood. Citizens of Belgrade complain about the hardships of everyday life during economic sanctions and about the wars that are being fought just 100 kilometres from Belgrade. Even though they are certainly aware of the fact that this Tito is not real, they still address him as “comrade Tito” and talk about the good old times and Tito’s wrongdoings. I read Žilnik’s film as ambivalent toward Tito’s legacy. Žilnik places the ghost of Tito among people that need to survive the everyday life of post-Yugoslavia. When talking to Tito, they also talk with their own memories and perspectives on a country they in a way helped destroy. 

Tito po drugi put medju srbima

Another film that balances criticism and glorification of the leader is Houston, imamo problem! (Houston, We Have a Problem!, Žiga Virc, 2016) about former Yugoslavia’s space program during the Cold War. During a period when the Soviet Union leads the war for space, Tito sells the program to the United States and President Kennedy for $2.5 billion. However, it turns out that the Yugoslavs really had nothing to sell; their space program is completely useless. The payout turns into a loan, forcing Yugoslavia into a severe economic crisis. Tito dies and, with more or less direct involvement of the Americans, Yugoslavia dies with him. The CIA creates a plan for how the country should be divided and what the US should do to increase the division and thus get back its invested money. 

Houston is a hybrid film composed of archival material and a fictional story. Together, they create a tempting “what if” that often constitutes the most important ingredient in a conspiracy theory. An alternative narrative can also serve as a melancholic reflection on the past that can be experienced with the help of audio-visual memories. The film mystifies an already enigmatic and contradictory story of a country with a checkered past. The existence of the idiosyncratic socialist, multi-ethnic, and semi-capitalist country continues to elude its former inhabitants and researchers interested in charting various reasons for the country’s collapse. The deliberate use of lies and fabrications shows that Virc is interested in deepening questions surrounding the country’s disintegration. Perhaps the country’s history and historiography are so impossible to sort out, based on such different ideological positions, that sometimes outright lies are needed to get closer to the truth? 

Houston, we have a problem!

Fictional historiography can offer a further distancing from various politicized consequences surrounding the country’s existence. Stirring the already murky waters surrounding Yugoslavia’s existence is not about relativizing history, but rather about highlighting a complexity concerning audio-visual practices and historiography. By offering new interpretations of pre-existing images, the film makes its audience aware of a certain difficulty – if not an impossibility – in finding answers to questions related to the country’s disintegration. Virc’s film can be seen as a symbolic embodiment of the Yugoslav modernization project under Tito, a project that justified various forms of terror. By sketching out the story of a fictional space program, Virc talks about the birth and demise of Yugoslav modernization, a project that could have resulted in prosperity but ended in blood. “Even if it didn’t happen, it’s true,” says the philosopher Slavoj Žižek at the end. It can be seen as a summary of the film, of the mockumentary form, of conspiracy theories in general, but also of various “explanations” of how and why Yugoslavia split. This absurd idea works as well as any other, Žižek seems to think. Mainly, Žižek’s statement can be applied to the fact that the film creatively demystifies the “power” of moving images to be able to explain a certain historical event. By so clearly manipulating existing archival material, the film harks back to conspiratorial films that reuse archival clips and decontextualize them beyond recognition. To find deeper truths, one must be deceived: this is something that both Houston, We Have a Problem! and Žižek claim.

The Past as a Future Possibility? 

The film begins with a scene of a woman in a car. She wipes away a tear as popular Yugoslav singer Bajaga sings “Zažmuri” (“Close Your Eyes”). The woman is on the road towards a hamlet nestled in the mountains. It is winter and an icy wind is blowing. From the car, the camera switches to the hilltop. We follow the car as it fights through the snow-laden hillside. Other cars make their descent, turn, pass the young woman’s car. Everyone with their songs, in their moving boxes and their memories, everyone in their own fight through life, the snow, the ice.


The film’s title is Domovine (Homelands, 2020) and it’s made by one of the key film figures in the post-Yugoslav cultural context, Jelena Maksimović. It outlines an interesting and transgenerational memory process that draws power and inspiration from the past in order to sketch a potentially better future, a theme that appears in a number of post-Yugoslav documentary films. The film connects a country that no longer exists – Yugoslavia – with Maksimović’s grandmother’s Greece, a country that the grandmother can no longer enter. The physical exile of the older generation translates to the director’s spiritual one. Images of Zemun just a few years before the war of the ‘90s testify to the distant image of a country, a most likely unrepeatable idea in the time of national divisions that have been at hand for the last 30 years. While the grandmother’s village still exists (despite its ruins), the director’s Yugoslavia is no more, and proof of it ever existing is ever rapidly fading. But Maksimović doesn’t strive to identify with a one-sided image of Yugonostalgia. In a particular segment, we learn how her grandma spent her life in the Yugoslavian patriarchy, which only presented itself as better than other patriarchies. A patriarchy that not even the brightest leftist ideals could destroy.


Homelands is an exploration of transnational but also transgenerational memories in the Balkans. The transcendence of remembering over generations is something that Homelands shares with other films that circle around narrativisations of historical remembrances of the former Yugoslavia, either indirectly or directly. Time gaps between the present and the past are sometimes depicted with the help of archival images and in some cases by revisiting and depicting historically significant places today. 

Similar narrative strategies can be seen in Marta Popivoda’s film Pejzaži otpora (Landscapes of Resistance, 2021), but they also permeate Sarajevo Film Festival winner Srđan Keča’s film Muzej Revolucije (Museum of the Revolution, 2022) and Srđan Kovačević’s Motovun Film Festival and Dokufest winning film Tvornice radnicima (Factory to the Workers, 2021). Here, Yugoslav ideals, built in the factories and never-finished museums, are echoed both as failed stories that never fulfilled their potentials, but also as human ideas that did not die with Yugoslavia. 

Tvornice Radnicima

Marta Popivoda’s film traces the journey of a 97-year-old Sofija Sonja Vujanović, one of the first female partisans in Serbia. Popivoda and Ana Vujanović, the film’s co-writer and Sonja’s great-granddaughter, recorded conversations with her for over 10 years. The multi-layered story deals with Sonja’s life and memories of anti-fascist struggle. Popivoda does not use archive footage. Stories are juxtaposed against places from Sonja’s past, filmed in present time: forests where she found refuge, the fences of Auschwitz where she was one of the leaders of the resistance while imprisoned, among others. Popivoda connects Sonja’s struggle with her own today and relates past times to the current uprise of fascism. The fact that the past is literally another country gives a certain sense of sadness and melancholy even though the film points towards the legacy of Yugoslav anti-fascist struggle even in post-Yugoslav times.

Srđan Keča’s wondrous film deals with the legacy of the former Yugoslavia depicted in a chronicle about a few homeless people living in a deserted space of a once-planned museum of the Yugoslav revolution. The building plans were abandoned in the late ‘70s. Now, the deserted dark space of the shelter is used as a set for a story about people living there. The vast darkness in the beginning parallels the fate of the once existing country with the cruel destinies of people who simply could not acclimatise to the rules of capitalist greed of today’s post-socialist reality. 

Underground and the Roma: a director we won’t mention here built his career on these two themes. Keča never even considers going in the same direction in order to exploit his characters and portray them in any stereotypical way. His view of today’s Serbia, its oppressed and marginalised groups and individuals, is diametrically different. People living underground today are exiled, disenfranchised, alienated. They do not fit into the exotic imagination framed as some kind of cinematic truth about the “dirty Balkans”, readymade for Western film festivals.

Srđan Kovačević’s film deals with the ITAS factory in Ivanac, Croatia, a place occupied by workers in 2005. The workers took over the management, and the factory thus became a successful example of workers’ self-management in post-socialist Europe. Ten years later, its employees are fighting for survival in a world where the global market has a devastating impact on the company’s operations. Wages have been drastically reduced and workers are increasingly dissatisfied with the organization of business. Kovačević follows the development of their venture over five years; even though the film is placed in the post-socialist brutal reality of a globalized market economy, the traces of Yugoslavia are meticulously framed in images and in the overall context of the film. The film connects Marx’s theories and ideals translated in the ideas of the Yugoslav self-management (where “Factory to Workers – Land to Peasants” was used as a slogan) with the brutal everyday reality of post-socialism. It opens with a shot of a photograph of Josip Broz Tito looking down on workers in the factory, a well-known image and an outdated artefact in schools, factories, and houses all over former Yugoslavia. This image of Tito clashes with the next shot where Kovačević’s camera is being guided through a neglected factory by one of the protagonists.

About 15 years ago, Andreas Huyssen wrote about a nostalgia for ruins, in which the fictional chronologisation of time in his view creates a false dichotomy between the past and present.4 But ruins, although often fetishized, can also be used to investigate and analyse how the human perception of time encompasses the past and the present in parallel. These two temporal determinants exist simultaneously. While walking through ruins, factories, and museums we also relive others’ memories: the filmic phenomenology of an unending world. Maksimović, Keča, Popivoda, and Kovačević (among others) use another gaze and approach when talking about the past. Their nuanced depictions of the problems that arose in post-Yugoslavia are not only about showing ideologically coloured flashbacks from today’s perspective. Instead, these filmmakers use individual and collective histories in order to visualize different narratives about future possibilities.


  1. Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993).
  2. Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2011).
  3. Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization (New York: Free Press, 1947).
  4. Andreas Huyssen, “Nostalgia for Ruins,” Grey Room, Issue 23 (Spring 2006): pp. 6–21.

About The Author

Sanjin Pejković holds a PhD in Film Studies from Lund university. His research touches upon film cultures in the area that once constituted former Yugoslavia. Pejković writes mainly for Swedish film and culture magazines, but also for various international film magazines and film scholarly journals. He cooperates with several film festivals in Scandinavia and the Balkans.

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