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Searching for an Enthralling Song
© Gergana Doncheva
First Publication: KinoKultura 2006
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Since its release in 2003, Adela Peeva’s documentary film, Whose is this Song?, has been a great success at numerous film festivals all over the world. [1] It has succeeded both in attracting the attention of connoisseurs and in receiving a warm welcome from wider audiences. Actually, this latter group is more important when seen in the context of the dramatic decline of Bulgaria’s film industry during the last fifteen years, during which filmmakers were forced to work under harsh conditions and had to comply with new political agendas and business standards. In this unfavorable situation, Adela Peeva was among those few directors who quickly discovered that their key themes lived up to changing audience expectations. Having presented the specific problems of Bulgaria’s ethnic Turks in her previous film, The Unwanted (Izlishnite, 1999), and thus having clearly stated her interest in dealing with specific Balkan issues, [2] Peeva ventured into another exciting project, Whose is this Song?, which focused on a different, yet related topic.

Several friends with diverse Balkan backgrounds—a Greek, a Serb, a Turk, a Macedonian, and a Bulgarian—are shown sitting around a table in a small restaurant in Istanbul. The local Turkish singer takes up a popular song and all of them start humming along. Everybody knows the melody and argues passionately that this song originated in his or her native land. This opening sequence becomes the starting point of a deeply emotional journey into the realm of Balkan mentality.

How can one define the Balkans? Is it possible to adopt a song in all its transformations (a military march, a school hymn, a love ballad) for the purposes of an extensive exploration of ways of being? This non-traditional approach looks at the region from an unexpected perspective: music proves a powerful device in identifying the most fundamental Balkan controversies. The film explicitly reveals how a popular musical piece becomes associated with any given national imaginary (for example, Albanian, Bulgarian, Greek, or Turkish). It comes as no surprise that the characters categorically refuse to accept that representatives of a foreign, though neighboring community, could sing the same song and love it as they do. By a bitter irony, instead of dividing them, the song binds together these national territories like a thin red thread, uniting collective memories and personal stories. Above all, however, it shows the typical Balkan predisposition to stubborn negativism.

It is no exaggeration to say that Whose is this Song? convincingly backs up the popular view of the Balkans as sharing a common legacy in terms of lifestyles, everyday social practices, and compatible sensitivities. It neither oversimplifies the conceptualization of the region, nor deletes its substantial inner differences. On the contrary, the film deliberately looks for a broad spectrum of confronting standpoints, an approach that ultimately establishes its authentic and lively atmosphere.

Undoubtedly, many visual anthropologists would envy the film crew for its professional opportunity in carrying out such interesting interviews, where the informants behaved naturally in front of the camera and expressed their opinions willingly. Sometimes witty, sometimes a little sad, these people live inspired by the song. It keeps their spirits up in moments of despair and hopelessness. One cannot forget the face of Tereza, an Albanian ex-opera singer, whose chances of a distinguished career were wrecked under Enver Hodzha’s communist regime. Despite her anguish, she has survived and has become even stronger thanks to her music. This magical power of the beautiful song has also conquered the souls of a few Greek musicians, playing in a spontaneous manner and enjoying themselves “as people used to do it in the past.” Their melancholy is too intense; their yearning for lost youth is so strong that suddenly a wave of nostalgia comes over the silver screen. Viewers eagerly wait for the musical piece’s next incarnation. This time the famous melody turns into a symbol of love: from a sentimental soundtrack in an old Turkish melodrama to a folk-like Sarajevan version. But perhaps the most impressive romantic embodiment of the song is closely connected with the vivid image of Koshtana—the eternal femme fatale.

Whose is this Song? would not be of such a great documentary merit, however, if it had not also presented in detail the manipulative aspect of music. When a song is being performed in the Balkans in a specific political or ideological context, its direct religious or ethnic appeal can fuel the Other’s fears. This is especially true of former Yugoslavia, where people still suffer the consequences of wartime trauma. Just a brief glance at the young militant Bosnian Muslims in Sarajevo or their angry Serbian counterparts at the Vranje pub is enough to reinforce that feeling of anxiety. The resonances of this demonstrated intolerance gradually accumulate in the film and find their most effective visual expression in the last sequence, set on Petrova niva, a place in Strandzha Mountain (Bulgaria), where many Bulgarians gather every year to commemorate the Ilinden Uprising. On that sacred memorial site, a huge fire blazes; its bright flames light up the night sky at the very end of the film. The suggestion is clear enough. This emblematic image of fire inevitably links it with the final scene of Goran Paskaljevic’s Cabaret Balkan (also released as Powder Keg; Bure baruta, 1999), in which the Balkans are depicted through the well-known old stereotype about the region as Europe’s “powder keg.”

Yet Peeva’s film offers an original treatment that goes beyond the deeply entrenched Balkanistic iconic repertoire usually exploited in imaginative visions of this ill-fated peninsula. Against all these stereotypes, Peeva uses a most powerful weapon—her self-deprecating sense of humor. And it really works. Thus, despite its poignant or confrontational moments, the film leaves viewers not with a grim impression of a dark future for the Balkans. On the contrary, its cautious optimism springs directly from the wonderful song that people continue to sing regardless of who composed it many years ago.

1] The most prestigious prizes include a nomination by the European Film Academy for Best Documentary Film 2003; a Special Jury Prize at the Golden Rython Festival 2003; the FIPRESCI Award and the Silver Conch Prize at the Mumbai International Film Festival 2004; the Gibson Impact of Music prize at the Nashville Film Festival 2004; the Prix Bartok at the 23rd Ethnographic Film Festival 2004; and the Silver Knight Award at the International Film Festival Golden Knight 2005.
2] Adela Peeva is currently working on her next project, entitled Divorce Albanian Style. The film is devoted to families in Albania that were forcefully separated during the Communist regime of Enver Hodzha.
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