Plastic Jesus | Cinema Year One

Credit: Centar Film

Fedor Tot

Plastic Jesus, directed as a master’s thesis film by Lazar Stojanović in 1971, functions as a connector switch into a parallel universe. It represents a moment at which the wider cultural, societal, and political forces which shape the world of cinema come face to face with the potential for an imaginative, open-ended future, and the crushing bore of orthodoxy which normally comes to pass.

The film is regarded as part of the tail-end of the Yugoslav Black Wave, a movement of filmmakers who appeared from the mid-60s in the country (though the term only came later – they preferred to call themselves the New Yugoslav Cinema). Its practitioners – Aleksandar Petrović, Živojin Pavlović, Želimir Žilnik – were met with accolades from both within Yugoslavia and on the wider international festival circuit. As with many of the movements that swept the film world across the 60s, they were willing to break conventions and experiment with style.

Yugoslav Communist President Tito’s 1948 split with Stalin had necessitated the country developing a ‘different’, comparatively liberal, socialist path with its own particularly Yugoslav characteristics, adapting to the particular regional and ethnic nature of the country. But despite that relative liberalism, Yugoslavia’s communist history is a constant battle between reformers and conservatives. By 1971, political and social forces were pulling the state in different directions. Ideas found themselves in combat with ideologies. The Black Wave ended when the authoritarian side of Yugoslavia won out.

Žilnik’s debut feature, the anarchic Early Works (Rani Radovi), played in the 1969 edition of the Berlinale, but increasing political pressure from the top began to push the Black Wave films further away from audiences, and into the vaults. Early Works was tried in the courts. Dušan Makavejev’s psycho-sexual essay film WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) was banned and its director forced into exile, along with Žilnik and others. Petrović – the most internationally-lauded with grimy, neorealist works like Three (Tri, 1965) and I Even Met Happy Gypsies (Skuplača Perja, 1967) – was unable to get new films made. Plastic Jesus saw Stojanović thrown into prison for three years, an unsurprising outcome for a furiously political work which seems to exist purely as an attempt to take a sledgehammer approach to the ideological structure of the world around it.

Predominantly, we follow Tom, played by Tomislav Gotovac, a notable Zagreb-born performance artist and filmmaker of his own accord, playing a distorted version of himself as a bohemian filmmaker living in Belgrade. He absconds with a series of girlfriends, many of whom become fed up with him rather quickly. To make ends meet, he turns to shooting pornography, at one point editing rushes whilst his stepdaughter sings Partisan songs (the Yugoslav Partisans, led by Tito, overthrew Nazi rule of the region). This lapse of judgement infuriates the other half, who throws him onto the streets, where he is picked up by police. Repeatedly, he finds his way back to yet another woman.

These sequences are intercut with archival montages, drawn from various authoritarian and totalitarian states. An early sequence – in which Tom declares that “he doesn’t believe in revolutions,” is cut with footage of Tito’s Partisans, marching to victory. Later, when a homeless Tom is drugged and his possessions and clothes robbed, Stojanović cuts to a TV address from Tito himself, whose status as the father of the socialist Yugoslav nation was untouchable. His warm, paternal embrace to the nation crashes against Tom – both in the way that wider society fails him by exposing his vulnerability, and in the way that Tom himself functions as little more than a patriarchal parasite, leeching off whatever romantic partner he can attach himself to next.

Stojanovic also intercuts these scenes (though they are often more like ideas or provocative declarations) with historical footage from the USSR, Nazi Germany, the Ustaša (Croatian fascists who, as a Nazi satellite state, subjugated Serbs, Jews and Romani in the Balkans to widespread extermination) and Chetniks (Serbian ultranationalists who would have done the same as the Ustaša had Hitler taken a shine to them and not the Ustaša), Stojanović provides us with a micro and a macro viewpoint. In the micro, we witness an otherwise unimaginative and mundane filmmaker who, probably cruelly aware of his lack of talent, sucks away the energy of those around him. In the macro, we see how the net of ideology, colouring and shaping our every waking moment, functions as background noise, giving legitimacy to Tom’s behaviour. He may be a bohemian underground filmmaker, the sort who is usually at the top of the shit-list for any self-respecting authoritarian, but that does not stop Tom from benefiting from the imbalances inherent to the ideological structure around him.

It’s tempting to regard Plastic Jesus as a historical artefact: a product of its time, lashing against the dogma of its day. Stojanović lashes out at ideologies that have long since disappeared, with the Cold War a distant memory. But the underpinning of these ideologies has simply been replaced. Where Yugoslav TV screens once embraced Tito’s paternalism, now Serbian state-owned media mollycoddles the banal, nationalistic splurge of current President Aleksandar Vučić’s latest musings (and say what you like, Tito was at least charismatic in front of a TV screen). 

Plastic Jesus may have arisen from the vaults in 1990, as Milošević took charge and proceeded to set fire to Yugoslavia, but its vicious attacks on ideology apply just as much to nationalist thought as it does to Tito’s. Had the film been made in 1991, it would have no doubt locked its sights firmly on Milošević’s oversized forehead. Indeed, Stojanović worked on Paweł Pawlikowski’s Serbian Epics (1992), which looked at how Bosnian Serb war criminals Radovan Karadžić, Biljana Plavšić and Ratko Mladić utilised poetry as cultural capital and leverage for their destructive ideological missions.

What feels so exasperating looking at Plastic Jesus today is how few modern films are prepared to take that brutal sledgehammer approach to ideology. There has been a gradual shift in cinephilia to reward films that individualise social problems. Nomadland (2020) depicts the crippling economic servitude that shackles great swathes of Americans… but only through the eyes of one individual’s grief. Indeed, many of the annual festival winners, critical darlings and Oscar front-runners tend to fixate on individual problems, functioning entirely within the host ideology and saying “isn’t this bad?” The audience is asked to generate empathy without a response to the ideological and structural underpinnings that generate inequality, injustice and oppression, giving films little more than the status of charity, an acknowledgement of social error and a shift towards temporary alleviation of the material problems but precious little pushback against its structural causes. The vaunted awards of popular culture function within ideology, struggling to break free of its all-consuming veil to the point where even our alternatives still work within that ideological space. If we can’t even dream of a different reality, how can we begin to build it on screen?

Plastic Jesus is a raw, essayistic underground film, and there is no alternate universe in which it is not an obscurity. Cinema – and culture in general – is politically useless in engendering immediate change – and yet there was a time within living memory where it was believed that it could do exactly that. It is as if the levers of power for that change have gradually been moved further and further away from artists.

The irony behind Stojanović’s imprisonment is that it had comparatively little to do with his film’s perceived attack on Titoism. Although the Great Leader is lampooned in the film, what really irked the censors was professional embarrassment. Upon completion of the film, Stojanović was called up to the Yugoslav Army, as every young, able-bodied male was forced to do. Ever the provocateur, he got himself thrown into military prison for the crime of spreading political propaganda.

On trial, he defended himself vehemently as an intellectual and artist – and suggested that the prosecutors look at Plastic Jesus to get an idea of where he’s coming from. They did. They found a scene, early on, which Stojanović had shot a few years before Plastic Jesus took shape: a marriage ceremony for two of the director’s friends. Unfortunately, the groom’s family – including his father – were major generals and higher-ups in the army, and the scene openly shows them getting shitfaced. This scene is immediately intercut with archival footage of Chetniks celebrating a military victory, and getting shitfaced.

Such professional embarrassment was unsavoury, and Stojanović was thrown into prison, not quite for attacking Titoism, but for humiliating those with political skin in the game. Attacking the ideology they could seemingly ignore – perhaps a subtle recognition that ideology is merely a game to those who practice it. But to attack their position within that ideological structure – to attack the very material benefits they stood to gain, that was beyond the pale. Can cinema still do that?

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