Post-Yugoslav Documentary Films: Powered by Concerns

At the time of a long, uneven, and still unfinished transition from socialism to capitalism in post-Yugoslav states, in the period of untreated post-war trauma that people embody in their daily lives, when a new wave of nationalism is rising hand in hand with the brutal neoliberalism of a European periphery, there is a curious flourishing of documentary film in the region of former Yugoslavia.

Diverse among themselves when it comes to aesthetic choices as well as political positioning, the new filmmakers active in the 2010s and ‘20s also show some similar tendencies and approaches both to the reality they depict and the poetics of filmmaking. What characterises most of the authors, working in Serbia at least, is in my view a tendency to immerse in their social contexts.1 These filmmakers are rarely only observers, which is a typical role of a documentarist; they often position themselves as the subjects of these contexts, who bear and suffer the society in which they live and work, and who thus are existentially concerned with it. Contexts in many recent nonfiction films are thus not outside; they are around, close, present in time and space, even when the stories the films tell happened in the past. 

This tendency sometimes leads the authors beyond the framework of observational cinema, finding their artistic expression in the “essay film”, whose combination of personal and political is significant for the work of Ognjen Glavonić, Marta Popivoda, and Jelena Maksimović, among others.2 In their films, we see Yugoslavia and the Balkans as a territory of unfinished narratives, marked with a dubious historicisation, full of gaps, mythologies, silences, forgotten victories, and revisions. And all that is happening in what is proclaimed to be a time after “the end of history” (Francis Fukuyama). From the perspective of the Balkans, films such as Dubina dva (Depth Two, Ognjen Glavonić, 2016), Jugoslavija, kako je ideologija pokretala naše kolektivno telo (Yugoslavia: How Ideology Moved our Collective Body, Marta Popivoda, 2013), Pejzaži otpora (Landscapes of Resistance, Marta Popivoda, 2021) and Domovine (Homelands, Jelena Maksimović, 2020) tell us that the idea of the end of history can either be completely cynical or can exist only somewhere there, elsewhere, but not in the Balkans. The Balkans is a living history of those who have been over the centuries of colonisation and occupation deprived of their histories and their rights to history. Hence the quest for truth, from generation to generation. 

Today’s documentary filmmakers in their 30s and 40s join that quest with passion and urge. Although educated in post-structuralist and constructivist humanities and social sciences, they seem to not abandon truth altogether. It may be a construction, it could be only subjective and provisional, but it must be there, it must exist, we hear the scream from the film screen in Serbia and the region. The insistence, creativity, and passion that the authors invest in that quest indicate a failure of state- and privately-owned mass media and public debate around history and memory in the region. This, however, doesn’t lead to resignation; it rather impels a new wave of politicisation among filmmakers and cultural workers. Although paying much attention to the aesthetic elaboration of their topics, these authors seem to be willing to dirt their hands with facts and truths, which then get integrated in the more sublime levels of artmaking. I experience it as a reminder that in former Yugoslavia it is still needed to dig on a massive scale into the layers of soil, soaked in blood, rain, death, sweat, and revenge, covered in lime. It is also needed to digest collectively what has been dug out. And then we need to continue living, hopefully carving a different future for ourselves, by means of film and by all means.

Landscapes of Resistance

Landscapes of Resistance: Sonja and Herstory

These observations are to lightly outline an atmosphere and a framework in which the film Landscapes of Resistance was created, since without that context it would have never come into being as it is. My main motivation to write about this particular film is to draw attention to feminist storytelling in cinema and, alongside that, to share some aspects of (my) dramaturgical work, which as a specific kind of artistic work is not often discussed in filmmaking. Since I have been learning film dramaturgy by doing it, my discourse will be a theory coming from art practice, rather than an academic film theory.

Landscapes of Resistance features my 97-year-old great aunt Sonja, who was a communist and antifascist, one of the first registered female partisan fighters in Yugoslavia. She was imprisoned in early 1942 and spent four years in Nazi prisons and concentration camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she continued her struggle as a member of the resistance movement. While listening to Sonja’s stories, the spectators of the film travel through the landscapes in which the stories took place, from the Serbian mountains and forests of Sonja’s revolutionary youth to the muddy terrain of Birkenau. Gradually, her memories start to intertwine with Marta’s and my own confrontation with the rising fascism in Europe during this ten-year-long film project, which is presented in the form of my journal of the project. 

Sonja Archive: Auschwitz

To embrace that long and complex process was a real challenge and required a delicate visual and, especially, temporal composition, capable of bringing the anti-fascist past into the present, which we see as a legacy for the future. The other challenge came from our wish to make a communist, moreover a partisan film that would not reproduce the aesthetic canon of leftist activist films, which rely on an Eisensteinian montage of attraction. In our talks, Marta and I came to a critique of that aesthetics as masculinist and to a wish to craft a feminist way of telling the story of antifascism. Marta’s particular directorial interest was to reclaim other leftist artistic methods and forms from the time of Sonja’s communist youth, which didn’t belong to the paradigm of socialist realism. Motivated by the experiments with multiple perspectives in landscape dramaturgy,3 she started examining cubist landscape paintings and constructivist collages and monuments as the main principles of the visual composition of the film. They are present in the frame itself as well as in the transitions between frames, resulting in moving images seen and populated by number of gazes.4 In accordance with these aims and challenges, my task as dramaturge was to work on a composition that is affective, contemplative, non-spectacular, resisting both the temptation to create a dramatic narrative around the central conflict and a masculinist story of “the hero journey”. Our main dramaturgical focuses were temporality and the relation between story and silence.

Sonja Archive: Partizani

When I speak about Landscapes of Resistance as feminist storytelling, I see it present in several registers of the film. As structural ones, I would single out the following:

  • Female protagonist – Our female protagonist tells her life story but is not a big hero herself. Sonja’s stories are populated with her comrades and friends, who are all protagonists of antifascist resistance and socialist revolution in Yugoslavia. We show her living and fighting in collectives. She has a wide horizon of social change in mind, but her world is not mythical, it’s mundane – fascism, communism, resistance, tortures are all present in daily life. Besides, there is no “me against the world,” a binarism typical of heroic narratives; by being part of the world, Sonja knocks down the hero and makes the singular, multidimensional, and imperfect human beings emerge.
  • Landscape dramaturgy – The film narrative flows, multiplies in three storylines, and meanders. Through Sonja’s narration about the struggles from the World War II and the images of landscapes that accompany it, my journal notes about Marta’s and my work on the film and our lives in the time of historical revisionism in Serbia and the fascisation of Europe in the 2010s, and the scenes from Sonja’s current life and our visits, the narrative spreads horizontally rather than forming a dramaturgical pyramid with its vertical axis of dramatic conflict and climax. This dramaturgy is inspired by Gertrude Stein’s “landscape play” and is hence without a peak, spacing out the storylines and the characters and letting them hesitate, linger, miss each other, and meet.5 
  • Carrier bag form – Another feminist gesture is to avoid a spectacular story of “mammoth hunting”, with its hero, blood, dangerous moments, and sudden turning points. Instead, we opted for a form of the “carrier bag”, an idea developed in feminist anthropology (Elizabeth Fisher) and fiction (Ursula Le Guin), where it tells that human civilisation started with gathering and holding, not hunting. Artistically developing that idea, we came to a collection of stories, which the film holds and unfolds, slowly, gently, carefully, always being aware of its general form (of a carrier bag, container) as an eco-system. It is especially important in the storyline about Sonja’s struggle, as it bears a potential of “big drama”, but we also generalised it into a form that keeps all storylines together and where landscape dramaturgy tunes co-dependence and mutual respect and support of the storylines while minimising rivalry between them. For instance, when including “our story” in the film, we decided to present it as handwritten text instead of as a voice over, as the second voice might compete with Sonja’s.
  • Giving public scene to women’s storytelling, traditionally belonging to the private space – In view of the lack of the rights to public activity and politics, women in Western society have for centuries had the domestic scene as the main setting of existence and formation of the self (Adriana Cavarero). Marta’s feminist directorial intervention is to keep the principles of storytelling as feminine discourse, which is about the unique, singular, and incidental, instead of the universal of politics and philosophy, and make a film on a great historical topic as a collection of stories about young communists and their allies, mothers, brothers, and their love, tears, fear, comradery, loss, care. These stories brush by brush paint a “womanly face of the war”, as proposed by Svetlana Alexievich in her novel Unwomanly Face of War, another important reference for us.

Sonja & Sofija

Apart from these structural anchors, Landscapes of Resistance’s aesthetic, sensory aspects largely contribute to creating a feminist cinematic experience. Here, I would mention:

  • The ecological image – The main image of this film is the landscape, a configuration of parts and elements, which form an eco-system. In most of the shots, there is no main figure or object and its background, the centre and the periphery of the image; everything that the spectator sees on screen is important and indispensable. In this way, Marta and the cinematographer treated both exterior spaces (forests, rivers, the land, streets…) and the interior space of Sonja’s small apartment where she lives with her husband Ivo and cat Mića, as well as Sonja’s own body. “Reducing” the protagonist to her fragile and aging body and exposing it in close ups may be the most daring visual gesture in this film, as it plays on a thin edge between dissolving subjectivity and finding new power in the singular embodiment of a global historical event.
  • Silence as sound – The film is quiet. Silence is the main element of the storytelling, its ground level. With the editor, we worked on inserting Sonja’s stories into the silence, finding a rhythm that allows both the voice and the silence to be heard. Marta and I believe that loud rhetoric comes from toxic masculinity, which doesn’t allow time to think, hesitate, doubt, feel. We also believe that silence is where we come together in the story with the protagonists and spectators, where we listen and contemplate, and where we can reflect on who we are in relation to the story. While working on the film, we took some training in “active listening” and read about Pauline Oliveros’ “deep listening”. We both love partisan songs, but because of cherishing the power of silence we agreed to have only two songs in the film.
  • Time and temporality – Landscapes of Resistance is a slow film. With its long shots, slow transitions and super-impositions, and a long period of time depicted, the layers of the narrative slowly unfold on-screen, exploring time passing and giving time to the audience to feel and contemplate. I will soon reflect more on our work on time, so here I will only emphasize that the slowness came primarily from acknowledging and respecting the almost 100-year-old Sonja’s temporality of speaking, walking, eating, being in the world. We wanted to be in the world with her, at her pace. 

Sonja & Ana

Accepting Sonja’s pace of being in the world as the main temporal principle might not sound very complicated. It might sound as just slowing everything down. But before working on Landscapes of Resistance I had never experienced crafting time and temporality in a time-based medium so complex and delicate, so full of dangers and possibilities. For years we dared ourselves with questions such as: What is “Sonja’s time”? What is “our time”? What is Zeitgeist? Who defines fast and slow? What is the slowness of slow cinema about? Where does the capitalist request for acceleration come from? Is it also masculinist? How do we slow down the action in dance differently than in film? How to enact Benjamin’s “tiger’s leap” into history? Is slowness a feminist temporality? How to deal with the time after Sonja passed away during the filmmaking process? Apart from an ambition to examine a feminist temporality, the complexity of working on time in this film comes also from our desire to acknowledge and work on all layers of time that had been important for making the film. The most striking for us are:

  • Time of making the film – Filmmaking as a life practice. Marta’s artistic process in this project was very long, and over the years we visited Sonja many times, conducting interviews, exploring Sonja’s private archive, checking facts from her stories, watching films with similar topics, making notes and revisiting them. Gradually, the film became our life co-traveller, capturing important moments of our lives, from the new rise of nationalism and fascism, to us two moving from Belgrade to Berlin as a queer couple escaping precarisation, homophobia, and poverty, to Sonja’s death, to the appearance of new left forces in the region. The time of filmmaking is present in the film through my journal, as well as through home videos of early visits to Sonja and Ivo, recorded on DV.
  • Duration of the film and the passage of time – Slow cinema. The film has a classical duration of 95 minutes, while its temporality is decelerated, trying to be close to Sonja’s pace of living on the one hand and trying to give time to the audience to situate themselves in the film on the other. Marta uses long shots, slow transitions, as well as showing seasons and years passing, so the spectator can for instance see the cat as a kitten in DV materials and then as an adult cat in the last phase of filming. Sonja, Marta, and I are also much younger in early materials; Sonja and Ivo’s flat is getting worn out, and the wallpapers start peeling.
  • Times of the storylines – Waving divergent times. The film contains three storylines and their timelines, whose interweaving was the most delicate part of the work on time:
    • Outer / structural film’s story of the authors’ visiting and conversing with the protagonist in her flat. This covers the last months of Sonja’s life in 2017, with shooting and interviews, which are complemented in the film with DV materials of early visits, so this storyline shows its own past and spreads over ten years. 
    • Inner story / story of the protagonist, which mainly happens in the 1930s and ‘40s, to which we added some more recent thoughts and remarks by Sonja though my journal entries, to shed a lateral light to her character. This story is present through interviews with Sonja, her storytelling, writings, and diaries. 
    • Meta-story of the authors, which refers to the process of making the film in the period 2007-2019. Typical for film essays, this is the place where the authors inscribe themselves into the film, with their subjectivities, ideologies, and discourses. We present it through my journal, drawings of partisan painter Pivo Karamatijević, and the songs “Crveni makovi” (“Red Poppies”) by Mihovil Pavlek Miškin, performed by the choir Lezbor, and “Naša pjesma” (“Our Song”) by Ivan Goran Kovačić, performed by the choir Naša pjesma.

Sonja Archive: Priprema Za Predstavu

All three storylines unfold chronologically. However, since their times are different, they glide through the film, touching, missing, colliding with each other, and disappearing in their futures… We use their interweaving to make points important for the film in a non-direct way. For instance, instead of comparing our (predominantly cultural) activism and Sonja’s armed resistance to German Nazis – which we find incomparable – there is an open association between the image of the chimneys from Auschwitz-Birkenau from Sonja’s story and the journal entry where we reflect on our decision to find refuge in Berlin, which belongs to the meta-story. The crucial point made in these in-between times refers to our directorial-dramaturgical decision to show that Sonja dies during the process, while her story continues to live though the film. After we understand that she passed away in the real-time of the structural story, her voice and narration transcend into the meta storyline, now bodiless and in search for new bodies among audience members.

  • Time and context in which the film appears – Film as a public act. For us, the time of the premiere is not a random time that stays outside of the film; we are aware of our time, of the 2010s and 2020s in Serbia and Europe. Moreover, we are worried and scared of it and we want to intervene into it. Hence “the partisan film”, the term we use to describe Landscapes of Resistance, which doesn’t resemble any film from the genre of Yugoslav partisan films. In the film, this temporal layer is elaborated through the journal, especially the last comments from the phase of post-production, which bear traces of anti-immigrant sentiment in Germany and a precarious life of an immigrant queer female couple wandering Europe.

15 November 2008 was, in fact, not the last day of filming; the process took almost ten more years to complete

“Our Time”

Now evoking the work on this film, I become aware that for both of us making Landscapes of Resistance was a process charged with emotions: touching, moving, inspiring, and empowering. It all started with us two crying after a visit to Sonja and Ivo – touched by the realisation that resistance is always possible – and our friend, dramaturge Milan Marković, commenting: “Crying is a great reason to make a political film!” It turned out to be a long journey, which is not easy to reflect on as an object of analysis. But I feel a responsibility to it, and I have tried to recall and share here some of the numerous accumulated ideas, questions, small gestures, and problems. One of them I won’t forget – and I learned it from Sonja: to be in your time and to make a time yours means above all mindfully and in conversation with others intersecting the cosmological time of days, years, centuries passing, and your own, human experience of time as past, present, and future. I have an impression that Benjamin had exactly that in mind when he envisaged his tiger’s leap. At that point, dramaturgy escapes the cinema and becomes a practice of political life that embraces the affective, the singular, and the intuitive. A noble point to close this essay.

Landscapes of Resistance


  1. I am a performance and culture studies scholar, writer, and dramaturge, with an educational background in theatre and culture studies. Through a long-term collaboration with the filmmaker Marta Popivoda, I have entered the sphere of film and with a keen interest learned about cinema in the region. Marta and I have collaborated for years (2005-2017) within the collective Walking Theory (TkH) on various artistic and cultural projects, made many video art works and performative installations together, and I collaborated on her films as a script co-writer, director, and dramaturge. This way, I became a half-participant half-observer of the film scenes in Serbia and in former Yugoslavia, and from that experience and position I write this article.
  2. It is a broad and disputable term; still, I find it helpful in describing some of the recent nonfiction films from the region in terms of the position of the author and their inscription in the film. See Laura Rascaroli, “The Essay Film: Problems, Definitions, Textual Commitments,” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 49, no. 2 (2008): pp. 24-47.
  3. Ana Vujanović, “Landscape Dramaturgy: Space after Perspective” in Thinking Alongside, Ingri Midgard Fiksdal, ed. (Oslo: The Oslo National Academy of the Arts, 2018).
  4. An analysis of the visuality of the film would require another article, so I will here only explain that with cinematographer Ivan Marković, Marta made long and usually static shots, coming back to the same spaces and filming them from different angles and in different seasons. In editing, Marta and Jelena Maksimović worked on super-imposing these images over each other, gradually and progressively, so at the end the spectator sees a visual analysis of the space being watched from different perspectives or being affected by time passing.
  5. For more on this dramaturgical approach, see Ana Vujanović, “Meandering Together: New Problems in Landscape Dramaturgy” in Postdramaturgien, Sandra Umathum and Jan Deck, eds. (Berlin: Neofelis Verlag, 2019).

About The Author

Ana Vujanović (Berlin/Belgrade) is a freelance cultural worker in the fields of contemporary performing arts and culture: researcher, dramaturge, writer, lecturer. She holds a PhD in Humanities (Theatre Studies) and a post-graduate diploma in Culture and Gender Studies.

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