Miranda Jakiša and Nikica Gilić (ed.): Partisans in Yugoslavia: Literature, Film and Visual Culture

Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag 2015, ISBN-10: 3837625222, 382 pages.

Dijana Jelača
Yugoslavia; partisans; socialist visual culture; Yugoslav partisan film and literature; Second World War; war film; anti-fascism; The People’s Liberation War; genre; cultural memory.

As a diverse body of cinematic output that may not easily be reduced to a genre, socialist Yugoslavia’s partisan film is perhaps more informative of the region’s collective memory (if we can talk about such a cultural imaginary in broad terms) of the Second World War than any other medium, discourse, or cultural text. As such, it presents one of the most logical sites for the scholarly exploration of cultural memory in light of the country’s subsequent disintegration in a violent war a quarter of a century ago. Viewed more broadly, partisan narratives – as featured in Yugoslav postwar novels, poems, songs, monuments, and movies – reflect a rich and complex body of cultural works that serve(d) a multifold and ever-shifting role in Yugoslavia and its aftermath. Unfortunately, that role has often been oversimplified under a reductive right-wing revisionism of Yugoslav socialism as a totalitarian society, and, by extension, its official culture as nothing more but regime-sanctioned propaganda. This simplistic interpretation elides both the complexity of Yugoslav socialism as such, and the multifold role as well as diversity of its cultural output focused on the commemoration of the partisans’ armed resistance against fascism in NOB (The Peoples’ Liberation Struggle, i.e. “Narodnooslobodilačka borba”).

If Yugoslav partisan art, and film in particular, played a crucial role in constituting the cultural memory of the Second World War during socialist Yugoslavia’s existence, nowadays its role has largely shifted into (re)constituting the memory of Yugoslavia itself, with the Second World War being situated as its moment of historical, political, but also discursive emergence, as it were. As the post-Yugoslav ethno-nationalist revisionism of the shared socialist past along totalitarian lines of interpretation enters its third decade, an increasing number of scholarly work pushes back against said revisionism, overtly looking to rescue, so to speak, socialist Yugoslavia and its cultural output from said historical (over)simplification. The edited volume Partisans in Yugoslavia: Literature, Film and Visual Culture is a significant contribution to that body of work, as it critically tackles important questions pertaining to the cultural multiplicity of the past and present-day roles of the Yugoslav partisan art as such.

In her introduction, Miranda Jakiša, one of the volume’s editors, challenges the aforementioned interpretation of the Yugoslav partisan art as mere totalitarian state-sanctioned mythmaking, and argues that this reductive approach cannot account for the fact that partisan artistic expressions were, for instance, “as much efforts of coming to terms with the traumatic experience of war as they were ideologically functionalized in Yugoslavia” (2015: 15). Moreover, “in creating the present, Partisan art in Yugoslavia took an active part in the fight itself – not only in the war years but also afterwards”, adds Jakiša (ibid.: 13; original emphasis). Indeed, this existence of a multiplicity of roles – both synchronic and diachronic – that cultural texts can posses is acknowledged throughout the volume.

Part 1, “Partisan Narratives, Stagings and Transformations,” focuses mainly on partisan poetry and novels, but also addresses visual culture (comic books, monuments, and an occasional, cursory mention of films). In the opening chapter, influential historian of partisan art Miklavž Komelj discusses partisan poetry and insightfully concludes that “the art of the Peoples’ Liberation Struggle as true art is then – as the state of consciousness of of a revolutionary collective – actually the surpassing of art” (ibid.: 46). In some ways, the canon is here not merely being reiterated or newly rediscovered, but also at times created – for example, when Maša Kolanović rescues Josip Barković’s postwar novel Sinovi slobode / Sons of Freedom (1948) “from the recycling bin of Croatian literature” (ibid.: 110) in order to problematise its dismissal as a mere work of socialist realist ideological indoctrination.

While film is occasionally mentioned in Part 1 – for instance, Vittorelli discusses what is widely considered the first Yugoslav postwar feature, Slavica (Vjekoslav Afrić, 1947), in her chapter on the female partisan figure, while Tanja Petrović makes mention of Božidar Nikolić’s Svečana obaveza / Solemn Oath (1986, Yugoslavia) in her chapter on the Yugoslav Peoples’ Army – it is Part 2 that is of central interest for this review, because it is dedicated solely to Yugoslav partisan film in its various vicissitudes. The title of this part of the book is “Partisan (Feature) Film in Yugoslavia: A ‘House’-Genre with an Afterlife”. In it, Barbara Wurm probes the complexities of assuming a straightforward genealogical link between Soviet (partisan) cinema and Yugoslav national cinema. To ground her argument, she offers a comparative analysis of aforementioned Slavica, as Yugoslavia’s first postwar feature, and the Soviet film made in and about Yugoslavia, the nearly forgotten V gorakh Iugoslavii / In the Mountains of Yugoslavia (Abram Room, 1946, Soviet Union). Indeed, the seeming links between the two films are not just spatial or temporal – the director of Slavica, Vjekoslav Afrić, served as an assistant director on V gorakh Jugoslavii, gaining valuable experience in filmmaking along the way (the making of both films predates Tito’s split with Stalin, which came soon after). Wurm shows, however, that these extra-cinematic overlaps cannot be all too easily translated into Slavica being a mere reflection of the Soviet socialist realist film and its ideological interpellation, not least because V gorakh Jugoslavii was poorly received by the Yugoslav audiences and authorities alike, while Slavica was collectively embraced.

While Wurm probes the lengths (or limitations) of the Soviet film’s influence on Yugoslav partisan films, Nikica Gilić turns to exploring what could be viewed as the polar opposite of this dynamic – the influence of the Western film genre on Yugoslav partisan film. Gilić does so in order to continue probing a question that had previously been raised by film scholars: is Yugoslav partisan film indeed a genre? Using Žika Mitrović’s films, particularly Kapetan Leši / Captain Leshi (1960, Yugoslavia), as his case study, Gilić concludes that partisan film can indeed be considered a genre influenced by American Western. However, his evidence largely consists of narrative rather than formal, aesthetic, or stylistic similarities, a greater attention to which may have further strengthened Gilić’s case.

In his own chapter, on the other hand, Peter Stanković claims, as he has done in previous work, that “Yugoslav partisan films are simply too diverse to be taken as a consistent film genre” (ibid.: 246). His argument is based on a pointed assertion that, in their totality, partisan films are mutually linked only thematically (and even here, we can only speak in very broad terms), while other cinematic elements that jointly constitute a genre’s film form can vary widely from one partisan film to the next. However, Stanković argues that the 1970s partisan epics should be considered a genre in their own right, one for which he proposes the name of “Partisan Westerns” because he, like Gilić, traces the influences of the Western genre on these epic spectacles. His comparative analysis introduces both formal and narrative similarities into the equation, and effectively argues for a recognition of different genre sub-tendencies existing under the broader umbrella category of Yugoslav partisan film.

Defying the standard narrative of the emergence of Yugoslav (partisan) film with Slavica in 1947, Gal Kirn focuses on the question of (in)existence of partisan film during the Second World War – that is, on the partisans’ envisioning of the importance of cinema for their struggle, its construction by other means (such as poetry), as well as the spontaneous emergence of partisan cinema as early as 1941 (through individual participants documenting different events and so on), before there was any official policy or infrastructure for making films. Subsequently, partisan cinema during the Second World War became more organised between 1943-1944, and institutionalised in the period between 1944 and 1945. However, most of the partisan film archive created during the Second World War has been lost, destroyed in the war, or is difficult to locate. Sometimes its existence is based on rumour more than on facts. This allows Kirn to intriguingly theorise inexistence as the reality of these films – perhaps the only fitting form of being for a cinema that emerged out of such a radical struggle, a struggle whose radicality is virtually impossible to capture after the fact. He concludes that this is perhaps why all postwar partisan films “fail” in reflecting the radicality of the partisan struggle in its totality. This insightful essay taps into important broader questions regarding cinema’s (in)ability to commemorate or adequately reflect the lived experience of a major historical, transformative event such as the Second World War in Yugoslavia.

Ivan Velisavljević’s chapter focuses on disabled bodies in partisan films and argues that they reveal a contradiction embedded in the seemingly ideological texts, “thus bringing the teleological side of the narrative into question” (ibid.: 268). Nebojša Jovanović, on the other hand, methodically dismantles some of the most negative recent scholarly dismissals of partisan film as totalitarian propaganda, most notably by Senadin Musabegović (2008) and Aida Vidan (2011). To conclude the volume, Matteo Colombi’s and Mirt Komel’s chapters focus on Slovenian context in particular, while Zoran Terzić compares “the artistic avant-garde and Partisans as historical subjects, that is, as agents of political change” (ibid.: 363).

Overall, this thought-provoking collection of essays effectively articulates many crucial issues regarding the role of partisan art in Yugoslavia and its aftermath. The volume could have benefited from tighter copy editing to prevent occasional typos, as well as inconsistencies in the spelling of some key terms (Socialist Realism vs socialist realism, Partisans vs partisans, Western vs western, English translations of original Serbo-Croatian titles and so on). More importantly, on the level of the thematic and analytical scope, this reviewer, due to her admitted scholarly bias, as well as a commitment to balance in representation, would have preferred to see fewer chapters repeatedly rehash the same questions (most centrally, the dismantling of the worn-out cliché that Yugoslav partisan cinema is a mere tool of totalitarian ideology, as well as the genre versus non-genre debates) no matter how important those questions indeed are. Rather, it would have been refreshing to see more of the contributions expand said scope to newer critical approaches, particularly those pertaining to gender politics and feminist interventions, for instance. On a perhaps related note, the volume’s expansive section about film contains nine chapters, only one of which is written by a female contributor.

The role and social function of Yugoslav partisan film (and Yugoslav partisan art more generally) is not singular nor fixed in time and place. Quite the contrary, as most of the chapters in this volume explicitly or implicitly indicate, its role changes with each socio-political shift and emergent context. Moreover, that role is never one-dimensional in a single context either. Indeed, many chapters in this volume effectively illustrate the dramatically different ways in which partisan art is dealt with today, whether through notions of reactionary post-Yugoslav right-wing revisionism or through left-wing recuperation. When it comes to the latter, its political relevance is crucially important to uphold. Along these lines, the impact of Yugoslav partisan art, and cinema in particular, might currently mainly reside within the domain of much-discussed Yugonostalgia, but also in being an object of cultural resistance to the ethno-nationalist and capitalist discourses that dominate cultural life in the post-Yugoslav region – once again proving the continued importance of art as an agent of political resistance to the questionable status quo.

Dijana Jelača

Fordham University



Afrić, Vjekoslav. 1947. Slavica. Avala Film.

Mitrović, Žika. 1960. Kapetan Leši / Captain Leshi. Slavija Film.

Nikolić, Božidar. 1986. Svečana obaveza / Solemn Oath. Radiotelevizija Beograd.

Room, Abram. 1946. V gorakh Iugoslavii / In the Mountains of Yugoslavia. Mosfil’m.


Musabegović, Senadin. 2008. Rat: Konstitucija totalitarnog tijela. Sarajevo.

Vidan, Aida. 2011. “Spaces of Ideology in South Slavic Films.” Studies in Eastern European Cinema 2 (2): 173-92.


Dijana Jelača teaches in the Department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University. She is the author of Dislocated Screen Memory: Narrating Trauma in Post-Yugoslav Cinema (2016), and co-editor of The Routledge Companion to Cinema and Gender (2017), as well as The Cultural Life of Capitalism in Yugoslavia (2017). Her scholarly interests include feminist film and media studies, transnational cinema, and South Slavic film cultures.

Suggested Citation

Jelača, Dijana. 2017. Review: “Miranda Jakiša and Nikica Gilić (ed.): Partisans in Yugoslavia: Literature, Film and Visual Culture.Mise en geste. Studies of Gesture in Cinema and Art (ed. by Ana Hedberg Olenina and Irina Schulzki). Special issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 5. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2017.0005.58

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

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