BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield. After 9/11, Jonathan Landay’s wife shuddered at the flag waving, the overreach on national security methods and the blind fealty to a president because she had seen it all before, in the Balkans, where Serbia’s Slobodan Milošević and Croatia’s Franjo Tuđman whipped their populations into a nationalist frenzy and thereupon into a catastrophic war.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Croatian propaganda echoing over the frontline in Mostar, the most vicious theater of war in Bosnia- Herzegovina.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The Bosnian Serbs again shelling the supposedly safe areas of Bihac, Srebrenica, Gorazde and Sarajevo. The Bosnian capital is again a city under siege, running out of food and water.
BOB GARFIELD: Of course, in the early ‘90s in the former Yugoslavia there were, like Landay and Strobel, also lonely voices of dissent from the popular narrative. One such was Srbijanka Turajlić, an academic and political dissident who spoke out against Milošević at grave professional and personal risk to herself and whom, to this day, is a democratic activist in a country that is more authoritarian than its democratic trappings would suggest. Turajlić is also the subject of a recent film, The Other Side of Everything, by her daughter, the documentarian Mila Turajlić. The title refers to political discourse but it also refers to something very literal, a door in the Turajlić family apartment that had remained locked for 70 years.
MILA TURAJLIĆ: Right after the Second World War, one thing that happened in most Communist countries is that there was this feeling that everything needs to be equalized and, particularly after the destruction of the war, housing became a big problem. And so, big apartments, let's call them bourgeois apartments, were divided up and other families are forcibly moved in to live in them. And so, in our case, the doors in our living room were locked and three other families were moved into various rooms in the apartment, which wasn't that unusual at the time but what was unusual is that by 2000, 2010, 2015, we were still living like that. And I grew up thinking that was the status quo. You know, I didn’t grow up thinking there was something unusual about the fact that there were doors in our living room and you could hear people on the other side but I'd never been there. But my mom never presented it to us as something that was rightfully ours. I think there was more of this feeling, you know, we’re, we’re kind of living through grand waves of history and they’re shaping our private lives and our private space but that’s just how things are, in many ways. And there was definitely never any idea that those doors could one day open.
BOB GARFIELD: In the ‘80s, Tito died. The wall fell and Yugoslavia turned its destiny very quickly over to Milošević, himself a former Communist apparatchik but one who quickly discarded that orthodoxy and seized on age-old ethnic rivalries that had mainly been suppressed by Tito. And your mother saw it coming?
MILA TURAJLIĆ: The war was starting. Her students were being drafted into the army. Many were deserting the country for that reason. And she became incredibly active in helping them organize rallies and meetings and so on and trying to get the University of Belgrade to boycott a lot of what was going on politically, and she ended up getting fired from the university for it, you know, down the road. But the country was closed off, there were sanctions, and so it was just this feeling of, you know, someone has to try and resist.
BOB GARFIELD: And the resistance was not only in the face of the government but of large swaths of the population who deemed dissonance against Milošević and his supporting parties as unpatriotic, as, as treasonous, as anti-Serb.
MILA TURAJLIĆ: Yeah, you know, and it’s funny, I see so many parallels when I look at what's happening in many countries in Europe today. You know, when “patriotism” starts being bandied around as a word and you begin to see this incredible divisiveness in public discourse, you know, two sides who can no longer hear each other or are willing to speak to each other and then from that point on everything kind of starts taking on hysterical proportions. And while we remain staunchly divided into these two separate trenches and are not able to communicate in any way, society feels like it's really broken down.
BOB GARFIELD: And there was your mom onstage --
[SRBIJANKA TURAJLIĆ SPEAKING]
-- surrounded by tens of thousands of protesters and thousands of security forces of [LAUGHS] military might and not knowing that she was safe. You were a kid at the time. How did you process all of that?
MILA TURAJLIĆ: For a very long time, for my entire childhood, I followed her to all of these meetings and demonstrations and I thought it was the most normal thing in the world. But yeah, you know, my mom’s out on the street and she's holding these speeches and it, it didn’t occur to me until much later that I didn't know anybody else's mother who had done quite the same thing. And so, I think it's only when I started making this film and I reached my mid-‘30s and I began to realize that I was reaching the age my mom had been when everything had begun, that I began to realize that each one of us essentially arrives at a moment in our life when we have to face ourselves and this decision of, am I going to take active responsibility for the society I’m living in or am I going to walk away from that? And I think it's only really when I reached the age where I have to make that choice that I began to look at what my mother did with a completely different appreciation.
BOB GARFIELD: Very near the beginning of the film, we see an awards ceremony and Srbijanka is the guest of honor. The award was for her decades of courage in speaking truth to power and [LAUGHS] she had a very memorable response to the honor.
[SRBIJANKA TURAJLIĆ SPEAKING/AUDIENCE APPLAUSE]
She says, this is absolutely the first time that I receive an award for total failure. Well, it’s true! Tito was a dictator to his death, Milošević was an autocratic demagogue who fomented genocide. The democratic successors to the rubble of ex-Yugoslavia were fractious and corrupt. And the new leader of Serbia, the Western-facing Aleksandar Vučić, has his own ultra-nationalist history and himself effectively controls all Serbian institutions, including the not really free media. Did Srbijanka fail?
MILA TURAJLIĆ: We all failed. [LAUGHS] That’s the tragedy of it. So I was 21 when we had what we call our revolution, which is the day that Milošević fell from power and you could say the democratic chapter of Serbia began. And it wasn't until then that I realized that the 10 years that we had spent on the streets protesting against him hadn't actually prepared us for what happens when you get the possibility to build. And no one of my mother's generation who had been, you know, among the leaders of the protests, the politicians and the intellectuals, had actually any kind of road plan of what happens next. We had all united against Milošević but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we all share the vision of the country that we wanted to build.
And so, for people of my generation who were in their ‘20s, that moment, which should have been the kind of, you know, ecstatic highlight of our political engagement and definitely the kind of end of the beginning, let's say, it was actually the opposite. Most of us left politics incredibly, incredibly disillusioned with the realities of what it means to try and build a democracy.
And in 2013, I was in Egypt, in Cairo, to present one of my films and I ended up going to Tahrir Square on the weekend of their first presidential election after the revolution, and I found myself standing there surrounded by all of these young Egyptians who were absolutely euphoric in this kind of taste of freedom and their country was about to transform, and I found myself looking at them as if I was 50 years older than them. I was looking at them thinking, you guys have absolutely no idea that this is the high point of your life and that everything from here is just going to be one giant, giant downward slide of disappointment and disillusionment. And, and that’s kind of the ultimate tragedy because my generation isn't actually willing to take on the responsibilities of building Serbia because we've been so disillusioned by what democracy has brought.
BOB GARFIELD: Most of the movie is conversations between you and your mom. We don’t see you but we do see her. And throughout these interviews, Srbijanka is smoking like a chimney for 90 minutes and, apparently, for a whole lifetime, and, you know, I’m sitting there in the audience wondering, how is this woman even alive? [LAUGHS] But, but that question applies equally to the politics of it. I mean, Tito jailed and killed people. Milošević is presumed to have killed several opposition voices. How, through all that took place in that society, has Srbijanka survived?
MILA TURAJLIĆ: You know, I never felt that the danger was so immediate. It was just this feeling of do you stay in your home country and try and fight for a better society or do you run away and escape? She always said to us, you know, if we leave we’ve left our country to them, and so, that was not an option. And what makes this, the heart of this film are these conversations, as you described them, is that I'm essentially trying to get to the bottom of that choice, of trying to understand does she today regret that choice? Does she feel that all of this activism and engagement and speeches were worthwhile, that they actually made a difference because, from my perspective, as you said, we've all failed, they've all failed?
And the conversation actually ends up taking us to a very, very intimate place, you know? And she turns the tables on me because towards the end of the film she looks at me and she says, okay, now I’m too old and someone from your generation is going to have to speak up. And there’s this real moment where she kind of stares us down, saying, and who's going to, who's gonna speak up now?
BOB GARFIELD: And you got the hell out of there at the first opportunity. Was it difficult to confront that question?
MILA TURAJLIĆ: Very, and it’s still -- I mean, I am kind of still with one foot in Serbia and one foot outside, and it’s a question I still haven’t really been able to answer.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, back to that door, that magical metaphor, that portal to the story of your family and of Yugoslavia itself, at the end of the movie that door is finally opened. What were the circumstances and what was revealed?
MILA TURAJLIĆ: When I started making the film, I, I never dreamed that that could happen because it wasn't possible at the time. What happened in the meantime is in the five years that it took me to make the film I became friendly, let's say, with the last remaining person who was living on the other side. And what happens, to try and not give away too much, is the -- our invisible neighbor dies during the film and, and at the same time a process of restitution of property begins in Serbia, kind of in some strange, [SIGHS] I think, unsatisfactory way, trying to right the wrongs of the past via passing of laws, you know, as if history could be righted by now introducing new laws. And my mother and I have a very complex discussion about that in the film but in the end ultimately with very divided feelings there is a moment in which we open the door. And I think if anything does happen with that moment is that you begin to feel that a common ground is possible. At least that’s what I was trying to do in this film.
You know, I grew up in a country that was so deeply divided and remains to this day so deeply divided, and I kind of feel that as a filmmaker if there is something that could define as my responsibility, it is trying to find a space in which we can communicate.
BOB GARFIELD: One more thing, Mila. There is another scene in your film where Srbijanka describes bristling at having to fill out the official census.
[SRBIJANKA SPEAKING WITH CENSUS AGENT]
The census agent asks her what her nationality is and Srbijanka replies, I elect not to declare it. That's your right, he says. Neither in her apartment nor in her demographics, she does not want to be subdivided.
MILA TURAJLIĆ: I knew the census would happen during the time of the shooting because, like here in the US, it happens every 10 years, in Serbia. And I knew I wanted to film it because it comes with these politically-charged questions which are, you know, what is your ethnicity, what is your religion? And what I thought was so important is that you see how necessary it is for all of us to reject being easily labeled and categorized politically, to, to indicate with this film that all of our identities are much more rich and much more complex than, you know, this idea that we can be grouped and labeled and neatly filed under categories that can then really easily be manipulated in the media.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, just as you alluded to earlier, that idea inevitably reminds me of the identity politics of 2018 America and, as you mentioned, most of Europe, of us against them, of grievance politics. In Yugoslavia, this led to civil war. If you were to channel your mother now and sound a warning, at the risk of belaboring the obvious, what would that be?
MILA TURAJLIĆ: When we did this tour in the US a few months back, I, I begin to realize that in the way that I tried to tell the story of Yugoslavia, that people see it as a warning story, this is what happens if you don't pay attention, this is what happens if you think what's going on politically doesn't concern you. This is what happens if you think, well, it could never happen in my country. We’re far too civilized. You know, it happens in some faraway places but it doesn't happen here. Civil war couldn't happen here. And what I was trying to show in this film was that there was always a voice of reason but then most times it went unheard. And if I was trying to do anything with the film or some kind of warning was to say, you know, pay attention, listen and, most importantly, I think, really, really try to open a space for a conversation.
BOB GARFIELD: Mila, thank you so much.
MILA TURAJLIĆ: Thank you. [LAUGHS]
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Documentarian Mila Turajlić is the author of The Other Side of Everything, a documentary about her mother Srbijanka that will open in New York this July.
That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder and Jon Hanrahan. We had more help from Kate Brown, Yasmeen Khan and Meg Harney. And our show was edited, this week, by our executive producer, Katya Rogers. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Merritt Jacob. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s vice-president for news. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. Brooke Gladstone will be back next week. I’m Bob Garfield.
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