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Instead of Foreword: Cinema of the Balkans in and beyond cliches
© Marian Tutui
First Publication: Papers of the symposium organized during the 3rd edition of Divan Film Festival Cetate 2012
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The concept of Balkan film appeared virtually in the ‘80s, mainly with Emir Kusturica’s success at major festivals. He imposed a new kind of “ethno” cinema, i.e. one with exotic elements that attract and gradually manage to redefine the Western canon. Kusturica did not invent this type of cinema, one can easily find precursors like Michael Cacoyannis with his Alexis Zorbas (1964) and Aleksandar Petrović with Happy Gypsies (1967). However, although the term “Balkan cinema” started being used more and more, just as the terms “Scandinavian film” or “Latin American cinema” had been used before, there were very few attempts to define it. 

Balkan cinema today includes, besides Kusturica, Cacoyannis and Petrović, some new directors such as Srdjan Koljević, Costas Kapakas, Cristian Nemescu, Nap Toader, Aleksandar Morfov, Vinko Brešan, Darko Mitrevski, Ahmed Imamović, Srdjan Dragoević, Ahmet Ulucay, Yilmaz Erdogan, Ömer Faruk Sorak etc. No matter how rich and appealing this cinema might be, no intellectual from a Balkan country will ever agree to label it only as ‘Balkan cinema’. Indeed, we may agree that a film is ‘typical’ to the region, but by no means exhaustively so. For Westerners, Balkan cinema can be characterized by a few basic traits like ‘black comedy’, dream-like fantasy, raw vitality or violence, but for the natives these terms alone will sound shallow, reductive or even unfair and discriminatory. In fact, we can at least agree that “Balkan cinema” is different from “the cinema of the Balkans”. 

The Cinema of the Balkans” can refer to all aspects of the cinematic traditions of the region, no matter how small and insignificant, including the aspects that do not fit the general picture. Therefore, I suggested to no less than ten film critics and scholars from seven Balkan countries to get rid of the template, to escape from their preconceptions about the Balkans and to look for unusual things. Instead of drawing the limitations of the region and of its cinema, I proposed to tackle the attempts to escape them. Because cinema is an escapist art par excellence. 

I was expecting to receive papers on topics like Dusan Makavejev and his experimental rebellious narrative, or on the political cinema of the Balkans (still underestimated as such) as it had been represented by filmmakers such as Costa-Gavras, Angelopoulos, Voulgaris, Paskaljević, and Pintilie. I was a bit disappointed not to find such topics among the papers I received. But I was also amazed at how escapist cinema, or science-fiction, crime films, or westerns- until recently regarded as second-class genres – can become serious topics when treated by serious researchers. 

Aleksander Yanakiev notices that, without being major themes, ‘abroad-ness’ and ‘the other’ have never been foreign to Bulgarian cinema. Even the communist authorities accepted them as means for providing easy relief and entertainment for the masses. The worker in Swedish Kings/ Shvedskite krale (1968, d. Lyudmil Kirkov) heads to the Black Sea coast in search of beautiful foreign women and a life of ‘dolce far niente’, only to see his plans ruined by his poor command of foreign languages. However, when the choice of filmmakers was motivated less by the desire to provide easy entertainment, and more by a need for stylistic freedom, the authorities were less permissive. Films like Bull/ Vula (1965. d. Nikola Korabov), The Tied Up Balloon/ Privarzaniyat balon (1967, d. Binka Zhelyazkova) or The Death of the Hare/ Smartta na zaeka (1982, d. Anri Kulev) were forbidden. In contrast to the films concerned with ‘escaping the Balkans’, the author of the paper also presents those that deal with ‘homecoming’. Why do some come back? What do they bring with them when they return? How do they strike the others? To a great extent, the spectacular success of the film Golden Tooth/ Zlatnyat zab (1962, d. Anton Marinovich) will provide an answer to these questions. The character of captain Prodan Lipovsky, a.k.a. “The Golden Tooth”, an ex-royal military officer who is smuggled back into Bulgaria by Western powers, but who ends up destroying their entire espionage network, has won the hearts of almost four million Bulgarians. The popularity of this film was not only due to the fascination for the solitary hero fighting off many enemies, or for the West and its institutions who trained such a man, but also to the recognition of the traditional values that used to inspire officers of the Bulgarian army prior to the advent of communism. On the other hand, the tragic end of the hero follows the simple moral of the classical western, where only the good will survive, while the bad always pay with their lives, including those who see their error and try to change. It is an interesting detail that the main scriptwriter of the film was Kostadin Kulumov, the one who later reorganized the secret services in Bulgaria…

Nevena Daković and Aleksandra Milovanović analyze the effect of the emerging new wave of young directors in Serbia in the past few years. It is a fresh overview of non habitual, unusual perspectives on topics such as the socio-political changes, nationalism, adolescent violence, bigotry, sexuality, drug addiction, life on the margins of society, and the negative side effects of the Europeanization and Americanization of a whole generation. Three films: Skinning/ Šišanje (2010, d. Stevan Filipović), Tilva Ros/ Tilva Roš (2010, d. Nikola Ležaić) and Clip/ Klip (2011, d. Maja Miloš) are put under the magnifying glass. It is in fact a new film genre, shot in cinéma-vérité style and characterized by a mixture of documentary and fiction. The authors look for similarities with older hybrid-form examples of the Yugoslav cinema, beginning with the films of Dušan Makavejev, from Innocence Unprotected/ Nevinost bez zaštite (1968) to Gorilla Bathes at Noon/ Gorila se kupa u podne (1993), then Srdjan Karanović’s Unpicked Strawberries/ Grlom u jagode (1976), Slobodan Šijan’s Marathon Family/ Maratonci trče počasni krug (1982), Emir Kusturica’s Underground (1995), and Goran Marković’s Tito and I/ Tito i ja (1992), but the authors also draw comparisons with more recent foreign examples such as American History X (1998, d. Tony Kaye), Elephant (2003, d. Gus van Sant) or Bowling for Columbine (2002, d. Michael Moore). As with her previous studies, Nevena Daković, together with her younger colleague, Aleksandra Milovanović, go beyond analysis to theory, a welcome step at a time when postmodernism offers a wealth of empirical concepts. 

Although interested in various topics related to cinema, Dana Duma had dedicated many years to study animation and the works of the Romanian director Ion Popescu- Gopo. Gopo, until recently the best known Romanian filmmaker but quite ignored today, deserves such extended studies because - as the author puts it - “for the Romanian cinema he is an equivalent of Disney, but also of Georges Méliès.” Nowadays, many accept that Gopo’s 1961 film A Bomb Was Stolen/ S-a furat o bombă is a landmark both for the Romanian SF cinema, and for the crime fiction genre. The study also pinpoints the role of parody in Gopo’s attempts to make up for the technical limitations and drawbacks of his SF films. A real Gopo connoisseur, Dana Duma surprises us by asserting that Gopo’s best SF film is Faust XX (1966). It is not only an ingeniously original adaptation of the Faustian myth, but it also “anticipates (quite early) the obsession with genetic engineering and the debates around the unethical use of embryo implants”. 

Iván Forgács’ brief study is, at first glance, dedicated to four Hungarian regional co-productions, with Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Romania. He resorts to humour in order to unveil the Hungarian national prejudices and motivations for using “Balkan exoticism” in Hungarian cinema. The author’s comments on The Section/ A részleg (1994, d. Peter Gothar) will provide a good example of humour and objectivity: “We were a fascist ally, a communist ally, but these are not our systems. The fault is always somewhere else (…). Peter Gothar (…) found a Transylvanian story. The Hungarian reality cannot represent the real entity of the regime, because the system is foreign, it comes from abroad. If we want to reveal it, it is better to use the elements of Ceausescu’s Romania, its cruelty and absurdity.” 

More than the others, Lydia Papadimitriou resorts to a critical apparatus in her attempt to describe Greek cinema from a Balkan perspective. She quotes Dina Iordanova when highlighting that there had been a general lack of cinematic interaction among Balkan countries, to the extent that writing about Balkan cinema is ‘an exercise in connecting the disconnected Balkan space’. But she also takes into account Fotos Lambrinos’ statement that “early cinema in Greece shared a number of… characteristics with films from other Balkan countries”. The author admits that Greece’s relation to the Balkans is “ambivalent and contradictory” but it can have “deeper, subliminal links with the region”. In this respect, she offers a brief history of Greek cinema, where serious arguments are to be found beginning with Theo Angelopoulos, for instance in his Ulysses’ Gaze that “symbolically condenses the desire for a lost (Balkan) unity”. But before Angelopoulos, one could find films such as Never on Sunday (1960, d. Jules Dassin) and Zorba the Greek (1964, Michael Cacoyannis, 1964) which, despite being “American productions”, “helped define ideas of Greekness in the Western consciousness”, also “associating it with a broader perception of Balkan identity and its deviance from Western norms”. Maybe it is not a coincidence that two of the most appreciated recent Greek films, Tassos BoulmetisA Touch of Spice/ Politiki kouzina (2001) and Filippos TsitosPlato’s Academy/ Acadimia Platonos (2008), deal with “otherness”, attempting to create fair representations of the Turks, and of the Albanians. 

Magda Mihăilescu offers a condensed essay on the virtues of two recent films belonging to the so-called Romanian New Wave. She considers that the young Romanian directors have been much praised worldwide for offering a strong image of a country caught up in transition, and for their “introverted, minimalistic approach which had since established itself as a new landmark”. For her, Police, Adjective by Corneliu Porumboiu and Cristi Puiu’s Aurora “accomplish much more than classical storytelling. They are digging deep into cinema’s specificity, exploring the main dimensions of this art: space and time. Especially time.” On the other hand she notices that the two films “provide escapes from the regular themes and topics of the New Romanian Wave: the social trauma, the lack of hope for the future. Yet, the films are even more demanding (and more rewarding) on the viewers”. In this respect she mentions “cinematic time” as “a masterful way” to entrap the “viewer”. Should we dare to use, in our turn, the words “suspense” and “thriller”? We are living in post-modern times, when there are no more major and inferior genres and species, so why not dare? 

Before sketching a history of crime-fiction in Romanian cinema, in an attempt to accurately define the crime film as a genre, Mihai Fulger playfully pretends to be inspired by Corneliu Porumboiu’s film Police, Adjective but, in fact, his reasons for doing so are as serious as his research. The author is looking to find the origins of the ‘policier’ genre: the first film is a lost one, The Detective/ Detectivul (1913 d. Constantin Radovici and Marioara Voiculescu), while the first film still existing is The Ghost Train / Trenul fantoma (1933, d. Jean Mihail). Further on, the author concludes that, while during communism, around 35 crime films were made, after 1989 the film genre, represented only by 15 films, is looking rather “weary”. The author highlights the major contribution made to the film genre by novelists such as Petre Sălcudeanu, Nicolae Ţic (author of the scripts for the Miscellaneous Brigade / Brigada Diverse series), Rodica Ojog-Braşoveanu and Haralamb Zincă. Petre Sălcudeanu and Titus Popovici, together with director Sergiu Nicolaescu, created a series of detective stories which became popular even in other communist countries, a series which featured the detectives Moldovan and Miclovan, and began with the 1972 film With Clean Hands/ Cu mâinile curate. An important aspect of the genre is the box-office success. The series Brigade Miscellaneous, directed by Mircea Drăgan, consists, in fact, of three comedies, while Nicolaescu’s films benefit from the inter-war atmosphere or, in the case of An Ellusive Billionaire/ Uncle Marin, the Billionaire/ Nea Mărin miliardar (1979), from an international plot. This last film registered the Romanian record of sold tickets: over 14 million! In the end, Mihai Fulger even dares to consider Titus Muntean’s debut Exam/ Examen (2003) as the only “accomplishment” of the genre after 1989, while the two pre-89 “masterpieces” are: A Girl’s Tears/ O lacrimă de fată (1980, d. Iosif Demian, based on a novel by Petre Sălcudeanu) and Un om în loden (1979, d. Nicolae Mărgineanu, based on a novel by Haralamb Zincă). 

We should add that the two brief studies by Magda Mihăilescu and Mihai Fulger dedicated to Romanian crime films represent the first research on this film genre in Romania. 

When writing about Bulgarian SF films, Petar Kardjilov is almost an insider because he is also an author of SF literature. Therefore he also becomes very passionate sometimes. First of all he notices that, in Bulgaria, SF literature was a realm of freedom represented by great authors like Pavel Vezhinov and Lyuben Dilov, while Bulgarian socialist cinema was neither art, nor entertainment, but propaganda, therefore an inhospitable environment for the SF genre. The author analyses all the five Bulgarian SF films (Third from the Sun/ Treta sled slantzeto, 1972, d. Gueorgui Stoyanov; The Barrier/ Barierata (1979, d. Christo Christov; Advent/ Prishestvie, 1981, d. Ivanka Grybcheva; The Thirteenth Bride of the Prince/ 13ta godenitsa na printsa, 1987, d. Ivanka Grybcheva and The Carnival/ Karnavalat, 1989, d. Ivanka Grybcheva) but also the social milieu or the background of the filmmakers. Third from the Sun tackles pure SF motifs, such as space and time travel, or non-intervention in the development of alien civilizations, and probably therefore has been successful with the local audience. The Barrier is rather a fantasy; the title refers a barrier that prevents common people from understanding the nature of their aspirations and ideals. Only Dorothea, and very few others, can defeat gravitation and fly! Instead of recording a progress, the third film, Advent is, according to Kardjilov, very “dull”. However, the last one, The Carnival, where an alien robot tries to mimic local humans, keeps something from Lyuben Dilov’s bitter irony and becomes a mixture of burlesque and critical analysis of the Bulgarian society. 

Petar Kardjilov is lucid and even grim in his conclusions. For him, Bulgarian SF cinema is below “international standards”, childish, shallow, ‘cardboard-made’ and lacking courage because it has never been mature enough to take the risk of screening great foreign novels, while even smaller cinemas, such as that of Armenia or Georgia, did that. Therefore, Bulgarian cinema has not been able to produce any “serious”, “myth-making” films, but neither has it been able to produce “not-serious” films, like the Polish Sex Mission/Seksmisja (1984, d. Juliusz Machulski). 

According to Sergey Lavrentiev, the Balkan western has been part of an important Eastern European cultural phenomenon of the second half of the 20th century: the‘red western’ / ‘ ostern’). We learn that, in the USSR, American westerns were shown only during the 1920s. Apart from that, there were only five (!) other American westerns shown during the last 40 years of communism (between the 50s and 80s). However, due to the popularity of the genre, the communist party encouraged local filmmakers to create ‘heroic adventure films’ or what we call today ‘red westerns’. Thus, a series of films with horse riding and shooting followed. Sometimes the action took place in the Soviet Union (Little Red Devils/ Tsiteli eshmakunebi, 1924, d. Ivane Perestiani or its remake Elusive Avengers/ Neulovimye mstiteli, 1967, d. Edmond Keosayan, The White Sun of the Desert/ Beloe solntse pustyni, 1970, d. Vladimir Motyl etc.), other times in Europe. 1962 marked the beginning of a number of coproductions shot in Yugoslavia, which delivered Europeanmade American adventures to both Eastern and Western European audiences. 

First, the West-Germans chose to shoot their adaptations of Karl May’s novels on the Dalmatian Coast (nowadays, Croatia), and began a series of co-productions with Yugoslavia in 1962. In 1966, they were followed by the East-Germans. Karl May’s novels were not American-style westerns, but rather anti-colonialist moral tales which praised the virtues of the red-skins, and were, therefore, looked on approvingly by communist leaders. 

Meanwhile, in the USSR, as a result of Hruschev’s 1959 visit to the USA and the ideological thaw that followed, The Magnificent Seven (1960) was released to soviet audiences for three years (1962- 1964), delivering a huge success. It was accepted also because of its anti-violence message. But watching such authentic westerns remained an exception in the USSR. American westerns were again soon replaced by West- German films, or other surrogates made in GDR or Romania. During the ‘60s and ‘70s, Bulgaria and Hungary also produced some westerns. The Hungarian sub-genre received the name ‘goulash-western’, but, in fact, consisted mainly of two localizations directed by György Szomjas. During the last decades of communism, only Romania continued to produce westerns, and then, more recently, in Serbia, Srdjan Dragoević’s Parade/ Parada (2011) revived the genre with what can be considered a tragic-comical remake of The Magnificent Seven, homage paid to the classical western. 

In my turn, I tried to present an overview of the history of European adaptations of American westerns. Although Romania has been one of the few communist countries which, for forty years without interruption, screened genuine American westerns, along with ‘spaghetti westerns’ and ‘red westerns’, the birth of the Romanian western was due mainly to political reasons. The genre played its part in marking Romania’s distancing from the Soviet Union after 1968 (and even before), and its subsequent uneasy flirt with Western powers, especially the USA. On the other hand, the genre responded well to the typical nationalism promoted during Ceausescu’s years, when Romanians tried to prove that they could make everything themselves, even westerns, and that they can contribute to the progress of the world and of its biggest power, ‘America’.

  Plato`s Academy
  A Touch of Spice
  Ulysses` Gaze
  Zorba the Greek
  Never on Sunday
  Police, Adjective
  Tilva Ros
  Innocence Unprotected
  Gorilla Bathes at Noon
  I Even Met Happy Gypsies
  Tito And Me
  Uncle Marin, the Billionaire
  Costas Gavras
  Theo Angelopoulos
  Michael Cacoyannis
  Tassos Boulmetis
  Srdjan Dragojevic
  Emir Kusturica
  Cristi Puiu
  Maja Milos
  Srdjan Koljevic
  Cristian Nemescu
  Jules Dassin
  Corneliu Porumboiu
  Pantelis Voulgaris
  Philippos Tsitos
  Costas Kapakas
  Yilmaz Erdogan
  Ahmed Imamovic
  Goran Markovic
  Srdjan Karanovic
  Aleksandra Milovanovic
  Goran Paskaljevic
  Nikola Lezaic
  Stevan Filipovic
  Dusan Makavejev
  Aleksandar Petrovic
  Dina Iordanova
  Vinko Bresan
  Darko Mitrevski
  Sergiu Nicolaescu
  Titus Popovici
  Omer Faruk Sorak
  Lydia Papadimitriou
  Aleksandr Morfov
  Nicolae Margineanu
  Nevena Dakovic
  Mircea Dragan
  Escape from the Balkans
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