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Review: Conceptualizing the Balkans in Film

Author(s): Dina Iordanova


Review by: Dina Iordanova
Source: Slavic Review, Vol. 55, No. 4 (Winter, 1996), pp. 882-890
Published by: Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies
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REVIEW ESSAY

Conceptualizing the Balkans in Film


Dina lordanova

The Beekeeper (Oo Melissokomous). Dir. Theo Angelopoulos. Greece.


1986.

Before the Rain. Dir. Milcho Manchevski. Britain-France-Macedonia.


1994.

The Black Swallow (Chernata lyastovitsa). Dir. Georgi Diulgerov. Bulgaria. 1996.
Bosna! Dir. Bernard-Henri Levy and Alain Ferrari. France. 1994.
Broken April (Te Paftuarith). Dir. Kujtim Cashku. Albania. 1988.
Burn, Burn, Little Flame (Gori, gori, oganche). Dir. Roumiana Petkova. Bulgaria. 1994.

Hole in the Soul. Dir. Du'san Makavejev. Scotland. 1994.


I Even Met Happy Gypsies (Skupljaci perja). Dir. Alexandar Petrovic.
Yugoslavia. 1967.
Last Wishes (Posledni zhelania). Dir. Rangel Vulchanov. Bulgaria.
1983.

Measure for Measure (Myara spored myara). Dir. Georgi Diulgerov.


Bulgaria. 1981.

The Oak (La chene). Dir. Lucian Pintilie. France-Romania. 1992.


The Patent Leather Shoes of the Unknown Soldier (Lachenite obuvki na

neznaynia voyn). Dir. Rangel Vulchanov. Bulgaria. 1979.


The Peach Thief (Kradetsat na praskovi). Dir. Vulo Radev. Bulgaria.
1964.

PlasticJesus (Plasticni Isus). Dir. Lazar Stojanovic Yugoslavia. 1971.


Sarajevo: Ground Zero. Dir. Ademir Kenovic. Bosnia. 1993.
Serbian Epics. Dir. Pawel Pawlikowski. United Kingdom. 1992.
T he Suspended Step of the Stork (To meteoro vima tou pelargou). Dir.
Theo Angelopoulos. Greece-France-Switzerland-Italy. 1991.
Time of the Gypsies (Dom za vesanije). Dir. Emir Kusturica. Yugoslavia. 1989.

Ulysses' Gaze (To vlemma tou Odyssea). Dir. Theo Angelopoulos.


Greece-France-Italy. 1995.
Underground. Dir. Emir Kusturica. France-Germany-Hungary. 1995.
An Unforgettable Summer (Un ete inoubliable). Dir. Lucian Pintilie.
France-Romania. 1994.

Vukovar: Poste-Restante. Dir. Boro Draskovic. United States-CyprusItaly. 1994.


War Correspondent: The Troubles We've Seen (Veillees d'armes). Dir.
Marcel Ophuls. France. 1994.
Who Is Singing Out There? (Ko to tamo peva?). Dir. Slobodan Sijan.
Yugoslavia. 1984.
Slavic Reviewv 55, no. 4 (Winter 1996)

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Conceptualizing the Balkans in Film 883


In Hole in the Soul, the autobiographical documentary of Yugoslav exile
Dusan Makavejev, a half-drunk vagabond addresses western viewers

from a barge on the Danube: "Why don't you affluent guys give some

money to Dusan, the director of this movie, only $2-3 million, no


more, so that he can make a movie called Yugoslavia. He is one of the
few who can tell you what the Balkans are all about! You gotta give
him money!"

With his taste for grotesque satire, Makavejev would have a thing
or two to say about his native corner of Europe-where the taxi drivers
do not observe red lights, where the wedding of a dashing warlord to

a folk singer becomes a nationwide celebration, where centuries-old


bridges are blown up in seconds, where earnest western envoys driven
by the Protestant work ethic encounter Byzantine duplicity, and "where

deceit is the most common political currency."' But so far, Makavejev


has not succeeded in getting the money to make his Yugoslavia.

Other directors, however, have already made their statements about


the Balkans, each contributing his mite to the collective endeavor of
explaining the inexplicable. Lately there have been so many features

and documentaries concerning the Balkans that an all-encompassing


study is beyond the compass of this review. Still, as with other explorations of the Balkans today, its conceptualization in film is far from
complete. Film seems to repeat the patterns so evident today in politics

and social science: it seems impossible to properly name the problems;


post-factum remorse prevails over attempts to prevent horrendous
tragedies; questions are raised but no one has the energy to look for
an answer.

One can distinguish, in recent films designed for distant audiences,


several cinematic approaches to the conflict in the Balkans. First, there
are documentaries based on actual footage that usually take sides in
conceptualizing the conflict. Second, there are features made by savvy
filmmakers from the former Yugoslavia who know how to capture the
range of intriguing imagery in their native lands and who cannily
market these images to an international audience. Third, there is the
cinema of the other Balkan countries that has started "to learn how to

marginalize itself, to see its present in its historical particularity and


its limitedness, so that Europeans can start relating to cultural 'others'

in new, more modest and dialogic ways."2 Some directors provide intriguing images of magical realism, and their work is more easily accepted in this age of visualization. Some explore ethical issues by ap-

pealing primarily to reason and still receive recognition, but their


moral discourse is often seen as "elliptic" and "convoluted."
In the case of documentaries, it seems that western productions
address western priorities more successfully than films from Balkan

1. Misha Glenny, The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War (London, 1992), 99.
2. Ian Ang, "Hegemony in Trouble: Nostalgia and the Ideology of the Impossible
in European Cinema," in Duncan Petrie, ed., Screening Europe: Image and Identity in
Contemporary European Cinema (London, 1992), 28.

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filmmakers. The French director Marcel Ophuls, well-known for his

analysis of the Holocaust in The Sorrow and the Pity, examines western
television coverage of the Bosnian conflict in his postmodern documentary collage War Correspondent: The Troubles We've Seen. He opens

with evidence of uninformed superficiality in war reporting and,


throughout his four-hour-long cinematic reflection, explores whether
this superficiality is due to intrinsic media patterns or to deeply ingrained attitudes of smugness inherent in the context of institutionalized consumerism. In the end, Ophuls is skeptical about the possibility of adequately conveying information across borders and cultures,
especially to the west, with its soporific levels of material comfort and
social ennui.
Bernard-Henri Levy, philosopher turned filmmaker, also questions
the nature of western involvement. In his film Bosna! he conducts a
filmic phenomenological reduction to arrive at a simple moral equa-

tion: in spite of claims that all sides are guilty, he concludes (and
supports his conclusion with abundant documentary evidence) that
aggressor and victim can be easily distinguished and understanding
can take place, if there is a willingness to do so.
Another approach is taken by the master of political satire Pawel
Pawlikowski, who ridicules the psychiatrist-poet and leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic, by letting him put forward his own case
in Serbian Epics. Karadzic readily recites his poetry for the film crew to

the accompaniment of the latest releases of nationalistic turbo-folk.

Historical and geopolitical speculations culminate in footage that features Russian playboy Eduard Limonov (at the time, Minister of Culture in Vladimir Zhirinovskii's shadow cabinet) during a visit to Serb
positions on the heights around Sarajevo. Wearing a navy blue baseball

cap, Limonov's exchange with his host and fellow-writer Karadzic is


conducted in broken English. As a distinguished visitor, Limonov is

invited to try the guns. He accepts and cheerfully fires several shells
at the city below.
The credits of Serbian Epics acknowledge the special involvement

of Lazar Stojanovic, author of the notorious 1971 film collage Plastic

Jesus. StojanoviC's participation reflects Pawlikowski's taste for the grotesque, but, like Makavejev, Stojanovic has not managed to secure funds
to make his own movie.

Are western producers skeptical that an unbiased explanation of


the Balkans can be offered by one of its natives? This may well be the

case. Bosnian Ademir Kenovic, who stayed in his hometown to work


on a film project with the evocative title Death in Sarajevo, produced a
documentary diary of the agony called Sarajevo: Ground Zero and arranged for it to be screened at some festivals. The film, however, was

not shown to wider audiences. The entertainment media reported that

many television companies have expressed interest in Kenovic's rare


documentary footage, but not in the final product assembled by the
Bosnian director and his crew. Kenovic, however, insists on preserving

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Conceptualizing the Balkans in Film 885


his structure: he believes that "the story should be told by the people

who are living it."3


Some feature filmmakers from the former Yugoslavia, however,
offer a visual treat that grants them entry into the international cinematic discourse on the Balkans. Stunning imagery, it seems, brings
more to the project of understanding than rigid moral discourse and
shaky camcorder footage.
Sarajevan Emir Kusturica left Bosnia and, via the United States and
France, ended up in Serbia (of all places!) to work on Underground, his

explanation of the Balkans. Using French, German, and Hungarian


coproduction funds, this cosmopolitan Yugoslav also obtained $10 million generously provided by Milosevic's Serbian television. The jury at
Cannes, indulging in friendly amnesia, agreed to overlook this detail
about the film's origins. A critic in Canada even called it a "Bosnian
movie."
In Underground, Kusturica plays with lengthy, elaborate scenes, dark,
ornate props, a haunting musical score, and a reality that cross-

references Fran?ois Rabelais, Hieronymus Bosch, and Federico Fellini.


The viewer is taken on a trip into the bizarre, the absurd, and the
deformed. The events in Underground span more than fifty years, and

the war that prevails in its opening scenes seems to last forever. The
central character is a con man, Marko, involved in shady dealings with
whomever happens to be in power at the moment. He enslaves a group

of people, totally appropriating their lives for decades by playing their


savior while in fact acting as their master in the cellar where he keeps
them in "hiding." But Marko is not to blame. In his world, swindlers

are the only reliable entrepreneurs-not only do they know the rules,
but they also have the energy to disregard the rules whenever necessary
to keep themselves on top. An indictment of moral irresponsibility

would be inappropriate in Marko's case, for deceit and betrayal are


not the focus. The film is about robust survivalism in a milieu populated by crooks and black marketeers, about the personal politics of

parasitism that is so easily cultivated in the unstable and insecure Balkans. Marko's multidimensional personality is a blend of strident philanderer, communist pen-pusher, and nationalist timeserver. For Kusturica, Marko's consuming vigor is the essence of the Balkans. The
poor light in the tunnels dims any clear ethical standards. Moreover,
the tunnels appear to be the only adequate setting for the Balkansfor today and for all times. When, triumphantly, the rescued slaves
leave their underground jail, it is only to be surrounded again by war.
Byzantine mentality and opportunism override all rigid ethical considerations in these lands that are so marginal to Europe. There are
no clear boundaries between swindling and entrepreneurship, between victimizers and victims, and no moral limitations for those who
3. Andrew Meier, "In Sarajevo, a Video View Taped from Ground Zero," New
York Times, 23 May 1993, 2-20.

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have decided to survive, even at the cost of appropriating the survival


instinct of others. The survivors justify their total moral permissiveness

by the fact that, even when on top, they are still in a marginal situation,
completely despised and neglected. Their home is in the cellar as well.
A message of nonstandard moral notions is offered by another

visually stunning film as well-Before the Rain by Milcho Manchevski.


The work of an insider (Macedonian-born, American-educated) presenting his own explanation to an audience of outsiders, this nonlinear
tale of a "circle that is not closed" is filled with elaborate twists in time

and space and with relationships that build, through conflict, to tragedy. The aesthetics of the movie celebrate mystic Orthodox Christianity-chants, black robes, humid monastery cells, candles illuminating the crumbling frescoes of hollow-cheeked saints. The story develops
against a magic backdrop that pulls together a deep, starry sky, the
blue waters of Lake Okhrid, and the tiled roofs of Macedonia: a composed image in which the hand of the director is visible. Manchevski
wants to teach his western viewers not to impose their own ethical
standards on a society that has different values. And he ventures to
show the difference. As a result, however, contemporary Macedonia is
revealed as a land with a strong tribal culture and medieval ethos.
The situation is explored through the gaze of a displaced native,

Alexandar, a cosmopolitan photographer who returns to his village

after eighteen years in London to find the ancient enmities stronger


than ever. Having come from the civilized and rational west, he encounters a world consumed by ugly and violent intolerance. Alexandar
does not want to take sides and attempts to remain above the irrational
rivalries, but in the end his western ideas of humanist reconciliation

cost him his life-he is killed by his own people. When communication

is deemed important, locals know how to speak the language of reconciliation as well as the language of hate, and there can be under-

standing when there is willingness. But it never happens-the passion


for hatred is too intricate and overwhelming.
The movie depicts the growing hostility between Albanians and
Macedonians in a region with a mixed population. At the end of the

twentieth century, the governing principle is still an eye for an eye.


Time has stopped. Golden tobacco strings dry on the cracked walls;
no cars drive along the stone-paved streets on which the steps of the
protagonist reverberate throughout the late afternoon. Only the state-

of-the-art automatic weapons in the hands of local scoundrels suggest


the present day. Occasionally white-and-blue vehicles marked UNPROFOR pass by, as if aliens have unexpectedly landed. Someone is stabbed,
but the doctor is completely helpless. Only the praying and moaning
of women in black kerchiefs continues. The film is heavy with atmosphere-old houses, nostalgia, the smell of homecoming-all permeated with the sense of stalking danger and a touch of magical realism breathing impasse and decay.
Manchevski explains: "I choose to call the movie Before the Rain,

and not Before the Storm, since the second title would have been too

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Conceptualizing the Balkans in Film 887

direct."4 At present there is no war in Macedonia, but the film shows


that it has already started and will slowly but securely grow into the

bloody conflict that is already expected internationally.


The remarkable imagery of films like Underground and Before the

Rain certainly provides crucial visualization. But when it comes to messages, these films do little more than reiterate stereotypes: that the
Balkans are different; that it is all about the "Other"; that nothing can
be done; that there is no way to solve the problems that are destroying

this "Other" from within. The works of Manchevski and Kusturica


move within a prescribed conceptualization that mirrors long-standing
notions of the Balkans as exotic and attractive but impossible to deal
with.

This is not to suggest that movies that are conventionally written

and shot do a better job. Boro Draskovic's Vukovar: Poste-Restante is an


example. Designed for the least-demanding taste, the narrative is painfully predictable: the war invades the honeymoon of Croat Anna and
Serb Toma. Toma is recruited into the army, and Anna who has just
become pregnant remains alone, living in the midst of increasing
violence that culminates in her brutal rape. Toma falls victim to the
growing madness that insists on emphasizing ethnic differences, and

Anna's alienation from him becomes irreversible. Near the end, both
protagonists leave the war-ravaged Vukovar forever-symbolically, in

opposite directions. The crossroads are no longer a meeting place, but


a point for final separations. War proves stronger than love.
There is only one exception to the tearful predictability of the film:

the unique aerial shot of Vukovar, a long, drawn-out documentary shot


of the destruction of the once prosperous town on the Danube. Only
ruins are left along the river. This is the only image that remains

haunting enough to validate the film.


The issue of guilt and responsibility within the uniquely ethnically
blended world of the Balkans is not a topic reserved exclusively for

former Yugoslavs. Even if the other Balkan countries do not presently


have a raging conflict, they are scrutinized by international observers
for signs of coming troubles.

Still, filmmakers from Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania are not ex-

pected to provide explanations that will help those from other countries understand them. They seem to have been granted more liberty
in the way they approach the subject. For them, the concept of the
Balkans is multidimensional, not limited to former Yugoslavia. Lately

Greek, Bulgarian, and Romanian directors have been trying to analyze


more layers and aspects in the conceptualization of the "Balkans."
Their work is permeated with magical realism and nostalgic reconstructions of innocent childhoods spent among the scent of haystacks
and the sounds of drawling songs. These films about the Balkans are,
however, made by people who are conscious of the marginality of their

4. Milcho Manchevski, "Predi dazhda" (interview), Kino (Sofia) 2 (1995): 46.

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own cultures and who know how to make this marginalization an asset.
They know how to cast themselves as the "Others." Directors such as
Theo Angelopoulos, Rangel Vulchanov, and Lucian Pintilie are aware

of the historiographic stereotypes used to describe the Balkans and


play around with them in different ways. Greek Angelopoulos, internationally celebrated for creating universal philosophical insights in
films such as The Beekeeper, for example, describes his own body of
work as "Balkan cinema." Bulgarian Vulchanov offers sophisticated

surrealist metaphors in treatises on the Balkan topic in his The Patent


Leather Shoes of the Unknown Soldier and Last Wishes. Romanian Pintilie
received the ultimate international recognition at Cannes for having
skillfully exploited peculiar features such as "contagious hatred" and

"scorn and contempt for authority" in his 1992 film The Oak.5
In his new release, An Unforgettable Summer, Pintilie deals with members of an oppressing class switching sides to join the oppressed in a
daring trespass of ethnic and class boundaries. The story takes place
in 1925 in another border region, Dobroudja, populated by Romanians
and Bulgarians. The protagonist is an officer's wife, the central European aristocrat Marie-Therese Von Debretsy, who belongs to the controlling regime but who abandons her prescribed position out of com-

passion for the members of the victimized local minority. The


relationship that develops between her and the local Bulgarian peas-

ants, who are to suffer their masters' revenge for crimes they have not
committed, is nontraditional and challenging. Marie-Therese neglects
the warnings of her own people, and they ostracize her. Still, she seems
to feel better living authentically in a fragile union with the locals,
enjoying her volatile fate. Languages and customs mix in a postmodern

blend, the gray overtones of the landscape and peasants' clothes supplement the impressionistic pastels of Marie-Therese's fading expen-

sive outfits, and the only bright color that streaks the screen is blood.
"Each person, in this ethnic madness, must clean his own doorstep,"6
claims director Pintilie.
Kristin Scott-Thomas, whom Pintilie chose to play the role of MarieTherese, is an actress en vogue, and the craze around her is consciously

used to promote the message that the behavior of the rulers is allimportant in preserving the fragile ethnic balances. By using a familiar

face, Pintilie makes sure that the wild Balkans are perceived in rational
terms. Theo Angelopoulos also uses famous actors: Jeanne Moreau and
Marcello Mastroianni in The Suspended Step of the Stork; Harvey Keitel
and Erland Josephson in Ulysses' Gaze. Their very appearance conveys

a message of a specific kind: they are intellectually apprehensive and


anxious people since they have been cast as such by Luchino Visconti,
Ingmar Bergman, Fellini, Frangois Truffaut, Andrei Tarkovskii, Martin
5. Noel Taylor, "Film-Maker's Macabre Comment on 1988 Romania Has a Lot to
Weep Over," Ottawa Citizen, 15 October 1993, F-3.
6. Annette Insdorf, "A Romanian Director Tells a Tale of Ethnic Madness," New
York Times, 6 November 1994, 2-22.

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Conceptualizing the Balkans in Film 889


Scorsese, and Jane Campion. The characters of Angelopoulos's "Balkan cinema" are involved in eternal searches for the ultimate: the
documentary filmmaker who goes to the refugee settlement on the

Albanian border to investigate the disappearance (or alleged voluntary


withdrawal) of a prominent politician whose book is suggestively en-

titled Despair at the End of the Century. Or "A" in Ulysses' Gaze, another
filmmaker, who travels across the shattered Balkans in a pensive and

melancholic journey searching for lost film footage that is supposed


to document the conviviality of happier times.

Compared to Kusturica's crooks, Angelopoulos's characters have


their moral sights set considerably higher. The Suspended Step of the Stork
is about invisible borders that can never be crossed and forsaken people who want to be elsewhere but who are stuck on the margins of a

transition. Ulysses' Gaze carries out a nostalgic reconstruction, in vanishing flashes, of peaceful and colorful ethnic cohabitation at the crossroads between Orient and Occident. This reconstruction takes its final
shape in Sarajevo, where a dedicated Jewish film curator, weary and
wise, reflects on the existential categories of lost homelands and universal displacement. The characteristic atmosphere-lonely wandering
through the mist-prevails in both films. Both are cowritten by the
legendary European screenwriter Tonino Guerra, and both move en-

tirely within the physical and semantic space of the Balkans. Questions
about the seeds of conflict, guilt, and understanding are not explored
here. Instead, the themes are universally distorted harmony, irrecoverable identities, and fin de siecle sadness. Angelopoulos's films are
filled with a wistful and restless longing for harmony, far beyond the
comprehensive geopolitical and ethnic intricacies dominating the approaches of most other filmmakers. He is the only one daring enough
to assert that universal problems lurk within the peculiar Balkan universe.

The troubled interrelations among Balkan ethnic groups have been

a topic of these cinemas since earlier times. Alexandar Petrovic's I Even


Met Happy Gypsies, Slobodan Sijan's Who Is Singing Out There? and Kusturica's Time of the Gypsies are classics devoted to the Romani. In Broken
April director Kujtim Cashku explores the vendettas of Albanian Gegs.
Vulo Radev's The Peach Thief tackles the forbidden passion of a Bul-

garian officer's wife and a Serbian prisoner of war during earlier Balkan clashes. Then there is Georgi Diulgerov's Measure for Measure, a
captivating cinematic treatment of the multifaceted Macedonian ques-

tion, and his new release, The Black Swallow, which explores the Gypsy

topic again. Roumiana Petkova's Burn, Burn, Little Flame tackles the
communist assimilation efforts against the Pomaks-ethnic Bulgarian
Muslims-and features beautifully shot footage revealing untouched
ethnographic treasures in an atmosphere permeated with nostalgia for
lost religious and ethnic tolerance.

The products of various Balkan cinemas, however, cannot be considered creations of a cohesive group of peoples consciously exploring
the same "chronotope." The culture of each Balkan country stands for

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itself, and today there is little artistic exchange between the nations in

the region. Only if a film establishes itself in the west-like Before the
Rain, Underground, or Ulysses' Gaze-is there a chance that it will be
shown to audiences in its neighboring countries. But when that happens, the realization arises that the Balkans share a very similar experience. The problems seem the same: patriarchy, marginality, stub-

bornness, hostility, narrow-mindedness, ethnic conflicts, resistance to


authority, and a special ethnic harmony currently endangered by mismanaged politics. It becomes clear that in spite of their insulation,
common preoccupations and interconnectedness characterize the new
Balkan cinema.

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