“This Film is a Call to Solidarity, Self-Organization and Resistance”: Marta Popivoda and Ana Vujanović on their International Film Festival Rotterdam-debuting Landscapes of Resistance
Filmmaker, video artist and “cultural worker” Marta Popivoda has spent much of her career focusing on philosophies and movements through a decidedly feminist lens. Her first feature, 2013’s Yugoslavia, How Ideology Moved Our Collective Body, premiered at the Berlinale and went on to become part of the permanent collection at MoMA. And now with Landscapes of Resistance, which debuted in the Tiger Competition at IFFR 2021, the Berlin-based filmmaker returns to her native Belgrade with her partner, and the film’s co-writer, Ana Vujanović. Together they gently probe and cinematically preserve the memory of Vujanović’s grandmother Sonja, who brings to life an astonishing account of her time as one of the first female partisans in Yugoslavia. A fateful decision that eventually landed her in Auschwitz, where she continued leading the resistance.
As if it occurred yesterday, the sharp 97-year old recalls throwing slips of paper with addresses out the window of a train car in the hope that fellow citizens would bring them to the relatives in Belgrade who could then meet the prisoners upon their arrival. She remembers loudly singing partisan songs on the way to the concentration camp in an attempt to alert any communist countrymen, who could then potentially attack the train and free them all. Then there were those Czech guards motioning to the prisoners as if lighting a match while whispering “gas, gas.” Which just caused Sonja to assume they were heading to work in a gas processing plant.
Moving seamlessly through time, and not just via these richly detailed recollections but also through letters and images captured nearly a decade ago when the director’s friendship with Sonja first began, Landscapes of Resistance makes the political intensely, heartbreakingly personal. A gorgeously laudable portrait of the original Antifa.
Just after the film’s virtual run in the Tiger Competition at Rotterdam, Filmmaker reached out to Popivoda and co-writer Vujanović to learn all about WWII’s unknown heroes, being a Serbian in Berlin, and why the world needs more partisans right now.
Filmmaker: You’ve described Landscapes of Resistance as “an alternative monument to Sonja and many other unknown heroes of the antifascist fight.” And Ana even says in the film that “many Yugoslav heroes from WWII got public monuments. Some of them are women. But none of them is an Auschwitz survivor.” So is the film an attempt to to rectify an act of negligence by the state? A willful blindness by design?
Popivoda and Vujanović: First and foremost, our idea was to question the notion of “hero,” which comes from a dominant patriarchal ideology of history and war. To juxtapose self-organization, solidarity and collectivism with the idea of a one and only true hero, which is almost always a man. And we must mention here the strong influence of Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, where she celebrates people who are all a story’s heroes. That is how we see Sonja and the whole issue of antifascist resistance – it requires numerous small heroes, ordinary people, all of us.
Regarding the monuments, the idea was to give voice to the neglected ones, to let them speak for themselves, so that the audience can make their own judgments. So the film is a symbolic monument, an act of remembering, and an act of resistance to the dominant historical narrative. It also relates to the problem of concentration camp survivors, who have often been under suspicion, that they must have done something bad in order to survive (for instance, becoming “capos,” the room commanders, or sleeping with the SS men). The question of “How did they really survive?” has been hovering around them from day one. It was a tragic realization for many of them, who just had the luck to survive, and especially for those who had taken part in self-organizations and resistance. Sonja worked her whole life on preserving the memory of fascist and Nazi crimes, while insisting on how just and brave Yugoslav partisan women who ended up in the camps were. She was even a president of the section of the survivors within the SUBNOR (Associations of the People’s Liberation Struggle). In that sense, none of these heroes got a monument.
Filmmaker: The “landscape” imagery you employ is exquisite, ranging from still shots of green nature to closeups of a cat’s fur, and the folds of a brown blanket draped over Sonja’s body. So what were your particular reference points for the look and feel of the film?
Popivoda: I was thinking within the “landscape cinema” paradigm, and I wanted to make a contribution to it. I wanted to investigate different ways to work with perspective in cinema, and new ways to produce a landscape — like a body as a landscape. One of the cinematic principles I devised with DP Ivan Marković was not just to look at things from a distance, but to get really close to them. And this is what we did when we spent time with Sonja in her flat. I wanted to get really close to her body, so we can feel the presence of the body that experienced and contains this extraordinary story. To produce a haptic image of a landscape that touches us from the screen.
On the other hand, my references were cubist and constructivist landscapes from visual arts, and how they can be translated into time-based media, such as cinema and moving images. These were the leftist art practices of Sonja’s time. I was also interested in cinematically solving the problem of how you can inhabit a landscape with different perspectives or gazes at the same time. And this came directly from Ana’s and my exchange about her concept of “landscape dramaturgy.” We consider this an essential political question.
Filmmaker: I think this is one of the few (only?) films I’ve seen to explore the era of Nazi fascism through a queer feminist lens. The idea that the new partisans, the new leftists, are now made up of society’s marginalized, including queer folks like you and Ana, is a central theme. Which makes me curious to learn if Sonja actually saw things that way. It just seemed that her choice to become a resistance fighter had more to do with a desperate desire to save her country than it did to ensure human rights for Jews and other minority communities around the world.
Popivoda and Vujanović: Sonja was a communist antifascist, not only a patriot. She became a communist in the late 1930s, when the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was not occupied. Nevertheless, it was a capitalist country with extreme class segregation. So their first concern was the exploitation of the working class and peasants by capitalists, and she herself was very passionate about social injustice.
Although she came from a privileged family, she joined the communist party and became active around workers’ strikes. Also, it was a society where women were deprived of many rights, including suffrage. She was very active in that domain and took part in numerous feminist actions and performances fighting for women’s rights. We think that as a serious anti-fascist she was very sensitive to every gesture of closing society, of trying to purify it in order to achieve a (mythical) harmony, which is where the root of fascism lies.
It has many appearances, but the principles remain the same. Given that, Sonja and her husband Ivo were willing to join gay pride in Belgrade in the 2000s. They left us impressed with their desire to fight for these folks’ place in society. To be antifascist you really must have an open heart to start with.
Filmmaker: Marta, you’ve spent your career focused on the interplay of history and memory, both of which can be unreliable based on who is the author, and what we choose to remember and to forget. So as an artist from Belgrade who emigrated to Berlin do you find a stark difference in how citizens of each country — both with histories of genocide — approach the past?
Popivoda: Yes, in my work I am interested in the tensions between memory and history, collective and individual bodies, and ideology and everyday life. I have a special focus on the antifascist and feminist potentialities of the Yugoslav socialist project. This film is a perfect example of all of it. For me, Socialist Yugoslavia is an exciting political project, and for its time, it was a progressive supranational state.
Also, Yugoslavia had its own authentic socialist revolution! It gave us ideas of antifascism, the non-aligned movement, workers’ self-management, and a general idea of social justice. But we also had the bitter experience of the practical failure of some of these ideas. That’s why for me Yugoslavia is an inspiration and a warning if we understand it as a political proposal, and not as a territory. It becomes especially relevant today when we live within the so-called neoliberal capitalism and a radicalization of class society – that in the region of former Yugoslavia can be called “wild capitalism” – which deletes the public sector and the very idea of social justice. Hand in hand with this comes the erasure of communism as a driving force of antifascism in Serbia, and even wider, in Europe.
Popivoda and Vujanović: In our local context, we have revisionist political agendas and views of history in Serbia, as well as beyond, from the institutional level down to everyday life. They include the discourses of national reconciliation, thus also the absolution of fascists; the European resolution on totalitarianism, which lumps together fascism and communism; revisions of history textbooks used in schools; as well as the forceful separation of communism from antifascism. In Serbia, for instance, we got two pieces of legislation that led straight to the rehabilitation of Nazi collaborationists. Also, in Serbia and elsewhere in the region, there is a high level of intolerance of LGBTIQ people. Likewise in Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and elsewhere in Europe, we have racism targeting Roma people, as well as the fear of migrants from Syria and Africa. Those barbed-wire fences that have sprung up — aren’t they emblematic of undead fascism, raised from the grave by the erasure of the memory of antifascism?
Vujanović: And speaking about approaching the past, I see a huge difference between Germany and Serbia. In Germany, they had a longterm program of reeducation of the citizens after WWII in order for them to face their and their families’ and neighbors’ Nazi past, and to openly speak about being a defeated nation. The program was criticized by many and we can debate over its results; however, it existed and was not only a formality.
In socialist Yugoslavia after WWII, we didn’t have those programs about crimes — and clashes between the constituting nations, and between those who fought against occupiers and those who collaborated with Nazis — because there was a general politics of “brotherhood and unity.” In my view that was a huge mistake. Communism didn’t help us to forget and erase the painful past, so a sense of injustice, and a silenced desire for revenge, followed the people for a long time. And then after the civil wars in the 1990s the people of Serbia again didn’t undergo a process of facing the political mistakes, crimes, and genocide of their government — the sense of being defeated, the opportunity to mourn the victims hurt and killed on their behalf. Today it is a tragic and sick society, a society without a public sphere, a society where everything is relativized.
Filmmaker: “We don’t have to be heroes to be partisans, but we have to be partisans!” is a line in a letter recounting a rally in support of refugees towards the end of the film. Do you see Landscapes of Resistance as a general call to arms? And if so, what is your distribution plan to get the film seen outside the rarified liberal world of festivals and arthouses?
Popivoda and Vujanović: This film is a call to solidarity, self-organization and resistance. Our main desire in this regard was to evoke a feeling, an idea in our audience that resistance is always possible.
In addition, we find the role of political education crucial in understanding sociopolitical processes around us, and Sonja is a perfect example of this. She knew why she was in the camps and thus she was able to resist. In our collaborative work we are also interested in the political agency of ordinary people, and how as citizens we can avoid becoming just an audience of history.
This means recognizing and resisting new fascisms. We would like as many people as possible to see the film, so we’re now working with different distributors to bring the film to different audiences, not just to those who follow film festivals. The same approach was taken with our previous feature documentary, Yugoslavia, How Ideology Moved Our Collective Body, which was screened all over the world, from underground clubs and occupied cinemas, to MoMA and Tate.
We are thrilled with the strong response so far to Landscapes of Resistance, not just from critics and professionals but also from regular audiences. It seems that Sonja and our film really speak to people, invites them to join the antifascist struggle, even in just their everyday lives. As artists we know that we are not directly interventionist with our art, but we can offer visions of new possible worlds. And as people we raise voices in the streets, and in cinemas and galleries alike. What we have learned from Sonja is that we don’t have to be heroines to be partisans. But we must be partisans. There’s just no alternative.