- Reviewed from 2021 International Film Festival Rotterdam
In the former Yugolsavia there are monuments to various resistance fighters. For the UK, statues of historical figures have recently become the site of ferocious debate, at the heart of which is a wider battle over how people should remember the past, and who should be remembered for what.
There are no traditional monuments to Sonja Vujanović, a member of the Yugolsav Partisans, a lifelong communist and a survivor of Auschwitz. With Landscapes of Resistance Sonja’s granddaughter Ana, along with her partner Marta Popovida, attempt to make a filmic monument. Over a decade in the making, the film sees Marta and Ana interview Sonja about her wartime experiences, in the cramped Belgrade flat she shares with her second husband Ivo (her first husband Stava was killed during the war) and their cat.
As with her previous documentary Yugoslavia, How Ideology Moved Our Collective Body (2013), Popivoda gently inserts herself into the history that the film is depicting. She is mentioned in Ana’s diary entries over the years, which are dotted throughout the film as handwritten on-screen texts.
Although it is wisely relegated to the periphery, Marta and Ana’s relationship as a queer couple is nonetheless a vital part of what makes the film work as a contemporary document. Their reflections on Europe’s troubling trajectory provide a sense of continuity with Sonja’s own story, elevating the phrase ‘never again’ beyond its present-day use as mere platitude.
Despite alluding to the rise of far-right politics across the continent, Marta and Ana’s focus is firmly placed on Sonja’s individual experience. Most of the film’s runtime is taken up by Sonja recalling her experiences as a Partisan, from reading progressive literature as a young girl to her time in Auschwitz. She speaks in a measured tone, demonstrating a mind that has been able to process and convey these events over the years.
The sound of her voice is often accompanied by considered shots that leave the barest impression of the experiences described: forests where Sonja and her comrades would have found refuge, the fences of a camp that confined her. Marta and Ana linger on these tangential images and have them dissolve into each other at a glacial pace. These visuals serve as poetic supplements to Sonja’s voice without distracting from it. Occasionally, the images reveal themselves over periods of silence, almost as breaths between testimony. One particularly evocative sequence follows Sonja’s memory of shooting an SS officer. An extreme-close up of the elderly woman’s brown blanket dissolves into the skin of the hand that once held the gun.
Accounts of violence are discussed in passing, though never dwelt upon. What makes Landscapes of Resistance so remarkable is the way it successfully frames anti-fascist resistance as an expression of love. News media today often demonises contemporary anti-fascist movements as violent and hate-filled. Yet it is love which proves to be the animating force throughout Landscapes of Resistance, observed at its most palpable between the three women who made the film.
It is a love that makes space for grief. When describing the moment she learnt of her first husband’s death, Sonja recalls an older comrade’s words to her: “Cry, my child, cry, you’ll feel better.” But it is also the type of love that binds people together and inspires them to fight for their shared ideals, no matter how grave the odds may seem.
Despite looking back at one of the darkest parts of history and viewing it from the vantage-point of this trepidatious period, Landscapes of Resistance stands out as a genuinely hopeful film. Ana and Marta succeed in their mission to create a monument worthy of their comrade.
Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more
News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.