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Preference for censorship

Yugoslav film and changes of the regime of visibility after the Cold War [bonus en ligne - article]
Čarna Brković


Les artistes de l’ex-Yougoslavie affirment souvent que les grands succès internationaux du cinéma yougoslave sont nés d’innovations artistiques pensées pour contourner la censure d’État. Certains réalisateurs disent ainsi qu’il valait mieux être censuré, qu’ignoré comme c’est le cas aujourd’hui. Cet article considère cette préférence pour la censure socialiste, en l’inscrivant dans la transformation du « régime de visibilité » intervenu après la guerre froide. Cette notion renvoie conventionnellement aux conditions de visibilité dans un contexte social particulier, comme un pays par exemple. Mais il est aussi des régimes de visibilité transnationaux, qui déterminent ce qui peut être vu et su par-delà les frontières. Le modèle yougoslave de la « censure sans censure », dans le régime de visibilité de la guerre froide, a contribué à donner une nouvelle visibilité aux films yougoslaves en Occident. Les bouleversements engendrés par la fin de la guerre froide ont rendu à aux yeux des cinéastes la censure préférable à l’invisibilité qu’ils ressentent aujourd’hui.

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Why are there no good films from Eastern Europe anymore?

Why are there no good films from the countries of the former Eastern bloc anymore? For two reasons. First, censorship produces incredibly large amounts of creativity. When something is forbidden, a person needs to work around it and to fantasize and invent how to say something, without saying it directly. … Prohibitions inspire people, they give a person strength, inspiration, they help them to become organized.

1Serbian playwright Dušan Kovačević uttered these words in a newspaper interview, expressing a common ex-Yugoslav idea (Kovačević et al. 2006: 48). For Kovačević, as for many other artists from the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), creativity emerges under the tight grip of censorship because people have to figure out how to escape it, loosen it, or work around it. Whereas the detachment of freedom leaves artists high and dry, the coerciveness of censorship pushes them to discover new ways of expression. When many things are forbidden, one must invest effort to say them in a roundabout way so as to escape the attention of the censors.

2I noticed this idea for the first time in 2013 when an art historian friend of mine declared to me that there had been no original East European art since the fall of state socialism. Later on, I came across iterations of the same trope in memoirs on Montenegrin literature, newspaper reports on Yugoslav cinema, and so on. This recurring motif can be found also in a 2011 newspaper interview with Filip David, a writer from Serbia, in which he explains his views of SFRY censorship:

This sort of censorship, imposed by the political regime, simultaneously created the need to be overcome in an artistic manner, by using new content and new writing and directing approaches. In other words, the existing limitations were transformed into a new sort of a challenge, into a gradual winning of freedom, outsmarting various forms of censorship, from internal to external ones.1

3Initially, this post-Yugoslav view of censorship as productive of artistic creativity seems to be very different from the conventional Western liberal reading of censorship as oppressive. How can we understand it? Does it stem from a pathological desire to go back to an authoritarian system? Is there something so skewed about Eastern Europe that it needs to be ruled with an iron fist in order to be able to generate meaning through art? Or does this emic view illuminate that artists during Yugoslavia developed secret codes to avoid censorship and thus really were pushed to be more creative than they are today? I will argue that neither is true. The first interpretation would pathologize former Yugoslavs as somehow still trapped within the confines of their socialist past. The second one would impute a systematic order to the Yugoslav form of censorship which, historians suggest, never existed. The concept of Yugoslav censorship as productive of artistic creativity may decidedly belong to the postsocialist era. I could not find any historical evidence that people understood censorship in this way during the SFRY. It partly overlaps with, and partly departs from, the conventional Western liberal view of censorship.

4The Western liberal view of censorship as a mind-numbing activity is the result of a process of Othering, argues Boyer. In his view, we should see the censor not as anti-intellectual, but as

a trope of intellectual alienation, a symbolic condensation of the anxiety created by the phenomenological awareness of the individual intellectual’s fragile position in an enormously complex economy of epistemic activity. … Through the invocation of an indexical other such as “the censor”, a figure whose ideational crudity and penury reciprocally defines the identity of productive, creative “intellectuals”, one is able to situationally, however fleetingly, locate and distance oneself from the social, institutional, and professional contexts of intellectual practice that mediate one’s own epistemic labors. One is thus able to indexically stabilize oneself as an independent, free-thinking knowledge-maker relatively autonomous of contextual inhibition or influence. (Boyer 2003: 539)

5The post-Yugoslav preference for censorship simplifies the role of the censor similarly to the Western liberal perspective. It is predicated upon an assumption that artists in socialist Yugoslavia lived simpler lives: creating a challenging piece of art was enough to become recognized, both within the country (by being officially censored) and abroad (by winning an international award). Historical sources indicate that this was not quite the case. Artists usually had to navigate a complex terrain of unpredictable, personalized, and unofficial censorship. Extremely rarely would there be an official, straightforward ban or a criminal proceeding against a film or its author. These everyday complexities of censorship are lost in the post-Yugoslav perspective, which sees the role of the censor as thoroughly simplified. The simplification expresses anxieties over awareness that there is an “infinite field of possible knowledges” and that intellectual work is “inevitably partial, fragmentary, or of uncertain social value” (Boyer 2003: 539).

6However, there is an important difference to the Western liberal perspective: post-Yugoslav filmmakers do not project these anxieties onto the socialist Other to position themselves as independent knowledge-makers or meaning-makers. Socialist Yugoslavia seems to be sufficiently distant from their contemporary everyday experiences that its forms of recognition of artistic and political meaning (such as official ideological censorship) can be desired. As we will see in the next section, it was socialist Yugoslav filmmakers who engaged in the process of Othering censorship, by publicly describing censors as people who wanted to preserve the “existing order of things”, thus obstructing anything new from being created. These same socialist Yugoslav filmmakers referred to themselves in the public media as people who pushed the boundaries of freedom. Such complexities of socialist censorship and its perception are largely invisible today both from a postsocialist and from a Western liberal perspective. However, the effect of this simplification is different: instead of despising censorship, post-Yugoslav filmmakers from Serbia seem to desire (at least some aspects of) it. The socialist era does not seem to be a constitutive Other for post-Yugoslav filmmakers, so there is no attempt to position themselves as free-thinking knowledge-makers in relationship to it.

7One reason for this, in my view, lies in the change of mechanisms of recognition brought about by the disappearance of two regimes of visibility: the internal Yugoslav regime of visibility; and the Cold War regime of visibility which regulated what could be seen transnationally, across the East/West divide, and in what way. My argument is that the contemporary preference for socialist censorship articulated by filmmakers from Serbia reflects a desire to be seen—by the state, as well as by the West. First, censorship indicates a particular kind of visibility within the country: someone needs to take a close look at a piece of art before deciding whether to prohibit its public distribution. The censor’s gaze in Yugoslav socialism was limiting, but today it seems better than not being seen at all—which is how many artists describe their situation in postsocialist Serbia. Second, under the Cold War regime of visibility, Yugoslav censorship did not just hide films from the public’s view. Censored Yugoslav films were also illuminated in a way that made them more visible in the West. This sort of visibility disappeared under postsocialist conditions. In order to understand the seemingly paradoxical preference for censorship, we need to reverse the question posed above by Dušan Kovačević (“Why are there no good films from the countries of the former Eastern bloc anymore?”) and ask: “Why are there no mechanisms of recognition of good films from the countries of the former Eastern bloc anymore?”

8In order to make this argument, I will first discuss the Yugoslav model of “self-managed” censorship. I will focus on how filmmakers talked about censorship in the newspapers and I will draw from historical analyses of Yugoslav censorship to situate this. I will then present how, under the Cold War regime of visibility, censorship of Yugoslav films at home increased their recognition abroad. I will end by exploring how the post-Yugoslav preference for censorship condenses the contemporary desire of filmmakers to have their works be seen. This article is based on media interviews with Serbian filmmakers, although I would argue that the same ideas and the same preference for censorship circulate throughout former Yugoslav public spaces.

Censors preserve the existing order of things: how filmmakers talked about censorship during socialist Yugoslavia

  • 2 For more details about Yugoslav self-management, see Jakopovich (2010).

9The Yugoslav model of censorship was rather specific. Yugoslav philosopher and anthropologist Zagorka Golubović suggested that: “Yugoslavia gave an original contribution to the global socialist experiences by inventing self-managed censorship and by placing on the soul of the editor that which is usually done by an authoritarian state” (1990: 24). With these words, Golubović linked censorship with self-management, the key organizational principle of Yugoslav society from the 1950s onwards. Once it broke with the Soviet Union and its centralized, state-planned type of economy, the SFRY developed unique political, administrative, and economic frameworks. Instead of the Soviet-style state-planned economy, the SFRY developed a decentralized system grounded in the ideology of workers’ self-management (radničko samoupravljanje).2 Yugoslavia’s attempts to invent a “third way” during the Cold War bloc division were reflected in its geopolitical position of a mostly visa-free country whose citizens could easily travel to both Eastern and Western European countries, as well as in its involvement in founding the Non-Aligned Movement (Mišković et al. 2014).

10Yugoslavia’s decentralization of political and economic power was likely reflected in its model of censorship (Bing et al. 2018). In socialist Yugoslavia, what Boyer calls “hermeneutic power” was not necessarily in the hands of the state and its centralized institutions. That is, “the power to cultivate order in epistemic processes, to rationalize interpretive and representational practices (in this case) to a political ideology, and, subsequently, to define, institutionalize, and reproduce the parameters of legitimate and illegitimate knowledge” (Boyer 2003: 522) in Yugoslavia was decentralized and often practiced outside of institutions.

11Film was the only art supervised by an official state body: the Censorship Committee. There were no similar committees overseeing literature, theatre, music, or fine arts. This does not mean that there was no censorship. Instead, it means that the Yugoslav system of censorship was much less systematic, consistent, or predictable than in most other socialist Eastern European countries. Censorship in Yugoslavia operated less through centralized censorship bodies and more by orchestrating a “general atmosphere” against a certain artistic work (Hofman 2017; see also Lauk et al. 2018). As Hofman (2013: 284) writes, “[C]ensorship operated in the middle-space between official negation and factual practising; since it was more practised by individuals, then by institutions, censorship included fluid affective mechanisms, rather than strict strategies.” In the absence of official state censorship committees, censorship worked mostly through affective mechanisms, that is, through rumour, gossip, and unofficial phone calls which would orchestrate a “general atmosphere” against a certain artwork. This general atmosphere against a piece of art pushed editors, directors, and other cultural decision-makers to ignore it. In doing so, they exercised censorship without official instruction from a state body. Evoking how Danilo Kiš, a famous Yugoslav writer, described his experiences with censorship, Darnton (2014) emphasizes that it worked through “the informal pressures exerted by publishers and editors, who acted as censors while exercising their professional functions, and, above all, the pervasive power of self-censorship”.

12At an international conference in 1985, Kiš himself described three modes of censorship in Yugoslavia: official censorship, self-censorship, and “friendly censorship”. In his speech (which was published ten years later), Kiš described this “friendly censorship” in the following manner:

[T]he editor, himself a writer, advises you to delete certain paragraphs or verses from your book for your own sake. If he thus did not manage to convince you in the benevolence of his request, he will resort to moral blackmail and he will push his own fears into your consciousness: your actions—whether you take upon yourself the prerogative of censorship and so hide it from the public view—will determine his destiny. Therefore, you will either become your own censor, or you will destroy his career and his life. (Kiš 1995: 99)

13Živojin Pavlović, one of the most prominent Yugoslav film directors, described his experiences with socialist censorship in a very similar way. Pavlović made a distinction between official and unofficial censors:

I am not talking about an official censor. An official censor takes care of the texts so as to protect state interests, public morale, and civil peace. However, there is also an unofficial censor, embedded within a network of social relations. He is a ganglion in the coordinate network of the intellectually permissible, a spontaneous controller of the perimeter of mental capacities, a switchman operating railroads of that which can be uttered as truthful.

Censor, promoter of the already-acknowledged interpersonal relations, approaches these relations as perfection. Anything that directly or indirectly challenges the structure of those relations … the censor understands as an attack on the existing order of things whose child he is.

[His] fear has an unusual character: it is the fear of the unknown, the unverified, and the unrecognized. (Pavlović 1972: 152)

14Pavlović was not very interested in official censorship because its patriotic goals made sense to him: official censorship aimed to protect peace, the state, and the wellbeing of its people. It was the unofficial censor who really obstructed artistic freedom of expression, owing to his fear of novelty. Pavlović foregrounds the unofficial censor as a figure who exercises hermeneutical power. Following him, we could say that the key struggle over hermeneutical power for filmmakers in Yugoslavia was not between the state imposing socialist ideology and artists pursuing their intimate desire for freedom. Filmmakers claimed that their key struggle was between their urge to challenge the “existing order of things” (postojeće stanje stvari) and censors who presumably wanted to preserve it. The central state bodies were often only tangentially related to this struggle. Yugoslav filmmakers most often presented themselves as struggling not against socialism or the state. This was sometimes, but not always, a matter of pragmatism: various filmmakers claim they believe in socialist ideals to this day. Instead, filmmakers in ex-Yugoslavia frequently referred to themselves as struggling against people who opposed social change because of how well they positioned themselves in the “existing order of things”. The phrase “existing order of things” was sufficiently vague that a person could assign various meanings to it. Filmmakers who challenged the “existing order of things” could have been talking about dominant gender relations, sexual morality, the bureaucratization of everyday life, or the economic and political organization of the country. Yugoslav filmmakers often described censors as people who performed intellectual work with the aim to prevent anything new and different from being created. A widely shared view was that artists question and challenge the existing order of things, while censors do what they can to obstruct this, out of fear and jealousy.

15We can find another repetition of the same idea in a 1982 newspaper interview titled “Censorship ground its teeth”, in which film director Žika Mitrović boasts that one of his early films

  • 3 Olga Kurjak Pavićević, “Cenzura je škripala zubima” (“Censorship ground its teeth”), Intervju maga (...)

represented progress towards freedoms we can enjoy today. Captain Lesi expanded back then some boundaries around the basis from which our relationship towards the real world was formed. This is why it was even banned by our censorship. I just can’t remember if it was banned from being screened within the country, or just from being screened abroad. … Of course, I had to cut some scenes. Censorship allowed screening only after that. Subsequently the film achieved great success … we must not forget that this “comic” genre paved a way, in some sense, from necessity to freedom.3

16That Yugoslav film directors, actresses, and actors discussed in newspapers their experiences of censorship with some degree of openness points to the gaps in the state control of the public space, at least in the later years of socialist Yugoslavia. Mitrović reiterates the same view of censorship as that which tries to tame and punish him for challenging the existing order of things—in his view, the film Captain Lesi was censored because it expanded some important boundaries in understanding the world. Yet censorship could not fully kill off everything new in this film: its comic-strip-like qualities represented progress “from necessity to freedom”. Mitrović’s interview illustrates that, from the perspective of Yugoslav filmmakers, creativity and originality of their films were not the result of censorship. Quite the contrary: censorship “ground its teeth” because it could not fully prevent films from paving their way towards progress and freedom.

17This discursive framing of censorship allowed Yugoslav filmmakers to simultaneously criticize the social system they lived in and to continue presenting themselves as loyal socialist citizens. As Jagoda Kaloper, an actress in what would become one of the most famous censored films from former Yugoslavia, WR: Mysteries of the Organism (WR: Misterije organizma), stated in a newspaper interview in 1971: “Censorship bothers me primarily as a citizen of this country. It says … that those who jump out of the system need to be hit in the head.”4 With these words, Kaloper simultaneously managed to position herself as a devoted citizen and to criticize the system for punishing artists. By the “system”, she did not necessarily refer to the socialist state, but rather to the “existing order of things” in which novelty and creativity had to be “hit in the head”.

How did “censorship without censorship” work?

18Historical accounts argue that Yugoslav censorship worked in a very decentralized manner. Instead of a hard-core, totalitarian, state-imposed ban on a specific set of topics, motives, and artistic devices, there was an incoherent model of “censorship without censorship”, writes Radina Vučetić (2016), one of the key historians of Yugoslav censorship. It is unlikely that new artistic approaches emerged in order to escape censorship—because there was no clear system of censorship in the SFRY. Owing to the remarkable elasticity and inconsistency of the censorship system, artists could not know what might be censored, at what point, or for what reason. Without a clear set of prohibitions, filmmakers could not possibly have come up with alternative film languages to circumvent censorship. Instead, they had to navigate the moods and wills of various censors in various parts of the country.

  • 5 The SFRY consisted of six federal republics, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegr (...)
  • 6 Aside from the centralized Federal Committee for Film Review, there were film councils in organiza (...)

19The Censorship Commission within the Film Company of the Democratic Federative Yugoslavia was founded in 1946. Three years later, in 1949, the name was changed to the Commission for Film Review within the Committee for Cinematography of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia, signifying a certain loosening of state control over film production (Vučetić 2016: 54). The official centralized censorship body was renamed again in 1953 to the Federal Committee for Film Review. These name changes were followed by a diversification and multiplication of censorship mechanisms. First, from the 1950s, films that were censored in one of the six federal republics were often screened in other republics without problems.5 The censorship system was very fragmented and there was rarely a total ban on all film screenings throughout the whole country. Serbian film director Želimir Žilnik describes this as “regional-socialism … [meaning that] in some environments the same person would be censored, and in others allowed to work” (Centar 2006: 25). There were multiple bodies for the control of films, which operated on different levels of government and whose decisions and opinions did not always match.6 Any of these bodies could have decided to exert some degree of censorship over a film.

20Second, film censors were often well-known artists and filmmakers who rarely fully banned films. Instead, they usually asked film directors to make “interventions on the material” (intervencije na materijalu), that is, to cut, re-edit, and/or blacken film elements they considered to be problematic. For instance, Žilnik remembers how in 1967 Antonije Isaković, writer, party functionary, and member of the Censorship Committee, asked him to cut his film Unemployed Men (Nezaposleni ljudi) in half. The original movie followed men and women who lost their jobs owing to the introduction of market reforms in the SFRY in the 1960s. Men in the film stayed unemployed, women became sex workers. Žilnik recounts:

When comrade Lule [Antonije Isaković] saw the film, he reacted: “Žilnik, those workers are unemployed now, but they are going to Germany. That country is under social-democratic rule, they will become class conscious again there. They will maybe enter the Party there, so the depression they are suffering from now will disappear. But those women, they went into prostitution, they went deeply into sin, and I am afraid they will not be able to come out of it. They are no longer of use in the class struggle. So, cut the women.” I was upset: “Comrade Lule, but how [can I do that?]” Other members of the Commission supported the President. They started arguing how the two parts of the film do not follow the same style. And that I insult women. Lule concluded: “I’m not going to sign the paper if you leave the part with the women.” I just went into the projection room and cut out the poor women. So, this famous film, which even got the Grand Prix in Oberhausen and the Silver Medal in Belgrade, is actually one half of the original version. (Buden et al. 2013: 75)

21Žilnik’s story illustrates well that there was no way to predict what any particular censor would find problematic. Filmmakers could not know which of the people who had some degree of control over the film screenings would decide to exercise it, or for what reason. Censorship in Yugoslav socialism was characterized by these kinds of ambivalent, nuanced, and complex relations, which led art historian Branislav Dimitrijević to suggest that “what we call ‘dissident culture’ was actually an official [Yugoslav] culture”.7

22Evoking Boyer’s argument that censorship is a productive intellectual practice and, under certain conditions, even an intellectual vocation, Radina Vučetić (2016: 56) suggests that Yugoslav censors were often members of the cultural elite:

There is no doubt that the State and the Party made sure that people who conducted complex and delicate works in their name were better qualified, educated and had more professional knowledge than the classical politicians and bureaucrats. A censor who knows well what expressionism is, who knows well the biography of Marinetti, and who can use that knowledge, presents an interlocutor worthy of respect in any case.

23To illustrate this claim, Vučetić mentions a range of well-known Yugoslav artists and intellectuals who served as censors, including Ivo Andrić, the only Yugoslav Nobel Prize winner for literature, and Dušan Makavejev, a film director whose films were banned and who later left the country owing to clashes with the Communist Party.

The Cold War regime of visibility: bans, prizes, and the Black Wave

24With no in-depth knowledge on how censorship worked in socialist Yugoslavia, the conventional Western liberal imagination of dissidents, the communist state, and censorship committees likely influenced a heightened interest among Western audiences in Yugoslav film production. The heightened interest was an expression of the Cold War regime of visibility.

25By a “regime of visibility”, I refer to historically specific “social and technological arrangements that establish particular orders and modes of seeing and being seen, of exposure and concealment or invisibility” (Krasmann 2017: 11; see also Hempel et al. 2011). Analysing the shifts in the organization of power and visibility in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France, Foucault distinguishes the regime of spectacle from the regime of surveillance: pre-modern European societies were the societies of spectacle, or the public demonstration of the power of the sovereign; modern European societies emerge with the rise of disciplinary forms of surveillance which make everyday life of the population thoroughly visible and knowable and thus amenable to various projects of (self-)improvement. Various authors rely on Foucault’s framework to argue that modern societies combine spectacle with surveillance (Lalvani 1995), or to analyse political effects of socio-historically specific practices of (in)visibility, such as mediatized publics, state security archives, security cameras, and so forth (Mateus 2014).

26In most cases, the “regime of visibility” as an analytical term describes conditions of visibility within one particular social context: that is, within the borders of a particular country. The case in point is Macrea-Toma’s (2017) analysis of epistemic limits and regimes of visibility in the Cold War archives pertaining to communist Romania. The contemporary preference for censorship in former Yugoslav countries indicates that there are also regimes of visibility that operate regionally or transnationally, regulating what can be seen and known across particular societies and their borders. One such regime of visibility was in full swing during the Cold War. By this, I do not refer to the practices of regulating visibility within singular socialist or capitalist societies, but to the practices of “peeking across the fence”—and filling in the gaps in knowledge by making assumptions about the Cold War Other. Literature, films, and international art festivals presented particularly productive channels of (in)visibility across Cold War divisions. As Niesser et al. (2018: 553) suggest, the 1960s was a decade when “a non-conformist ‘Republic of Letters’ crossing geopolitical divides began to emerge” owing to several factors. First, this was “a period of growing interest in the West in social and cultural life in Eastern Europe and, second, a decade when non-conformist arts challenged the status quo in the West too, and Western radical artists saw in East European dissidents a source of inspiration and similarly minded figures” (Niesser et al. 2018: 553; see also Burgoyne et al. 2018). With the destruction of the “fence”, the Cold War regime of visibility also collapsed.

  • 8 Emir Kusturica won two Palmes d’Or in Cannes (first representing the SFRY in 1985 and then the Fed (...)

27Although the SFRY was never behind the Iron Curtain, the group of films critically representing Yugoslav socialist society became highly prominent in the West under the Cold War regime of visibility. The number of awards that were given to the so-called Black Wave (crni talas) films of the late 1960s and early 1970s, especially those that were banned at home, was unprecedented in Yugoslav cinematography. Yugoslav films won about the same amount of major international awards during the Black Wave decade as in the fifty years after the Black Wave breakthrough. Only four filmmakers from socialist Yugoslavia and all of its successor states won major international film awards after the Black Wave: Emir Kusturica, Milčo Mančevski, Denis Tanović, and Jasmila Žbanić.8 The same dynamic can be traced in the number of prizes given at the Berlinale film festival to short films from Yugoslavia. The first one was in 1957. Ten years later, Yugoslav short films started winning awards almost every two years: in 1968, 1969, 1972, two films in 1973, 1975, and 1977. Afterwards, short films from Yugoslavia and all former Yugoslav republics won awards at the Berlinale approximately every ten years.

28The Black Wave was a film movement known for its dark humour and critical representations of Yugoslav society. It took place practically simultaneously with some of the liveliest activity of film censorship—and with the winning of many awards in the major European film festivals. Black Wave films critically engaged with a wide set of topics, including a sense of alienation brought about by socialist modernization and urbanization of the country; sexual revolution and gender equality; socially and ethnically marginalized groups (sex workers, drug users, the unemployed, the Roma); and so forth. Their critical portrayal of Yugoslavia was often inspired by beliefs in a fairer socialist society, rather than by a claim to alternative, capitalist or nationalist frameworks. Let us take a brief look at some of the key films and bans from this period.

29Dušan Makavejev’s Innocence Unprotected (Nevinost bez zaštite) is a collage film based on a 1941 film of the same name that was never publicly released owing to Nazi censorship. The original Innocence Unprotected was meant to be the first sound feature film made in Serbia. Makavejev found the original film and re-edited it, adding newsreel footage of Nazi propaganda and the German occupation, and interviews with the original cast members. This film won the Silver Bear Extraordinary Prize of the Jury in Berlin in 1968.

30Makavejev made his most famous film, WR: Mysteries of the Organism, in 1971. The film explores the relationship between communism, capitalism, and sexuality, celebrating the Yugoslav type of socialism and critically representing the Soviet regime. It initially passed the usual censorship mechanisms, including the Republic Committee for Film Review (as mentioned earlier, Makavejev was a member of this Committee). However, the film was banned shortly after its release. It remained banned for the next sixteen years owing to so-called “public pressure” (Vučetić 2016: 293). Makavejev left the SFRY and continued his career in Western Europe and the US. WR: Mysteries of the Organism became one of the best-known banned films and Makavejev became one of the most prominent directors from the former Yugoslavia.

31Živojin Pavlović is another major figure of the Black Wave. He co-directed the only film to ever be officially prohibited in the history of the SFRY: a 1963 black-and-white omnibus called The City (Grad). According to the court ban, the film, which depicts the melancholy, alienation, and hopelessness of Yugoslav urban youth, was forbidden because “it contradicts our social reality and because it was obviously made with an intention to portray in a negative light the social development of socialist Yugoslavia” (quoted in Vučetić 2016: 268). Four years later, in 1967, Pavlović won a Silver Bear for Best Director in Berlin for his The Rats Woke Up (Buđenje pacova). Pavlović’s films provide a good illustration of the ambiguities and inconsistencies of Yugoslav film censorship mechanisms: despite the court ban on The City and the unofficial ban on the screenings of his 1966 film The Return (Povratak), Pavlović won five Golden Arenas, the Yugoslav’s most prestigious film awards given at the Pula Film Festival.

Fig. 3. Screenshot from “Early Works”

Fig. 3. Screenshot from “Early Works”


32Želimir Žilnik is one of the leading figures of the Yugoslav Black Wave. His 1969 film Early Works (Rani Radovi) was the subject of a court trial after passing the usual censorship mechanisms and being screened in cinemas throughout the country for a few weeks. Belgrade public prosecutor Spasoje Milošev signed a temporary ban on the film screening, owing to a brief but powerful campaign against it, “because [the film] severely injures social and political morals” (quoted in Vučetić 2016: 278). The three-day court process ended well for Žilnik and his film: the court refused the public prosecutor’s request to stop the film screenings. The same year, 1969, the same film won the Golden Bear in Berlin.

33The link between bans and prizes is not straightforward in the case of Aleksandar Saša Petrović. His films were not banned but, like many others, they were censored. In 1965, in the Yugoslav press, Petrović expressed a hope that censorship panels “would soon disappear” (Sudar 2013: 220). Petrović won many nominations and two major international film awards: his 1967 I Even Met Happy Gypsies (Skupljači perja) won the Grand Prize Jury and the FIPRESCI Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Featuring a cast of Romani actors speaking the Romani language, the film critically represents the position of the Roma in Yugoslav society and speaks about conditions under which a person can pursue personal freedom in the midst of a traditional environment. Petrović’s films also won four Palme d’Or nominations, two Oscar nominations, and one Golden Globe nomination. In 1972, the Communist Party of Yugoslavia attacked Petrović over Plastic Jesus (Plastični Isus), a graduation film made by his student Lazar Stojanović. He lost his job in early 1973 and left the country.

34Lazar Stojanović was the only Yugoslav filmmaker who ended up in prison because of his art. The civil court sentenced him to one and a half years of prison, claiming his film “represented the socio-political situation in the country maliciously and falsely”.9 Stojanović spent three years in prison, because in addition to the civil court sentence, he was charged with “hostile propaganda” in a military trial during his compulsory military service in 1972. Plastic Jesus was banned before any public screening and the ban lasted until 1990. In 1991, the film won the FIPRESCI Prize at the Montreal Film Festival. In 2016 it was shown in the New York MoMA.

35The imprisonment of Stojanović marked the end of the Black Wave movement as well as of the age of international awards for Yugoslav cinematography. Many of the leading Black Wave figures left the country afterwards, some temporarily, others permanently. The Yugoslav authorities likely resorted to imprisoning Stojanović in order to halt the Black Wave movement.

36This brief overview of some of the key figures of the Black Wave movement illustrates that there was a relationship between “having a film banned” and “winning a major international prize”, but this was not straightforward. Black Wave films were highly artistically acclaimed and the prizes they won reflected their internal artistic qualities. Yet the social and technological arrangements that established particular orders and modes of seeing and being seen during the Cold War made it easier for Western audiences to grasp the artistic qualities of this particular group of films in comparison to films from the postsocialist period.

What is worse, to be censored or to be ignored? Censorship as a mechanism of recognition

If you must choose, then it is probably better for you to be censored. A fuss is made in that case, something happens around you. When you are ignored—there is nothing! You are dead! Despite everything, I must say that in that country [the SFRY], you were able to work, to shoot films, to make theatre plays, to write, to publish better and with more quality than in any of the countries that emerged after its dissolution (Velimir Bata Živojinović).

37For many filmmakers from Serbia, ignorance equals death. Censorship is better than ignorance because it brings attention to your work—“a fuss is made in that case, something happens around you”, as Velimir Bata Živojinović says. In the 1990s, this actor, sometimes called the “Serbian Marlon Brando”, was an active member of the Socialist Party of Serbia, the ultra-nationalist political party run by Slobodan Milošević, one of the key actors responsible for the Yugoslav wars and atrocities committed during them. Despite his political engagement in ultra-nationalist politics, Živojinović reiterates nostalgia for the Yugoslav era, in which it was presumably easier to make art—and of a better quality.

38The post-Yugoslav preference for censorship suggests that it brings a specific kind of visibility with it. This is not an ideal kind of visibility—the words “if you must choose” in Živojinović’s statement indicate that neither censorship nor ignorance is good. Yet, if you must choose, censorship clearly trumpets ignorance. Censorship demonstrates that art during Yugoslavia was politically relevant and that the socialist state took it seriously enough to make an effort to ban it. For Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav filmmakers, censorship is not just an obstruction of artistic freedom. It is also a mechanism of recognition of the quality of artistic work: as Mitrović suggested, censorship “ground its teeth” when it recognized his film as a provocative and challenging piece of art.

  • 10 Documentary Censorship Then and Now. Forever, made by Milutin Petrović and produced by Al Jazeera (...)

39This is quite different from the contemporary sense of filmmakers from Serbia that they are invisible and ignored by their state and by the West. Preference for socialist censorship emerged as a response to the loss of visibility and a loss of the sense that artistic and cultural work can be politically important. As Serbian historian Predrag Marković suggests: “In the 1950s and 1960s, they really respected artists … authorities back then really respected intellectuals—unlike today’s authorities.”10

40In order to understand why filmmakers from Serbia feel largely invisible, we need to consider how mechanisms of recognition have changed with the fall of socialism. During socialist Yugoslavia, two main mechanisms of recognition through which an artist could ascertain social and political relevance of their work were film censorship and international and national film competitions. Both were financially supported and organized by various state actors.

41These two mechanisms of recognition were transformed with the fall of socialism. First, censorship survived, but there is not even a theoretical possibility of officially censoring a work because of its ideological background. It is the model of “censorship without censorship” that still exists in former Yugoslav countries: the unofficial, hidden orchestration of the very possibility of creating or showing an artistic work. Various artists and journalists in a 2016 documentary Censorship Then and Now. Forever (Cenzura nekad i sad. Zauvek) suggest that to this day ex-Yugoslav governments continue to censor those who do not belong to the ruling political party (see also Pisac & Arsenijević 2009). The unofficial censorship mechanisms in use today are difficult to detect and even harder to document. The straightforwardness of official socialist censorship seems attractive in comparison.

42Second, impoverishment and redrawing of the state borders that followed the post-war reconstruction and the postsocialist transformation created changes in both the scope and the mode of the internal regime of visibility. With the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the public space and the potential audience have been reduced from over twenty million people to seven post-Yugoslav country-based public arenas. This fragmentation made it very difficult for artists to become known across the borders of their country. There are no major regional film competitions; there is the large Sarajevo Film Festival, but owing to its international character, relatively few films from the ex-Yugoslav region have won its awards. This fragmentation of the internal regime of visibility was well described by Sale Veruda, the founder of a famous Yugoslav punk band, KUD Idijoti:

Back then [during socialist Yugoslavia], two television channels had national frequency and the market consisted of twenty million people. If you were broadcast on the second channel, a huge number of people could have seen you. Today this is different. Today the media space is fragmented, so you need to appear maybe a hundred times in different media to be seen by the same number of people as before.11

“Catching up” with the West

43The Western recognition of the Black Wave shaped the narrative about it being the most original and productive period in (post-)Yugoslav art. As Želimir Žilnik stated in 2005:

When we look at the artistic practice from the 1960s, the most interesting and relevant things in art of the peoples who lived in Yugoslavia took place in this decade and a half. That which has been achieved in literature, essay-writing, theatre, and film from the beginning of the 1960s to the beginning of the 1970s is unprecedented. (Quoted in Vučetić 2016: 19)

44Whether or not art from this decade is unprecedented is a matter for discussion. Films made by Žilnik himself after 1990 directly contradict this idea. However, with the change of transnational mechanisms of visibility, post-Yugoslav films attracted less international attention than the films made during the socialist period.

45A simplifying image of socialist censorship as a clear-cut oppression of brave dissidents who fought the totalitarian communist state persists today in both Western liberal and post-Yugoslav imaginations. Croatian writer and anthropologist Andrea Pisac demonstrates that an iteration of this imaginary is also evident in the contemporary publishing world. She describes how a British publisher rejected her recommendation of a semi-historical novel written by a writer from Serbia:

[A]s a postscript, there was the inevitable question: “has the writer had any problems with authorities—censorship, imprisonment, public defamation?” I said no, (un)fortunately not. “How about any problems with the Orthodox Church—that would be interesting?” I said no again. The publisher then apologetically told me he would not be able to take the book on, though he himself, “knowing the region a little, could really appreciate its potential”. (Pisac 2012: 202)

46Pisac suggests that the literature of “small nations” can become attractive today to the major English-speaking publishers only if it can be read as a sort of “sociology”: “an ethnographic, educational, and exoticised text offering a rich context of cultural specificities and peculiarities: the more exotic, bizarre, estranging—the better” (2012: 195). This “sociologizing” of Eastern European art is likely a reflection of the geopolitical position of Eastern European countries as copycats who continually attempt to replicate political and economic models from the West in order to catch up with it, with little success. It is no wonder that art originating in a setting perceived as continually catching up with the West is less attractive (and more difficult to communicate with) than art that was censored by socialist regimes which presented serious ideological competitors. Censorship provides a sort of a lens through which a film can be read as an art piece, albeit in a simplified way. Censorship thus exists as a mechanism of recognition for post-Yugoslav filmmakers, a practice that seems to have been productive of creativity and originality, from today’s point of view. The post-Cold-War shifts in the mechanisms of recognition made censorship preferable in comparison to invisibility.

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1 Source:, accessed 2 October 2019.

2 For more details about Yugoslav self-management, see Jakopovich (2010).

3 Olga Kurjak Pavićević, “Cenzura je škripala zubima” (“Censorship ground its teeth”), Intervju magazine, 27 November 1982, pp. 42–43.

4 Start magazine, 1971. Available at:, accessed 2 October 2019.

5 The SFRY consisted of six federal republics, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia, and two autonomous provinces, Kosovo and Vojvodina in Serbia.

6 Aside from the centralized Federal Committee for Film Review, there were film councils in organizations for production; film councils in organizations for distribution; repertoire councils in organizations for screening films; federal and republican committees for film review; steering boards of republican funds for cinematography with their committees for film evaluation; a coordinator board for the import of films; a jury tasked with the selection of films for international festivals; and so on (Vučetić 2016: 59).

7 Source:, 1’56’’, accessed 2 October 2019. See also Dimitrijević (2016).

8 Emir Kusturica won two Palmes d’Or in Cannes (first representing the SFRY in 1985 and then the Federative Republic of Yugoslavia in 1995), an Oscar nomination in 1985, a Silver Bear in Berlin in 1993, a Silver Lion in Venice in 1998, and the Best Director Prize in Cannes in 1988. Milčo Mančevski (Macedonia) won the Golden Lion in Venice and an Oscar nomination in 1994. Danis Tanović (Bosnia and Herzegovina) won an Oscar in 2001, a Golden Globe in 2002, two Jury Grand Prix at the Berlinale in 2013 and in 2016, as well as a FIPRESCI at the Berlinale in 2016. Jasmila Žbanić (Bosnia and Herzegovina) won the Golden Bear in Berlin in 2006.

9 Source:, accessed 2 October 2019. For more details about Stojanović’s case, see Kunicki et al. 2018.

10 Documentary Censorship Then and Now. Forever, made by Milutin Petrović and produced by Al Jazeera Balkans, available at:, accessed 3 October 2019.

11 Source: (accessed 3 October 2019)

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1. DVD cover of “Innocence Unprotected”
Crédits Source:​reviews/​innocence-unprotected-1968
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Titre Fig. 2. Screeshot from “Innocence Unprotected”
Crédits Source:​news-opinion/​news-bfi/​lists/​10-great-films-balkans
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Titre Fig. 3. Screenshot from “Early Works”
Crédits Source:​early-works
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Titre Fig. 4. Screenshot from “Plastic Jesus”
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Čarna Brković, « Preference for censorship »Terrain [En ligne], 72 | 2019, mis en ligne le 21 novembre 2019, consulté le 19 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Čarna Brković

University of Göttingen

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