May: The Other Side of Everything

“Living Opposed”

Joshua Malitsky (Indiana University)

An hour and thirty-six minutes into Mila Turajlić’s The Other Side of Everything, we see an image of the director herself, reflected in two panes, as she gazes out the window from her family’s apartment in central Belgrade, Serbia. The reflections are relatively diffuse, one even more so than the other. She and her mother, Srbijanka Turajlić, a former Engineering professor, official in the Ministry of Education, and political activist, had just finished a conversation about activism and political responsibility. For Srbijanka, it is the obligation of all citizens, but especially young people, to fight for change. Mila, however, is not entirely sure of the role she should and can play in the future of Serbia, feeling hopeless about its political future. Following the images of the director at the window is a cut to what she apparently sees—a bird struggling to make progress against a stiff breeze, suspended in air over a Serbian flag, before finding a route underneath the breeze and leaving the frame.

These final two shots of the sequence last only sixteen seconds but can be seen as a central metaphor for the film itself. The two images on the pane can refer to both Turajlićs (the more diffuse one has a historical quality to it), women who have spent their lives flying against the prevailing political breeze in Serbia. Whereas there are moments of progress, the dominant experience is that of struggle. But at the same time—and this is where the film is more Srbijanka’s than Mila’s—the struggle against the breeze keeps her aflight. She knows no other way to be in the world.

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The Other Side of Everything, as the director describes, is “the forgotten story of non-acceptance,” evidence of people who, like her mother, spoke against dominant political power from the post WWII-era communist period through the rise of populist nationalist politics in the period following the breakup of Yugoslavia. Srbijanka is one of the most important activist voices, an academic and intellectual whose political viewpoints have rarely aligned with the party in power. The film focuses on Srbijanka’s life, moving chronologically from the period of her birth in the immediate postwar era up to the present moment. The audiovisual material alternates between the space of the apartment, where Srbijanka has lived her entire life, and the political spaces of Belgrade. The apartment sequences are contemporary, weaving casual conversations, slightly formal interviews between Mila and her mother, and snippets of everyday life including dinners with friends and family. The public, political sequences are historical, making use of many private archives for, as the filmmaker notes, “none of the political rallies or protests that my mother participated in were covered by the media—rather they were suppressed. So I found images on old VHS tapes in people’s basements.” One of the central themes then is how one lives, to use my metaphor, constantly flying against the breeze.

For Srbijanka, the answer is to continually fight for the social democratic values in which she believes no matter how difficult the situation becomes. But for Mila, whose attachment to Serbia is less totalizing, the value of committing to change in Serbia is not a given. And, to be sure, although Srbijanka’s voice is the dominant voice of the film, it never speaks to us directly. Rather, Mila’s presence—as daughter, as interviewer, as filmmaker, as sharer of domestic space—is deeply felt. This is a mother telling her story with and for her daughter. This sense emerges most powerfully in consideration of the primary space of the film: the apartment that “stands in the political nerve center of Belgrade.”

The film begins and concludes by focusing on the rich history of this domestic space. In 1947, the communist government seized space from many of the wealthier Belgrade residents in an effort to create more equitable living situations. Two of the rooms in the Turajlić’s apartment were cordoned off and given to a woman in the film who describes herself as a “true proletarian.” The door to the rooms remained locked from that moment until almost seventy years later when, as we see in the film, they are returned to the Turajlić family. At one level, the divided apartment speaks to one of the central themes of the film, that of the political distance that exists between members of Serbian society. Early in the film, Srbijanka asserts that there was no interaction at all between members of the bourgeois class and the proletariat class in Belgrade. And this gap extends into the period of the breakup, when Srbijanka describes the horror of Serbian tanks leaving Belgrade to go to Croatia. People were cheering and it was unfathomable to her, leading her to wonder what connections she had with her fellow citizens: “You ask yourself, who have you been living with all these years?” The film does not conflate these disagreements—the right-wing nationalists are not the same political enemy as the communists—but it does raise fascinating questions about what Benedict Anderson describes as the “deep, horizontal comradeship” emblematic of national communities.

TOSE still 6

If at one level the division between rooms serves as a national and social metaphor, at another it feels like a catalytic device. It centers the space and the experience of the apartment, the “nerve center” of the film. Turajlić’s camera highlights the apartment’s architectural elements, lovingly attending to the brass, glass, wood, metal, silver, lace, and cast-iron materials in its midst. The apartment is also an archival space, containing documents from the pre-WWII founding of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, from the communist era, and from the period of the breakup. Perhaps most importantly it is a human space, one of deep exchange between daughter and mother. We do not simply hear Mila’s questions and Srbijanka’s responses to them; we listen to a daughter asking questions that implicate her to a mother whom we watch answer them, seeing and feeling her navigate the desire to respond with love to a daughter and with fierce truth to a peer. This, in a way, brings us back to the communist position that inaugurates the events of the film in the first place, a recognition of the domestic as political space.

“What’s Behind Door Number One?”

Meghanne Barker (University of Chicago)

At the outset of Mila Turajlić’s recent documentary film, The Other Side of Everything, the viewer is presented with a dreamlike scenario: in the protagonist’s home, there is a door that has remained locked since her very early childhood. As the film unfolds over the course of five years, the possibility develops of the door finally being opened. While themes of repetition and reproduction emerge during the film, however, this is not a documentary about a Freudian return of the repressed – or not really. What’s on the other side is hardly a secret. It is, rather, a neighbor. The door that is the focus of the film separates two sides of an apartment that was partitioned in the early days of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The young socialist government, having determined the family of Srbijanka Turajlić (the filmmaker’s mother) to be bourgeois and in possession of more space than they needed, took two rooms from them and gave the rooms to a proletariat family.

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The Other Side of Everything, shot seventy years after this partitioning, is not merely about memory, either. While Srbijanka recounts to her daughter memories of being able to hear the family next door or to smell what they were cooking, one member of the proletariat family is still there, next door. We see her only briefly, a frail woman with white hair who expresses sympathy for the family on the other side, who gave up these two rooms. Srbijanka Turajlić, too, insists to her daughter that her family never blamed the others for their loss of the rooms, but we don’t see the neighbors visiting one another, either. It is Mila Turajlić who visits Nada Lazarević, the woman who has lived next door since the apartment was partitioned off. When Mila explains her film idea, Lazarević replies, “The life of those who live in your home,” and she emphasizes, “we do live in your home.” But, when a census taker asks for the size of Lazarević’s kitchen, she explains that she has no kitchen, just a hallway. One has the feeling that, even now, these two sides sit next to each other somewhat uncomfortably – and unevenly.

The title suggests that there is another side to everything, and the film often features poetic pairings – the two sides of the apartment and the women inside of them, each family still living with the consequences of their having been designated either as bourgeoisie or as proletariat. There are other pairings, as well, such as the seeming generational divide between Mila Turajlić and her mother. We have to ask, then, if there’s only one side on the other side? The door, as evocative metonym, provoked me to look for before and after pairings – but, before and after what? The division of the apartment? The disintegration of Yugoslavia? Or the October 5 Revolution in which Srbijanka Turajlić was so active? The story that emerges over the course of the film offers a more complex narrative than can be defined as an easy before and after, with Srbijanka Turajlić’s own complicated relationship with her activist past, her reflections on it, and the filmmaker’s own struggles to sort out her positioning as the daughter of an activist who is not following the same path.

While the partitioning of the apartment marks the beginning of Communist Yugoslavia, the end is far messier. The apartment serves as a potent symbol and locus of action, but the film also examines the demise of socialism and of Yugoslavia itself, the rise of Milošević, the October 5 Revolution that saw his overthrow, the key role Srbijanka Turajlić played in this, and her disillusionment with what came afterwards. Historical events such as the October 5 Revolution might seem to create a rupture that is indeed permanent, yet on the other side of this rupture, repetitions occur. Figures from the pre-revolutionary period re-emerge, such as Aleksandar Vučić, Minister of Information during the Milošević regime, currently Serbia’s president, who appears on the Turajlić family television screen following victorious party elections.

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Along with other recent documentaries from the region, such as Srbenka (Nebojša Slijepčević, 2018) and Flotel Europa (Vladimir Tomic, 2015), The Other Side of Everything raises questions surrounding the use of documentary film in sorting out complex intimate and political relations in the former Yugoslavia. The scope of the film covers a vast historical terrain, adeptly integrating archival footage. At the same time, Turajlić’s camera seems locked inside the building, and mostly inside the apartment that is the focus of the film. This has its limitations. I have heard scholars complain that the film presents, really, only one side of things, that it offers a view that remains essentially bourgeois. Another Serbian filmmaker commented to me that Turajlić’s films are “for the West,” suggesting another partitioning of sides, with Turajlić aiming in one direction.

Turajlić’s film strikes me as more nuanced than this. It seems to admit that the other side remains to some degree “other,” even when the door dividing the two sides has been opened. It doesn’t seem to suggest that these two sides are even. However, if the goal of this forum is to open a film up to discussion and debates, such critiques provoke us to consider these questions surrounding the politics of representing spaces and those occupying them. Turajlić’s film, I think, pushes us to ask where we might have permitted doors to remain locked to us, whether it’s possible to get to the other side, and whether we are prepared to deal with the consequences that follow.

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