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Do the Balkans Imply a Peculiar Sensibility?
© Marian Tutui
First Publication: Extract from the book -2011
 
 
   
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Balkanization is not the deadly disease 
but the salvation and resurrection of European 
spirit through its return to the emotion, 
creativity, almost religious inspiration.

Let us remember what the Balkans has represented for two writers knowing the region well, such as Saki and Gregor von Rezzori. Saki considered in “The Cupboard of the Yesterdays” (1912- 1913) that “The Balkans have long been the last surviving shred of happy hunting-ground for the adventurous, a playground for passions that are fast becoming atrophied for want of exercise.” On his turn, for his Maghrebinia in “Maghrebinian Stories” (1953), Rezzori proposed instead of geography a localization taking into account a specific sensibility: “It is on no atlas, nor on any globe. Some will say it lies on the South- East of Europe, others that it is in fact the South-Eastern Europe. But, I beg you, what is South- East? Using myself the inadequate language of the West it is an extremely relative concept in the Copernican system of the world. In case of need the pedantic will try to draw the approximate geographic contour of Maghrebinia. But they will be the ones to be wrong. It is because the real borders of Maghrebinia are in the man’s heart and soul.” We can add the definition of a Slovenian philosopher of culture, Slavoj Žižek: “They are portrayed in the liberal Western media as a vortex of ethnic passion– a multiculturalist dream turned into a nightmare.” [1] We have on one hand the Balkans as a stage of Europe lagging behind in comparison with the rest of Europe and on the other hand the eternal Balkans, characterized by a certain sensibility. Thus we can consider that the Balkan peoples can be somehow equivalent of barbarians or Thracians for the ancient Greeks or with the decayed and multinational Byzantium. To such territory and to such type of people belongs, for instance, Emir Kusturica [2], a filmmaker born in Sarajevo and raised in Yugoslavia but who has been blamed lately for political reasons in his native Bosnia and Herzegovina because he has declared himself Yugoslav after the fall of the first federation, or who has become controversial in Serbia. For many other reasons he belongs to the Balkans more than any other artist [3]. Also the “ethno” style [4] or assuming the Balkans in their picturesque or dramatic variant, including humor and irony, imply also a critical vision, a form of processing in order to captivate the Western audience. By taking into account the fact that some artistic trends are consubstantial, specific to certain culture, historical epoch and territory, such as German Expressionism, English Pre-Raphaelitism or Latin- American magic realism, we could therefore subordinate for instance the vitality and barbarism to the Balkans as the Zenithists suggested. On the other hand, if we consider the artistic trends and manners as constant items, we could conclude that Balkan vitality is a nowadays form of manifestation of Romanticism or Expressionism that manifest late and strong in the Balkans. To the artistic Balkanism one could add also the picturesque imposed by the Westerners and finally assumed by many Balkan artists. Let us remember Bosko Tokin’s definition of Balkanism in his manifesto of Zenithism (1921): “Balkanism is vaguely expressed desire for the aesthetization of the dynamism that would have racial bias; for, something that would be specifically ours, Balkan.” [5] In other words if picturesque, vitality and barbarism must bear a common name that would be Balkanism. The political and denigrator perspective has long ago conferred on the people of the peninsula such features, why should they not be admitted as features of the art or at least of the nowadays Balkan cinema?
  
Emir Kusturica`s Underground

One should mention that in the 80s the Bulgarian theorists of cinema, that had become more open to the West, accepted at least theoretically collocations such as “cultural identity of groups, of nations and of regions” [6]. In 2003, Susan Hart, in the prologue of a symposium dedicated to Balkan cinema hosted by Yale University [7] admitted on one hand the tendency of Balkan filmmakers to be found in a common space allegorically represented (Danis Tanović in No Man’s Land, Emir Kusturica in Underground, Goran Paskaljević in Cabaret Balkan/ Bure baruta and Sotiris Goritsas in Valkanizater) and on the other hand the necessity of acknowledging a Balkan cinema: “Today the very word “Balkan” still tolls with a deeply ominous tone (…) But a robust cinema has brought this region and its politics forcefully to our attention. Ravaged by conflict and dangerously mined, this “Powder keg of Europe” has served as a charged movie set for off-shore and local productions that are able to exploit its spectacularly varied topography (the Adriatic coastline, fields and villages astride the Danube, dark forested mountains) and its diverse languages, religions, and folk rituals.” Is There a Balkan Cinema?: A Filmmakers΄ and Critics’ Symposium Organized by Andrew James Horton with Dan Georgakas and Angelike Contis for the magazine Cineaste in 2007 [8] enjoyed the participation of 10 directors in the region belonging to several generations as well as to critics from several countries. Pantelis Voulgaris, Ron Holloway and Deborah Young accept a “Balkan cinema” while Milcho Manchevski and Goran Radovanović deny it. Italian critic Lorenzo Codelli also denies it. When is about identifying the common Balkan features even if the results are not identical answers, they include similar ideas. For Albanian director Kujtim Çashku “The Balkans is a place of stories and storytelling people (…) The telling of myths and legends, and living as though one were participating in folktale, is characteristic of the Balkans. These traits are reflected in the cinema that is made here.” He also identifies “the same comical character” in the Balkan countries or “a stage for tragi-comedies”. On his turn, Nuri Bilge Ceylan accepts: “I think there is a Balkan sensibility. I feel it. Maybe I cannot express it well, but when you say Balkan, I visualize something, a kind of personality, a kind of soul, a spirit." Constantin Giannaris adds as a common feature “this kind of black humor and a dark temperament, as epitomized by Kusturica in films like Underground.” So does Slovenian Damjan Kozole: “Sure, there΄s a lot of things we have in common: hot temperament, black humor, a rather unstable and turbulent political past, lack of money—or, to put it nicely, insufficient funds for film production. However, I don΄t think there is such thing as or Balkan cinematography is just a geo-political term, conveniently used to label films which are produced from Slovenia to Turkey, that is, in the South-East of Europe.” Dusan Makavejev is able to enumerate several features: “Strange vitality, conflicting rules, humor, a survival urge, chaotic longings, lack of sense, fatality and general disorientation. In all these categories women with these traits make them seem more positive than their male counterparts.” For young directors Corneliu Porumboiu and Zornitsa Sophia there is “a special kind of humor, an absurd humor”, respectively “the films are story-oriented and don΄t necessarily have ”. Turkish critic Yusuf Guven considers that “The films always give us something to a laugh about and something to cry over” while for his Greek colleague Dimitris Kerkinos the cinema in the Balkans has “common traits such as a shared turbulent history and politics, the marginalized identity of the region, the current transitory state of affairs, and their rebellious mentality.”  

In the end almost any specialist in world cinema will remember enough about the contribution of Balkan filmmakers. The political film cannot be imagined today without the contribution of Gavras and Voulgaris, if not of Angelopoulos, Kusturica, Piţa, Daneliuc and Vulchanov. The films on the Balkans and the Balkan films have pointed out a unique milieu with an intricate history where the very “the clash of civilizations” takes place, realities confirmed by ethnic conflicts and the films of the last decades. Likewise, villains of Balkan extract have become famous, starting with Dracula and Manolescu/ Monescu, heroes of a series of films, and going on with Jean Negulescu’s Dimitrios or heroes of Petrović and Kusturica, among which one can distinguish the Gypsies whose ethos discovered by the two directors has impressed both the juries and audiences worldwide. In fact, the excessive temper and humor have been illustrated not only by Gypsies but generally by Balkan characters, especially with Cacoyannis in Alexis Zorbas and, obviously, with Kusturica. Practically they turned their characters in genuine archetypes and acknowledged an incomparable authenticity. Without precedent by their symbolism are also the images made by long and silent shots with Angelopoulos’ meditative heroes or the fantastic of raving origin as well as the black comedy with Kusturica. Again Angelopoulos alongside with the younger directors impose the road-movie or the journey in the Balkans as a decisive experience. By reducing the conclusion to maximum Gavras, Cacoyannis, Kusturica and Angelopoulos represent unavoidable landmarks of world cinema.

What is characteristic for the Balkan cinema? In our opinion a minimal list should include the following: 
         - the political film 
         - mirroring an intricate history and even “the clash of civilizations”  
         - the authentic characters with a specific ethos and an excessive temper 
         - the symbolism 
         - fantasticalness proceeding from dream 
         - the black comedy  
         - the road-movie

Considering the above-mentioned features we can recognize a specific Balkan sensibility characterized at least by vitality and black humor, generated through an oxymoronic perception of a reality full of contrasts. Obviously, such sensibility born within the reality of the end of 20th and of the 20th century has found its ideal language in cinema, the newest and most powerful artistic phenomenon. The 20th century recorded both imposing the troubling space of the Balkans as well as the social function of cinema.    

No Man`s Land by Danis Tanovic

Obviously, the acknowledgement of Balkan cinema entails also political aspects. Kusturica’s first success in Cannes has represented a huge surprise and some critics were suspecting the decisive influence of the president of the jury, Jiri Menzel, who had preferred the author of When Father Was Away on Business for having studied in Prague where he had been his student. However, they forget that Kusturica’s film has been voted unanimously. Later on the success did not spare Kusturica of criticism from all sides, especially as alleged supporter of the Serbian nationalists or as a nostalgic of Yugoslavia. Kusturica’s paradoxical personality and especially his political opinions have also had a role both in his enthusiastic acceptance and in being criticised. Practically many enjoy the “ethno” style promoted by Kusturica and others; however it becomes sometimes a limiting label so that if Balkan and Eastern filmmakers tackle other styles are easily suspected with inauthenticity. They are considered a priori incompetents, for instance, in the study of the Western way of life although the East after 1989 has experienced the extension of market system in a dramatic pace. After all, they refuse them even the necessary critical perspective of the foreigner. 

We have identified and illustrated in IV. From Exoticism to Specific Genres and Styles at least 13 features* of a great number of films made in the Balkan countries that have allowed us to discuss about Balkan cinema beyond national tradition and mainly beyond borders, especially with a region where they showed up late and changed so often and recently. We have the satisfaction that other researchers conceive this region in a similar way. Michael Jon Stoil has attempted to analyze comparatively the founding of the cinema schools while Dina Iordanova and Nevena Dakovic have analyzed the constants of Balkan films especially after 1990. We tried to argue the existence of a common/ trans-border cultural tradition through an unavoidable analysis of literature and films on the Balkans, both models and triggers of critical reactions, as well as the evolution of local cinematic schools since their very birth. By tackling for the first time the topic with an extra-textual and diachronically perspective we could identify and analyze for instance cinematic genres typical for the Balkans such as films with outlaws and films with partisans or we could explain the persistence of melodrama and the flourishing of genres such as road-movie and black comedy. On the other hand we felt that the attempt of defining the Balkan cinema has become more necessary and urgent as some film critics already consider that it is about a phenomenon almost exhausted [9].  
                                      
This article is a chapter of the book "Orient Express. Romanian and Balkan Cinema", 2011, NOI Media Print. Buy it.

* Marian Tutui refers to the following 13 features, that each one has a separate chapter in his book:

- Tradition, Peasantry and Ethnography
- A Well-Adapted Genre: Melodrama in Greece and Turkey
- The First Local Genre: Films on Outlaws
- The Second Local Genre: Films on Partisans
- Complexes and Instant Mythology
- History and the Obsession of "the Last Christian Stronghold"
- Dictatorship
- Angelopoulos or a Journey in Recent History
- Inter-Ethnical Conflicts
- Gypsies and Ethnic Mixture
- Kusturica and Vitality
- Ancient Myths and the Balkans΄ Folklore
- Globalization and New Genres: Black Comedy and Travelogue

Notes

[1] See also Gocić, Goran- Op. cit., p. 83.  
[2]  In an interview Kusturica was admitting the loss of his national identity: “This is my Utopia… I lost my city [Sarajevo] during the war, now this is my home. I am finished with cities. I spent four years in New York, 10 in Paris, and I was in Belgrade for a while. To me now they are just airports. Cities are humiliating places to live, particularly in this part of the world. Everything I earn now goes into this.” (The Guardian, 2005, www.film.guardian.co.uk/interview/interviewpages/0,,1429569,00.html). 
[3]  Likewise, after Yugoslavia’s disintegration other great artists have become difficult to integrated to the culture of the new states emerging the ex-federation of the Southern Slavs, or to have an uncertain nationality or even to declare themselves as Yugoslavs. Among them we can mention writer Ivo Andrić, respectively composer Goran Bregović, actor and director Branko Djurić- Djuro, singer Mile Kitić etc.     
[4]   See   IV. 11.  Kusturica and Vitality and Gocić, Goran- Op. cit., p.5- 6.                                                                                
[5]   Dakovic, Nevena- Op. cit., p. 14. 
6.  Mihailovska, Elena- Natsionalnata kulturno- hudojestvena traditsia i balgarskoto kino, Ed. Nauka i izkustvo, Sofia, 1985, p. 55. 
[7]  No Man’s Land, Everyone’s Image: Cinema in the Balkans, February 6-9, 2003. See www.yale.edu/whc/images/calendar/pdf/WHC_0103. 
[8] Is There a Balkan Cinema?: A Filmmakers΄ and Critics΄ Symposium Organized by Andrew James Horton with Dan Georgakas and Angelike Contis. See Cineaste, Vol. 32 No.3 (Summer 2007), www.cineaste.com/articles/is-there-a-balkan-cinema.htm. 
[9]  “For a while exoticism has persisted with the new-comers from Central and Eastern Europe, as well as from the Balkans. Such exoticism has been exhausted due to the stabilization of the countries in the region but there is still an expectation for such sad films from the shanty ghetto of South- East of Vienna.” See Antonia Kovacheva, “Stani, Lazare! Balgarski filmi v Sofia Film Fest 2007” in Kultura, 14/ 13 April 2007. 






 
 
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Category
 
 
 
 
  Balkanisateur
  When Father Was Away on Business
  Underground
  The Powder Keg (aka Cabaret Balkan)
 
  Constantinos Giannaris
  Costas Gavras
  Theo Angelopoulos
  Sotiris Goritsas
  Michael Cacoyannis
  Emir Kusturica
  Sofia Zornitsa
  Corneliu Porumboiu
  Pantelis Voulgaris
  Nuri Bilge Ceylan
  Goran Radovanovic
  Damjan Kozole
  Goran Paskaljevic
  Dusan Makavejev
  Aleksandar Petrovic
  Milcho Manchevski
  Dina Iordanova
  Danis Tanovic
  Kujtim Cashku
 
  New Romanian Cinema between Exoticism and State Subventions
  History of Cinema in the Balkans: Common Pioneers and Similarities
  The Balkans, A Spiritual Space and Less a Peninsula
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
       
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