In an abandoned shrine to utopian ideals, there is a haunting reminder of those that capitalist society left behind in favor of unilateral progress. The Museum of the Revolution of Yugoslav Peoples was a project initiated in Belgrade, Yugoslavia in the ’60s meant to commemorate and protect the nation’s socialist ambitions. The basement — the only part of the project to be constructed before its discontinuation — is now home to Serbia’s unhoused.
“Museum of the Revolution,” which played at the 2023 SF DocFest, is a documentary that follows three women who live in the abandoned building’s basement. Vera Novakov, a weary mother who washes car windows for petty change, Milica Novakov, her young, bubbly daughter and Marija “Mara” Savic, an elderly woman who forms an unlikely bond with Milica. Painfully human and deeply intimate, “Museum of the Revolution” tracks the daily lives of the trio as they find solace in each other while struggling to stay afloat.
Opening with sepia-toned archival footage, the film shows Yugoslav hopefuls in post-World War II Belgrade, ready to usher in a new era of prosperity and peace. Yet just as quickly as the audience takes in the footage, the film jumps to the modern era, where the museum project lies unfinished and decrepit — an era where people such as Vera, Milica and Mara are cast aside under capitalist hunger. The transition gives viewers a look into the past, at the kind of dreams and goals people had in Yugoslavia before, as a proverb in the opening reads, “the wind got up in the night and took our plans away.”
The film is a series of slow, quiet shots, never in a hurry to move on to the next scene. Rather, “Museum of the Revolution” allows audiences to meditate and savor the scenery and the intimate moments in each individual’s life before moving on to the next. Director Srđan Keča takes a show-don’t-tell approach, with silence stretching across long scenes before someone finally speaks. Yet the silence forces the audience to soak in the surroundings more and truly take in the environment that unhoused individuals such as Vera, Milica and Mara must somehow transform into inhabitable environments.
While it doesn’t make for a particularly exciting film, for those who are willing to be patient, the slow pace culminates in a triumphant deliberation on the experiences of the trio of women, the implications it has on those who succeed the former Yugoslavia and the fate of those who are cast aside by society.
Viewers are privy to small moments, including Mara teaching Milica how to crochet and heartfelt conversations by the lakeside, but they are just as exposed to stress and discomfort: Vera, for example, attempts to pay off her debt before incurring the wrath of her lender. In scenes such as this, the frenetic energy of the streets consumes the film, as Vera dashes from car to car, hoping to make even a little more money before the sun sets and the dark settles in. While the three may find solace in each other, viewers are constantly reminded of the terrible conditions they are forced to live in.
“Museum of the Revolution” serves as a haunting reminder of the sacrifices made in the name of progress as well as the urgent need to address the systemic neglect of those left on the fringes of society. As the camera lingers on the faces of Vera, Milica and Mara, audiences cannot help but contemplate the significance of their stories, hoping that their struggle will not be forgotten and that a more compassionate future awaits them and others like them. “Museum of the Revolution” emerges as an astounding documentary that, while focusing on the lives of three women in post-war Serbia, crafts a universal narrative.