In 1961, Serbia was set to build a museum in Belgrade, an institution whose purpose was "to safeguard the truth about us." The never-completed Museum of the Revolution only got as far as the basement, and what was once meant as a tribute to Socialist Yugoslavia has instead become an ominous threat of looming capitalism.
Museum of the Revolution, which has its New York premiere this weekend at DCTV's Firehouse Cinema, is less about the project itself than what happens, and to whom, in the vacant spaces where promises once lay. Perhaps counterintuitively, it's in the eerie void both on and off camera where the documentary best announces its presence, asking us to consider how hand-over-fist capitalism easily swoops in to envelop faded utopian ideals.
Amongst the myriad of abstracted images is a mother and her precocious child desperately trying to score cash by washing cars at stoplights; an older, mostly deaf woman fixes the sheet metal roof of her DIY-home in the persistent rain, and all three bathe using discarded plastic bottles as shower fountains in a polluted river bed. These are images of destitution and decay, the denigration of the earth as a metonym for the erasure of the past. Keca isn't so much interested in the Why of the museum's halted construction but rather what wasteland has filled its place. It's in the irony of developmental capitalism in place of a shrine to socialism that Keča asks if we gained anything from abandoning this project. If a testament to the revolution doesn't exist, does our memory fade too? Here in the States debates raged about the dissolution of Confederate monuments, as right wing conservatives argued that doing so erased crucial markers of the country's past; a spurious argument, at best, but Keča seems to be going for something else altogether. What happens to the resources when there are still scores of the economically destitute, and social services are forcing families apart? The ties between a space that never was and the void felt for people on the street is tenuous, at times, but there is a cumulative effect of these images and dropped-in conversations, an abstraction that, Rothko-like, allows us to make our own associations within such an overwhelming canvas.
In certain ways, Museum of the Revolution invokes Alain Resnais' masterpiece Holocaust documentary Night and Fog, itself a testament to the architecture of despair and the dangerous tendency to forget the lessons of our mutual past. Here, Keča similarly wonders if our desperation to move forward has spelled disaster for those without the means to do so. "Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor," James Baldwin once wrote, and, as if in reference to this axiom, the mother and daughter talk about the impossibility of earning money if all you're able to do is pay back debts. While the documentary certainly wants for more subjects, the repetition of routine these three women go through emphasizes the circuitous, sabotage nature of capitalism – and how difficult it is to break the chain. Keča's camera is astonishing in this regard, since he captures with extraordinary directness the relational effects of moneyed interests and those left on the fringes.
Museum of the Revolution ultimately ends on a note of positive female solidarity, of the bonds between mothers and daughters in the face of uncertain, apocalyptic futurity. And that's a lovely, if ominous and ambiguous place to be. This film lives in a place of opacity; the background of the museum notwithstanding, this could be any so-called democratic state in any corner of the so-called democratic world. As the gaps between the haves and the have-nots and between our time and the lessons of the past both increase, Keča tells us how to push forward with grace and love. An idea upon which an entire museum could be built.