The email address and password you entered do not match.
About altcine | Contact altcine
Imagining the Balkans... in Film
© Maria Palacios Cruz
First Publication: Balkan Identities Balkan Cinema Nisi Masa 2008
share info
Continuing the discussion about Balkan Cinema, altcine in cooperation with the NISI MASA association will present a series of articles from the book "Balkan Identities, Balkan Cinemas". The book is the result of the debates that took place during a seminar by the same title from the 3rd to the 9th of March 2006 in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria. You can find a link to the book here.

Imagining the Balkans... in Film

“To those who have not visited them, the Balkans are a shadow-land of mystery; to those who know them, they become even more mysterious... You become, in a sense, a part of the spell, and of the mystery and glamour of the whole […] Intrigue, plotting, mystery, high courage and daring deeds – the things that are the soul of true romance are to-day the soul of the Balkans.”
- Arthur D. Howden Smith [1]

What could the films Cat People [2] (Jacques Tourneur, 1942), Die Hard with a Vengeance [3] (John McTiernan, 1995), The Peacemaker [4] (Mimi Leder, 1999), Zorba the Greek [5] (Michael Cacoyannis, 1964) and Kika [6] (Pedro Almodovar, 1993) possibly have in common? The answer is that they are all somehow responsible for our cinematographic image of the Balkans. They have all contributed, in one way or another, to building the image that Westerners have of the region. Furthermore, they have constructed a series of Balkans cliches that have not only been confirmed by local filmmakers such as Kusturica, Manchevski or Angelopoulos, but largely exploited by Balkan cinematography as a whole.

In a society such as ours, the notion of simulation is so central to our culture that the risk of losing touch with the real world looms large, and simulation often precedes and determines reality. We may do well then to question the ‘reality’ of these cinematographic representations of the Balkans. Have they become more ‘true’ than the ‘real’ ones ? More ‘real’ than the ‘true’ ones?

For centuries, Western thought and discourse has ‘balkanized’ the Balkans, cinema being just one expression of this process. This balkanization has not only been adopted and assimilated by Balkan intellectuals, but subsequently legitimized. The mysterious Balkans of primitive rituals and brutal passions is not only the stereotype put forward by Western films, but also the Balkans that Balkan cinema portrays. How then can we tell the real from the fake? How can we differentiate between the representation and the object it represents, when the clichés of the external representation are internalized? And how does this process of internalization actually take place?

Which Balkans?

The first and most fundamental question one must ask oneself when writing on the subject of the Balkans is of course: what do we mean by ‘Balkans’? Simple as it may seem, this question is in fact a complex and sensitive one. Reference organizations, such as the French-speaking Le Courrier des Balkans [7], often include the following: Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Kosovo, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Moldavia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia and Slovenia. The term “Balkan” is however not a neutral one, as it has strong, often negative connotations.[8] The result of this is a label that no one seems to want to belong to, a synonym of war and painful tragedy. This is why the Balkans are always ‘the others’. Following this line of thought, Croats and Slovenes often claim their belonging to Catholic Central Europe, and Romanians and Moldovans to the group of Latin speaking countries, feeling themselves closer to the geographically distant France or Spain.

Moreover, there is no precise definition of where the Balkans start and end. It is an unusual geographical area, with no clear borders. For example, certain geographers mark the Sava River as its Northern boundary, but according to them, Zagreb’s airport would belong to the Balkans whereas Zagreb wouldn’t (in Belgrade and Ljubljana it would be the opposite way).

The Serbian filmmaker Dusan Makavejev proposes a very peculiar Balkan typology (and topography): “There are 67 million people in the nine Balkan countries. If we add Turkey, which is leaning on the peninsula with one small leg, we have 132 million ‘Balkanians’. And with Hungary and Austria, although these two ladies drink tea and are persuaded to be in Mitteleuropa, then we Balkanians and semi-Balkanians are 150 million”. [9] Another Balkan filmmaker, Theo Angelopoulos, when asked why his films speak for this region, replies:
“Geographically, we belong to the Balkan basin. We have borders with all of these countries: the former Yugoslavia, Albania, Romania, etc. We also share a common destiny; just as all of these peoples, we have known the Turkish rule for centuries”. [10] Confronted by the complexity of the question and the multiplicity of definitions, Dina Iordanova concludes: “Nominally, the Balkans include Bulgaria, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Albania. Countries such as Croatia, Slovenia, Greece, Romania, Moldova and Turkey are also ‘Balkan’ in a number of elements of their history, heritage and self-conceptualization […]”. [11]

“Balkanism”: a Western view of the Balkans

For Robert Stam and Ella Shohat [12], Euro-centered thought divides the world into two opposite cultural fields : ‘the West’ and ‘the rest’. This division organizes everyday language into binary structures, always favorable to Eurocentrism: our ‘nations’, their ‘tribes’; our ‘religions’, their ‘superstitions’; our ‘culture’, their ‘folklore’; our ‘art’, their ‘art craft’; our ‘defense’, their ‘terrorism’; our ‘demonstrations’, their ‘street riots’. Eurocentrisism, sometimes condescending, sometimes demonising towards the non-Western, opposes multiculturalism.

Stam and Shohat are well aware of the importance of the media in the multicultural debate. In a world where images, sounds, peoples and goods circulate globally, the impact of the media on national identity, and on the feeling of group-belonging, is very complex. As it facilitates the interaction with far-off nations, the media ‘deterritorialises’ the communities’ process of self-image construction, often altering their cultures.

In the Balkans’ case, in spite of their undeniable European geography, and the active part they’ve played in the Continent’s common history (far more active than other peripheral European regions, such as the Iberian peninsula, whose belonging to ‘Europe’ is no longer an issue), they are not considered as part of the Western or European cultural field, but are left belonging to the ‘rest’ Shohat and Stam speak of. The Balkans are the expression of the ‘other’, as Todorova [13] also points out, and their marginalization is not only made explicit by Western thought but also internalized by its own peoples. Furthermore, when a Greek goes to France or Italy, he says he’s going to ‘Europe’. He calls all the Westerners visiting Greece ‘Europeans’ (and that includes American tourists), in contrast with the Greeks, who as a result are not Europeans. But they are not Oriental either. As Ducket Ferriman writes, they are the bridge between East and West. [14]

However, in a strictly geographical sense, ‘East’ and ‘West’ are only relative concepts. What the West calls the Middle East would be, from a Chinese perspective, Western Asia. Politics determine cultural geography, and whereas Israel is generally accepted as a Western country, Turkey, Egypt and Morocco are perceived as Oriental. The myth of the West and of the East (or Orient) are two faces of the same colonial sign. And just as Edward Said describes the ways in which European literature has constructed a Euro-centered vision of the East in Orientalism [15], the work and research of Maria Todorova [16] or Milica Bakic-Hayden [17] propose an equivalent thesis regarding the Euro-centered construction of the Balkans.

In an East/West perspective of the world, Eastern Europe would be in the semi-Orientalism stage. Neither definitively excluded nor fully integrated, Eastern Europe is located along a scale which measures the distance from barbarism to civilization. On that scale, the Balkans are located closer to the barbaric depths, functioning as a category of their own and becoming a synonym of the ‘barbarian’, the ‘tribal’ and the ‘primitive’.

Nevena Dakovic [18] lists the three main characteristics of the Balkan stereotype: exoticism, ambiguity and ‘third worldization’. To the eyes of the Westerner, the Balkans appear to be the last truly exotic hideaway in the ‘First’ World, a magical region, strongly marked by duality (between East and West; North and South; Rome and Byzantium; Austria and the Ottoman Empire).

Welcome to Sarajevo by Michael Winterbottom

Since the early days of cinema, filmic representations of the Balkans have inevitably hovered between two poles: romance and violence. In the first case, the Balkans are a fairy-tale land: idyllic, imaginary and often not clearly defined. These are the Balkans of The Prisoner of Zenda [19], Cat People or Cecil B. DeMille’s Unafraid and The Captive. In the second case, the Balkans are a powder-keg ready to explode every 50 years, a land inhabited by vengeful savages who let their primitive violent instincts guide them. This second pole accumulates the large majority of stereotypes usually associated with the Balkans: male chauvinism, treason, beautiful women unworthy of trust, brutal force, alcohol, gambling, revenge. During the Cold War, productions such as the James Bond film From Russia with Love (Terence Young, 1963) nourished these stereotypes, which were then largely exploited in the 1990s when Yugoslavia became a war-zone and a very profitable film subject. From this period, films such as The Rock (Michael Bay, 1996), The Savior (Pedrag Gaga Antonijevic, 1998) and Welcome to Sarajevo (Michael Winterbottom, 1997) contributed to the construction of an image of the Balkans associated with violence. In all of these cases, the main characters were Westerners, whereas the local populations were only represented by minor and stereotypical characters. For Stam and Shohat [20], in the Euro-centered cinematographic model, the ‘colonised’ are always represented as if they were all the same, and any negative act committed by one of them is generalized and becomes instantly typical of the whole community.

The filmic representations of non-Western nations are allegorical, and the characters a synecdoche that synthesizes a whole group, clearly homogeneous, no matter how large it may be. On the other hand, Western characters are never allegorical, but naturally diverse, true examples of life’s rich variety. When it comes to Balkan film subjects, Western filmmakers tend to privilege Western narrators: the main characters in Winterbottom’s Welcome to Sarajevo are foreign correspondents in the Bosnian capital; those in Forever Mozart (J.-L. Godard, 1996), a group of Parisian intellectuals; and in Gadjo Dilo (Toni Gatlif, 1997), a young French man travelling across Romania.

Balkan narratives

In spite of the great diversity of cinematographic examples so far mentioned, a large number of films set in the Balkans reveal the same travelogue narrative structure [21]. Balkan narrations are often the account of a journey in the region. The traveler is a Westerner or a local living abroad who returns home after a long absence. The traveler meets ‘extraordinary’ and ‘different’ people and situations, which appear even more so in contrast with the traveller’s normality. All of these experiences have a profound effect on the character, who then returns home (to the West) transformed. Two typical examples of this structure are the Hollywood ‘Greek’ movies: Never on Sunday (Jules Dassin, 1957) and Zorba the Greek (Michael Cacoyannis, 1964). The first one, starring Jules Dassin as an American traveler and Melina Mercouri as a local prostitute, was meant to be a celebration of the Mediterranean ‘joie de vivre’, criticizing Western rigidity at the same time. However, as the film was entirely built upon the foreigner’s journey and the effects of his presence upon the local Greek community, the result was a true festival of clichés.

Zorba the Greek followed the same pattern, and although its filmmaker (and writer) was originally from Cyprus, the film ended up reaffirming the same stereotypes. What matters is the effect that the encounter with Zorba has on the British writer, and how he returns to England a changed man. What happens to Zorba after the Englishman has left is not mentioned, as if it had no importance whatsoever.

In these two examples, the Balkans only seem to exist through the eyes of the foreigner. What truly matters is the ‘journey’ undergone by the Westerner, not the country and the people he will leave behind. In a Euro-centered perspective, the Balkans don’t exist on their own, they are constructed by the Western gaze, and are therefore subjected to Western representational forms.

The Balkans seen from the Balkans

The Balkans as constructed by the West are the Balkans of exoticism. Furthermore, whereas in other ‘exotic’ peripheral European regions, such as Spain, filmmakers have used the force of the cinematographic medium to fight existing stereotypes and to reassert Spain’s belonging to the Western world, in the Balkans, the logic followed has been the opposite one. Balkan filmmakers have adhered to Western stereotypes on the Balkans. Some have certainly taken advantage of these stereotypes in an ironic way, for example Dusan Makavejev and his provocative WR : Mysteries of the Organism (1971) or Srdjan Dragojevic with the more recent Pretty Village Pretty Flame (1996) or The Wounds (1998). However little by little, the Balkans have become a true Chagall painting, with young brides flying away, cows resting on roofs and Gypsies suddenly appearing from the most incredible places to play some music. Kusturica’s ‘magic realism’ has become the norm for Balkan filmmakers.

Rade Serbedzija in Before the Rain

Incredibly enough, Balkan cinemas don’t try to contradict the image Westerners have of the Balkans. The Balkan exclusion from the European cultural field has not only been interiorized, but has now become a matter of self-exclusion. However, for years now, the big ‘return’ to Europe has been one of the priorities in the region’s political agendas. As Dina Iordanova explains [22], it is not surprising that hotels and cafes named ‘Europe’ have appeared in every big Balkan city, and that in Zagreb, it is precisely the ‘Balkan’ film theatre that has been renamed ‘Europe’. Balkan intellectuals have found themselves faced with the difficult question of how to fight exclusion. Aware of their geographical belonging to Europe, but fully aware that they were not desirable partners for the European Union (yet), they believed that their situation could improve if they demonstrated their true desire to return to Europe. In order to achieve this they have felt an obligation to appear apologetic, and thus have been prepared to mirror stereotypical representations of themselves as part of the admission bargain. This self-denigrating has taken several forms, self-inflicted exoticism being the most easily discernible in the medium of cinema [23]

This is when the representation becomes more ‘real’ than the represented object, when Balkan filmmakers represent their region according to ‘East-West’ criteria, stereotypes and divisions. When Balkan cinemas don’t contradict Hollywood’s Euro-centred vision of the Balkans, but instead confirm it. Moreover, when Balkan filmmakers often choose the same travelogue narrative structure employed by Western filmmakers - which is even more surprising, as they are refusing their own point of view in favor of a foreign one, encouraging an external ‘judgment’ on their country, their traditions and peoples. An Unforgettable Summer (Lucian Pintilie, 1994), Ulysses’ Gaze (Angelopoulos, 1995), The Saviour (Antonijevic, 1998) and Before the Rain (Manchevski, 1994), four full-length feature films directed by Balkan filmmakers and therefore examples of self-representation, all use the same narrative structures as Balkan-located Western films. They make full use of the figure of the visiting Western (or ‘Westernised’) protagonist, always incarnated by faces familiar to the Western viewer (Harvey Keitel, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Dennis Quaid or Rade Serbedzija). The hero of Ulysses’ Gaze is A., a cineaste who returns to the Balkans after 35 years in America. In The Saviour, it is an American soldier of fortune in the Bosnian war.

In An Unforgettable Summer, we have an Austro-Hungarian aristocrat. In Before the Rain, Aleksandar, a cosmopolitan photographer and word-traveller returns to his village after 18 years away. Aleksandar comes from the civilized and rational West and finds a society ruled by intolerance and violence. His humanist ideals of reconciliation are quickly rejected and he ends up killed by his own people. What Manchevski (himself an emigre in the US) probably intended to show the West was that it must not impose its ethical codes upon other cultures. However, the effect is the radical opposite, as Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia appears as a medieval society of tribal cultures. All the ingredients are indeed there: mysticism, orthodoxy, monasteries, icons, candles, nostalgia, lake Ohrid’s blue waters… The final result is the veritable and inevitable assertion of the Balkans as ‘the other’.

Balkan filmmakers do not seek to be subversive, but to be accepted. They no longer have an alternative ideology to counter the dominant Western model. Concession works better for them, and is therefore the path which has been chosen. In addition, in adopting Western cinematographic stereotypes on the Balkans, Balkan filmmakers have made these stereotypes truer than real life. It seems odd therefore that cows don’t fly and that there are no Gypsies hiding with their trumpets in every Balkan closet. The cinematographic Balkans have succeeded in imposing themselves on our collective imagination.


1. Arthur D. Howden Smith, Fighting the Turks in the Balkans. An American’s Adventures with the Macedonian Revolutionaries, G. P Putnam’s, 1908, p. 24. Quoted by Todorova M., Imagining the Balkans, Oxford University Press 1997, p. 14.
2. Where Simone Simon is Irena, a tormented Serbian woman haunted by an old Balkan legend.
3. Bruce Willis is being chased by his enemies and has to leave behind the Yugo he was driving as it breaks down. Furious, he comments on its poor quality and gets hold of the first Mercedes he finds.
4. Where a Bosnian terrorist (self-defined ≪ Serb, Croat and Muslim ≫) tries to blow up the UN headquarters in NYC.
5. A British writer (Alan Bates) is visiting Greece and comes accross an incredible individual, the flamboyant and colourful Zorba (Anthony Quinn).
6. Where Somalia and Sarajevo are linked in one single sentence. Similar impassive references to the Yugoslav conflict appear in Home for Holidays (Jodie Foster, 1995) and Bridget Jones’s Diary (Sharon Maguire, 2001).
8. Maria Todorova gives several examples of the negative connotations of the terms “Balkan” or “Balkanization”: for Paul Scott Mayer, European correspondent for the Chicago Daily News in 1921, Balkanization is “the creation, in a region of hopelessly mixed races, of a medley of small states with more or less backward populations, economically and financially weak, covetous, intriguing, afraid, a continual prey to the machinations of the great powers, and to the violent promptings of their own passions” (Torodova M., 1997, p. 34) ; or as Alexander Vodopivec describes in La balkanisation de l’Autriche, “Balkan – this was once a synonym for unreliability, lethargy, corruption, irresponsibility, mismanagement, blurring of the competences and borders of law and much else” (Todorova M., 1997, p. 35).
9. Makavejev D., “Dans les Balkans, la ou les rivieres coulent au-dessus des ponts”, Positif, no 479, January 2001, p. 42 (translation by the author).
10. Ciment M., “Entretien avec Theo Angelopoulos”, Positif, no 415, September 1995, pp. 21-27 (transl. by the author).
11. Iordanova D., Cinema of Flames : Balkan Film, Culture and Media, BFI Publishing, London, 2001, p.7.
12. Shohat E., Stam R., Multiculturalismo, cine y medios de comunicacion, Ediciones Paidos, Barcelona, 2002.
13. ‘‘Geographically inextricable from Europe, yet culturally constructed as ‘the other’, the Balkans became in time, the object of a number of externalized political, ideological and cultural frustrations and have served as a repository of negative characteristics against which a positive and self -congratulatory image of the ‘European’ and `the West’ has been constructed’’. (Todorova M., 1997, p. 453).
14. Ducket Ferriman Z., Greece and the Greeks, New York, James Pott, 1911, p. 132, quoted by Todorova M., 1997, p. 21.
15. Said E., Orientalism, Pantheon, New York, 1978.
16. Imagining the Balkans by Bulgarian historian Todorova explores the ontology of the Balkans from the 18th century to the present day, based on a rich selection of travelogues, diplomatic accounts, journalism, academic surveys, etc.
17. Milica Bakic-Hayden has dedicated several works to the ≪Balkanist≫ issue : ‘‘Nesting Orientalisms : the Case of the Former Yugoslavia’’, Slavic Review, vol. 54, no 4, Winter 1995, pp. 917-931; (with her husband, Robert Hayden), ≪Orientalists Variations on the Theme ‘Balkans’: Symbolic Geography in Recent Yugoslav Cultural Politics≫, Slavic Review, vol. 51, no1, Spring 1992, pp. 1-15.
18. Dakovic N., ‘‘The Threshold of Europe : Imagining Yugoslavia in Film’’, Spaces of Identities, 2001.
19. The three cinematographic versions (1937, John Cromwell ; 1952, Richard Thrope ; 1979, Richard Quine) of Anthony Horpe’s novel are set in the imaginary land of Ruritania, which would correspond to 1880’s Serbia.
20. Shohat E., Stam R., 2002, p. 191.
21. Dina Iordanova dedicates one chapter of Cinema of Flames to describing and analyzing the Balkan travelogue structure: Iordanova, 2001, pp. 55-70.
22. Iordanova D., 2001, p. 33.
23. Iordanova D., 2001, p. 67.

  Ulysses` Gaze
  Zorba the Greek
  Never on Sunday
  The Wounds
  Pretty Village, Pretty Flame
  WR: Mysteries of the Organism
  Before the Rain
  Theo Angelopoulos
  Michael Cacoyannis
  Srdjan Dragojevic
  Emir Kusturica
  Jules Dassin
  Anthony Quinn
  Melina Mercouri
  Harvey Keitel
  Dusan Makavejev
  Milcho Manchevski
  Dina Iordanova
  Lucian Pintilie
  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
  An Overview of the (New)* Croatian Cinema
  NISI MASA Official Web Site
  altcine Explore movies by Country People To read
Support altcine
Advertise with us
Submit your content
Sponsors & Partners
and Herzegovina

Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia
Production Companies
Legal Documents
Film analysis
Behind the scenes
Powered by byte  
  altcine © 2011 | Terms of use | Privacy