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Vlada Petric, cofounder of Harvard Film Archive, dies at 91

Vlada Petric.
Vlada Petric. Barry Strongin

As a cofounder of the Harvard Film Archive and its founding curator, Vlada Petric knew what kind of films he wanted audiences to see — and, perhaps as importantly, what he didn’t want to show.

“We are against commercial film,” he told the Globe in 1986. “Our fight is against film as a cheap entertainment and mere money-maker. We study film as an art form.”

A film theorist and a pioneering cinema doctoral student in the United States, Dr. Petric died Nov. 13 in Belgrade. He and his wife, the actress Dara Calenic, had lived in Cambridge for many years before her health failed a few years ago while they were in Serbia.

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Dr. Petric, who was 91 when he died, influenced generations of filmmakers with his strong opinions and unbridled enthusiasm. He championed the difference between cinema and what he referred to as “artsy films.”

The former is “a means of artistic expression,” he said in a 1994 interview with The Crimson, Harvard University’s student newspaper, but artsy films have “nothing to do with art.” Dr. Petric included in the “artsy” category movies such as “Schindler’s List” and “The Remains of the Day.”

He didn’t mind if Harvard Film Archive showings didn’t draw a standing-room only crowd.

“I prefer to have a film that will help someone understand art, with only five people, than a full house showing ‘Remains of the Day,’ ” he told The Crimson.

The film archive’s programming “is not simply alternative cinema,” he said in the 1986 Globe interview. “It’s like a mission. We offer a way to study film.”

His fervor wasn’t confined to classrooms and screening rooms. In a short video posted on YouTube, Dr. Petric pushed acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee in a wheelchair through a North Carolina film set while gesturing vigorously — an unbroken choreography that underscored his words.

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“As we circle the block for the fifth time, I find myself wondering how I managed to get myself in this situation — bound in a chair and lectured at close range by a rabid film theorist,” McElwee drily intoned in a voice-over.

“In polite America, this Serbian implant was, happily, extraordinarily contrarian and opinionated, shaking up and shocking many a room with his hyperbolic railing against this and that,” film critic Gerald Peary said in a Facebook tribute to Dr. Petric. “Too few saw that there was a twinkle in his eye as he stormed.”

Born March, 11, 1928, in Prnjavor, Dr. Petric grew up in what was then the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

According to friends of Dr. Petric, his father was Konstantin, a land surveyor. His mother was Danica, a homemaker who died when Dr. Petric was about 5.

Dr. Petric’s birth name was said to be Vladimir Konstantin Petric, though his friend Sasha Lekic noted in an e-mail that “Vlada, true to his personality, had at least three or four ways of signing himself. . . But he was best known as Vlada Petric.”

He graduated in the late 1950s from the University of Belgrade, where he had studied in the department of English language and literature, according to biographical information on the International Federation of Film Archives website.

By then, he had already begun working at what became the Academy for Theatre, Film, Radio, and Television in Belgrade as a teaching assistant for acting and directing. He was the director of Radio Television Belgrade, and became a film history professor at the academy in 1960, according to the federation.

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In the mid-1960s, he studied film in what was then the Soviet Union.

“He basically saw every piece of Soviet cinema,” Lekic said. “And then he went and started in the US and saw everything that was significant in the rest of the world’s cinema. He was sort of the only one who knew everything.”

Dr. Petric arrived in the United States as a Fulbright scholar. Studying at New York University, he became the school’s first recipient of a doctoral degree in film studies.

Upon conferring the degree in 1973, NYU said Dr. Petric was “the first doctoral degree in cinema studies to be awarded in this country.”

He taught at what is now Purchase College, just outside New York City, before becoming the Henry R. Luce professor in film studies at Harvard.

He stayed at Harvard until retiring in the late 1990s, teaching film, helping found the Harvard Film Archive in 1979, and curating the archive’s program of film viewings.

In the mid-1990s, Dr. Petric was among those the Boston Society of Film Critics honored “for helping keep the concept of the art house alive through consistently creative and unconventional noncommercial programming.”

Dr. Petric didn’t shy from showing silent films, for example, and found that adding one to the archive’s programming actually drew a larger audience.

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“Many young people have never seen a silent film, but when they do and find out how interesting they are they get fascinated,” he told the Globe in 1996. “When we show them we have a full house.”

The 35mm print experience was true to the filmmakers’ vision, he added, noting that video cassettes of that era would speed up silent films to accommodate adding a soundtrack, making action in the film jerky.

“We have the only projector in New England that can show all silent films at the proper speed,” he told the Globe, “and we have live music.”

Though aspiring filmmakers were among Dr. Petric’s students, he said his classes also attracted students who were preparing for graduate work in business, law, and medicine.

“We think they’ll be better businessmen and better lawyers if they know more about film,” he told the Globe in 1982.

“The more you see, the more you analyze, and the more you enjoy,” Dr. Petric added. “My point is simply that there are various enjoyments of film. I have nothing against entertainment — but why not have other types of love for movies?”

According to Dr. Petric’s friends, his survivors include his wife, Dara.

The couple had established the Kino-Theater Foundation in Serbia, according to the International Federation of Film Archives.

“I think Vlada was one of those larger than life figures,” Lekic said in an interview. “He lived for film as an art form, and that’s his legacy.”

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Along with teaching, Dr. Petric wrote extensively about film, including in his book “Constructivism in Film” and in numerous essays.

And while his criticism, like films he showed through the archive, might play to a smaller audience than reviews in popular publications, Dr. Petric didn’t mind.

“Sometimes we have five people and we are happy because these five people need it,” he said of his film archive audiences. A handful of people who are then moved to produce their own creative work “is better than a full house screaming and yelling.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.