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The Balkans, A Spiritual Space and Less a Peninsula
© Marian Tutui
First Publication: Altcine 26/04/2013 - English version
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The Balkans’ Paradox: A Foremost Europe, Later a Region Opposed to It
The Balkans includes at least one paradox. Although the notion of “Europe” was born in the Balkans (see Europe’s name of Phoenician origin or the myth about the daughter of a Phoenician king raped by Zeus in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”), in time, the South-Eastern part of the continent had been named mostly as “The Balkans”, a notion based on a political reality- the Balkan Peninsula but mainly on geographic and political reasons. Although Byzantium and its emperor had lost long before their hegemony over the Christian world, they accept that Europe’s center (although nor Europe was an effective notion that time) irrevocably moved to the West not earlier than 1453. Geopolitics, which took into account the Balkans as an effective whole, lasted approximately from the 18th century till WW2 considering at first peoples under Turkish domination and later on powerless and quarreling nations. Between 1945- 1990 the distinction between the Soviet block and the Western one was more significant as it was dividing Europe and even the Balkan Peninsula on ideological criteria. Only after the fall of communism, the ethnic conflicts in ex- Yugoslavia after 1990 and the new states emergence following the destruction of the South Slavs Federation they put up-to-date the Balkans as a valid geopolitical notion. One can notice that nowadays Balkans’ geopolitics looks somehow similar with the one before WW2 but there are also differences to be pointed out.
The Balkan Peninsula stretches from the shores of the Adriatic Sea in the West to the ones of Black and Aegean Sea in the East, from Cape Mattapan in the Peloponnesus in the South, to the Danube in the North (which divides the Carpathians from the Balkan Mountains), including therefore the Romanian province of Dobrudzha. From the political point of view they consider it includes 11 nations. However, the political map of the peninsula is rather more complicate as it requires inclusion or total exclusion of the population and territories of Romania, Moldova, Slovenia or Turkey, respectively of some parts of them. Sometimes they add Cyprus, a European insular country that lies in the proximity of the Asian shores but also close to the Balkan Peninsula.

The isolation of the Balkan Peninsula from Europe does not stand geographical criteria. There has been almost never talk about the isolation of the countries from the Italic, Scandinavian or Iberian peninsulas and more seldom about Great Britain’s and Ireland’s isolation from Europe in comparison with the one of Balkan Peninsula. If we bear in mind the importance of the communication ways represented by the Mediterranean and Black seas united by the Bosporus and Dardanelle straits, more favorable to transport than the ways on land until modern times, it becomes obvious that the Balkan Peninsula’s isolation has been an artificial and political one.

The geography of the Balkan Peninsula offers also some amazing data, almost ignored but irrefutable. Thus, although is nearest to Asia, the Balkan Peninsula is in fact at mid distance between the Atlantic Ocean and the Ural Mountains, Europe’s Western, respectively Eastern limits. When it is about latitude we have to record that the Balkan Peninsula includes the Southern mainland limit (Cape Mattapan in the Peloponnesus), as well as the extreme Southern limit (Crete Island). On the other hand we can state that the most central European country lies not in the Alps, but it is most of the times included in the Balkans: Romania. Moreover, the absolute center of Europe lies in the Carpathian Mountains, at 150 km North of Romania, in the Ukrainian village Delovoe (Rahau)! It is obvious that even when is about the center of Europe have been used non-geographical criteria, more or less subjective. 

The Balkans from Geopolitical Concept to Deprecatory Meaning

The distinction between a “civilized Europe” and the “backward Balkans” or in short between “Europe” and “Balkans” is 300 years old and supposed in fact ignoring the geography according to which the Balkans is in Europe or the elimination of the peninsula from Europe on economic, political and religious criteria. In the 18th and 19th century, when crossing a less inhabited territory, controlled by Muslim Turks, the Westerners had the impression that they were in the Orient and only their geographic and historical knowledge, as well as the contact with the Christian inhabitants, made them distinguish this land from Asia. The density of population in the Balkans was sensibly lower and mainly the lack of urban areas between 1800- 1918, with the exception of Istanbul, strengthened the Westerners’ and Americans’ impression that they were exploring wild territories. In the past the difference of density of population between the West and the South-Eastern Europe suggested the Balkans` wilderness while the 4:1 ratio between EU and the Balkans suggests something else: an undeveloped/ undesirable quarter of the continent. It is obvious that also from this point of view the situation has radically changed although the tendency to segregate remained. Until WW1 the aloofness consisted in adding to “civilized Europe” a wild and less inhabited peninsula, today there exists the more pragmatic fear of integrating a numerous and pauper population that can represent a risk affecting the Western life standard. Such pragmatic motivation remained but for a while a philosophical one has substituted it. According to it the catholic, protestant, democratic, tolerant, advanced Western civilization is threatened by other types of civilizations: Slavish, Orthodox, Asian, Islamic etc. which would oppose to it. Samuel P. Huntington in “The Clash of Civilizations or the Remaking of World Order” has launched such a theory between 1993- 1996 and enjoyed a certain success.
The pragmatic motivation prevailed as the EU has considered useful the integration of Orthodox Greece, of some Slavish countries in Central Europe and even in the Balkans (Slovenia, Bulgaria and non- Slavic Romania), in 2010 they plan Croatia’s adherence as well as of other Balkan countries later on, only the one of Turkey still remaining a controversial issue. However, one should not forget that including new members has been decided by parliaments while most population of the old members of the EU does not agree with new adherents fearing the life standard lowering and the impact on working places.
We have to underline a postulate that has functioned until today: another civilization is necessarily inferior to the Western one. Even the natives especially since the 18th century have had the conscience that they were different both from the Westerners and the Orientals, invoking for that either some economical, political or religious reasons. In comparison with the Westerners a genuine complex of inferiority was born and therefore a movement of synchronization with the West has followed. Thus, the Greeks, the Serbians and the Romanians continued to refer up to the 20th century to a voyage to the West as to “a voyage to Europe”.
One can notice that the Balkans represent less a distinct geographical space but more an imaginary one, defined mainly abstractly as a transitional zone between the West and the Orient or a Western periphery. However, the “Balkan” paradigm is uniformizing and even shallow or conventional because it brings together nations and typologies whose connections are not obvious, or are even opposed (Greeks and Turks, Bosnians and Serbians etc.). Only a part of such nations speak a Slavonic language, while Greeks, Romanians, Albanians and Turks speak languages from different linguistic families while religion, on it turn, separates the Balkan nations in three. A study of the Balkan culture would be therefore an essay of “connecting a disconnected space” as Dina Iordanova puts it in “Cinema of Flames. Balkan Film, Culture and the Media” (2001).
The negative and standardizing epithet “Balkan” has been seldom accepted by the ones applied to; therefore they tried to ignore or reject it and mainly to take their own country and culture out of the area it referred to. Slovenians and Croatians tried to express their affiliation to Central Europe and Catholicism. In fact, the Balkans is a region that almost nobody wants to be part of. In practice just the Bulgarians and Macedonians do not attempt to consider themselves elsewhere because their fatherlands are situated in the very centre of the peninsula while for Turks being situated in the Balkans means in fact however in Europe and more than that, it evoke a glorious history of an empire. Quite naturally foreigners and especially westerners are able to perceive some common trans-border phenomena while local intellectuals suspect such Western perceptions of being superficial and unacceptably approximate. In the end, in fact, both locals and Westerners are right.
Although the Balkan people themselves consider as the real Europe the Western one sometimes entering Europe was relative and could represent a small step, such as crossing the Carpathians in Austrian Transylvania for Romanians or crossing the Sava into Austrian Vojvodina for Serbians! In other words, Western and Oriental are metonymic inside each Balkan nation.
The Origin of the Name and the Extension of Its Meaning
The name “Balkans”, applied to the main mountain range in Bulgaria, appeared in 1490 with the Italian humanist writer and diplomat Filippo Buonnaccorsi (1437- 1496) in his memorandum to Pope Innocent VIII. He explains that it is about the Haemus Mountains that the inhabitants call “Balkans”. Until the beginning of the 19th century there have been used alternatively or together the names “Haemus” (the ancient one) or “Stara Planina” (“the old mountains”, the Bulgarian one). The spreading of the name “Balkans” into Western literature is due to the English traveler John Morritt who used this name instead the classical Haemus in 1794. The one who extended the name for the peninsula was the German geographer August Zeune in his work “Goea. Versuch einer Wissenschaftlichen Erdbeschreibung” (1808). He inexactly considered that the Balkan Mountains are the Northern limit of the peninsula and intentioned to use a name similar to the Apennine and Pyrenean (Iberian) peninsulas.
The name „Balkan” originates from Turkish. Most Turkish dictionaries define it as “mountain” or “mountain range”, sometimes afforested, sometimes as “pass”. “Balkanlık” means “mountains with thick forests” or “rugged area”. There have been hypotheses about a pre- Ottoman origin of the word, which would originate from the Persian “balk” (“mud”) or “Bala- Khana” (“big, high house”). Such words the Cumans, Pechenegs or other Turkish tribes could have brought with them.
We can conclude that “Balkan Peninsula” dates from 1808 while its derivatives with negative meaning are not older than 1918. Maria Todorva`s study “Imagining the Balkans” (1997) painstakingly reconstructs the birth of the Balkans as an imaginary space by analyzing both its etymology and different meanings “Balkanization” the process of nationalist fragmentation through the liberation of the Balkan nations from under the Turkish rule in the sense of some apocalyptical devastation was first time described by German industrialist Walther Rathenau in New York Times in the sense of some apocalyptical devastation. Herman Kayserling appreciated in 1929 even that “The spirit of the Balkans is that of eternal feud”. The term has been extended in the 20s for the nations emerged after the fall of the Austro- Hungarian Empire. In time its sense enlarged, as in Italy where the term has only its large meaning that is a synonym for despotism, revolutions, counter- revolutions, guerilla war, and assassinates frequently present with the Balkan countries but also in other areas.
Western Perception: Trans-Border Phenomena and/or Approximation?
The instability of the region and the emerging of small Balkan states under the interests of the Great Powers inspired simplifying formulas such as “balkanism” and “balkanization”, used in American and Western press not only to the South-East European countries but also to others, such as the Baltic ones on the eve of WW2. The formula often used until WW2 has shown up again sporadically until 1991- 2001. The Balkan states have kept such uniformizing stigma that the local politicians and intellectuals tried to combat, to nuance or mainly to accept for others but not for their own fatherland.
Edward W. Said in “Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient” (1978) noticed that the oriental is built by the Westerners as a mirrowed image of themselves, as inferior and alien. The oriental is feminine, fatalist, weak beacuse he pasivly accepts colonization and Western influence but also odd and dangerous. Until 19th century the Balkan people have also been considered oriental with some reason. In a certain extent Said`s description matches the balkan man during the 20th and 21st century but in this case it contradicts some other persuasive characterization as the one made by Hermann Keyserling according to which “the Balkan spirit is the one of the eternal feud” and conflicts, which involves more combativeness and manhood than passivity and womanishness. The two characterizations can be put in harmony only through a time perspective as we accept that some time ago the Balkan people have been inert and passive while at the beginning of the 19th century, together with the first anti-Ottoman liberation movements they have become combative. Such time perspective allows the coexistence of the two different conceptions but it diminishes their validity until they can be considered as speculative.

The Time of the Gypsies, Emir Kusturica

There was talk about a “Balkan mentality”, characterized by a retrograde spirit, disorder, frivolity, patronage, passionate outbursts etc. Thus it can become a conventional stereotype and even a logical impossibility if we take into account divergent ethnic identities, sometimes antagonistic, such as Greeks and Turks or Serbians and Croatians. 

Balkan Cinema

In practice, “Balkan cinema” as a notion was born in the 80s following the festival success of Theo Angelopoulos and Emir Kusturica. The first left his won image of the Balkan landscape (for instance, Greece with snow and fog) and of the modern history of the Balkans, inclusively by the movement of his characters into neighboring countries. On this turn, Kusturica imposed the “ethno” genre, which is a cinema with exotic elements that attract and slowly succeed to re-define the Western tenet. Unlike his Greek rival, Kusturica has become a model for many other filmmakers (Serbian Srdjan Dragoević and Srdjan Koljević, Macedonian Darko Mitrevski, Bosnian Ahmed Imamović) or even from outside ex-Yugoslavia (Romanian Napoleon Helmis and Cristian Nemescu, Greek Costas Kapakas, Bulgarian Aleksandar Morfov, Tadjik Bahtiar Khudoinazarov etc.).
The titles of soem Balkan films made between 1995- 2005 such as Underground (1995, d. Emir Kusturica), Business in Balkan (1997, d. Vasilis Boudouris, Greece), Balkanizater (1997, d. Sotiris Goritsas), Cabaret Balkan (1998, d. Goran Paskaljević), No Man`s Land (2001, d. Danis Tanović), Bal- Can- Can (2005, d. Darko Mitrevski) indicate on one hand inspiration from the Western terms while on the other hand the temptation to use a unifying allegory for the Balkan reality. However, although the syntagm “Balkan cinema” has been more and more used in a similar way with previous ones such as “Scandinavian cinema” or “Latin-American cinema”, there have been seldom attempts to define it.
Logically “Balkan cinema” is part of a common culture. On the other hand cinema has been and remains, with the exception of the beginning of sound films, a less national phenomenon. Thus, at its beginnings, during the time of mute films there were a series of common pioneers (mainly itinerant filmmakers, cameramen and other technicians, mostly French, Austro- Hungarian, as well as the local Manakia Bros.), maybe more than in other places, due to technic and economic reasons, but even due to political ones, as the volatile borders made some filmmakers become overnight citizens of other countries. We can conclude that there have been always premises for a regional, transnational perspective on cinema in the Balkans.
On the other hand I personally consider that the common features of the Balkan cinema have been gradually imposed by Western films on the Balkans as part of a trans-national perspective, sometimes reasonable, some other times shallow and simplifying. Before we had important local films and distinct cinema schools there have been several memorable literary works (“The Merry Widow”, “The Prisoner of Zenda”, Agatha Christie`s “The Secret of Chimneys”) and films about the Balkans (Murder on the Orient Express, The Mask of Dimitrios and other after Eric Ambler`s books, Topkapi, Midnight Express, The Prince and the Showgirl, America, America, Zorba the Greek, Woody Allen`s  Don`t Drink the Water and even  Casablanca or E la nave va, where the Balkans are not the main landscape) that imposed a certain perspective and even certain aesthetics.  A series of actors (Elvire Popesco, Charles Millot, Magali Noël, Sylva Koscina, Irene Papas and Melina Mercouri), writers and scriptwriters (Nikos Kazantzakis and I. A. L. Diamond of Romanian extraction), composers (Manos Hadjidakis and Mikis Theodorakis), set decorators (Theoni V. Aldredge) and even directors of Balkan origin (Elia Kazan, Jean Negulesco, Henri Verneuil, Michael Cacoyannis and Costas Gavras) have contributed to making foreign films about the Balkans, have contributed to strenghtenting some clichés  but also to a natural transition from films about the Balkans to Balkan films while the image of the region emerged from clichés and gained unmistakable fragrance.

The Suspended Step of the Stork, Theo Angelopoulos

By analyzing literary works and films about the Balkans we were able to identify a series of common features of the countries and inhabitants of the peninsula. Some of the Western visions are memorable while otehrs are just cliches taken from other authors. The climate of the Balkans is generally shown in Western descriptions according to real one, that is mild, often Mediterranean (The Mask of Dimitrios, Zorba the Greek) but severe in the mountains (“White Eagles over Serbia”) or during winter, when obstructions with snow happen (“Stamboul Train”, Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express). The wild landscape, the backwardness and superstitions of the inhabitants show up in “Dracula” and some films that remade it such as The Fearless Vampire Killers or Pardon Me, Your Teeth Are in My Neck (1967, USA- UK, d. Roman Polanski) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992, USA, d. Francis Ford Coppola), in “The Castle in the Carpathians” or The Cat People and are kept until the allusions in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”. Besides them they keep archaic rituals and clan relations (The Knight of Kruja). Moreover, there is a lot of corruption (Mask of Dimitrios, “Magrebininian Stories”, “The Dean’s Winter”, The Burglars, Midnight Express), prejudice based on traditional morals persists (The Island), one can see selling children (Her Moment), conjugal violence (The Woman Who Gave) and rape (A Son of Strife, Her Moment). The journey to the Balkans can be dangerous (The Unafraid, Midnight Express, The Game Bag), especially during the cold war (Sofia, Don’t Drink the Water) when some inhabitants join the anti-communist résistance (Action of the Tiger). Men have rudimentary characters, which is revealed by an exacerbate jealousy (“Zaïre”, The Woman Who Gave, Stroheim’s The Merry Widow) and women are often passive beings but love (Her Love Story) or poverty (The Adorable Deceiver) turn them into intrepid ones. The towns are cosmopolite (Mask of Dimitrios, The Burglars), oriental (The Despoiler, “Doubt, You, Crusader!”), a mixture of orientalism and cosmopolitanism (Journey into Fear, Topkapi, “The Spoilt City”, Fortunes of War) or affected by economic crises of the communist regimes (“The Dean’s Winter”) or of transition (Gigi, Bianca). The population is mixed (“Dracula”, Saki’s short stories, “Magrebininian Stories”, “Molvania. A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry”), one can notice the phenomenon of inter-ethnical and inter-confessional love (“The Golden Man”, The Captive, La Ronde du nuit) and a great number of Gypsies (“Tzigane”, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Gadjo dilo/ The Crazy Stranger). There is an almost endless state of political turmoil determined by rebels (with Byron, in The Count of Monte- Cristo or in The Knight of Kruja), revolutionaries (“Hellas”, “On the Eve”, “The Secret of Chimneys”, A Son of Strife, Stamboul Train, Little Miss Rebellion, The Adorable Deceiver, A Regular Fellow, The Prince and the Showgirl), plots and assassinations (Beverly of Graustark, The Gilded Cage, His Royal Highness, “The Secret of Chimneys”, “Magrebininian Stories”, “Tales from the Other Pocket”, Stroheim’s The Merry Widow, “The Dirty Hands”), espionage (The Unafraid, Journey into Fear, The Mask of Dimitrios, “White Eagles over Serbia”, That Man in Istanbul, Action of the Tiger, The Windmills of Gods) and wars between the nations in the area (“Arms and Man”, Saki’s short stories, The Captive, His Royal Highness). The countries are small and unstable therefore the great powers intervene here with a pacifist and civilizing goal (“The Montenegrins”, Devil’s Chaplain, The Son of Monte Cristo, Sofia) or in their own interests (“The Secret of Chimneys”, The Knight of Kruja, “The Spoilt City”, Fortunes of War). The rulers are not democratically elected, are therefore either oriental tyrants (“Zaïre”, “The Abduction from the Seraglio”, The Despoiler), weak monarchs due to dynastic struggles (The Prisoner of Zenda and “Rupert of Hentzau”) or due to decadence (“The Eleven Thousand Rods”) or they are presidential dictators (“The Dean’s Winter”, The Windmills of Gods, Boris and Natasha). The inhabitants are valiant (“The Morlacs”), even subdued they do not surrender; therefore they become outlaws (“Kirdjali” and “The Black Shawl” by Pushkin), fighters for independence (“Hellas”, “Montenegro”, “The Danube Pilot”, “On the Eve”) or partisans (The Guns of Navarone, “White Eagles over Serbia”, The Yellow Rolls- Royce). But there are also a lot of bandits (“The Danube Pilot”, “In the Gorges of the Balkans” by Karl May, The Unafraid, The Mask of Dimitrios). The inhabitants of the Balkans and mainly the ones with blue blood in their veins exert a strong fascination upon the Westerners and Americans (“Dracula”, The Vagabond Prince, The Unafraid, The Adorable Deceiver, The Dark Frontier) so that even swindlers are successful especially when pretending to be of noble origin (Manolescu, the Prince of Adventures, Hold Back the Dawn). Obviously the immigrants originating from the Balkans can be spies (Sofia), people who are hiding their origin (The Bulgarian Night), rogues (Hold Back the Dawn), vagabonds (71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance), remarkable students (Her Moment), women married out of interest (You Are So Beautiful) or people who had suffered in their native country (Her Moment, The Adorable Deceiver, Mother), inclusively because of war (E la nave va, Casablanca).
The Balkan writers and filmmakers could not ignore the Western representations among which some of them had imposed before the local cinemas asserted themselves while some contemporary ones enjoy certain notoriety. As with the very notion of “Balkan” they tried to ignore some representations, to accept others or to combat them. Even if we accept the autonomy of the act of creation or, in other words, that some Balkan writers and filmmakers have not intended to react through their works against the previous local or Western representations we have to accept that inherently at least the audience and critics receive them with an inter-textual perspective by taking into account the tradition of previous works. On the other hand one should not forget that the greatest success of filmmakers in the Balkans has been obtained for nothing else but representations of the Balkans. Films like Zorba the Greek, Never on Sunday, Z, The Way, Ulysses’ Gaze, Underground, Before the Rain, No Man’s Land, Esma΄s Secret have imposed fascinating images but on the same time they superpose on the previous Western ones. Films like Zorba the Greek and Z, although international productions with Greek directors, are no longer mainly films on the Balkans as they consider them even films belonging to the Greek heritage, as well as He Who Must Die and Never on Sunday directed by American Jules Dassin. The great Balkan movies have imposed on their turn models to other Balkan ones or to the Western ones on the Balkans therefore beginning with the 70s we deal with a feedback, to a movement of models both ways.

The history of cinema in the Balkans confirmed the existence of some national trends (“Crni film” in Yugoslavia), national schools (Greek cinema, Zagreb animation school, Skopje animation school etc.) and even of certain well-adapted film genres (melodrama în Turkey and Greece, see “foustanella” or the rural melodrama) or specific (the films with outlaws as a surogate for the Western cloak and dagger movie, respectively the partisan films inclusively as modern forms of manifestation of the myths of resistance or of the local communist parties). 
In my 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.
The Balkan perspective can be contested. However, to reject from the beginning such perspective involves a negative perception of the Balkans and the impossibility of establishing a possible origin of the artistic motifs, of losing from sight a cultural tradition. Of course, one can make relevant exclusive reference to a national tradition but also such approach can be insufficient. In the long run any perspective and any analysis logically involve a reduction, an approximation as artistic works have an individual and symbolic character. The attempt to compare, to select and analyze from a trans-national but regional perspective seems similar with a census of elephants, for instance. One can estimate the number of African or Indian elephants but hardly the one of elephants in Namibia as there are still animals outside the reservations who live in the savanna as their ancestors and who ignore the new borders. Kusturica is one of those elephants.   


  Business in Balkan
  Ulysses` Gaze
  Zorba the Greek
  Never on Sunday
  The Powder Keg (aka Cabaret Balkan)
  Before the Rain
  No Man`s Land
  The Way
  Manos Hatzidakis
  Costas Gavras
  Theo Angelopoulos
  Sotiris Goritsas
  Michael Cacoyannis
  Srdjan Dragojevic
  Emir Kusturica
  Srdjan Koljevic
  Cristian Nemescu
  Jules Dassin
  Irene Papas
  Melina Mercouri
  Vassilis Boudouris
  Costas Kapakas
  Mikis Theodorakis
  Ahmed Imamovic
  Goran Paskaljevic
  Danis Tanovic
  Darko Mitrevski
  Charles Millot
  New Romanian Cinema between Exoticism and State Subventions
  Do the Balkans Imply a Peculiar Sensibility?
  History of Cinema in the Balkans: Common Pioneers and Similarities
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