Serbia’s Dramatic History Viewed From One Apartment

November 30, 2017
Serbian film director Mila Turajlic’s new documentary film tells the story of her divided country's recent history, as it played out within one family's home.

Turajlic says she got the idea of making the film from the German author Thomas Mann and his novel Buddenbrooks. Photo: TOSE

The Other Side of Everything (Druga Strana Svega) premiered in Belgradeon Wednesday. The documentary covers film director Mila Turajlic’s own family and her mother’s political activism through some of the most turbulent times in Serbian history – rising nationalism, wars and the aftermath of Serbia’s October 5 revolution.

“It [the documentary] is about these great revolutions or great historical twists. It is somewhat also about the extent to which politics and history affect every aspect of our lives and each family,” Turajlic told BIRN.

The documentary portrays Serbia and its society through the history of a single family, with filming taking place exclusively in the Turajlic’s family apartment in the centre of Belgrade.

The director says it was important to her from the start that the story remained within the apartment’s walls: “In that way, I tried to make one country’s microcosms out of one apartment, one family home.”

Turajlic says she got the idea of making a documentary about a single family’s story, and then using it to explain the country’s history, from the Nobel Prize-winning German author Thomas Mann and his novel Buddenbrooks.

“He managed to tell a history of one country through several generations of one family. But that history is always in the background; the personal experiences of family members always come first,” Turajlic says.

In The Other Side of Everything, which had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, the action unfolds around a door that has been locked for 70 years inside the Turajlic’s family apartment in downtown Belgrade.

The locked door dividing the family home in two is a legacy of post-World War II Yugoslavia, when the communist authorities would house people who lived in apartments they considered too big, divide the flat and bring another person or a family to live there. The latter were called ‘sustanari’ or co-tenants across the former Yugoslavia. Such actions provoked a silent rage among people whose apartments were divided, as many saw the move as wrong and unjust.

On the other side, the Communists considered such apartment owners to be pre-war bourgeois class enemies of the regime. They would even sometimes ask co-tenants to spy on the “enemies” and report them.

Turajlic explains that she has always seen the locked door as a sort of historical scar on her family’s personal lives – “a living room with a seal of huge historical flows.”

“I am not sure there are so many living rooms in Sweden or Oklahoma where history faltered, and that is why I think it helps people better understand this area,” Turajlic says, adding that not all family members see the door the same way.

“For my mother, they are nothing more than reality.”

While the film does not leave the apartment, Turajlic explains that, in order to picture everyday life in Serbia, she used a window to film what was happening in the city.

“There are things [in the film] that I filmed earlier, in 2005. I decided to experience everyday life in Serbia by looking through the window, as the apartment is a position where a lot of interesting things took place in front of it,” she says.

Throughout the film, Mila talks to her activist mother, Srbijanka, about political engagement, Srbijanka’s fights against the regime and personal disappointments caused by her activism.

Mila Turajlic is best known for her ground-breaking documentary Cinema Komunisto (2011), which tells the story of rich cinematography during Tito’s Yugoslavia. The film uses rare footage from many forgotten Yugoslav films, archive from film sets as well as Tito’s private film screenings.


Cinema Komunisto earned Turajlic 16 awards both in Serbia and abroad.  


Many think Turajlic’s art work is inspired by communism and Tito’s Yugoslavia, but she says that isn’t the case. While Cinema Komunisto took her “into that direction accidentally”, The Other Side of Everything has only a few sentences about communism.


The focus of her art work is rather on the place where she comes from, and on the overall political and social climate she is surrounded by, the director explains.


“I think that in the end each and every author is dealing with their roots [in their work], with the history and stories about their place, and with the way our own identities are shaped by all that today,” she says.


She is currently working on a new film – The Labudovic Reels – that will likely be released this time next year. It is about Stevan Labudovic, Tito’s cameraman, and the role of cinema in the liberation struggles of Third World Countries, also focusing on the Non-Aligned Movement. 


Srbijanka, born in 1946, is a retired university professor and was one of the loudest opponents of late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic as well as a member of the Otpor Movement that opposed his rule. The film also shows some of her speeches held at anti-Milosevic rallies until he was toppled on October 5, 2000.

After Milosevic’s fall, Srbijanka served in the Ministry of Higher Education and Sport as an assistant minister from 2001 to 2004.

In 2009, she won the Conquering Freedom prize (Osvajanje Slobode), for her contribution to the victory of democracy in Serbia.

Srbijanka, still politically very active, now supports the recently-established opposition Free Citizens Movement, led by Sasa Jankovic, the former Serbian Ombudsman and a runner up in Serbia’s 2017 presidential elections.

Possibly the most important part of the mother-daughter intimate conversation is the one about the responsibility of each generation to fight for its own future.

“She [Srbijanka] is part of a generation that is leaving the scene … The question is, is my generation ready to enter that scene now and how much are we – both as a generation and as individuals – interested in a political engagement or a social battle,” Turajlic says, adding that she is ambivalent about taking part in it.

Turajlic believes she is not the only pessimistic member of her generation.

“Maybe we are a bit more realistic and maybe we believe less in those dramatic social revolutions because we saw the failure of their [her mother’s] generation,” she says.

In the end, Turajlic argues, both generations are fighting the same battle – a battle for “a state with a functioning legal system, for a state with less social inequalities…for a more just world.”

However, Turajlic warns that in order to achieve that, individuals in Serbia have to “start with their own lives and think of how much we give to society and how much we want to take from it.”

“How many moves do we make because we will benefit from them, and how many moves do we make because we want more people to benefit?” she asks.

The Other Side of Everything will be shown at the Sava Centre on Wednesday, November 29th at 8pm as part of Belgrade’s Auteur Film Festival. For more information about the tickets, visit

This article was published in BIRN’s bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.


Ivana Nikolic