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Balkan Identities, Balkan Cinemas

Published by NISI MASA, European network of young cinema.

Coordinators, Editors : Matthieu Darras, Maria Palacios Cruz

Editorial Secretary, Iconography : Jude Lister
Graphic Designer/Layout: Jon Grönvall
Layout assistant: Emilie Padellec

Printed by Mondostampe (Grafica & Stampa)

Via Stresa 36 - 10149 Torino - Italia

March 2008
ISBN: 978-2-9531642-0-6
Balkan Identities,
Balkan Cinemas
This book is the follow-up of a seminar which took place
from the 3rd to the 9th of March 2006 in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria,
entitled “Balkan Identities, Balkan Cinemas”.

Organised by the NISI MASA association in cooperation

with Art Group Haide, it welcomed young participants
from 10 different countries in the Balkan region.

The texts contained in this book are a result of the debates

which took place during this week-long event.


Foreword :: By Ron Holloway 8-9
Introduction: Claustrophobic Balkans :: By Jasna Žmak 10


Imagining the Balkans… in film :: By María Palacios Cruz 14-24

What is kitch? :: By Tanja Nestoroska 17
Humour - The Devil’s advocate on the Balkans :: By Srdjan Keca & Blerton Ajeti 21
Kitsch & black Humour - a Balkan label? :: By Laurenţiu Bratan 25-26
Representation of the border in Theo Angelopoulos’ films :: By Nicéphore Tsimbidaros 27-29
Others on the Balkans :: By Rona Zuy and Gergö Csép 30


Introduction to Bulgarian cinema :: By Petia Slavova 33-35

Whose Is This Song? Adela Peeva :: By Petia Slavova 36
The Mosquito Problem and Other Stories, Andrey Paunov :: By Emilie Padellec 37
The old & the new in contemporary Romanian cinema :: By Laurenţiu Bratan 38-43
The Death of Mister Lazarescu, Cristi Puiu :: By Simone Fenoil 44
12:08 East of Bucharest, Corneliu Porumboiu :: By Gwendoline Soublin 45-46
4 Months, 3 weeks and 2 days, Cristian Mungiu :: By Emilie Padellec 47
California Dreamin’, Cristian Nemescu :: By Jude Lister 49
An overview of the (new) Croatian cinema :: By Jasna Žmak 50-54
The phenomenon of Bosnian cinema :: By Una Gunjak 55-61
Go West, Ahmed Imamovic :: By Una Gunjak 62-63
From Yugoslav to Serbian cinema (1991-2001) :: By María Palacios Cruz 64-72
A short history of censorship in Kosovan cinema :: By Blerton Ajeti & Lulzim Hoti 76
Kukumi, Isa Qosja :: By Alexander Richter 77
The return to grace of Turkish cinema :: By Matthieu Darras 78-80
Istanbul Tales (Collective) :: By Gaëlle Debaisieux 81

Index – Films 82-86

Index – Directors 87-88
Partners and Contact Info 89


ron holloway

had never heard of NISI MASA – until I received this email from Sofia: “My name is Elena
Mosholova and I come from NISI MASA – a European network of young cinema enthusiasts.
I’m writing to you with an invitation for a seminar that we are organising. This seminar is to
take place in the town of Blagoevgrad (southwest Bulgaria, close to Macedonia and Greece), from
the 3 to the 9th of March 2006.”

Of course, Blagoevgrad intrigued me. The birthplace of former premier Todor Zhivkov. A
university town and mineral springs. Sometimes called the capital of the “Bulgarian Macedonians.”
Not far from the famous Rila Monastery, with its treasures of the Bulgarian Orthodoxy. But
what interested me the most was Elena’s proposal:
“NISI MASA will gather 26 young participants from ten Balkan countries: Albania, Bosnia-
Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia-Montenegro, Romania, Slovenia, Turkey,
plus the Kosovo Protectorate.”

To be honest, I didn’t think a fledgling organisation like NISI MASA could pull it off. But
it turned out that the only reason why some invited participants were missing from the seminar
could be traced to visa hangovers. Upon arriving in Blagoevgrad, I met with my partners –
Matthieu Darras and Elena Mosholova – to see what the seminar aimed to accomplish. To my
delight, I was told that participants would join in workshops and role-playing games in order to
try to answer the question: “Which are the common cinema images for Balkan countries?”

“Try” was the key word. For, as everyone in the film profession knows, the social impact of
cinema varies according to the perception of the viewer. Thus, as wisely outlined in the NISI
MASA portfolio: “Discussions and conferences would focus, firstly, on the mutual impact of society
and cinema and, secondly, on the common features and differences in the identities of people coming
from the Balkans.” My job, as a guest, was to lead one of the discussions, on “how Balkan cinema
was viewed from abroad.” Since I had written rather extensively on the subject, I could begin by
saying: “I don’t have the slightest idea as to what Balkan cinema is in the first place!” Following my
mother’s advice: “Always admit you’re dumb when you don’t have a clue!”

Two other “old-timers” from state film institutes in Bulgaria and Romania were also around
to help explain why there happen to be national revivals in some countries but hindrances in
others. Also, why might a common cinema market in the Balkans be just a pipedream?

Topics? Try these on for size:

- Humour – national traits, or is there a specific Balkan humour?
- Cultural Links – kitsch, stereotypes, myths in national cinemas.
- The “Other” – national films about other peoples in the Balkans.

To break the ice and make it easy going for all, participants from a certain country or region
would give a half-hour presentation on a general topic. Also, films could be screened as an integral
part of the presentation or during the free evenings. These presentations would be followed by a
collective discussion. And that’s where the fun began. I remember one discussion on “Weddings
in the Balkans” that brought the house down with laughter. Whole villages might turn out for
a week-long celebration in Kosovo! And I recall how we voted to have the seminar outing at a
mineral springs high in the mountains. That’s where I finally learned a bit more about who and
what is NISI MASA.

Its title refers (I guess) to something scrawled on a wall in Fellini’s 8 1/2. Out of this graffiti
evolved a movement. NISI MASA was founded in Paris in 2001 by a group of young cineastes
– originally from France, Italy, Belgium, Spain and Finland – with the support of the European
Union, and has become an ever-evolving European Network of Young Cinema. Its aims are
four-fold: to discover new film talent, to foster European awareness through cinema, to develop
cross-cultural cinema projects, and to create a platform of discussion and collaboration for
young European filmmakers. Pretty high stakes for a young crowd. But then I heard that NISI
MASA had successfully organised a seminar on Human Rights in Turkey. Not an easy mandate,

Following the NISI MASA seminar in Blagoevgrad, a jury was formed to award a NISI
MASA Prize at the 2006 Sofia International Film Festival. The prize went to Isa Qosja’s Kukumi
(Kosovo), a surreal tale about a trio of inmates released from an insane asylum at the close of the
war in Kosovo in 1999. A fine choice. By the time the SIFF 2007 rolled around, the NISI MASA
Prize had become a festival tradition. It was awarded to Croatian director Ognjen Svilicic’s
Armin (Croatia/Germany/Bosnia&Herzegovina), a tongue-in-cheek tale about a 14-year-old
who journeys with his father from a village in Herzegovina to Zagreb in order to audition for a
German film about the Bosnian war. Another fine choice.

If that’s what NISI MASA is all about, then … ad multos annos.


Claustrophobic Balkans
Jasna Žmak

Try holding a globe in your hands and reading out the names of various countries around it.
With most of them there should be no difficulty, but when you get to certain parts of the world,
e.g. the Balkans, you notice that the letters start to get smaller, the borders multiply, the number
of countries increases sharply... the feeling is almost claustrophobic. So many differences in such
a small area. And if you live in one of these Balkan countries, with the others always surrounding
you, it is impossible to avoid them.
However, the interesting thing is that you don’t want to avoid them. Whether it be in a positive
or a negative way, you cope with them... In both cases, film represents the perfect medium of
expression. The political situation, the historical background, the mixture of nationalities and the
issue of national pride all make the position of ‘the other’ in the Balkans a particularly complex
and interesting element of filmmaking in the region. It is hard to find a recently produced film in
any Balkan country which doesn’t touch on this theme at least a little... from drama to comedy,
‘the other’ is always present, even if not physically. And the often-quoted characterisation of the
Balkans as a powder keg, ready to explode at any time, makes this understandable... However it
also gives an unnecessarily negative perspective to the whole issue. There is, one would hope, a
rising number of films which show how understanding with ‘the other’ can be improved. I think
that this is something which we have also proven to be possible during this seminar.


Mila From Mars by Zornitsa Sophia (2004) © Kirov Consult Ltd

Imagining the Balkans... in Film

What is Kitsch?
Humour - the Devil’s Advocate on the Balkans
Kitsch & Black humour - a Balkan Label

THE REPRESENTATION OF THE Border in the Films of

Theo AngelopoulOs

Others on the Balkans


Imagining the Balkans…
in film
Maria Palacios Cruz

“To those who have not visited them, the Balkans are a shadow-land of mystery; to those who know
them, they become even more mysterious... You become, in a sense, a part of the spell, and of the mystery
and glamour of the whole […] Intrigue, plotting, mystery, high courage and daring deeds – the things
that are the soul of true romance are to-day the soul of the Balkans.”
- Arthur D. Howden Smith1

What could the films Cat People2 ( Jacques Tourneur, 1942), Die Hard with a Vengeance3
( John McTiernan, 1995), The Peacemaker4 (Mimi Leder, 1999), Zorba the Greek5 (Michael
Cacoyannis, 1964) and Kika6 (Pedro Almodóvar, 1993) possibly have in common? The answer is
that they are all somehow responsible for our cinematographic image of the Balkans. They have
all contributed, in one way or another, to building the image that Westerners have of the region.
Furthermore, they have constructed a series of Balkans clichés that have not only been confirmed
by local filmmakers such as Kusturica, Manchevski or Angelopoulos, but largely exploited by
Balkan cinematography as a whole.
In a society such as ours, the notion of simulation is so central to our culture that the risk
of losing touch with the real world looms large, and simulation often precedes and determines
reality. We may do well then to question the ‘reality’ of these cinematographic representations of
the Balkans. Have they become more ‘true’ than the ‘real’ ones ? More ‘real’ than the ‘true’ ones?
For centuries, Western thought and discourse has ‘balkanised’ the Balkans, cinema being
just one expression of this process. This balkanisation has not only been adopted and assimilated
by Balkan intellectuals, but subsequently legitimised. The mysterious Balkans of primitive
rituals and brutal passions is not only the stereotype put forward by Western films, but also the
Balkans that Balkan cinema portrays. How then can we tell the real from the fake? How can
we differentiate between the representation and the object it represents, when the clichés of the

1 Arthur D. Howden Smith, Fighting the Turks in the Balkans. An American’s Adventures with the Macedonian Revolutionaries,
G. P Putnam’s, 1908, p. 24. Quoted by Todorova M., Imagining the Balkans, Oxford University Press 1997, p. 14.
2 Where Simone Simon is Irena, a tormented Serbian woman haunted by an old Balkan legend.
3 Bruce Willis is being chased by his enemies and has to leave behind the Yugo he was driving as it breaks down. Furious,
he comments on its poor quality and gets hold of the first Mercedes he finds.
4 Where a Bosnian terrorist (self-defined « Serb, Croat and Muslim ») tries to blow up the UN headquarters in NYC.
5 A British writer (Alan Bates) is visiting Greece and comes accross an incredible individual, the flamboyant and
colourful Zorba (Anthony Quinn).
6 Where Somalia and Sarajevo are linked in one single sentence. Similar impassive references to the Yugoslav conflict
appear in Home for Holidays ( Jodie Foster, 1995) and Bridget Jones’s Diary (Sharon Maguire, 2001).

external representation are internalised? And how does this process of internalisation actually
take place?

Which Balkans ?

The first and most fundamental question one must ask oneself when writing on the subject
of the Balkans is of course : what do we mean by ‘Balkans’? Simple as it may seem, this question
is in fact a complex and sensitive one. Reference organisations, such as the French-speaking Le
Courrier des Balkans7, often include the following: Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Kosovo,
Macedonia, Moldavia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia and Slovenia. The term “Balkan” is however
not a neutral one, as it has strong, often negative connotations.8 The result of this is a label that no
one seems to want to belong to, a synonym of war and painful tragedy. This is why the Balkans
are always ‘the others’. Following this line of thought, Croats and Slovenes often claim their
belonging to Catholic Central Europe, and Romanians and Moldovians to the group of Latin-
speaking countries, feeling themselves closer to the geographically distant France or Spain.
Moreover, there is no precise definition of where the Balkans start and end. It is an unusual
geographical area, with no clear borders. For example, certain geographers mark the Sava river
as its Northern boundary, but according to them, Zagreb’s airport would belong to the Balkans
whereas Zagreb wouldn’t (in Belgrade and Ljubljana it would be the opposite way).
The Serbian filmmaker Dušan Makavejev proposes a very peculiar Balkan typology (and
topography): “There are 67 million people in the nine Balkan countries. If we add Turkey, which is
leaning on the peninsula with one small leg, we have 132 million ‘Balkanians’. And with Hungary
and Austria, although these two ladies drink tea and are persuaded to be in Mitteleuropa, then we
Balkanians and semi-Balkanians are 150 million”.9 Another Balkan filmmaker, Theo Angelopoulos,
when asked why his films speak for this region, replies:
“Geographically, we belong to the Balkan basin. We have borders with all of these countries : the former
Yugoslavia, Albania, Romania, etc. We also share a common destiny; just as all of these peoples, we have
known the Turkish rule for centuries”.10 Confronted by the complexity of the question and the
multiplicity of definitions, Dina Iordanova concludes: “Nominally, the Balkans include Bulgaria,
Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Albania. Countries such as Croatia,
Slovenia, Greece, Romania, Moldova and Turkey are also ‘Balkan’ in a number of elements of their

8 Maria Todorova gives several examples of the negative connotations of the terms “Balkan” or “Balkanisation”: for Paul
Scott Mayer, European correspondent for the Chicago Daily News in 1921, Balkanisation is “the creation, in a region of
hopelessly mixed races, of a medley of small states with more or less backward populations, economically and financially
weak, covetous, intriguing, afraid, a continual prey to the machinations of the great powers, and to the violent promptings
of their own passions” (Torodova M., 1997, p. 34) ; or as Alexander Vodopivec describes in La balkanisation de l’Autriche,
“Balkan – this was once a synonym for unrealiability, lethargy, corruption, irresponsability, mismanagement, blurring of
the competences and borders of law and much else” (Todorova M., 1997, p. 35).
9 Makavejev D., “Dans les Balkans, là où les rivières coulent au-dessus des ponts”, Positif, nº 479, January 2001, p. 42
(translation by the author).
10 Ciment M., “Entretien avec Theo Angelopoulos”, Positif, nº 415, September 1995, pp. 21-27 (transl. by the author).


history, heritage and self-conceptualisation […]”.11

“Balkanism”: a Western view of the Balkans

For Robert Stam and Ella Shohat12, Euro-centered thought divides the world into two
opposite cultural fields : ‘the West’ and ‘the rest’. This division organises everyday language into
binary structures, always favourable to Eurocentrism: our ‘nations’, their ‘tribes’; our ‘religions’, their
‘superstitions’; our ‘culture’, their ‘folklore’; our ‘art’, their ‘art craft’; our ‘defence’, their ‘terrorism’;
our ‘demonstrations’, their ‘street riots’. Eurocentrism, sometimes condescending, sometimes
demonising towards the non-Western, opposes multiculturalism.
Stam and Shohat are well aware of the importance of the media in the multiculturalist debate.
In a world where images, sounds, peoples and goods circulate globally, the impact of the media
on national identity, and on the feeling of group-belonging, is very complex. As it facilitates the
interaction with far-off nations, the media ‘deterritorialises’ the communities’ process of self-
image construction, often altering their cultures.
In the Balkans’ case, in spite of their undeniable European geography, and the active part
they’ve played in the Continent’s common history (far more active than other peripheral European
regions, such as the Iberian peninsula, whose belonging to ‘Europe’ is no longer an issue), they
are not considered as part of the Western or European cultural field, but are left belonging to

11 Iordanova D., Cinema of Flames : Balkan Film, Culture and Media, BFI Publishing, London, 2001, p.7.
12 Shohat E., Stam R., Multiculturalismo, cine y medios de comunicación, Ediciones Paidós, Barcelona, 2002.

What is Kitsch?
Tanja Nestoroska

Kitsch. How can we define it? What is this thing that puts so many different meanings
under one label? Perhaps it is easier if we look at the root of the phenomenon. It was born
in Germany at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, as a result of the
increased wealth of the lower classes. Suddenly, these people of lower status and level of
education had the chance to become someone else. They started imitating the aristocracy,
but cheaply and in a way that soothed their own level of understanding. All of a sudden, the
big classical pieces of art were being copied and their characteristics reduced. Since then, this
false sense of aesthetics has grown and extended into all areas of human life. You can find
this same process during the last 15 years within the Balkans.

Both Mila from Mars (Zornitsa Sophia) and Philanthropy (Nae Caranfil) demonstrate
the kitsch in people’s characters, although we cannot really define where the limit is between
good and bad taste. It all depends on how much knowledge someone has of another’s
culture. In other words, something might be seen as kitsch in one society, but as something
completely different in another.

A general definition of kitsch can however be applied to the style of both these films:

1. One of the main goals of kitsch is to attract attention. We can see how it is used on
purpose by certain famous people to increase their number of fans. This often works very
well, because the majority of the general public likes kitsch (don’t laugh, it’s true!).

2. Too much detail and elaboration, to show prosperity and richness. This is done
often without concern over whether those details fit together or not.

3. Insincerity. When a person pretends to be someone he is not, especially copying

someone without truly understanding who the copied subject really is. This can be seen
in the performances of many actors (when we say that they are ‘overacting’).

4. Kitsch is by definition modern, because it is always fresh and new. People come up
with new ideas every day, and there is always a public to consume them.


the ‘rest’ Shohat and Stam speak of. The Balkans are the expression of the ‘other’, as Todorova13
also points out, and their marginalisation is not only made explicit by Western thought but also
internalised by its own peoples. Furthermore, when a Greek goes to France or Italy, he says he’s
going to ‘Europe’. He calls all the Westerners visiting Greece ‘Europeans’ (and that includes
American tourists), in contrast with the Greeks, who as a result are not Europeans. But they are
not Oriental either. As Ducket Ferriman writes, they are the bridge between East and West.14
However, in a strictly geographical sense, ‘East’ and ‘West’ are only relative concepts. What
the West calls the Middle East would be, from a Chinese perspective, Western Asia. Politics
determine cultural geography, and whereas Israel is generally accepted as a Western country,
Turkey, Egypt and Morocco are perceived as Oriental. The myth of the West and of the East (or
Orient) are two faces of the same colonial sign. And just as Edward Said describes the ways in
which European literature has constructed a Euro-centred vision of the East in Orientalism15, the
work and research of Maria Todorova16 or Milica Bakic-Hayden17 propose an equivalent thesis
regarding the Euro-centred construction of the Balkans.
In an East/West perspective of the world, Eastern Europe would be in the semi-Orientalism
stage. Neither definitively excluded nor fully integrated, Eastern Europe is located along a scale
which measures the distance from barbarism to civilisation. On that scale, the Balkans are located
closer to the barbaric depths, functioning as a category of their own and becoming a synonym of
the ‘barbarian’, the ‘tribal’ and the ‘primitive’.
Nevena Dakovic18 lists the three main characteristics of the Balkan stereotype: exoticism,
ambiguity and ‘third worldisation’. To the eyes of the Westerner, the Balkans appear to be the last
truly exotic hideaway in the ‘First’ World, a magical region, strongly marked by duality (between
East and West; North and South; Rome and Byzantium; Austria and the Ottoman Empire).
Since the early days of cinema, filmic representations of the Balkans have inevitably hovered
between two poles: romance and violence. In the first case, the Balkans are a fairy-tale land:
idyllic, imaginary and often not clearly defined. These are the Balkans of The Prisoner of Zenda19,
Cat People or Cecil B. DeMille’s Unafraid and The Captive. In the second case, the Balkans are
a powder-keg ready to explode every 50 years, a land inhabited by vengeful savages who let

13 ‘‘Geographically inextricable from Europe, yet culturally constructed as ‘the other’, the Balkans became in time, the
object of a number of externalized political, ideological and cultural frustrations and have served as a repository of nega-
tive characteristics against which a positive and self-congratulatory image of the ‘European’ and `the West’ has been
constructed’’. (Todorova M., 1997, p. 453).
14 Ducket Ferriman Z., Greece and the Greeks, New York, James Pott, 1911, p. 132, quoted by Todorova M., 1997, p. 21.
15 Said E., Orientalism, Pantheon, New York, 1978.
16 Imagining the Balkans by Bulgarian historian Todorova explores the ontology of the Balkans from the 18th century
to the present day, based on a rich selection of travelogues, diplomatic accounts, journalism, academic surveys, etc.
17 Milica Bakic-Hayden has dedicated several works to the «Balkanist» issue : ‘‘Nesting Orientalisms : the Case of
the Former Yugoslavia’’, Slavic Review, vol. 54, nº 4, Winter 1995, pp. 917-931; (with her husband, Robert Hayden),
«Orientalists Variations on the Theme ‘Balkans’: Symbolic Geography in Recent Yugoslav Cultural Politics», Slavic
Review, vol. 51, nº1, Spring 1992, pp. 1-15.
18 Dakovic N., ‘‘The Threshold of Europe : Imagining Yugoslavia in Film’’, Spaces of Identities, 2001.
19 The three cinematographic versions (1937, John Cromwell ; 1952, Richard Thrope ; 1979, Richard Quine) of Anthony
Horpe’s novel are set in the imaginary land of Ruritania, which would correspond to 1880’s Serbia.

their primitive violent instincts guide them. This second pole accumulates the large majority
of stereotypes usually associated with the Balkans: male chauvinism, treason, beautiful women
unworthy of trust, brutal force, alcohol, gambling, revenge. During the Cold War, productions
such as the James Bond film From Russia with Love (Terence Young, 1963) nourished these
stereotypes, which were then largely exploited in the 1990s when Yugoslavia became a war-zone
and a very profitable film subject. From this period, films such as The Rock (Michael Bay, 1996),
The Savior (Pedrag Gaga Antonijevic, 1998) and Welcome to Sarajevo (Michael Winterbottom,
1997) contributed to the construction of an image of the Balkans associated with violence. In
all of these cases, the main characters were Westerners, whereas the local populations were only
represented by minor and stereotypical characters. For Stam and Shohat20, in the Euro-centred
cinematographic model, the ‘colonised’ are always represented as if they were all the same, and
any negative act committed by one of them is generalised and becomes instantly typical of the
whole community.

Welcome to Sarajevo by Michael Winterbottom (1997) © Positif

The filmic representations of non-Western nations are allegorical, and the characters a
synecdoche that synthesises a whole group, clearly homogeneous, no matter how large it may
be. On the other hand, Western characters are never allegorical, but naturally diverse, true
examples of life’s rich variety. When it comes to Balkan film subjects, Western filmmakers tend

20 Shohat E., Stam R., 2002, p. 191.


to privilege Western narrators : the main characters in Winterbottom’s Welcome to Sarajevo are
foreign correspondents in the Bosnian capital; those in Forever Mozart ( J.-L. Godard, 1996),
a group of Parisian intellectuals; and in Gadjo Dilo (Toni Gatlif, 1997), a young French man
travelling across Romania.

Balkan narratives

In spite of the great diversity of cinematographic examples so far mentioned, a large number
of films set in the Balkans reveal the same travelogue narrative structure21. Balkan narrations
are often the account of a journey in the region. The traveller is a Westerner or a local living
abroad who returns home after a long absence. The traveller meets ‘extraordinary’ and ‘different’
people and situations, which appear even more so in contrast with the traveller’s normality. All of
these experiences have a profound effect on the character, who then returns home (to the West)
transformed. Two typical examples of this structure are the Hollywood ‘Greek’ movies : Never
on Sunday ( Jules Dassin, 1957) and Zorba the Greek (Michael Cacoyannis, 1964). The first one,
starring Jules Dassin as an American traveller and Melina Mercouri as a local prostitute, was
meant to be a celebration of the Mediterranean ‘joie de vivre’, criticising Western rigidity at the
same time. However, as the film was entirely built upon the foreigner’s journey and the effects of
his presence upon the local Greek community, the result was a true festival of clichés.
Zorba the Greek followed the same pattern, and although its filmmaker (and writer) was
originally from Cyprus, the film ended up reaffirming the same stereotypes. What matters is the
effect that the encounter with Zorba has on the British writer, and how he returns to England
a changed man. What happens to Zorba after the Englishman has left is not mentioned, as if it
had no importance whatsoever.
In these two examples, the Balkans only seem to exist through the eyes of the foreigner.
What truly matters is the ‘journey’ undergone by the Westerner, not the country and the people
he will leave behind. In a Euro-centred perspective, the Balkans don’t exist on their own, they
are constructed by the Western gaze, and are therefore subjected to Western representational

The Balkans seen from the Balkans

The Balkans as constructed by the West are the Balkans of exoticism. Furthermore, whereas
in other ‘exotic’ peripheral European regions, such as Spain, filmmakers have used the force
of the cinematographic medium to fight existing stereotypes and to reassert Spain’s belonging
to the Western world, in the Balkans, the logic followed has been the opposite one. Balkan
filmmakers have adhered to Western stereotypes on the Balkans. Some have certainly taken

21 Dina Iordanova dedicates one chapter of Cinema of Flames to describing and analyzing the Balkan travelogue structure :
Iordanova, 2001, pp. 55-70.
Humour -
The Devil’s Advocate on the Balkans

Srdjan Keca and Blerton Ajeti

“... That smile we all have when someone close to us dies.” Does this smile which Dostoevsky
spoke of come from the very act of death? Or is it the inescapability of the situation that
causes us to make this leap of faith?

We tend to think of smiles as signs of affection or satisfaction. Within this framework,

humour in Balkan cinema is usually seen as a mixture of violent, nationalist and sexual refer-
ences. This is indeed true on a surface level. But there is much more behind the smiles that
Balkan films spark than simply laughing at raw violence. In fact, tragedy, a constant presence
in the history of the Balkan people, always carries with it a dose of the sad humour. This in
itself is innocent because it merely demonstrates the absurdity of everyday life. It is not just
humour for the sake of humour. Nevertheless, the smiles are guilty.

The characters depicted in No Man’s Land (Danis Tanovic) are confronted with life-
threatening situations. In this film, humour arises suddenly and directly as a consequence of
the absurd elements within the story. The two protagonists are stuck together as they play a
game of life and death which escalates to insane levels. The insanity is so real, so raw, that it
manages to transcend the obvious tragedy. We know that we are not supposed to smile, but
we cannot stop ourselves from doing so.

“In my contradictions,
in my closeness to
a black-and-white
worldview, in my
affinity to the comical
and in my humour,
and in the quick change
of my moods, I am a
Slav... That is the way
of the Balkan people.
They never change.”

- Emir Kusturica
No Man’s Land by Danis Tanovic (2001) © Positif


advantage of these stereotypes in an ironic way, for example Dušan Makavejev and his provocative
WR : Mysteries of the Organism (1971) or Srdjan Dragojevic with the more recent Lepa sela lepo
gore (Pretty Village Pretty Flame, 1996) or Rane (The Wounds, 1998). However little by little,
the Balkans have become a true Chagall painting, with young brides flying away, cows resting
on roofs and Gypsies suddenly appearing from the most incredible places to play some music.
Kusturica’s ‘magic realism’ has become the norm for Balkan filmmakers.

Incredibly enough, Balkan cinemas don’t try to contradict the image Westerners have of the
Balkans. The Balkan exclusion from the European cultural field has not only been interiorised,
but has now become a matter of self-exclusion. However, for years now, the big ‘return’ to Europe
has been one of the priorities in the region’s political agendas. As Dina Iordanova explains22,
it is not surprising that hotels and cafés named ‘Europe’ have appeared in every big Balkan
city, and that in Zagreb, it is precisely the ‘Balkan’ film theatre that has been renamed ‘Europe’.
Balkan intellectuals have found themselves faced with the difficult question of how to fight
exclusion. Aware of their geographical belonging to Europe, but fully aware that they were not
desirable partners for the European Union (yet), they believed that their situation could improve
if they demonstrated their true desire to return to Europe. In order to achieve this they have
felt an obligation to appear apologetic, and thus have been prepared to mirror stereotypical
representations of themselves as part of the admission bargain. This self-denigrating has taken
several forms, self-inflicted exoticism being the most easily discernible in the medium of

This is when the representation becomes more ‘real’ than the represented object, when Balkan
filmmakers represent their region according to ‘East-West’ criteria, stereotypes and divisions.
When Balkan cinemas don’t contradict Hollywood’s Euro-centred vision of the Balkans, but
instead confirm it. Moreover, when Balkan filmmakers often choose the same travelogue narrative
structure employed by Western filmmakers - which is even more surprising, as they are refusing
their own point of view in favour of a foreign one, encouraging an external ‘judgement’ on their
country, their traditions and peoples. An Unforgettable Summer (Lucien Pintilie, 1994), Ulysses’
Gaze (Angelopoulos, 1995), The Saviour (Antonijevic, 1998) and Before the Rain (Manchevski,
1994), four full-length feature films directed by Balkan filmmakers and therefore examples
of self-representation, all use the same narrative structures as Balkan-located Western films.
They make full use of the figure of the visiting Western (or ‘Westernised’) protagonist, always
incarnated by faces familiar to the Western viewer (Harvey Keitel, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Dennis
Quaid or Rade Serbedzija). The hero of Ulysses’ Gaze’s is A., a cineaste who returns to the Balkans
after 35 years in America. In The Saviour, it is an American soldier of fortune in the Bosnian war.

22 Iordanova D., 2001, p. 33.

23 Iordanova D., 2001, p. 67.

Before the Rain by Milcho Manchevski (1994) © Positif

In An Unforgettable Summer, we have an Austro-Hungarian aristocrat. In Before the Rain,

Aleksandar, a cosmopolitan photographer and word-traveller returns to his Macedonian village
after 18 years away. Aleksandar comes from the civilised and rational West and finds a society
ruled by intolerance and violence. His humanist ideals of reconciliation are quickly rejected and
he ends up killed by his own people. What Manchevski (himself an emigré in the US) probably
intended to show the West was that it must not impose its ethical codes upon other cultures.
However, the effect is the radical opposite, as Macedonia appears as a medieval society of tribal
cultures. All the ingredients are indeed there: mysticism, orthodoxy, monasteries, icons, candles,
nostalgia, lake Ohrid’s blue waters… The final result is the veritable and inevitable assertion of
the Balkans as ‘the other’.

Balkan filmmakers do not seek to be subversive, but to be accepted. They no longer have
an alternative ideology to counter the dominant Western model. Concession works better
for them, and is therefore the path which has been chosen. In addition, in adopting Western
cinematographic stereotypes on the Balkans, Balkan filmmakers have made these stereotypes
truer than real life. It seems odd therefore that cows don’t fly and that there are no Gypsies
hiding with their trumpets in every Balkan closet. The cinematographic Balkans have succeeded
in imposing themselves on our collective imagination.



Baudrillard J., Simulacre et simulation, Galilée, Paris, 1981.

Ciment M., ‘‘Entretien avec Theo Angelopoulos’’, Positif, nº 415, septembre 1995, pp. 21-27.
Dakovic N., ‘‘The Threshold of Europe: Imagining Yugoslavia in Film’’, Spaces of identities, Vol.
1, n°1, 2001.
Herpe N., ‘‘Le Regard D’Ulysse. L’exil et le royaume’’, Positif, nº 415, septembre 1995, pp.
Iordanova D., ‘‘Balkan Film Representations since 1989 : the quest for admissibility’’, Historical
Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 18.2, 1998.
Iordanova D., Cinema of Flames: Balkan Film, Culture and Media, BFI Publishing, London,
Makavejev D., « Dans les Balkans, là où les fleuves coulent au-dessus des ponts », Positif, nº 479,
janvier 2001, pp. 40-43.
Shohat E., Stam R., Multiculturalismo, cine y medios de comunicación, Ediciones Paidós, Barcelona,
2002. (Originally: Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media, Routledge, Londres,
Todorova M., Imagining the Balkans, Oxford University Press, New York, 1997.

Kitsch & Black Humour
- a Balkan label?
Laurenţiu Brǎtan

When talking about Balkan cinema, the first films which come to mind are those of
Emir Kusturica. His work has become a kind of stereotype, a label to be put on Balkan
cinema as a whole. Of course Balkan cinema does not only consist of Emir Kustrurica’s
films - nor only of the films of the former Yugoslavia. It includes countries such as Bulgaria,
Romania, Albania and - to a certain extent - Greece, Turkey and Cyprus (Slovenia is now
included less and less in commentaries on ‘Balkan cinema’). Emir Kusturica’s films have
managed nevertheless to become representative of a large part of the films coming from
the Balkans: a mixture of daily-life kitsch and coarse, black humour. Many other directors
from all over the Balkans use similar themes and plots, and have more or less the same way
of dealing with them in their films. The particular success of Emir Kusturica can perhaps
be explained by the fact that he is the most commercial director within a non-commercial
cinema industry.

Directors such as Goran Paskaljević and Srđan Koljević (Serbia), Fatmir Koci (Albania),
Mircea Daneliuc and Lucian Pintilie (Romania) and Zornitsa Sophia (Bulgaria) have all
made a number of films in which daily-life kitsch and black (often violent) humour are a
permanent presence. Furthermore, examples of directors using these features can also be
found in many countries in Eastern Europe: the Hungarian Jancsó Miklós, Russians Alexey
Gherman and Pavel Loungine and even the East-German Detlev Buck.

In conclusion then, this way of making films is not confined to the Balkans, but is
easily found in many parts of the former communist countries of Eastern Europe. If we
think of the fact that cinema reflects society, the above conclusion should not surprise us
(we shouldn’t however make the assumption that the phenomenon is strictly confined to or
indeed universal across all East European countries).

So, why kitsch? Well, the answer is obvious: because it is deeply rooted in the daily lives
of people living in the Balkans. Why rough, black humour? Because it is specific to the East.
And are these features specific only to the Balkans? Not at all, they are labels which can be
applied to most East European cinemas.


Niki & Flo by Lucian Pintilie (2003) © Rezo Films

The Representation of the
Border in the Films of
Theo Angelopoulos
Nicéphore Tsimbidaros

“Any serious consideration of the Balkan peninsula runs up against the unanswerable question of
borders… a mixture of the geographical, the historical and the political.”
- Misha Glenny, 1999

The Suspended Step of the Stork (1991), Ulysses’s Gaze (1995) and Eternity and a Day (1998)
constitute a trilogy in which a fascination for the border is certainly at its strongest and most
evident within the cinematography of Theo Angelopoulos, and even within Balkan cinema as
a whole. For him, roads, bridges and mountains constitute the boundaries of a scattered world:
the Balkans.
In The Suspended Step of the Stork, Alexander, a documentary film-maker, investigates the
disappearance of a famous politician. His investigation brings him to a little town in northern
Greece, close to the Turkish border. In the second sequence of the film, Alexander goes to the
border with a Greek army colonel. They both walk onto a narrow wooden bridge. The other side
of the bridge is guarded by a Turkish soldier holding a machine gun. Three painted lines divide
the middle section of the bridge. “The blue line”, says the colonel “is Greece. The white one, nowhere,
the red one, Turkey”. The officer puts his left foot on the ground in a position resembling that of
a stork, and raising his right foot over the white line he says: “If I make another step I’m nowhere,
or I die…”
A very long and slow-moving tracking shot follows the wagons of a goods train where
refugees are packed; Kurds, Albanians, Iranians, immigrants, exiles, the displaced… Most of
them carry their nation, their borders and their nationalism with them. They tear one another to
pieces, always recreating their own boundaries. For example, a scene in the refugee camp presents
a man showing off a tattoo of an orthodox cross on his arm in order to ‘save the race’. The border
is an imaginary line which separates two countries, but its limits are beyond geography. Here, the
borders are reconstructed inside the refugee camp. Angelopoulos strongly questions the limits
imposed by the legal reality of the border.
In The Suspended Step of the Stork the border is often referred as “the borders” (“ta sinora”,
in Greek), as if they weren’t indeed strictly legal or geographical but blurred and abstract. The
usage of long sequence shots, grim wintry landscapes and cold tonalities - common to all three


The Suspended Step of the Stork by Theodoros Angelopoulos (1991) © Positif

films - underlines remarkably the misery of these populations stuck in between their borders.
Boundaries are buried under the mist, rain and snow.
Mastroianni, the exile politician/refugee (Angelopoulos maintains a confusion on the identity
of the character) asks himself: “We’ve crossed the border and we’re still here… How many borders must
we cross to reach home?”. The wedding sequence is another remarkable example of Angelopoulos’s
denunciation of the border. The silent ceremony takes place on both banks of a large river which
marks the boundary between two countries. The bride and groom are separated. When a military
jeep patrols along the opposite side of the river, both groups have to run away and hide in the
forest. The groom eventually crosses the river in a small boat and meets the bride.
Angelopoulos pushes his fascination for the borders and the Balkans even further in Ulysses’s
Gaze. The hero, A. (his name is just an initial), starts his journey in Florina, a little town in
northern Greece. His trip will lead him through Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Bosnia
on a quest for three lost rolls of the first movie shot by the Manakia brothers in the early 20th
The Manakia Brothers are a perfect incarnation of ‘the Balkans’. Born of Greek parents in a
village in the Pindus Mountains, they moved to Monastir (now Bitola in the Former Yugoslav
Republic of Macedonia), where they started their photo lab and also opened a screening room.
Skopje’s National Archives and the Yugoslav Film Archives (Jugoslovenska Kinoteka) share most of
the Manakia’s photo and film collection. Another part is also stored at Bucharest’s Film Archives.

The Manakia brothers developed their business throughout the Balkans, ignoring borders which
were not yet settled. As their work belongs to the collective Balkan patrimony, and because of the
complexity of their origins, any attempt to appropriate their work would be in vain. The Balkan
dimension of the Manakia archives make them incompatible with any political ideology found
within the borders of any single Balkan country.
In the first sequence of the film, A. wanders into Florina’s main square at night time, where
a movie is being screened in front of a large, silent crowd. The screen is never shown to us but
the voiceover is heard in every corner of the town. We can hear the words: “Balkan reality (…) is
sailing in dark waters now” . The tone of the movie is set. A. crosses the Albanian border in a taxi,
but the driver seems worried about crossing it. “Do we cross?”. The border separates two sisters.
One lives on the Greek side, the other lives on the Albanian one. A. welcomes the one from
the Greek side into the taxi and they go to Albania together. A. drops her in her sister’s town.
Standing with her suitcase in the middle of a huge and empty square, the old woman remains
immobile, struck by the strangeness of this foreign place. She now becomes an outcast. The
border divides what was before united. The border not only scatters the land, but also the people
sharing the same blood; parents and children, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters.
As well as the concept of borders, Angelopoulos is also strongly concerned with the feeling
of being a stranger everywhere. Angelopoulos seems to be speaking to us through Alexander,
the main character of Eternity and a Day, a writer who is about to go to a hospital to cure a
fatal disease. Alexander says himself that he has always lived his life as an exile. To him, it seems
irrevocable. Alexander meets a wandering Albanian child, himself an exile, and takes him under
his protection. He drives the child towards Albania through the mist and the snow. Their ride
stops at the border. There, in the stillness of the frozen mountains, Alexander and the child
remain silent.
A tall wire fence marks the border line with Albania, but as the tracking shot moves forward
through the mist, sinister human forms appear at various points of the fence. Desperate emigrants
are hanging from the wire, waiting for the chance to pass through.

In summary, all of these three movies form a kind of protest against the inhumanity of the
borders, which imprison those on the outside as well as those on the inside. Angelopoulos sees
them as barriers to love, languages, races, and religions, preventing real communication from
taking place. The borders are severely marked. Crossing them becomes dangerous. However, the
last sequence of The Suspended Step of the Stork shows men hanging from the top of some phone
polls lined up along the riverside, restoring the cables. These cables could be seen as bridges
which transcend the national borders. In this way, the film ends on a positive note, demonstrating
the will to restore communication between people.


Others on the Balkans
Rona Zuy and Gergö Csép

There are two different ways to interpret the meaning of this title. Firstly, ‘Others on
the Balkans’ can suggest the attitude of one Balkan nation towards its neighbours. The
medium of cinema provides the perfect opportunity to explore the traditional stereotypes
and historical issues between nations, which can be a great tool for adding humour in certain
films. However, here the way one nation regards the other is most often negative, or at least
mocking in tone.

In countries where several ethnic groups coexist, we can see that their cultures have an
important effect on each other. These cultures are in confrontation with one another, but
without recognising their diversity. On the other hand, our title ‘Others on the Balkans’
can also suggest an outsider looking in at the Balkan nations. It is extremely common in
‘other- European’ or American movies to introduce a character simply as ‘The Balkan’. For
example a man may be introduced as a Serb, whilst his name and the language he speaks
suggest another nationality. ‘Balkan’ here becomes synonym for a far-away, exotic world,
where anything and everything can happen. Even in some of the Balkan countries the term
has this same negative meaning, ‘Balkan’ often becoming another word for ‘savage’.

Eternity and a Day by Theodoros Angelopoulos (1998, Greece) © Positif


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