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The Balkans is not a geography, it’s a cultural approach
© Ana Grgic
First Publication: November 2015
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An interview with Dimitris Kerkinos, programmer and coordinator of the Balkan Survey section of Thessaloniki International Film Festival

Ana Grgic: Could you tell us about the creation of the Balkan Survey section in Thessaloniki International Film Festival? 

Dimitris Kerkinos: It was created in 1994, during the third year of festival being international. Before it used to be a festival for Greek films, even though for a short period it was also international, it basically screened film premieres. At this time everybody was talking about the Balkans in a very negative way, and mass media represented them in this light. So, there was a need to show the creative powers, and the creative energy of the Balkans. Thessaloniki Film Festival wanted to fill this need, and at the same time to open up to our neighbours, to see what our neighbours’ cinema was like, then highly unknown. We knew about, Kusturica, Güney, some cinephiles knew about Pintilie, but that’s about it, we didn’t have any idea what Balkan cinema was all about. So, that’s how it started. It was created by Michel Demopoulos, the festival director at the time. It was meant to fulfil this role and it grew year by year. There weren’t many films in the beginning, we screened some films from the past, so very slowly it started to pick up and become what it is today. 

A.G.: How difficult was it to get films from other Balkan countries?

D.K.: I cannot tell you about the 90s, because I started working here in 1999. The thing is, the film production in the Balkans was very low in this period. Now, the Turkish and Romanian cinemas are the most dynamic cinemas in the region, but their cinematic production back then was very, very low. Michel Demopoulos created this section but he didn’t have time to really go to the Balkans. He would see some films which circulated at major festivals, and some people would advise him. But he didn’t have the time to do it the way I am doing it, let’s say, just strictly focus on all national cinemas, and see the productions. There were some problematic years. But as far as the films which went to major festivals, then it was fine, you have subtitles and the prints, so there is a way to get all the materials and dialogue lists and everything.

A.G.: Can we use an umbrella term such as Balkan cinema nowadays? What are the common characteristics that bind films in the Balkans?

D.K.: Of course, you know my thesis is Dina Iordanova’s thesis. There are a lot of similarities when you look at the various national cinemas which unite them. I think you can speak about Balkan cinema, because our societies are so alike. But they try to differentiate each other by stressing the differences and not the similarities. The Romanians for example, maintain they are not Balkan, they are Romanians, because it’s a different language, a Latin based language, and they have nothing to do with this Balkan thing. Then you have Greeks, who say: “we are Western Europeans, we never had communism”. But if you see Balkan cinema thematically, you find a lot of common subjects. For example, the films about Roma, which you can see in most countries. Most countries also have films about the revolutions against the Ottomans, and liberation films from the Ottoman Empire. There is the humour, a type of black humour and an anarchistic kind of attitude that binds most people here. Then, the transitional character of the societies after the fall of communism, that is common to all these countries. They are in this transition since forever. They have common social problems. At the same time the Balkans are the black sheep of Europe, and all of them try to conform to European standards in order to be accepted. In a lot of ways, you have cultural and thematic issues that bind them. Artistically you can say there are differences, the Romanians have a different approach, a documentary-like approach, the minimalism. Of course each national cinema has different characteristics, you can see this is a Romanian film, a Turkish film etc. Nevertheless if you are from the United States, you can tell that this is a film from the Balkans, someplace there, South East of Europe.  

A.G.: Could you describe the process of selecting films for the Balkan Survey section?

D.K.: Basically I try to watch all the productions as much as I can, good and bad films, commercial, arthouse, shorts, animation, and experimental. Being in the business for a while, I follow some directors and national cinemas, I know which films are coming out, I go to festivals and I watch films, out of 120 feature films I select around a dozen. Of course I am looking for artistic originality, but I’m also very interested in the anthropological basis present in the films. Because, when I started doing it, people were very prejudiced against Balkan cinema. Not only against Balkan cinema, but also about East European cinema. I always wanted to screen films that showed our similarities, which bind us together. I wanted people to get over these prejudices, so I would focus on the anthropological aspect and the subject matter. So the artistic elements are not only important. Of course a good film is a good film and you want to screen it. But I would always look for films that would open windows to our neighbours so we can understand what they’re all about, what we have in common, in order to communicate through cinema. I think that nowadays people really enjoy Balkan cinema and they feel very comfortable because it’s closer to their identity, not only the good things but the bad things as well. You can really relate and identify, you can be moved easier, and intellectualise more easily. I am very happy and proud that there is an audience now that follows Balkan cinema. It’s one of the most popular sections and they know what to expect. 

A.G.: How do festival audiences react to Balkan films? Has there been a positive response?

D.K.: First of all, the audience trust the Balkan Survey section. They might not see a masterpiece, but they won’t be disappointed. And this has to do with what I was telling you before. You go to see a film from a different part of the world, maybe it’s very good maybe it’s a flop. It’s like betting in a way. No matter if you know the film, or the subject matter is interesting, it’s a cultural thing. It’s easier to relate to something that comes from your neighbourhood, than something that comes from Thailand or China or Latin America, although Latin America is closer to us. Nevertheless, you get my point. So, a film from the Balkans offers some security. Audiences know what they’re about to see, so they feel more comfortable. Overall, the reaction has been positive. I heard nice things, I don’t know if they’re just trying to compliment because they know me or they really feel it, but the truth should be someplace in between. We get a full house, people talk about it, come and talk to you. You start seeing the same faces year after year. There is a faithful audience, and I’m happy to see that.

A.G.: The initiative of The Balkan Survey section in the Thessaloniki Film Festival is quite unique in the region.

D.K.: This is very true. For example, the Sarajevo Film Festival, which is in the heart of the Balkans, was created in 1994, and a lot of the times they assert they are a Balkan film festival, but they’re trying not to be Balkan. It’s what I was saying before, they want to open up, to be a kind of a Cannes of South East Europe, which is not possible. There is only one Cannes. Sarajevo Film Festival has the red carpet, they open up all the time, they have this regional thing that expands, is it the Balkans, is it a bit of Central Europe, a bit of Caucasus as well. They’re kind of losing focus. But the Balkan Survey, it’s the Balkans and that’s it. And the Balkans is not a geography, it’s a cultural approach. It’s the countries that have the Ottoman legacy and characteristics. So, it’s unique. Other festivals start to follow Balkan cinema, the Sofia Film Festival has a Balkan cinema section now for some years. Zagreb has a Balkan section in the last few years. Istanbul had a Balkan section last year, too. The Balkan Survey has the advantage of not being a competitive section. You don’t have the stress of premieres, of prizes, of competition between films, so you select the best of the best. That’s what makes it strong.

A.G.: In 2011, The New York Times published an article under the tile “Balkans reclaim a place in the cinema”, asserting that a new generation of filmmakers are making an impact on the international film circuit. Would you please comment? Do you see a new energy in the region?

D.K.: Well, apart from the Romanian new wave, which has been around for a while, expanded and differentiated, these films have gone to major festivals and won prizes, not out of fashion but because they really deserve it and they have done different things. There is also the Turkish film industry. I don’t know, cinematically, with the exception of Romanian minimalism, I haven’t seen something coming out of the Balkans, cinematically. Thematically there are all these stories to be narrated, and the Balkans are very rich in these kind of stories. There are all these problems which create movies. In Turkey, for example, you have the women issue, the oppression of Kurds and even men. In the last few years, there were a lot of films about the women’s situation in Turkey and in Albania. There are Turkish films that deal with men being oppressed, and I find this interesting as they are patriarchal society. Thematically there are all these stories. You have a transition, the end of illusions, a transition which lasts forever, the feeling that nothing is happening. Cinematically, however, it’s the new trends that Romanian cinema has created. Aferim! (2015, Radu Jude) is a good example. You had very minimalistic films, interior spaces, and social subjects, then all of a sudden you see a Balkan western that reminds you of Jarmusch. It talks about the past and at the same time about the present. It makes you think that not much has changed. It talks about racism, the church, and it’s done in such a different way, without showing you the finger or teaching you. Then the Greeks, too. I was talking about the other countries because the Greeks are not included in the Balkan Survey section. We have a separate Greek film section. The Balkan Survey is a glance of Greece at the Balkans. But nevertheless, Greek films and culture are part of the Balkans. Greek cinema had a thematic liberation in the last few years. Films that started talking about the family, and how the family is a basis of society in Greece and in the Balkans. This notion of the family created a lot of problems, everything starts with the best intentions, they blackmail you emotionally, and this issue creates the current political situation. These films touched upon this subject, which is taboo in Greece. Dogtooth (2009, Yorgos Lanthimos) caused an eruption in the cinematic language. People forgot the cinema of Angelopoulos, this poetic, allegoric, historical, intellectual approach, and they started looking at the individual and focusing on personal stories, while history was in the background through a different cinematic approach. There is something happening in Greek cinema, it’s not as strong as Romanian cinema, but they still make films which do well. So there are things happening in the Balkans. Another thing is, we are a bit in fashion, because there is a lot of talent in the Balkans. There is a lot of Western European money, more co-productions, so it’s easier for Balkan directors to make films. They go to festivals, their films are seen and awarded. Earlier there were also great films, it’s a case with Daneliuc, he was such a great director in the 1970 and 1980s, but nobody saw his films outside Romania. This is what blows my mind away. I go to festivals, watch old films and I am always discovering directors, who were super great, they did amazing things and nobody knows them. And that was the case with Daneliuc. I had seen his latest stuff which wasn’t that great, but nevertheless, the films he did during 1970s and 1990s were amazing. With the exception of Intimate Bed, Fed Up, Snails Senator, that were in Berlin and Venice in competition, the other films didn’t travel. Now you have this networking, and a film from FYROM, Bosnia or Albania can make it to the film festival world and can be seen everywhere. 

A.G.: Do you think that the increase of European funding and co-productions with European countries will affect Balkan films, for instance the films might try to conform to be more “European” and in the process lose their “Balkan” characteristics?

D.K.: Yes, this is very possible. This is a problem of world cinema in general. When the funding comes from elsewhere, sometimes you are told how to do a film. So you get a lot of festival films, which are made to please the festivals. They are an alternative distribution network, and a lot of films will travel and live through festivals. The filmmakers get money and make films in order to please the funding bodies. There are lot of films like that, and that’s a trap. The Romanians and the Greek weird wave have this trap. Some films do well, and so some people try to imitate them, because that’s what audiences like, and then they fall into the trap. I think this is a stage, and then they liberate themselves again. If you ask me these are mediocre films. Nice photography and many positive things, but they don’t have something to say. They are fake films, and they won’t survive in the long run. This is a problem, we have to live with and fight. The really talented people will go beyond this, and won’t allow it to happen, because if you’re an auteur, you have something to say and you’re going to say it and do it this way. Otherwise there is no reason to do it. People who are mediocre, maybe could take an advantage of this situation. But in the end, the best films will survive and the most talented film directors will go ahead. 

A.G.: What is the place of contemporary Greek cinema in the context of Balkan cinema?

D.K.: Of course there is no movement, no Greek new wave. These are different directors coming from different backgrounds, with different views on cinema. A few people, like Tsangari, Lanthimos, Filippou did two or three similar films, and then there were other people who tried to imitate them. At the same time, other directors were doing cinema in a different way. It didn’t start all of the sudden with Dogtooth, there was Constantinos Giannaris at the end of 1990s who had a different cinematic gaze, and Economides who went to Cannes. But all of a sudden you had a few films that looked alike, that had this type of Greek weird wave style. The truth is there was a generation that somehow felt liberated and did different things, but had the common denominator - the family. But there was no movement, they had no manifesto, it was not Dogma 95. What is important is that they tried to tell stories in a different way. Before, everybody was trying to imitate the cinema of Angelopoulos and that was the problem with our cinema. The Greek audience was quite alienated. The films were very poetic, allegorical, and conceptual. There was a system in place, funding from the Greek state, so they could make films without problems: “I’ll make the film, my friends will see it, and so what if the audience doesn’t understand, who are they to understand, I am a great auteur”. Many film directors had this attitude. But there was only one Angelopoulos. And now you had people who wanted to make cinema. They couldn’t get money from the state, and so they made films because they really wanted to. The crisis was good for Greek cinema, because the good ones survived, and the ones who really had something to say and wanted to make cinema, are there now making films. The rest of them were making films because they had a budget and they could make whatever they wanted, now they cannot make films. A variety of styles and films is a positive thing, and if you put all of them together, you create a puzzle and you have an image of what’s happening with Greek or Balkan cinema. The themes they touch are a bit ahead. We are experiencing a post-transition phase, and we are disillusioned so we make films about this. 

I’ll tell you something, for a long time, no Greek wanted to be part of the Balkan section. There was a great resistance with being Balkan, Greek directors were very snobbish: “no, we are not Balkan, we are Europeans”. As time goes by, they feel more comfortable. They see the success Romanian cinema has had. And they see that we have similar problems and a similar mentality: “we are like them, they make films about this, they do well and they get prizes, yeah, well we are in the Balkans”. But of course, when they want to be Balkan, they’re Balkan, and when they want to be European, they’re European. Tomislav Radić, who died a few months ago, made Kotlovina (2009), a film I liked very much and wanted to include in the Balkan Survey two years ago. The producer agreed and a few days later she called me saying that the director didn’t want to have his film in something called a Balkan section. So I wrote to the director tying to convince him, but he had the impression that under the façade of Balkans, there was an idea of a united Yugoslavia, which he didn’t like. To cut a long story short, he was against it. There was not much resistance on part of film directors from the Balkans, I only remember this distinct case. Mostly the problem came up if the film was in competition or in the Balkan Survey, but then I’d say to the directors: “don’t you want to show your film?” 

A.G.: Have you noticed significant changes in Balkan cinema since the creation of the Balkan survey section?

D.K.: Another great success of the Balkan Survey, is that a lot of Balkan films are picked up now, and audiences can see them through commercial distribution. For instance, out of the twelve films that we have in the program, four have already been picked up, and they’re going to be released commercially. This is a result of the festival, of the Balkan Survey section, because before there were only films by Emir Kusturica, Dušan Makavejev and in the 1980s Yılmaz Güney. But now distributors have a different way of approaching films, and they pick titles from the Balkans. The fact is Balkan cinema is more present in our lives.
  The Snails' Senator
  The Conjugal Bed
  Fed Up
  Constantinos Giannaris
  Theo Angelopoulos
  Emir Kusturica
  Efthimis Filippou
  Radu Jude
  Athina-Rachel Tsangari
  Yannis Economides
  Yorgos Lanthimos
  Dusan Makavejev
  Dina Iordanova
  Tomislav Radić
  Lucian Pintilie
  Yilmaz Guney
  Dimitris Kerkinos
  Mircea Daneliuc
  Balkan Survey programme - Thessaloniki Film Festival 2015
  Waves and Prizes fade away... A good film must always stay fresh
  A story of thirst, bed sheets and raw feelings in rural Bulgaria
  Romania is a child who forgets easily
  TIFF official website
  TIFF on Twitter
  TIFF on Facebook
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