Growing up in post-communist Croatia, documentary-maker Tiha Gudac lived a relatively normal life. She played with her friends, went to school and spent her summers camping with her grandparents. But throughout all this time a shadow hung over her family history. After decades of silence, the aptly named Tiha (Croatian for “silent”) decides to uncover the truth.
Goli Otok – Naked Island in English – is a barren, deserted island used from 1949 to 1989 as a Yugoslavian political prison, where anyone alleged to have shown sympathy with the Soviet Union was sent for barely endurable torture. On their eventual release, former prisoners of the island were forbidden from discussing anything that had happened to them.
Gudac’s grandfather Marjan Fuckan was one of these. He spent four years on Goli Otok while his wife, ignorant of his whereabouts, was ostracised and beaten. Fear of the regime ensured Marjan and his contemporaries stayed silent about what they experienced. For the first time in Naked Island, however, those still alive begin to share their secrets.
Marjan himself passed away before the making of this film, but his friends and contemporaries on the island recall the treatment they endured. They were humiliated and beaten. The disobedient were ‘boycotted’: they received less food, less sleep and harder work. Others were forbidden to speak to them, and they were forced to spend nights with their noses in a bucket into which other prisoners defecated.
Perhaps worst of all, internees were forced to beat one another: “Until you hit others, there’s no way out.” This was more than sheer sadism. It was calculated, a way of ensuring they kept quiet about Goli Otok after their release. ‘Every individual who hit or snitched on somebody will be silent forever.’ A new dimension was added to the fear of being caught again: shame.
This is a film both of personal and national importance. It shows the effects of Tito’s oppressive regime on one family, but never lets us forget this is a story much wider. Although the accounts of suffering and fear are deeply private, they’re also representative of a whole generation: theirs is not the only family to be harrowed by the regime. In speaking out about their experiences, Gudac’s friends and relatives open the door to a dark chapter in Croatian history.
Tiha’s own honesty and fallibility are strikingly visible in Naked Island. She deliberately puts herself at times in front of the camera, and never shies away from showing herself as imperfect. At several points her identity as filmmaker and artist plays second fiddle to her role as daughter: her mother scolds her for being too ‘cold’ in her interview-techniques: ‘Where is the warmth in your questions? This is not theatre, it’s life.’ Later on a visit with her father to the graveyard where relatives and friends are buried brings her to tears. She also shows moments where she’s demotivated and questions whether she’s right to make the documentary at all. In a film so focussed on stirring up the past, it’s refreshing to see the filmmaker’s own doubts about the process played out on screen.
In keeping with this, she doesn’t attempt to carve a consistent or explicable narrative out of her family’s experience, giving us instead a complex and contradictory affair, at once filled with sadness and with triumph. There’s a constant tug-of-war throughout: is this a tale of tragedy or one of victory? On the one hand, those of Tiha’s grandfather’s generation who endured the horrors on Goli Otok are never free from them. They bear scars both physical and emotional, haunted by nightmares and paranoia. On the other, as Tiha’s mother points out, the family’s younger generations went on to live relatively happy lives.
Naked Island is the touching portrait of a family who have endured great suffering at the hands of a regime and been forced into silence. Tiha Gudac, however, manages to break it: the closing shot – one of Goli Otok, formerly a place of darkness and repression, now glittering and splendid in the sunlight – seems to bear out her mother’s message that the ills of the past can, in time, be conquered, and that, given enough time and strength of spirit, ‘the deepest wounds can heal’.
Tiha Gudac’s Naked Island can be seen at the Open City Docs Festival 2015, on Wednesday 17th June at JW3, 341-351 Finchley Road, NW3. Please click on the image below for further details.