Salute Your Shorts: Karpo Godina's Yugoslavian Black Wave Films

Movies Features Karpo Godina
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Salute Your Shorts is a weekly column that looks at short films, music videos, commercials or any other short form visual media that generally gets ignored.

During the 1960s, cinema was in a period of flux worldwide. The French New Wave remains the most famous example of the experimentation that was going on in film, but it was ultimately a time when things were changing on an international level, with New German Cinema being born, a young group of rebellious Japanese filmmakers overturning the classic masters, and the film-school brats taking over here in the States. But the most revolutionary of all these groups were the filmmakers of the pan-Yugoslavian Black Wave, whose radical pictures sometimes resulted in jail for filmmakers.

In the U.S., that period of filmmaking is primarily known for the works of the Serbian director Dušan Makavejev, whose WR: Mysteries of the Organism was an international success despite being banned in Yugoslavia. It was, in fact, enough of a success than Makavejev was able to leave his country and make films without censorship abroad, resulting in international distribution of many of his movies. The same could not be said for nearly any of his contemporaries, with the exception of perhaps Aleksandar Petrovic. Finally, more of these films have been released locally from McSweeney’s, though surprisingly through the publisher’s Believer magazine (rather than its short film quarterly Wholphin), which contains six short films from Karpo Godina.

Godina was first a photographer and then a cinematographer, and may be better known as the cinematographer for Zelimir Zilnik’s Early Works than for any of his own films (which is saying a lot, considering the obscurity of that film as well). He didn’t direct a feature film until 1980 and none of his works have made their way to us in America.

After film school, Godina’s first professional work as a director was “Picnic on Sunday,” a 1968 black-and-white short without any words that shows how seven different people spend a Sunday. A simple concept, but in Godina’s hands the short is suffused with both sexuality and revolution. A pair of men play the same song on clarinet and violin in constant repetition, embodying the set order of things. Their conductor sleeps, but they dutifully carry on until an overtly sexualized man walks by and begins fooling around with a naked woman sunbathing nearby. The pair is inspired by this and changes their music, much to the consternation of an old woman reading nearby, who calls the man back to bring proper order to things. But the sexuality can’t be contained, and a man shoots a target in response. By the end of the short attempts at bringing order to things have ended and things carry on as before, only with sex continuing onward while the old woman leaves. Not so much a call to change, “Picnic on Sunday” is in fact focused on the way sexual mores don’t actually have much affect on things—the status quo continues on.

The short is beautifully photographed, but perhaps gratingly didactic. Most of Godina’s movies are pretentious in that they require interpretation and ask for a certain kind of analysis that was in vogue at the time that they were made. One thing that’s apparent even from this earliest work is Godina’s commitment to the soundtrack. Music is a driving force in all of his films and is impossible to separate from the visuals. This is certainly the case with its follow-up, “The Gratinated Brains of Pupilija Ferkeverek,” an experimental short from 1970 that’s largely just rhythmic editing of a woman swinging while the landscape jump cuts in time around her, all set to Taste’s “On the Boards.”

Godina enlisted the help of the avant-garde theatre troupe Brains to do, well, a bunch of nonsesnse in front of the camera. They rant angrily, they stare directly at the lens, they lay about in the water. They play with some sort of bushes for a bit? For a film that has almost nothing going on in it, “Gratinated Brains” is almost impossible to describe. Jacob Perlin, who curated the selection, says that the short is “a passionate plea in favor of individuality and freedom,” which is certainly in there, but so is a lot else. There’s a Rorschach Test quality to the film in that whoever’s watching the film can probably draw out their own interpretations because there’s simultaneously so much and so little there.

“Gratinated Brains” was the first of at least three of Godina’s films to be banned, in this case because it shows “the decay of moral values” and ends with the message “swallow LSD.” The irony of this is that, like all of Godina’s films, “Gratinated Brains” was funded by the state. Politics were always a major part of the Black Wave, which was influenced in particular by the 1968 protests in Paris and Belgrade. Because of the communist nature of Yugoslavia, though, films had to be approved by the government, which meant that subversive themes had to be worked into what sounded like, on paper, propagandistic films.

“Litany of Happy People” is a masterpiece of this type of subversive filmmaking and Godina’s most well-known work, not that that’s saying much. The film is in effect a literal re-enactment of a propagandistic song praising the various people who lived in Yugoslavia’s Vojvodina area (northeast Serbia), including Serbs, Croats, Hungarians, Slovaks, Romanians, Macedonians, Russians, Germans, etc. The lyrics of the song’s refrain go, “We love the Slovakians, The Slovakians love us,” while showing us a stereotypical view of the people and where they live. Each race has its own color of buildings and its own slightly parodied, slightly glorified people, all shot straight-on and sometimes speaking directly to the camera in a manner reminiscent of Errol Morris. The short is an attack on the idea of brotherhood and unity being espoused by the Yugoslavian government, which can also conversely be seen as actually celebrating the diversity of the area. It’s a strange movie, but far more accessible than Godina’s earlier films and an interesting document from the area’s past. The short was, of course, banned because it “undermined the idea that Yugoslavia was a land of brotherhood and unity,” but there’s more going on here than the censors may have noticed.

Following this, Godina worked on a military contract to create a recruitment film. Why, exactly, the military would have hired him for such a project is completely ineffable, as he’s a person almost guaranteed to give deliver an anti-war film, but apparently the military was truly impressed by the treatment he wrote for them, so they gave the project a green light despite his past. What he delivered was another cheerfully didactic piece, this one about how war prevents love, “About the Art of Love or a Film with 14441 Frames.” For “Art of Love” Godina was given almost limitless resources in the form of 20,000 troops, 60 tanks and 20 airplanes. Clearly the promised film would be some massive epic on the scale of Triumph of the Will, but Godina’s film about “enjoying the summer fun,” as the soundtrack says, certainly wasn’t what they were looking for.

Godina cross-cuts scenes of men doing military maneuvers with women’s bemusement, mentioning how they’re not interested in soldiers. Conversely, said soldiers just go around doing their silly games and aren’t interested in the women. As the soundtrack chimes in again, “1000 men, 10000 women, but no children.” The film sets up the argument that you can have love or war, but not both, and it’s plain where the filmmaker stands as to which is more important. Even stylistically the short is an affront to grandscale propaganda, consisting almost entirely of still shots with not a tank or plane in sight. It’s the opposite of epic, showing these men’s activities as in fact static and pointless rather than bold forms of masculinity. Needless to say, the military was furious with the result’s light-hearted fun and not only sentenced Godina to seven years in prison, which he somehow escaped, but also attempted to destroy the film…with an axe. Godina hid one print and this is what was used for the copy shown by The Believer.

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