DIFF 2023 Review | Ciné-Guerrillas Unearths a Lost Chapter in the History of Anti-Colonial Cinema
Ciné-Guerrillas suffers from a dearth of guerrillas. Director Mila Turajlic presents, as the film’s subtitle indicates, Scenes from the Labudovic Reels. Stevan Labudovic was a newsreel cameraman for Filmske novosti (Yugoslav Newsreels), which operated from the day of Yugoslavia’s liberation from the Nazis in 1944 to 1989. Labudovic, unafraid and adventurous, was chosen to be embedded with the FLN (Front de libération nationale/National Liberation Front) during the Algerian Revolution. Turajlic organises her film around interviews with Labudovic, some of his comrades, and others involved in the struggle for Algerian independence from France. Alongside these talking heads are short segments of what Labudovic shot accompanied by excerpts from his diaries.
Algeria had no cinematic apparatus, the French maintaining a monopoly over images and information. One of the key ideas present throughout the film is the importance of international support in anti-colinial struggles. Labudovic refers to his own time as a Yugoslav partisan against the Axis powers, from which Tito (whom he often filmed) likewise emerged. He is embedded with the FLN to capture images to be projected abroad as a counterpoint to the dominant images distributed by the colonial power. Footage from French newsreels show Europeans as welcome civilisers and the Algerians not only as colonial subjects but as themselves French. To be Algerian in these images is to be effaced.
Labudovic captures the revolutionaries not only in combat, but in their encampments at rest, eating chow, and training. Photography, of course, is not a naïve realism. He talks to Turajlic about staging shots, the majority of which he admits turns out unsatisfactorily. It is hard to find truth in direction when reality so readily intrudes, such as when we see a funeral procession for an unknown revolutionary. These images are mute, but sections of Labudovic’s diaries are graphically overlaid to provide context. The result is eminently televisual. One can imagine stumbling across the film on television or even as an instillation in a museum. History is not only the presentation of the past, but the form of our thinking through of the past. Turajlic’s images do not think.
Turaljic muses late in the film that Algerians are more familiar with Stevan Labudovic, who is honoured with museum displays, than they are with his images. If only Ciné-Guerrillas corrected this. Turaljic plants her feet in too many camps. The film is strongest as, and most fully develops, a biographical snapshot of the cameraman. We see Labudovic at work in newsreel footage and, in footage shot by Turaljic at his home. There is an aside where he comments on her lens being dirty. The film halts so she can remedy this, Labudovic talking away about his preferred method of lens cleaning. This contributes nothing other than an anecdotal example of his dedication to the craft. When Turaljic pulls back from his work, she likewise pulls back from the revolutionaries. We do get a broader picture of Algerian resistance, such as a segment on the underground radio broadcaster Voice of Free Algeria, but the liberation of Algeria is announced in the film not as a victory by the revolutionaries but as a resolution of the United Nations.
Ciné-Guerrillas opens with images from a military history museum in Algeria. In voiceover, Turaljic reflects on these familiar images in a different language. The official history of a nation looks the same everywhere when organised into an institution. She has seen monuments to the victory of Yugoslav partisans and the establishment of the successive Federal Republics of Yugoslavia. The images are the same – maps, diagrams, weapons, uniforms – but all speak a different tongue.
Despite organising her film around images taken by a cameraman embedded with the FLN, she closes her film with images of the institutional history. Labudovic is shown posing with a group of young museum attendees and being honoured at an Algerian festival for engaged filmmaking. Earlier, Labudovic stands between storage racks in the Filmske Novosti archives, commenting on the history contained within the film cans. These are the archives of a country that no longer exists, documenting a struggle lost in the ephemera of institutional remembrance.