It’s not that easy to kill someone
Marta Popivoda’s new documentary ‘Landscapes of Resistance’ traces the eventful journey of a 97-year-old Sofija Sonja Vujanovic, one of the first female partisans in Serbia
Every regime that is not limited by the will of the people ends up in fascism,” says an aging Serbo-Croatian revolutionary, Ivo Vujanovic, in filmmaker Marta Popivoda’s new documentary Landscapes of Resistance. It premiered on February 1, in the Tiger Competition section of International Film Festival of Rotterdam 2021.
He goes on to add: “The crime of fascism has no measure. It has no human measure.” His words don’t just talk of the partisan dissidence and resistance in Serbia against German occupiers during World War II, but also speak truth to contemporary authoritarian powers the world over. A slice of history that is quite remote and yet achingly close to our contemporary reality.
Popivoda’s documentary’s strength is in its synergising the individual past, collective chronicles and many memories with the present. That too with a rightful urgency and immediacy. The times may have changed but autocracy hasn’t; it has only adopted newer, more diverse faces; mirrors that keep reflecting each other. The focus of Landscapes of Resistance is Ivo’s 97-year-old wife—Sofija Sonja Vujanovic—who we meet in the very first frame, in the company of her playful cat in their small Belgrade flat. One of the first female partisans in Serbia, she takes us through the entire gamut of her eventful journey.
From reading progressive literature as early as in the third grade, a romance that blossomed over exchange of books to an early first marriage to a fellow partisan and youth activist Sava Sasa Stanisic; how she became a member of the anti-fascist organisation Valjevo Detachment and went on to fight in German-occupied Serbia in the early 40s as the leader of the combat unit; from getting captured and tortured in several prisons and camps to the final escape from the concentration camp in Auschwitz in 1945. Despite the years of exposure to brutality and also participating in violence she still maintains: “It’s not that easy to kill someone”.
Popivoda and Ana Vujanovic, the co-writer of the film, Popivada’s girlfriend and Sonja’s great grand-daughter, recorded the conversations with her for over 10 years. They reveal a sharpness in thought as well as its articulation when it comes to engagement with politics and social inequities and injustices. “She [Sonja] took us directly into the atmosphere and mindset of the time that gave birth to anti-fascist resistance,” writes Popivoda in the director’s statement.
Her stories are the stuff of a nail-biting thriller but Popivada takes an entirely tangential approach to bring them alive on screen. One which is poetic and photographic, approximating a visual musing or meditation.
The voice-over of Sonja, her many stories are juxtaposed against the various playgrounds of her revolution—the places from her past, as they exist now, be it a vast forest or sturdy mountains or the remnants of a camp; the creases of her own skin or that of the blanket or the coat of her cat or the carpet of red poppies reflecting the “blood flown on the fields”, as the accompanying song goes.
As Ana writes: “How can a landscape speak? It’s like wondering whether the grass, the crickets, or the pond are only a backdrop to the events, or whether they actually participate in them, with their shadows, depths, sounds, waiting to become narrators?”
The narrative is interspersed with Popivoda and Ana’s own notes that tell a parallel tale of the making of this political yet human film. How Ana introduced Popivoda to Sonja; how their individual rebellions, distanced by time and space communicated with each other; how their inter-generational activism, feminism and anti-fascist ideologies reached out to each other to create a harmonious, perennially relevant dialogue.
Sonja’s life is a beacon of hope for Popivoda and Ana—feminist, queer and antifascist artist and cultural workers from Belgrade who have emigrated to Berlin—in confronting rising fascism, exploitative capitalism, radical nationalism, anti-refugee sentiment, hatred and intolerance in contemporary Europe. What they imbibe from her is that there is no alternative to continual resistance. Landscapes of Resistance then is their “cinematic anti-fascist manifesto” as Popivoda calls it.
Sonja died on May 5, 2019. But she didn’t just leave silence in her wake, asserts the film. Her legacy are the many stories, populated by heroes small or large, overflowing with the spirit of solidarity, care and self-organisation. There is the singular voice of resistance and many verbal images; voices and images that are looking at inhabiting new spaces and bodies and find new relevance.
Ana says in the film, “many Yugoslav heroes from WWII got public monuments. Some of them are women. But none of them is an Auschwitz survivor.”
According to Popivoda, their film has been made as an alternative monument to Sonja and many other unknown heroes of the anti-fascist fight. As she writes: “Our cinematic monument is affective and contemplative, bearing ‘a womanly face of war’.”