The synopsis for Belgrade-born Mila Turajlić’s Non-Aligned & Ciné-Guerrillas: Scenes from the Labudović Reels straightforwardly portrays the award-winning filmmaker’s (2017’s The Other Side of Everything, 2010’s Cinema Komunisto) latest endeavour as a «documentary diptych of two feature-length films that take us on an archival road trip through the birth of the Third World project, based on unseen 35mm materials filmed by Stevan Labudović, the cameraman of Yugoslav President Tito.» But even that ambitious description doesn’t begin to capture the true breadth and scope of this multiyear journey back in time, one which led to the self-described «documentary filmmaker, archival artivist and spoken word performer» unearthing an anti-colonialist dream that very nearly came true; duly recorded on newsreels that were «a fake reflection of a true aspiration» (as Turajlić puts it in poetic voiceover). But instead, disintegrated into history, dissolving like celluloid. Like her country itself.
Well, not quite. Remarkably, the work of Labudović, along with fellow cameraman Dragan Mitrovic, who, beginning in 1954 and right up until Tito’s death, racked up 56 trips across 55 different countries with the president, survives pretty much intact. And now has been resurrected by Turajlić, who since 2015 has been diving into the archival rabbit hole that is the Belgrade-based Filmske novosti (literally «filmed news», aka the «Yugoslav Newsreels»). And perhaps even more surprisingly, though Mitrovic is long gone, Labudović likewise survived pretty much intact, a character in his own right willing to patiently serve as our no-nonsense, clear-eyed guide to the dangerously anticapitalist Non-Aligned Movement. (Even if Tito’s chief spin doctor, who died at the age of 90 in 2017, doesn’t suffer cinematographic foolishness like dirty lenses, freely chastising his interlocutor for her lack of attention to such details.)
Interestingly, though NAM, a forum consisting of countries not formally aligned with or against any major power bloc, and that was established in Belgrade in 1961 (when for six days, according to Turajlić’s voiceover, her hometown became «the centre of the Third World»), was a heterogeneous mover and shaker when it came to decolonization and disarmament, its image-making was almost solely a hegemonic affair. Not only is this treasure trove of mostly African and Asian history in possession of Serbia, but it was overwhelmingly shot (and thus shaped) by Yugoslavs. A fact that the sharp Labudović not only is keenly aware of but doesn’t in the least bit shy away from.
Not only is this treasure trove of mostly African and Asian history in possession of Serbia, but it was overwhelmingly shot (and thus shaped) by Yugoslavs.
War of images
For ultimately, Labudović was «a soldier in a war of images», using his «neutral» white privilege to set up national film centres across continents, most notably in Algeria, where he spent three years journalistically serving the FLN during that nation’s war of independence. Something that endeared him to the «enlightened» NATO members, most notably France, about as much as Tito to the snubbed Stalin. (That said, the Allies were fans of his carefully composed newsreels, which they liberally dubbed their own versions of history into.) And the Algerians, who even pay tribute to Labudović in a museum exhibit, are also realpolitik regarding their place in the history of the world. As one man states regarding the importance of Labudović’s propagandistic contributions to the anti-imperial cause, the shots they fired «could not be heard all the way to the United Nations#» like the cameraman’s pictures could be seen. Or, as Turajlić herself sums it up in the end, «images of a battle become a battle over images.» And the war rages on.
Currently – and especially since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began last winter (not to mention China’s longtime claim of sovereignty over the South China Sea) – there’s been a great deal of theorizing among foreign policy pundits as to whether a «Nonalignment 2.0» might be on the horizon, with so many countries fed up with constantly being stuck in the uncomfortable position of having to weigh national interest against a respect for territorial integrity. But how exactly would a new NAM work when the old one is technically still around? (Indeed, it is «the largest grouping of states worldwide» after the UN, according to Wikipedia.) Is it even possible to reboot a human rights franchise that once starred Nelson Mandela as a past chairperson but is now down to one member in Europe (that would be Belarus) and is today headed by Azerbaijan? Then again, Turajlić did warn us at the beginning of her cinematic diptych that for the idealistic dictator Tito, «The Third World was not a place. It was a project.» An anti-colonialist cause undertaken by colonialist-minded men.