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FILMS Croatia

Naked Island: A story of the Yugoslav gulag


- First-time director Tiha K Gudac has made a strong documentary about her grandparents’ imprisonment in the Yugoslav gulag in the 1950s

Naked Island: A story of the Yugoslav gulag

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, Croatian director Tiha K Gudac's first feature-length film, won the Heart of Sarajevo for Best Documentary and a Special Mention at last week's Zagreb Film Festival.

The documentary, which focuses on the filmmaker’s grandparents and their friends who did time as political prisoners in Yugoslavia’s gulag on the island of Goli otok (literal translation: Naked Island), is a very personal and touching, but also an informative, politically significant and universal, story.

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At the beginning of the film, Gudac recalls her carefree childhood with her grandparents, but also a secret that she was not allowed to ask about: why is Grandpa’s body covered in scars? She goes on to interview her mother, sister, grandmother, father and one of her grandmother’s friends, gradually learning about the dark past connected to political issues in communist Yugoslavia. 

It is a widely held opinion that Yugoslavia was not really that much of a totalitarian state; lifelong President Tito is hailed as one of the post-Second World War period’s greatest leaders, who managed to strike a balance between the East and the West. But while this may be true for the period starting around 1960, the aftermath of his dispute with Stalin in 1948 was a dark period for many people.

When Tito said his famous “No” to Stalin in 1948, effectively kick-starting the Informbiro period (which lasted until 1955), the two countries were on the brink of war. This did not happen, because Tito had support from the West, but it caused a wave of totalitarian measures in Yugoslavia, with the more prominent people falling under suspicion for their connections to the USSR, and the security service following them around and listening in on their telephone conversations. This, in turn, led to paranoia among the citizens, who would inform on their neighbours and friends for fear of being imprisoned themselves.

Among the prisoners were Gudac’s grandfather, at the time the manager of a big factory, and his wife. The filmmaker fills the documentary with archive footage and old family photographs, in addition to interviews. It is, of course, her grandmother, who was also a prisoner at Goli otok, who provides the most information, some of which (centring on the torture they were forced to inflict on each other) is truly devastating, while the talks with her mother and sister prove to be the most touching.

At one point, Gudac even manages to make the film fold in on itself, with her mother denying that they are, as a family, still living with scars from the past – only to burst into tears as she visits the infamous island with her daughter. 

Naked Island was produced by Zagreb-based Factum

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