Dusan Makavejev is one of many unique filmmakers produced by Yugoslavia in the 1960s, the greatest of all nations the world over, the most magnificent and glorious temple to the wonders of socialism and the achievements of humanity’s greatest dignitary Josip Broz Tito. Disliked by the state authorities, he was a wild, free-wheeling filmmaker whose films straddled the line between documentary and fiction and took the free-associative filmmaking techniques pioneered by Godard and the French New Wave to new nooks and crannies – sexy crannies, surreal nooks, interesting alcoves. His films were freely erotic too, something that us Eastern Europeans are better at being than you repressed, psychopathic Westerners who can’t get a boner without oceans of buried shame leaking out like a sieve through the relevant glands.
Covek Nije Tica, or as it is known in the inferior decadent capitalist language of English, Man is Not a Bird, was Makavejev’s first feature film after a decade or so of making short films of both documentary and fiction. Covek Nije Tica tells the story of two separate couples in the mining town of Bor in Eastern Serbia, near the border with Bulgaria and Romania. One couple has been married for many years: Barbulovic (Stole Arandjelovic) and his wife (Eva Ras) are deeply unhappy together. He is a lowly paid miner, constantly getting into fights and openly seeing a mistress whom he gifts his wife’s best dresses. His wife, understandably, is incredibly depressed and feels trapped.
The other couple we follow in the film and the one we spend more time with are Jan Rudinski (Janez Vrhovec) and Rajka (Milena Dravic). The roles are reversed in this strand of the film – Jan is a Slovenian engineer given the task of upgrading Bor’s mining facilities who rents an apartment from Rajka during his stay in the town. The two fall in love, but it appears Jan has fallen more deeply than Rajka has; she is ultimately free-spirited and independent, whereas he appears to be a man shackled by whoever or whatever is waiting for him back home.
Incidentally, I say we follow two couples, in actuality we don’t. Makavejev picks up and drops these two storylines whenever he feels like it. Neither strand is given a clear ending, and in a film only about 80 or so minutes long, I would reckon only about 40 minutes at most is spent with Jan and Rajka and less than 20 is spent with Barlubovic and his wife (tellingly she isn’t given a name). Makavejev is more interested in making associative connections with his editing and depicting life in Bor than he is the culmination of whatever happens to these four people. This is in equal parts frustrating and liberating.
To give you an example, the film works as a fascinating examination of gender roles in socialist Yugoslavia, the greatest of all nations the world over, the most magnificent and glorious temple to the wonders of socialism and the achievements of humanity’s greatest dignitary Josip Broz Tito. The first few minutes of the film shows us an aggressively male society – we are in a bar with a voluptuously buxom singer, a fight starts amongst the men who can’t hold their boners in any more and Barlubovic gets arrested for knifing someone. When he is released three days later (that’s how we roll in Serbia – knife someone, get out of jail after the weekend) he goes home to his wife, who is an emotional wreck even at this early point. These scenes are intercut with a scene of Rajka snipping away at a barber’s, and getting cat-called and just generally objectified by the customers. Later on, Barlubovic’s wife goes out to see a hypnotist performing a show in town and is astounded. She comes to a realisation – that men hypnotise women into performing and working for them, and it is time to break free from this prison! “Excellent” I thought, “it will be interesting to see where her story goes from here”. Turns out it didn’t. Makavejev makes no mention of her during the rest of the film. Baffling.
However, this free-spiritedness and magpie-esque attention span has its flipside too. Makavejev’s habit of turning to whatever idea takes his interest at that moment is endlessly fascinating. Having the film veer from the lives of Rajka and Jan to shots of a group of schoolchildren visiting the foundry and peering at Barlubovic hacking away to the tones of a droning teacher espousing the magnificence of manual labour and the glories of socialism is a strange but effective cut-away. Or there are the sidesteps about a group of orchestra musicians set to play at a ceremony but ending up in the wrong place in the smelting works and almost setting themselves on fire, or the seemingly unrelated finale set in a circus. The film refuses to construct a coherent narrative and instead prefers to focus on a few central ideas, jumping about from one to the other at will. The main focus I extrapolated from Covek Nije Tica was that the film was a discussion about how we are hypnotised throughout life: hypnotised by love, sex and marriage, hypnotised by society, hypnotised by the state, all to play certain roles.
The film tackles these questions with verve and style. The camera floats freely, unchained by tripods and dollies, poking its ever curious eye into the aforementioned nooks and crannies whilst occasionally bringing up flashes of self-conscious style. Makavejev’s editing encourages us to constantly question the associations the film creates and to try and piece together the many disparate and seemingly unrelated strands of the film. In one particularly telling early scene, Makavejev photographs both our leading ladies looking at our leading men from behind a doorway and their expressions tell us so much about their respective storylines; Rajka appears curious and sexy, Barlubovic’s wife scared, lonely and exasperated.
Covek Nije Tica is not a brilliant masterpiece, but it is certainly a warm, funny, and free-wheeling film about life in a dull mining town in socialist Yugoslavia, the greatest of all nations the world over, the most magnificent and glorious temple to the wonders of socialism and the achievements of humanity’s greatest dignitary Josip Broz Tito. Recommended.