Flotsam and Jetsam
History disintegrates into images, not into stories.
Most countries’ maritime laws distinguish between “flotsam” and “jetsam” as different types of marine debris. Flotsam is defined as anything that is unintentionally left behind after a shipwreck that floats to the surface after a ship sinks. Jetsam describes debris that was deliberately thrown overboard by a crew of a ship in distress—either to lighten the cargo load or as some other reaction to a problem the vessel has encountered—which is discovered floating in the water or washed ashore. The distinction is important, as it establishes the presence of intent to remove material from the ship. Flotsam may be claimed by the original owner, whereas jetsam may be claimed as property by whoever discovers it.
“Filmske Novosti,” the official newsreel agency of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, was the only film studio in the country directly answerable to the federal government. Mandated to document the political, social, economic, and cultural life of the country, they fulfilled this mission from their creation as a section of the partisan units during the Second World War. While television supplanted their prominence and reach from the 1970s, their work effectively ended only in the 1980s, with the twin collapse of socialism and the disintegration of the country. When I arrived to start research on my first film there, in 2005, they was a savezna javna ustanova—federal public institution—though we were no longer a federation. As such there was nobody—no body—who could officially appoint a new director to the institution, meaning there was no one who could authorize me access or the right to use the archive. By the following year, Serbia had adopted a new constitution, Filmske Novosti had become a republic cultural institution, and my work was underway. For the next five years, as I dug underground searching for archives to tell a history of how Yugoslavia had been narrated politically via cinema, forces were at work on the surface dismantling, discarding, and removing the traces of Yugoslavia from the landscape of our public memory. Institutions were privatized, archives were emptied, streets and schools bearing the names of partisan heroes renamed, public holidays changed, statues removed.
How do you face the archive of a history that has disintegrated? In a situation where, as Lawrence Ferlinghetti writes: “The North Pole is not where it used to be.” What to make of this archive, which was at once an officially sanctioned chronicle and an agent in the creation of the social imaginary of Yugoslavia, that had now lost its political compass? What is the expectation an ideologically abandoned archive places on those of us who arrive seeking to reactivate it? How to go about imagining this practice? How to recount that search for the right critical approach, the correct emotional distance required in performing it? And how to work with the possibility of what is there?
In his study on Memory, History and Forgetting Paul Ricœur describes the condition such as the one in which I encountered the archive:
A document in an archive … has no designated addressee, unlike oral testimony addressed to a specific interlocutor. What is more, the document sleeping in the archives is not just silent, it is an orphan. The testimonies it contains are detached from the authors who “gave birth” to them. (2004, 169)
The mute and orphaned condition became the conundrum I spent the next decade of my practice trying to untangle. Having completed my first film in 2010, by 2015 I was back in the archive. What brought me there was an encounter with one of the “authors who birthed it”—in fact, the last remaining cameraman of Filmske Novosti, Stevan Labudović. Over the next three years, until his death, we would work together on addressing the orphaned and mute condition of the images he had fathered. Stevan’s career and perspective on the images was shaped by the privileged position he had ascended to at the tender age of 27, in being selected in 1954 to be part of a two-man crew to film a series of voyages by ship undertaken by Tito at the height of the Cold War. Over the next decade, the presidential ship “The Galeb” (eng. seagull) would become the symbol of Yugoslav diplomacy as Tito left Europe to travel to 18 countries in Asia and Africa, all of which, with one exception, had just emerged from colonialism. These glimpses into newly-created countries, where Tito was often the first foreign head of state to visit post-independence, are complex vessels, ciphers of political (self-)representation, national imaginaries, and performative diplomacy. They were recorded without sound.
The materials Stevan filmed became the basis of what could be called ‘the non-aligned collection’ of the Yugoslav newsreels. Starting in 1959 the collection would expand to include materials filmed by Labudović during a clandestine mission he was sent on by President Tito, to create a documentary film on the Algerian war, which the Algerian Liberation Movement (FLN) could use in its diplomatic and media efforts to win international public support in their struggle for independence from French colonialism. Sent to Algeria to create a militant image in an act of solidarity, he would end up becoming an important chronicler of the war. By the time Algeria won its independence, Labudović had, by the estimates of the Algerian Liberation Army (ALN), filmed a total of 83km of 35mm film, the reels still preserved in the vault of Filmske Novosti in Belgrade. Of particular importance was the fact that I had the chance to work with his outtakes, the unused and unseen images he had filmed, which helped me measure the disparity between his perspective and the political mechanisms of selection and editing that governed the newsreels. What complicated the process was that Stevan had authored the images, but not the words to narrate them. Someone else would make them speak in the voiceovers of the newsreels released at the time. Working through the paper documentation stored away in the offices at Filmske Novosti, and having been granted access to the Diplomatic Archives of the former Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the outline of a structure began to emerge, a state-run strategy of harnessing cinema to Yugoslavia’s non-aligned agenda. A cinematic image that would not merely document the birth of the Third World project, but would be employed to create its image and make its voice heard in on the world stage. The missing sound then, was not only a physical absence, but a metaphorical one.
As we worked through the reels stacked in Filmske Novosti, of which many were labeled, but most were not catalogued or indexed, through the random gestures of opening cans and the serendipity of identifying frames, a fragmentary picture began to emerge from this debris floating around us. Stevan’s presence at my side, and his personal documentation including his diaries, provided the images with a subjective gaze and political intention. His filmmaking was informed by the experience of making propaganda as a member of the photographic units of the Yugoslav partisans during World War Two. In conversation with his images in a cinema, at a flatbed editing table, in front of a laptop, we constructed a ‘behind the scenes’ voiceover revealing the process of their filming.
And yet, the fragmentary nature of this archive was frustratingly incomplete. A rarely-mentioned third category of marine debris is “derelict”—the term for goods or wreckage that lie at the bottom of the sea. Joining this material that hadn’t resurfaced, through displacement and decay, were memories that had also been submerged for decades. Faced with the gaps and silences of the archive, the gesture I found myself performing as a response was to solicit the missing voices in an attempt to weave an oral history around the images. Following Stevan’s death, and feeling the incompleteness of a singular perspective, I begun seeking out and recording those involved in the story who were still alive. Seeking to activate the archival materials I would show them in individual or group settings, creating public and private space for them to be experienced. This work took me across the former Yugoslavia to encounter sailors who had been on the Galeb with Tito during the Voyages of Peace, diplomats who had formulated Yugoslavia’s non-alignment policy, and Algerian combatants in whose units Stevan had filmed.
The response to Ferlinghetti’s entreaty to “bring together again the telling of a tale and the living voice” became, over the past three years, a creative, performative, and participatory process. In each setting, from Algiers, to Accra, to Belgrade, a silent screening of the recovered archival footage becomes an invitation for those gathered to interpret and claim it, by overlaying in their own voice personal memories, interpretations, and imaginaries, generating a counter-memory. This in turn has led me to create a still ongoing practice-oriented research project we have named “Non-Aligned Newsreels,” which records the construction of a new living archive. In face of the Serbian government’s continued dismissal and discarding of Yugoslavia’s political and cultural heritage, this ‘jetsam’ can be re-appropriated by those of us who salvage it, reactivate it by creating new artefacts, and see in it a poetic capacity to help imagine new forms of collective resistance—“the last lighthouse in rising seas.”
My deepest thank you to Stevan Labudović for the cinematic adventure we traveled together, to Vladimir Tomčić and Jovana Kesić for opening the vaults of Filmske Novosti, and to Mme Zehira Yahi for opening the doors of Algeria to me.
Benjamin, Walter. 2002. The Arcades Project. Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin and edited by Rolf Tiedemann. New York: Belknap Press.
Ferlinghetti, Lawrence. 2007. Poetry As Insurgent Art. New York: New Directions.
Ricœur, Paul 2004. Memory, History, Forgetting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
 Cinema Komunisto, 2010, 100 minutes, directed by Mila Turajlić, produced by Dribbling Pictures.
 A diptych of two feature-length documentary films would come out of this collaboration, entitled Non-Aligned & Ciné-Guerrillas: Scenes from the Labudović Reels. Non-Aligned (2022, 100 minutes) revisits the birth of the Non-Aligned Movement as captured through Stevan’s camera and perspective during Tito’s voyages on “The Galeb” and the materials filmed during the first Non-Aligned Summit in Belgrade in 1961. Ciné-Guerrillas (2022, 94 minutes) explores Stevan’s Algerian footage, by looking at how the militant image played a role carrier of the diplomatic struggle for Algerian independence.