Slovenian tall tale recalls a land that time forgot.
Does anyone still remember Yugoslavia? It is a quarter of a century since its six Balkan republics splintered apart, setting off a bloody civil war that created the nations we now know more or less as Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and eventually Kosovo. It might take a fairly longer memory to recall Yugoslavia’s one-time leader, Josip Broz Tito. Tito was the Eastern European communist dictator who managed to stave off its centuries-old religious and ethnic divisions until his death.
Even now, many still revere Marshal Tito as a stern nationalist father figure.
In the former Yugoslavia, even now, many still revere Marshal Tito as a stern nationalist father figure; his words and deeds still endlessly argued and analysed in the media. In the West, Tito was acclaimed as a friendly proponent of neutral non-alignment, a Second World War guerilla hero who performed a delicate Cold War balancing act between the United States and the former Soviet Union. Hailed as practicing ‘socialism with a human face’, Tito enjoyed the economic goodwill of several US presidents from John F. Kennedy to Jimmy Carter; a beneficiary of billions in American aid that propped up his regime for decades. Though the arts in Yugoslavia benefited from a degree of liberalisation, most dissent was squelched by security forces or the threat of being sent off to the notorious Goli otok prison camp.
Slovenian filmmaker Ziga Virc was born in 1987, seven years after Tito’s death, and four years before the ten day war which brought about independence for his homeland. Like many of his generation, Virc was raised on the Yugoslav myth, running the gamut from fiction and documentary film images to homegrown conspiracy theory. Grappling with this weighty heritage, Ziga and his co-writer Bostjan Virc, have crafted Houston, We Have a Problem!, a docu-fiction (their phrase) hybrid of found footage and satirical re-enactment that fabricates a very tantalizing what if.
According to the Virc’s creative notion of history, a brilliant Slovenian scientist develops plans for a revolutionary space program in the 1930s. These plans end up in the hands of the communist leadership immediately after Yugoslavia’s Post-War liberation. The top secret technology is then sold to the United States for a few billion dollars but turns out to be virtually worthless. Unwilling to return the money, Tito covertly sends his top researchers to the US, ostensibly to aid NASA to try and make the failed rocket science work. Houston opens with one of these scientists, wheelchair-bound Ivan Pavic (Bozidar Smiljanic) as he travels from Texas to Slovenia fifty years after the Yugoslav secret police faked his death. Accompanying Ivan on his journey is an eager American historian and a small documentary crew. They are on hand to capture the reunion between Pavic and his bitter middle-aged daughter, Natasa (Branka Selic), who believed her father died in an accident. Ziga deftly cuts between this expedition and a treasure trove of newsreel images re-imagined as evidence of a tense confrontation between Tito and a chain of furious US presidents demanding the return of their billion dollar investment.
Ziga Virc seems continually fascinated with the idea of how easy a filmmaker can manipulate the perception of reality. As Ivan and the faux documentary crew traipse around abandoned military labs, underground space bunkers and even Tito’s private yacht, every banal discovery is scored with a soaring music track usually heard on a History Channel special. Yet, Houston never seems to go beyond this superficial novelty, even with the occasional presence of the famed Slovenian philosophy provocateur, Slavoj Zizek. Shoeless, seated in an armchair, Zizek plays along with Virc’s conceit, watching the film unravel on an antique socialist-era TV while offering such pronouncements on the unfolding events as ‘Even it didn’t happen, it’s true.’
Fuck you, Tito
Houston‘s finale finds Ivan and his daughter making their way to the Belgrade mausoleum which contains the actual tomb of Josip Tito. Staring down at the grave of the departed leader, a weary Ivan takes a moment to reflect on all that has passed. As his daughter wheels Ivan around to leave, under his breath he mutters a final ‘Fuck you, Tito’, a remarkably resonant and emotional moment that seems out of place with the rest of the proceedings. Houston, We Have a Problem! was Slovenia’s offbeat entry into this year’s Academy Awards, no doubt a slap in the face for the many socialist-era dinosaurs who rely on funding from their national cinema centers, as most filmmakers do in the former East Bloc.
It is a tall order but Virc’s missed opportunity makes one nostalgic for the bold crosscutting found in Dusan Makavejev’s 1971 Yugoslav classic WR: Mysteries of the Organism, a radical mélange of documentary and fiction that was also a prescient send-up of Titoism. Though clever in passages and chock full of extraordinary archival material, Houston could have benefited from a richer exploration of Tito’s Yugoslav legacy, a legacy that continues to be reflected in the words and deeds of benevolent dictators the world over.