Abandoned socialist hope and mother-daughter relationships: “Museum of the Revolution” at the Tbilisi International Film Festival4 min read
“The wind got up in the night and took our plans away.” This was the proverb which prefaced the 2021 Serbian-Croatian-Czech co-produced film Museum of the Revolution by Srđan Keča, which was screened 10 December at the 23rd Tbilisi International Film Festival. Featuring as its backdrop the unfinished Museum of the Revolution in Belgrade, Serbia, the film focuses on the day-to-day survival of a young girl Milica, her mother Vera, and an older woman Mara, who live in the abandoned museum. It won both the East Doc Platform Award as well as the IDFA Forum Award.
“Museum of the Revolution” opens with archival footage from 1960s Yugoslavia. Happy workers build and march as the Yugoslav flag is held up high. These scenes are soon contrasted with darkness and dripping water, the abandoned museum featuring a hole in the ceiling, letting in both light and water alike. The first part of the film remains very silent as the scene is set. As we see a fire burning, Milica playing in the snow and being taught how to knit by Mara in candlelight, a change in focus materialises as the everyday lives of the protagonists come to the forefront. From this point onwards, the film transitions into focusing more on the relationship of mother and daughter living in a precarious situation, as Milica’s mother Vera steps into the picture.
The socialist utopia where everyone is housed and fed is contrasted with the contemporary depiction of life in present-day Serbia, where the state is unable to provide for those that are homeless and live in poverty. It is ironic that marginalised people now take refuge in what was meant to be a building celebrating the socialist utopia that the state was to create, and that the inhabitants of the museum live a life far from the idealised one the state was aiming for.
Though titled Museum of the Revolution, the building that initiated the entire film and that has given name to it is absent for most of the film. Indeed, the trio the film focuses on at one point have to move elsewhere, out of the museum, making the connection between the first part of the film and the rest tenuous at best. While the director might have intended this to be a symbolic representation of the transitions that Serbia has undergone, from a viewer’s perspective, it feels lost and the lack of the museum in most of the film makes it feel as if there is a disconnectedness to the title, the description of the film, and the film itself. In the discussion after the screening, it was mentioned that the film had undergone several versions, and that in a previous take there was a larger focus on the museum itself. Had the museum been allowed to take up more space in the story, it would have felt more connected to the title and what felt like the main idea of the film. While the film does provide a touching story of people living at the edge of the society, I personally would have liked the museum to be more present in the story, and not just act as symbolism, only to fade from the story halfway through.
While the film can be seen as a portrayal of three people navigating their lives together, finding joy in small moments while struggling with securing money for everyday necessities, the question of ethics needs to be raised. Milica, Vera, and Mara are all vulnerable people, and, especially given that Milicia is a child, the question needs to be asked about how ethical it is to film people in such a vulnerable state. During the film, the audience learns that social services had tried before to take Milica away, but that Vera had been unwilling to let her go. Moreover, during the discussion after the film, it was stated that since the film’s conclusion, mother and daughter had been separated, with Milica taken care of by social services. What Vera had been working against throughout the film ended up happening after the cameras stopped rolling. Taking part in this documentary, while on the one hand, shining light on the situation for the cinema-goers, does not seem to have actually improved the lives of Milica, Vera, and Mara. Therefore, I cannot help but wonder about the ethicality of a film whose purpose is just to shine light on injustices, but does not actually end up helping the people it portrays. But perhaps this question belongs to a larger discussion on the purpose of art.