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 film, Yugoslavia 2013, How Ideology Moved Our Collective Bodies, premiered at the Berlinale and became part of the permanent collection of MoMA. And now the Berlin filmmaker is returning to her home country Belgrade with her partner and the film's co-writer, Ana Vujanović, with Landscapes of Resistance, which made her debut at the IFFR Tiger Competition in 2021. Together they gently examine and preserve the memory of Vujanović's grandmother Sonja, who brings to life an amazing 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 to lead the resistance.
As yesterday, the hot 97-year-old remembered throwing pieces of paper with addresses out of the window of a car in the hope that fellow citizens would take them to their relatives in Belgrade, who could meet the prisoners on their arrival. She recalls singing partisan songs loudly on the way to the concentration camp to alert fellow Communist compatriots who could then possibly attack the train and free them all. Then there were these Czech guards who waved to the prisoners as if they were lighting a match while whispering "gas, gas". Which only led Sonja to assume that they were on their way to work in a gas processing plant.
Landscapes of Resistance moves seamlessly through time and not only over these detailed memories, but also over letters and pictures taken almost a decade ago when the director's friendship with Sonja began. That makes the political intense and heartbreakingly personal. A delightfully laudable portrait of the original Antifa.
Shortly after the virtual run of the film at the tiger competition in Rotterdam, the filmmaker turned to Popivoda and co-writer Vujanović to find out all about the unknown heroes of World War II, being a Serb in Berlin and why the world needs more partisans right now.
Filmmakers: You have described landscapes of the resistance as "an alternative memorial for Sonja and many other unknown heroes of the anti-fascist struggle". And Ana even says in the film that “many Yugoslav heroes from World War II received public monuments. Some of them are women. But none of them are survivors from Auschwitz. “So is the film an attempt to correct a negligent act by the state? Intentional blindness on purpose?
Popivoda and Vujanović: First and foremost, our idea was to question the term “hero”, which comes from a dominant patriarchal ideology of history and war. To contrast self-organization, solidarity and collectivism with the idea of a single true hero who is almost always a man. And we have to mention here the strong influence of Ursula K. Le Guin's essay The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, in which she celebrates people who are all heroes of a story. This is how we see Sonja and the whole problem of anti-fascist resistance – it requires numerous little heroes, ordinary people, all of us.
In relation to the monuments, the idea was to give the neglected a voice, to let them speak for themselves, so that the audience could make their own judgments. So the film is a symbolic monument, an act of remembering and an act of resistance to the prevailing historical narrative. It also relates to the problem of concentration camp survivors, who were often suspected of having done something bad to survive (for example, becoming "capos", becoming the space commanders, or sleeping with the SS men) . The question: "How did you really survive?" floated around her from day one. It was a tragic realization for many of them who were just lucky enough to survive, and especially for those who had participated in self-organization and resistance. Sonja worked her whole life to preserve memories of fascist and Nazi crimes, insisting on how fair and courageous the Yugoslav partisans who ended up in the camps were. She was even president of the section of survivors within the SUBNOR (Associations of the People's Liberation Struggle). In this sense, none of these heroes got a memorial.
Filmmakers: The "landscape" images you use are exquisite, ranging from stills of green nature to close-ups of a cat's fur and the folds of a brown blanket draped over Sonja's body. What were your particular reference points for the appearance of the film?
Popivoda: I thought within the “landscape cinema” paradigm and wanted to contribute to it. I wanted to explore different ways of working with perspective in the cinema and new ways of producing a landscape – like a body as a landscape. One of the cinematic principles that I developed with DP Ivan Marković was not only to look at things from a distance, but also to get really close to them. And that's what we did when we were spending time with Sonja in her apartment. I wanted to get really close to her body so that we could feel the presence of the body that is experiencing and holding this extraordinary story. Create a haptic image of a landscape that touches us from the screen.
On the other hand, my references were cubist and constructivist landscapes from the visual arts and how they can be translated into time-based media such as cinema and moving images. These were left art practices in Sonja's time. I was also interested in filming the problem of how to inhabit a landscape with different perspectives or views at the same time. And this came directly from Ana and my exchange about her concept of "landscape dramaturgy". We consider this an essential political issue.
Filmmakers: I think this is one of the few (only?) Films I've seen to explore the era of Nazi fascism through a strange feminist lens. The idea that the new partisans, the new left, are now made up of the marginalized in society, including queer people like you and Ana, is a central theme. What makes me curious to find out whether Sonja actually saw things that way. It just seemed that her decision to become a resistance fighter had more to do with a desperate desire to save her country than with ensuring human rights for Jews and other minorities around the world.
Popivoda and Vujanović: Sonja was a communist anti-fascist, not just 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 division. So her first concern was the exploitation of the working class and the 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 was involved in workers' strikes. It was also a society in which women were deprived of many rights, including the right to vote. She was very active in this area and took part in numerous feminist actions and performances fighting for women's rights. We believe that as a serious anti-fascist she was very sensitive to any gesture of closing society and trying to purify it in order to achieve a (mythical) harmony in which lies the root of fascism.
It has many appearances, but the principles remain the same. With that in mind, Sonja and her husband Ivo were ready to join Belgrade's gay pride in the 2000s. We were impressed by their desire to fight for these people's place in society. To be anti-fascist you really have to have an open heart.
Filmmakers: Marta, you have spent your career in the interplay of history and memory. Both of these can be unreliable, depending on who the author is and what we remember and what we forget. As an artist from Belgrade who emigrated to Berlin, do you find a big difference in how the citizens of each country – both with genocide stories – deal with the past?
Popivoda: Yes, in my work I am interested in the tensions between memory and history, collective and individual bodies as well as ideology and everyday life. I have a special focus on the anti-fascist and feminist possibilities of the Yugoslav socialist project. This film is a perfect example of that. Socialist Yugoslavia is an exciting political project for me and a progressive supranational state for its time.
Yugoslavia too had its own authentic socialist revolution! It gave us notions of anti-fascism, the misaligned movement, workers' self-government, and a general idea of social justice. But we also had the bitter experience that some of these ideas practically failed. That is why Yugoslavia is an inspiration and a warning to me if we understand it as a political proposal rather than territory. It becomes particularly relevant today when we live in so-called neoliberal capitalism and a radicalization of class society – which in the region of former Yugoslavia can be described as "wild capitalism" – which is wiping out the public sector and the idea of social justice. Hand in hand with this goes the eradication of communism as the driving force of anti-fascism in Serbia and even further in Europe.
Popivoda and Vujanović: In our local context, we have revisionist political agendas and views on history in Serbia and beyond, from the institutional level to everyday life. These include the discourses of national reconciliation, including the absolution of the fascists; the European resolution on totalitarianism, which brings together fascism and communism; Revisions of history books used in schools; and the forcible separation of communism from anti-fascism. In Serbia, for example, we received two laws that led directly to the rehabilitation of Nazi collaborators. There is also a high level of intolerance towards LGBTIQ people in Serbia and elsewhere in the region. Likewise, in Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and elsewhere in Europe we have racism against Roma and fear of migrants from Syria and Africa. Those barbed wire fences that were created – aren't they a symbol of the undead fascism that was lifted from the grave by the erasure of the memory of anti-fascism?
Vujanović: And when I talk about coming closer to the past, I see a big difference between Germany and Serbia. In Germany they had a long-term program to re-educate citizens after World War II, to face the Nazi past of their family and neighbors and to speak openly about being a defeated nation. The program has been criticized by many and we can discuss its results. however, it existed and was not just a formality.
In socialist Yugoslavia after World War II we had no programs about crimes – and clashes between constituent nations and between those who fought against occupiers and those who worked with Nazis – because there was a general policy of "brotherhood and unity" gave. In my opinion that was a big mistake. Communism did not help us forget and erase the painful past, so a sense of injustice and a silent desire for vengeance followed people for a long time. And then, after the civil wars of the 1990s, the Serbian people once again did not go to trial to face the political mistakes, crimes and genocide of their government – the feeling of being defeated, the opportunity to meet the victims to mourn those injured and killed on their behalf. Today it is a tragic and sick society, a society without a public, a society in which everything is put into perspective.
Filmmakers: "We don't have to be heroes to be partisans, but we have to be partisans!" is a line in a letter that tells of 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 see the film outside of the rare liberal world of festivals and arthouses?
Popivoda and Vujanović: This film is a call for solidarity, self-organization and resistance. Our main wish in this regard was to evoke a feeling, an idea in our audience that resistance is always possible.
In addition, the role of civic education is crucial in understanding sociopolitical processes around us, and Sonja is a perfect example of this. She knew why she was in the camps and was able to resist. In our collaboration, we are also interested in the political freedom of ordinary people and how we as citizens can avoid becoming just an audience of history.
This means recognizing new fascisms and resisting them. We want as many people as possible to see the film. That's why we're now working with various distribution companies to bring the film to a different audience, not just those who follow film festivals. The same approach was taken with our previous documentary Yugoslavia How Ideology Moved Our Collective Bodies, which has been screened around the world from underground clubs and occupied cinemas to MoMA and Tate.
We are enthusiastic about the strong response to Landscapes of Resistance, not only from critics and experts, but also from regular audiences. It seems that Sonja and our film are really talking to people and inviting them to join the anti-fascist struggle, even in their daily life. As artists, we know that we are not directly interventionist with our art, but we can offer visions of new possible worlds. And as humans we raise voices on the street, in cinemas and galleries. What we learned from Sonja is that we don't have to be heroines to be partisans. But we have to be partisans. There is simply no alternative.