Mila Turajlic’s documentary won top honors at the giant Dutch showcase of non-fiction cinema.
The personal and political interweave to quietly rewarding effect in Mila Turajlic’s The Other Side of Everything (Druga strana svega), the Serbian documentarist’s much-anticipated follow-up to her widely screened 2010 debut Cinema Komunisto. Co-produced with France and Qatar, this is essentially an intimate double portrait of the director’s feisty septuagenarian mother Srbijanka — a university professor who achieved national prominence as an outspoken public figure in the 1990s — and the Belgrade apartment in which she lives.
Having bowed to positive reactions at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Other Side of Everything went on to win the Feature-Length Competition at Amsterdam’s IDFA, the world’s biggest non-fiction festival. Accessible, informative and wryly humorous, the film uses Srbijanka’s tastefully decorated residence as a prism through which to view the woman, her turbulent times and the complicated history of the former Yugoslavia.
Srbijanka may have retired both from academe and the front lines of politics — she was Serbia’s deputy education minister from 2001-04 — but she remains an articulate firebrand, scornfully disappointed by her compatriots’ gradual embrace of nationalism in the current century.
“The current situation is horrific,” Srbijanka informs her daughter after watching election results on TV, “but that is not your topic.” Refreshingly and disarmingly candid about the circumstances of its own production, Other Side of Everything is very much a collaboration between Srbijanka and Mila, alternating between observational and conversational modes in a beguilingly casual and speculative way.
Clearly intended as a low-key contrast to the expansive history of Yugoslav movie-culture stirringly explored in Cinema Komunisto, this latest effort is quite literally a chamber piece, seldom straying beyond the confines of Srbijanka’s carefully maintained environment. “If your film doesn’t show how well I polish the silver, I will kill you,” growls the mother at one point, her voice the gravelly fruit of countless cigarettes.
Handling direction, screenwriting and cinematography duties and also serving as her own co-producer, Turaljic makes much of the apartment’s role as a victim of and witness to much wider upheavals. Slap-bang in the center of the Yugoslavian and Serbian capital, it was built in the early 20th century as a well-appointed and roomy residence for Srbijanka’s great-grandfather, himself a politician of considerable power and influence.
In 1947, the flat was “nationalized” by the victorious Communists led by Josip Broz Tito, who regarded such ostentatious accommodations as offensively bourgeois. Like many such dwellings, it was divided into (two) separate sets of living quarters, with another, poorer family moving in to the smaller section and the connecting doors permanently locked shut.
As the film begins, nonagenarian Rada remains Srbijanka’s neighbor after nearly seven decades. She’s a lively presence who clearly has her own stories to tell (she describes herself as “the true proletariat”); her truncated screen time is therefore regrettably brief. (In fact, she died during the production, resulting in those connecting doors finally being unlocked, unglued and pried open.)
But while the complex, thorny business of the divided apartment often seems central to Turaljic’s conception, it never quite comes into proper satisfying focus either as metaphor or mystery. She’s on safer, if rather less ambitious, ground when delving back through Srbijanka’s public career: editors Aleksandra Milavanovic (who also cut Cinema Komunisto) and French veteran Sylvie Gadmer (who has dozens of diverse credits) skilfully interpolate archival TV footage to economically conjure Yugoslavia’s painful disintegration and the re-emergence of Serbia as an independent nation.
The contrasts between the ferociously engaged Srbijanka and the much more reticent Mila, who is often heard here but only very fleetingly glimpsed, become increasingly apparent. The mother is bluntly exasperated at her daughter’s seemingly apolitical stance, perhaps emblematic of the millennial generation in Serbia and much further afield, yielding dire consequences for those who share Srbijanka’s concern for social justice and active democracy.
Taking its tone from Turaljic’s innate cautiousness, The Other Side of Everything is itself a somewhat middle-of-the-road exercise stylistically speaking: gently probing, elegantly shot, making distractingly copious use of Jonathan Morali’s strings-and-piano-heavy score, even during dialogue scenes. Indeed, the only revolutionary aspect here lies in the personality of Srbijanka herself: flinty, questioning, confrontational, unapologetic, a voice from yesterday which inspiringly refuses to be silenced.