Director of photography, screenwriter, film director and also editor, Karpo Godina is the humanist cogwheel that for over fifty years has kept the anomalous machine of (post-)Yugoslav independent cinema going, in directions none has ever been able to predict. Creative exuberance and insolence have constituted the essence of a regional production still criminally underrated, not least because underground directors in Yugoslavia were among the very few to be censored on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Though less prominent than filmmakers like Dušan Makavejev or Želimir Žilnik, Karpo Godina has intersected and nourished the cinema of his colleagues in an ongoing testament to his artistic generosity, uncompromising vision and anti-authorial vocation. Films like Žilnik’s Early Works (1969) would not be the same without his photography, which forever captured the visionary lights of the Yugoslavian ‘Black Wave.’ A small retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, coinciding with the exhibition Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia 1948–1980, will afford a rare glimpse into the manifold art of this half-Slovenian, half-Macedonian, once Yugoslavian image-maker.
Like many people from his generation, Godina was raised on a peculiar film diet that after Tito’s breakaway from Stalinist hegemony included old American movies, one of which, Bathing Beauty (1944), he used for the opening of his 1982 film Red Boogie. This partly explains the aesthetic unorthodoxy that still characterizes his and his colleagues work. When still studying, Godina founded with some friends the ‘Odsev’ cineclub at the Ljubljana Academy in 1962, part of a then-thriving scene of ‘amateur’ filmmakers that would later coalesce into the infamous Yugoslavian ‘Black Wave’: a derogatory term coined by the regime describing what Godina himself prefers to call ‘New Yugoslav Cinema.’
His early experimental shorts from 1965–67 not only offer an insight into Godina’s playful craft, but transport the spectator into the earthly modernism of ‘60s Yugoslavia—so far removed from the prejudicial image of the grey socialist bloc. Here Godina transposes the electrifying mood of the streets, the cafes and just plain daily life through both photography and editing which, having been realized by the same person, enfold in symbiotic relation. Some of these early shorts, like Anno Passato, were even edited in-camera. The hand-held immediacy of his early works gradually gave way to his trademark tableaux, where after having framed the canvas in front of his static camera he fills it with action, diagonally, vertically and horizontally. Contemplation thus happens on two levels, in constant dialectical contrast, on the one hand the spectator is drawn by the immaculate symmetry of the frame while on the other is stimulated by the absurdist movements taking place within. Exemplary in this respect is one of his most celebrated films, at least abroad, Zdravi Ljudi Za Razonodu (Litany of Happy People), where Godina gathers in front of his camera the multi-confessional and poly-ethnic precariousness of Yugoslavia. The Yugoslavian national motto “Fraternity and Unity” is subversively questioned, as six different ethnic minorities parade in front of his camera cheerfully singing how much they love each other. In the Vojvodina region where the film was shot, over thirty different ethnic groups lived together and yet separately, Godina having chosen the most numerous communities for his oblique, ethnographic musical. Twenty years before the country was to be lacerated by a brutal, internecine war, the director was already highlighting the fragility of inter-ethnic coexistence in a land which has historically represented the frontier between occidental and oriental influences. The film ends with the lapidary sentence “let the Eastern Block as whole/be buried deep in a hole.”
The situation for independent filmmakers in Yugoslavia was singular, on the one hand they were not subjected to any form of censorship (except in a very few and boundary-pushing cases) and their films were allowed to national and international festivals, but did not receive wider distribution. “Our region wasn’t hermetically sealed as one commonly assumes,” Godina noted, which for local filmmakers meant exposure to both eastern and western new waves, aesthetic cross-breeding and autonomous elaboration of a vast, unorthodox palette. Conversely, filmmakers from all the world would go to Yugoslav festivals to present their films. It was during one of these festivals in Belgrade that Godina recruited a few of his colleagues for the omnibus film I Miss Sonia Heine (1971). Tinto Brass, Miloš Forman, Frederick Wiseman, Mladomir Djordjevic, Paul Morrisey, Buck Henry, and Dušan Makavejev were all given by the filmmaker a set of restrictions. The camera had to be static and only film one thing, the duration was not to exceed 3 minutes and the camera was the same for everyone. Each director had to include the sentence “I miss Sonia Heine” in his film. Godina then edited the whole things together. Paul Morrisey met on this set the protagonist of his Flesh for Frankenstein (1973), Srdjan Zelenovic, who would also end up on the cover of Vogue. The party apparatus of the Union of Communists stated: “not only do we invite the most decadent filmmakers from the West to our country, moreover Karpo facilitates the realisation of their decadent projects on Yugoslav costs.”
In 1972 Godina received an internal memorandum forbidding him to direct films in any of the Yugoslav Republics. Thankfully he could shoot and edit, so his colleagues made sure he continued to make a living with cinema. In 1980, on the eve of Tito’s death the atmosphere was already loosening and the director managed to have his first directorial project in eight years greenlighted by TV Belgrade and Viba Film, a production company from Ljubljana. Splav Meduze (The Raft of Medusa, 1980) is a fictional recreation of the avant-garde scene in 1920s Yugoslavia when Serbian Dadaists and Surrealists attempted to stir a struggling population, then mostly rural, still recovering from WWI. As Godina himself has suggested, the film, despite its historical setting, was very much a take on that crucial moment for the history of communist Yugoslavia. “Those who knew how to read between the lines could see it all,” said the director about what was effectively his first feature length film. Splav Meduze in fact also tackles the co-optation of radical art at the hands of the establishment, a theme as relevant in socialist Yugoslavia as it is in the democratic western world. Which is precisely the vital strength of Godina’s work and the New Yugoslav Cinema more generally, the ability to challenge the aesthetic and political restrictions that thwart creativity under any political regime, be it of the centralized or democratic kind. Unfortunately, it is a lesson that couldn’t be timelier, now that western democracies, after having exercised their liberal superiority complex, are falling on by one into the darkness of neo-totalitarians.
Karpo Godina plays October 19–25, 2018 at New York's Museum of Modern Art.