The committed cameraman

New films from Mila Turajlić salvages footage from the Yugoslavian news archives to tell a story of non-aligned internationalism against Cold War bipolarity.

Still from Non-Aligned: Scenes from the Labudovic Reels, (2022).

Mila Turaljić’s latest pair of films, Non-Aligned & Ciné-Guerrillas: Scenes from the Labudović Reels (2022), revive the legacy of “Tito’s cameraman” Stevan Labudović (1926–2017) through interviews with him, his former colleagues, his filmed subjects, and his films themselves. Labudović joined the Yugoslav state-owned Filmske Novosti in Belgrade in January 1948, filming Marshal Tito’s trips abroad, important political and diplomatic events within Yugoslavia, and perhaps most famously, the Algerian War of Independence from 1959 to 1962. But Labudović’s newsreel filmmaking was never isolated from his politics; as Nemanja Radonjić notes, “The degree of solidarity that Labudović…showed towards his [Algerian] ‘commanders’ went beyond the work of a reporter, and entered the domain of solidarity of freedom fighters.”

Non-Aligned traces the history of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), culminating in the painstaking reconstruction of Labudović’s footage (digitized for the first time from analog reels) of the 1st Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement held in September 1961 in Belgrade. Turaljić juxtaposes modern footage of some of the local Belgrade sites visited by foreign dignitaries 60 years ago—for instance, the Park of Friendship, featuring trees planted by visiting statesmen as a symbol of friendship and equality—with archival footage of the same places from Labudović’s reels. This serves to show the living legacy of the NAM—even though the breakup of Yugoslavia occurred more than three decades ago and the revolutionary anti-imperialist orientation of the NAM is largely a vestige now, visible markers of history remain. Non-Aligned’s scenes in Algiers not only serve to foreshadow the second film of the diptych, but also to highlight the importance of Algeria in Yugoslav history: Tito was the first European leader to support the Algerian War of Independence, and the former National Liberation Front fighters that Turaljić meets are thrilled not only to reminisce about Labudović but also to meet another Yugoslav.

Still from Non-Aligned: Scenes from the Labudovic Reels, (2022).

The crown jewel of the film, however, is the carefully reconstructed footage with synchronized sound of several speeches made at the 1st Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement. As Turaljić clarifies in an interview, much of Labudović’s footage was filmed without sound as it was designed to have newsreel voiceovers dubbed over it later, so the task of matching existing sound recordings of the Summit with Labudović’s footage was far from trivial: many hours were spent in the Radio Belgrade archives finding the appropriate recordings, British professional lip-readers were called in to help identify the words being spoken by English-speaking statesmen, and manual resynchronization was necessary due to the film and sound being recorded at different speeds. This slow and laborious process is shown in the film, serving to highlight the assiduous work put into the project of reconstructing the footage. But as Turaljić comments in another interview, the significance of this (successful) reconstruction was not only integral to the documentary but also to the larger political project of giving voices to the voiceless. Indeed, the short fragments of speeches (with original sound) included in the film are tantalizing: Gamal Abdel Nasser speaks passionately about how European industrial development is built upon wealth extracted from Asia and Africa, Kwame Nkrumah stresses the fact that the NAM—although considered as a minor force interposed between two larger competing blocs—is in fact comprised of the great majority of the world’s population, and Sukarno denounces the comprador (national bourgeoisie) groups siphoning off the wealth of various newly independent countries.

Ciné-Guerrillas focuses on Labudović’s participation as a cameraman in the Algerian War of Independence. Although only sent for three weeks in 1959 on an official mission, he remained for three years, integrating himself fully into the National Liberation Front, his films breaking through the colonial blockade on pro-independence media reaching foreign countries. So successful were Labudović’s films that the French Army was determined to liquidate Labudović, hatching a plan to do so. But the National Liberation Front obtained knowledge of the plans and clandestinely transported Labudović to Tunis. The French then killed the Algerian commander who had taken his place as cameraman; Labudović, distraught, dedicated the documentary Moj komandant to him.

Still from Non-Aligned: Scenes from the Labudovic Reels, (2022).

Ciné-Guerrillas integrates Labudović’s footage from the Algerian War of Independence with entries from his diary documenting the various offensives, training sessions, and meetings of the National Liberation Front, providing a unique portrait of the war from a committed correspondent’s eyes. Turaljić enriches this narrative with interviews with Labudović, his former colleagues from Filmske Novosti, and his former Algerian comrades, culminating in a moving tribute to Labudović (with him present) at the 2014 Festival International du Cinéma d’Alger.

Although Labudović’s reels in this second film have no separate sound recordings to be found in radio archives, they remain the highlight of Ciné-Guerrillas: for the first time since their original broadcasting several decades ago, we can witness one of 20th-century history’s most decisive anticolonial wars fought up close. The inclusion of East German and Cuban newsreels (with their original voiceovers) featuring Labudović’s footage juxtaposed with contemporaneous French newsreels denouncing the National Liberation Front is an additional stroke of artistic flair, providing a richly dialectical exposition of the true significance of visual media during the war.

The largest drawback of this valuable diptych of films that shows the intercontinental solidarity of the anticolonial struggles of the 20th century is the quasi-“end of history” approach reflected in the narration, suggesting that the NAM collapsed and failed inevitably (akin to the so-called Fall of Communism). Although Turaljić has commented that “the political vision of the non-aligned is something that should absolutely be re-examined, re-debated and reconsidered,” defeatist narration in Non-Aligned like “Remembered today as dictators, who died in office or were deposed in coups, their efforts have come to disappointing ends” departs significantly from the radical politics of Labudović himself. Setting aside the incoherence of calling leaders as disparate as the monarch Haile Selassie, the social democrat Jawaharlal Nehru, and the Afro-socialist Modibo Keïta “(remembered as) dictators,” the statement simply isn’t true. Cuba (host of the 6th Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement) remains socialist today, Nehru’s legacy is still present in modern India’s pluralist democracy, and recent anti-imperialist coups in West Africa show that the anticolonial legacy of the NAM is far from a relic.

Still from Non-Aligned: Scenes from the Labudovic Reels, (2022).

Ciné-Guerrillas, with its wide range of interviewees (including Lamine Bechichi and Elaine Mokhtefi), has the opportunity to critically examine the complicated legacy of Algerian independence but instead remains in the space of nostalgia. As Torkil Lauesen wrote in 2016:

When analyzing the problems of the liberation struggle, it is too simple to simply refer to betrayal and the maxim that power corrupts. There were several reasons why the hopes they—and we—had for economic development, political democratization and a more equal world were not realized…the structures of the global economy, the political power play in the world, and the failure to develop a functioning socialism.

Labudović himself was critical of “the neo-colonial forces and the persistent forces…of subjugation and exploitation” in contemporary Algeria, so his own revolutionary politics and agitprop-like footage provide an ideal setting to analyze this legacy several decades after the end of the liberation struggle, yet the relevant questions are not asked of the interviewees (who are otherwise eloquent and passionate in their reminiscences).

Turaljić said in 2020:

with my films, I tried to create such a space [that isn’t exclusive]: where different experiences, parallel reflections and complex stories, viewpoints that are multi-layered and full of gray can find a place…I feel that I am missing and that I miss this space for the exchange of opinions, for multifacetedness and complexity.

This marketplace of ideas approach can function in some circumstances, but the revolutionary character and audiovisual legacy of Stevan Labudović risks being depoliticized and aestheticized if not treated in an equally revolutionary form. It is not the allegedly “disappointing ends” of the NAM that Labudović’s reels should remind us of but rather the tremendous potential and real achievements of transnational solidarity, an indispensable history lesson that remains wholly relevant in today’s world of ongoing neocolonialism.

Criticism aside, Turaljić and her crew invested several years into the meticulous unearthing of this forgotten chapter of history, and for their bringing these invaluable historical documents to light we should all be grateful. A world free from imperialism and neocolonialism is not only possible but well worth fighting for, and Scenes from the Labudović Reels is a testament to the heroic legacy of the struggle of all oppressed peoples worldwide.

Further Reading