Film Review: “The Museum of the Revolution” – Mother and Child in a Mausoleum of Socialism

By David D’Arcy

The Museum of the Revolution resonates with other powerful documentaries that feel like fairy tales set in a dangerous world.

Milica and Vera Novakov as seen in The Museum of the Revolution. Photo: courtesy of Lightdox

Sometimes Srdan Keča’s allusive documentary The Museum of the Revolution about a mother and daughter sheltering in the basement of a never-completed structure feels like a hymn to the bonds between parent and child. Sometimes it comes off as a mournful essay about a homage to utopia surrounded by dystopia, given the dissonance of horns honking in a once-socialist country where the homeless survive by chasing down cars to wash their windows.

Marshall McLuhan said that when something ceases to have a function, it either disappears or becomes a work of art. There’s a twist on that perspective here. The ruins of the Museum of the Revolution in Belgrade that we see in the film are of a project that was designed in 1961. The crypt-like foundation of the planned building dates from 1976. After that, there were no resources to complete the edifice. How do you protect the treasures of a revolution, or its memories, if you can’t even build walls around a museum? The hulk has no official function, but its sheer size keeps it from disappearing. Today, people like Vera Novakov and her daughter Milica sleep there.

The Museum of the Revolution (which opened in New York and now streams as part of the San Francisco Doc Festival) begins in darkness (literally) and stays in the dark long enough — about 10 minutes — to unsettle audiences, or just confuse them.

On the black screen we read a Chinese proverb that suggests or recalls an abandoned utopia: “The wind got up in the night, and took our plans away.” In an interview, Keča said that he found that line in a book by the influential British Marxist critic, novelist, and artist John Berger, whose art criticism (popularized by Ways of Seeing, a 1972 BBC television series and book) rallied a broad audience in the ’70s. Berger also wrote the scripts for Alain Tanner’s clever and humane films of that decade — The Salamander (1971), The Middle of the World (1974), and For Jonah, Who Will Be Twenty-Five in the Year 2000 (1976).

Marxism was easier to remove from Serbia than the ruin of a monument conceived (but never built) in honor of its Yugoslav variant. (Enough examples of the Brutalist style were built to create a concrete wave.) Decades later, this uncompleted homage to Balkan Bolshevism stands as little more than a shell, albeit a massively thick one. The structure isn’t too big to fail, just too big to demolish — at least for now.

Yet it is roomy enough and permanent enough to shelter people with no place else to go. Once there’s light — from the sun, since there’s no electricity — we meet Vera and her young talkative daughter Milica, who share the space under a dripping roof with an older woman, Mara, whose deafness doesn’t keep her from talking.

Mother and daughter are Roma, and bubbly Milica is an albino. By day, they make what they can in Belgrade’s heavy traffic, washing the windows of cars that rush through intersections or sit in gridlock. By night they huddle inside the concrete foundation. One morning, Keča follows mother and daughter on a break from their Sisyphean work. Vera goes to a post office and mails money to her husband (with a Muslim name), who is in prison. From Vera’s side of their phone calls, we hear that he’s angry that she’s not sending enough. The point could not be clearer: a homeless mother with a squeegee is supporting three people on change that drivers hand out car windows. So much for the enduring achievements of Yugoslav socialism.

Keča’s camera follows the pair closely as Vera runs from car to car, elbowing out other window-washers, all male, as she tries to keep up. The sociable Milica could have been imagined by Disney, in surroundings caught on a police camera. Pudgy, with a thick mop of hair dyed in bizarre layers, the girl watches it all, sometimes haranguing reluctant drivers to let her mother clean their windshields. The editing of this observational film feels paradoxically seamless — an elegant vision of a social contract ripped to shreds.

What began as an examination of life in an abandoned concrete carapace of a museum emerges as a mother-daughter survival story, saved from being oversentimentalized by the sheer squalor around it. Mara, whose daughter was taken away from her by the state, issues declarations with a deadpan frankness: ““It’s better that I gave Dragana away. At least she has good manners.”

The Museum of the Revolution resonates with other films that feel like fairy tales set in a dangerous world, like The Kid with the Bike (2011) by the Dardenne brothers. A story is limited to a few characters and a few encounters and a quest (in Museum for car windshields and spare change; in the Dardenne’s film a search for a father). Mistrust is high, danger is ever-present, and acts of goodness, including helping to save children from abandonment, are essential, and extremely rare. From America, think of Sean Baker’s stark and tender The Florida Project.

The cinematic allusions keep coming. The streets where Vera washes windows suggest the factory where Charlie Chaplin toils with endlessly repetitive gestures in Modern Times, only more dangerous. No one is required by any law to pay Vera. Her “competitors” are free to abuse her — we probably can assume that Keča couldn’t film the worst aspects of her plight. And there is no protection from accidents or acts of intended harm. The sheer noise of the chaotic streets adds another level of hardship. I found myself wondering if the iconic tale of relentless work and soothing love between mother and daughter might also work effectively as a silent film in the hands of the right director, perhaps Aki Kaurismaki. The Match Factory Girl, a mute story of fatalism retold poignantly by Kaurismaki, could be retold again with the car windshield washer of Belgrade.

The Museum of the Revolution, which premiered at the 2021 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), is just now opening in theaters in the US. Since the doc’s filming, life overtook the “finished” film. The lovable Milica went into foster care, something that her mother Vera swore she’d fight to prevent from happening. I learned this from an interview with Keča in Filmmaker Magazine.

In real life, which is what documentaries often aspire to be about, vulnerable families under stress survive, until they don’t. As Srdan Keča might put it, “the wind got up in the night, and took our plans away.” All of a sudden, this became a film in need of an epilogue.

David D’Arcy lives in New York. For years, he was a programmer for the Haifa International Film Festival in Israel. He writes about art for many publications, including the Art Newspaper. He produced and co-wrote the documentary Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a Nazi-looted painting found at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.

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