20 years “Balkan Survey”. The establishment of a formerly unknown cinema 1
At a time when the civil war was raging in Yugoslavia and the Balkans were presented to the international community as a hotbed of barbarism, ethnic cleansing and human rights violations, the Thessaloniki Film Festival’s director Michel Demopoulos proceeded, in 1994, to establish a section called the “Balkan Survey”, which would be exclusively devoted to films produced in this region. This initiative aimed to showcase the creative cinematic forces of Balkan countries and to seek out bridges of communications through their common cultural roots. At the same time, however, it was an effort to offset the negative representations of the international media regarding the Balkans; to put forward a different way of seeing; and to bring to the fore the discourse and viewpoint of – mostly – native film directors. It was, therefore, a counter-proposal, which would put the Balkans back on the international map under different terms, by linking Balkan cinema to that of the rest of Europe. This move was considered extremely progressive at the time, since there was no such section anywhere on the landscape of international film festivals, and gave the Festival and Thessaloniki the chance to act as a meeting point and a place of communication within the greater region of Southeast Europe.2 Especially in regard to foreign professionals of the world of film (journalists, critics, festival programmers, producers and distributors), the TIFF offered a strong motive for them to attend it and catch up on the latest cinematic developments of the Balkans.
But the Festivals’ emphasis on Balkan cinema also sprung from the interest aroused by being neighbors with the other Balkan countries, combined with the need to overcome the substantial ignorance and, at times, prejudice of the Greek public for Balkan cinemas. With the age-long national disputes between Balkan states and the Cold War having contributed to the lack of a feeling of accord between these neighboring countries, this absence is also reflected in cinema. Each national cinema in the Balkans has developed independently of the other countries, without – up until recently – a real collaboration between them. In Greece, this cinema was, to a large degree, unknown, since most film-goers knew only the films of the most famous among Balkan directors, such as Güney, Makavejev, and Kusturica, since they were the only ones that were ever shown in the movie theaters (the same had applied in the past to commercial Turkish films). But with the emergence of talented young directors and the systematic showcasing of their work, the TIFF contributed decisively to overcoming the pre-existing isolation and the lack of contact which have characterized the cinemas of the Balkans.
The screening of Balkan films was to endow the Thessaloniki International Film Festival with one of the salient features of its international identity, with the “Balkan Survey” acting as a stage for the annual presentation and evaluation of Balkan film production. Despite the fact that, in recent years, many Balkan films have been screened at other international festivals before Thessaloniki’s, nonetheless, the TIFF’s Balkan section remains the most important one of its kind internationally. The reason is that it offers a strict selection of the best new films by newcomers, veterans and other acclaimed Balkan filmmakers, while it also organizes retrospectives and thematic tributes which are accompanied by bilingual publications. At the same time, the “Balkan Survey” organizes round-table discussions, masterclasses, book presentations and concerts. If we add to the section’s activities such Festival development actions as the Balkan Fund (a fund for the development of Balkan scripts [2003-2010]), Crossroads (a co-production forum for the Balkans and the greater Mediterranean region), the Agora and the presentation of Balkan films in progress, it becomes clear that, during all these years, the TIFF has succeeded in playing a crucial role in the process of establishing and creating Balkan cinema.
By defining as Balkan the countries of Southeast Europe which were part of the Ottoman historical reality, the “Balkan Survey” does not include Greece and Greek films – which are screened in a separate section – simply because the “Balkan Survey” is Greece’s glimpse of the rest of the Balkans. And if, for many, the approach of the Balkans as an integrated culture is not acceptable or – at best – is problematic, nevertheless the careful examination of new Balkan films cannot help but see a major thematic and aesthetic cohesiveness. These films draw from realism, use the same mischievous humor, and address the same topics, which originate in a common story: the Ottoman presence; resistance against foreign conquerors and totalitarian regimes; tumultuous history and a political situation in flux; urbanism; the region’s semi-Oriental character; the heritage of patriarchy and economic dependency. 3 Thus, the approach of the Balkans by the TIFF is an expression of both a reaction to the splintering which has historically characterized the region’s states, and a desire to highlight the things that link them together. This is in alignment with the view of the academic Dina Iordanova, who, countering the continued marginalization, bad press and problematic representation of the Balkans, proposes the transcending of individual national culture for the sake of a Balkan reciprocity. Her objective is to acknowledge “the supra-national dimensions of the regional heritage and give a boost to an appreciation of a shared regional identity, thus offering a framework for a new, critical examination of sense of belonging and a positive thinking about ‘being Balkan.’”4
The programming of the Balkan Survey aspires to capture what is going on each year in the Balkans, offering films of aesthetic and narrative originality, which at the same time illustrate important features of Balkan life and the Balkan identity. Given the various extraneous factors that enter into the program’s selection (such as the quality and the size of a production, the strategy a producer or distributor may have regarding a film, the selection of a film by the Festival’s International Competition section, etc.), the final result aims at cohesiveness; with the films complementing each other in terms of style and subject matter, and all of them together conveying a picture of the Balkan cinematic landscape, underscoring the experimentation and artistic pursuits of Balkan auteurs.
In terms of subject matter, the most important Balkan films focus on the contemporary historical reality of the peninsula. At their heart lie stories about the end of the communist era; about the civil war in Yugoslavia; about events surrounding the fall of Ceauşescu; about the 1980 military coup and other socially and politically tense episodes in Turkey. According to Iordanova, history is approached as something which ordinary people have to endure and to live through; a process which they cannot influence. Balkan film directors address historical memory selectively, giving priority to certain memories, while neglecting or completely crossing out others. Thus, the narratives regarding the historical past, present and future of the region are uneven and fragmentary. They explore controversial aspects or taboo subjects of traditional historiography, bringing to the surface hushed up stories. 5
Contemporary social reality is captured in narratives that contain the wounds of the recent past and resonate with the region’s communist heritage and the Yugoslavia’s civil war. They depict the volatility and insecurity of current social changes; the moral crises of their societies; they examine the decay of social values, the collapse of the nuclear family, the lack of accord and solidarity, the need to flee, immigration. They explore the human condition and juxtapose it with the dynamic of human relations. Very often, their stories don’t disconnect the personal from the social, thus rendering the characters’ problems the result of their social and political situation. In this way, cinema in the Balkans functions anthropologically, constituting “an ethnographic vehicle, a description registry, a medium that describes cultural models and motifs of social dynamics in the present tense […] It constitutes a space for the externalization of cultural models and processes in order for society to be able to see and reflect on itself […] It identifies the cultural codes, the narratives and the local allusions used by people of specific regions in order to think.”6
The different viewpoints through which filmmakers approach the historical past offer the opportunity to themselves as well as to the viewers to contemplate and to reconcile with historical memory. The fact that they tackle the recent past underscores their need to publicize their negative experiences, to work through and renegotiate major social and political issues or historical traumas. They use the past in order to address situations and problems of the present, and to negotiate contemporary social dynamics. As for the films that are about the present, they often function as a means to explore and document their contemporary social reality, exercising cultural criticism and lampooning inherited cultural behaviors and perceptions. They turn their attention from the essentialist viewing of their cultures to the multiplicities, the contradictions and the dilemmas of the new negotiations of the self, of feelings, of practice, and of the ways in which we understand the world.
Through this year’s anniversary tribute, the “Balkan Survey” presents a retrospective of the twenty years since the segment was first inaugurated. The selection of seventeen films by seventeen different directors is merely indicative and inevitably omits important films and filmmakers (such as Cristian Mungiu, to whom the Festival organized a tribute last year, or Fatih Akin); it includes films which were screened as part of the “Balkan Survey” program, which are not widely known among Greek audiences and which, with the exception of the newly-established states of Montenegro and Kosovo, whose film production is still taking its first steps, represent all the Balkan countries; and it is an effort to paint the cultural, social and political portrait of the region through the artistic pursuits of some of the major Balkan film directors of our time, whose evolution and oeuvre has always been at the heart of the section’s programming.
These films examine the communist past in Romania (The Oak, Lucian Pintilie, 1992, and Don’t Lean Out the Window, Nae Caranfil, 1993) and Albania (Slogans, Gjergj Xhouvani, 2001); the break-up of Yugoslavia (How the War Started on My Island, Vinko Brešan, 1996); the historical trauma of the US liberators not showing up in Romania at the end of World War II (California Dreamin’ [endless], Cristian Nemescu, 2007), as well as the wounds of the Yugoslavian civil war in Serbia (Midwinter Night’s Dream, Goran Paskaljević, 2004) and in Bosnia (Grbavica, Jasmila Žbanić, 2006); the social problems that accompany the new transitional period after the fall of communism in FYROM (Mirage, Svetozar Ristovski, 2004) or Serbia (White, White World, Oleg Novković, 2010), but also the changes in people’s psychological state in new era Bulgaria (Emilia’s Friends, Lyudmil Todorov, 1996); contemporary social reality in Romania after the fall of Ceauşescu (The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu, Cristi Puiu, 2005 and12:08 East of Bucharest Corneliu Porumboiu, 2006); daily life in the Turkish provinces (The Small Town, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 1998 and Times and Winds, Reha Erdem, 2006); and the changes in Turkey’s social mores and the imminent social and psychological effects on people (Milk, Semih Kaplanoğlu, 2008). The program is rounded off by two existential approaches: Innocence (1997) by Turkey’s Zeki Demirkubuz and Gravehopping (2005) by Slovenia’s Jan Cvitkovič.
As I conclude this brief retrospective, I would like to make special mention of certain people who have decisively contributed to and actively supported, each in her or his way, the “Balkan Survey” endeavor: Maria Roussi, who was the coordinator for five years and Dimitra Kessenidou, who was also the coordinator for one edition; the film critic Dimitris Bampas, who provided articles and interviews on Balkan cinema for the Festival’s First Shot newspaper (1996-2005), and who has maintained an invaluable and diverse collaboration with the “Balkan Survey” to this day; Yannis Palavos, who succeeded him at the First Shot (2006-2011); the film critic Stratos Kersanidis, who consistently promoted the “Balkan Survey” in publications not affiliated to the Festival; and academic Dina Iordanova, who offered the undersigned the theoretical framework for a more profound approach to and understanding of Balkan cinema. Finally, I would like to thank the Festival’s current director, Dimitri Eipides, for the constant support he has offered me, as well as for the knowledge I have gained at his side all these years in matters of programming.
1 This article is the Introduction of 54th ITFF’s publication on Maties sta Valkania / Balkan Survey (1994-2013) edited by Dimitris Kerkinos.
2 The Sarajevo Film Festival, which was founded in 1995, established in 1998 a regional program, which included films from the countries of the former Eastern Europe. It went on to focus more on the Balkan region, which, in time, it would expand to include countries from Central and Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. The Sofia Film Festival, on the other hand, established in 2002 a section featuring exclusively Balkan films.
3 Iordanova, D., (2006). “Introduction” in D. Iordanova (ed.) The Cinema of the Balkans. London: Wallflower Press, p. 1
4 Ibid., p. 11
5 Iordanova, D., (2007). “Whose Is This Memory?: Hushed Narratives and Discerning Remembrance in Balkan Cinema”. Cineaste, Vol. 32, No. 3, pp. 22-27
6 Fischer M., “Cinema as ethnography and as cultural criticism” in D. Gefou-Madianou (2008), Anthropological Theory and Ethnography. Contemporary Trends