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The Represantation of the Borders in the Films of Theo Angelopoulos
© Nicephore Tsimbidaros
First Publication: "Balkan Identities Balkan Cinemas" Published by NISI MASA - European network of young cinema. March 2008
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Any serious consideration of the Balkan peninsula runs up against the unanswerable question of borders… a mixture of the geographical, the historical and the political.
- Misha Glenny, 1999

The Suspended Step of the Stork (1991), Ulysses’s Gaze (1995) and Eternity and a Day (1998) constitute a trilogy in which a fascination for the border is certainly at its strongest and most evident within the cinematography of Theo Angelopoulos, and even within Balkan cinema as a whole. For him, roads, bridges and mountains constitute the boundaries of a scattered world: the Balkans.

In The Suspended Step of the Stork, Alexander, a documentary film-maker, investigates the disappearance of a famous politician. His investigation brings him to a little town in northern Greece, close to the Turkish border. In the second sequence of the film, Alexander goes to the border with a Greek army colonel. They both walk onto a narrow wooden bridge. The other side of the bridge is guarded by a Turkish soldier holding a machine gun. Three painted lines divide the middle section of the bridge. “The blue line”, says the colonel “is Greece. The white one, nowhere, the red one, Turkey”. The officer puts his left foot on the ground in a position resembling that of a stork, and raising his right foot over the white line he says: “If I make another step I’m nowhere, or I die…”

The Suspended Step of the Stork

A very long and slow-moving tracking shot follows the wagons of a goods train where refugees are packed; Kurds, Albanians, Iranians, immigrants, exiles, the displaced… Most of them carry their nation, their borders and their nationalism with them. They tear one another to pieces, always recreating their own boundaries. For example, a scene in the refugee camp presents a man showing off a tattoo of an orthodox cross on his arm in order to ‘save the race’. The border is an imaginary line which separates two countries, but its limits are beyond geography. Here, the borders are reconstructed inside the refugee camp. Angelopoulos strongly questions the limits imposed by the legal reality of the border.

In The Suspended Step of the Stork the border is often referred as “the borders” (“ta sinora”, in Greek), as if they weren’t indeed strictly legal or geographical but blurred and abstract. The usage of long sequence shots, grim wintry landscapes and cold tonalities - common to all three films - underlines remarkably the misery of these populations stuck in between their borders. Boundaries are buried under the mist, rain and snow.

Mastroianni, the exile politician/refugee (Angelopoulos maintains a confusion on the identity of the character) asks himself: “We’ve crossed the border and we’re still here… How many borders must we cross to reach home?”. The wedding sequence is another remarkable example of Angelopoulos’s denunciation of the border. The silent ceremony takes place on both banks of a large river which marks the boundary between two countries. The bride and groom are separated. When a military jeep patrols along the opposite side of the river, both groups have to run away and hide in the forest. The groom eventually crosses the river in a small boat and meets the bride.

Angelopoulos pushes his fascination for the borders and the Balkans even further in Ulysses’s Gaze. The hero, A. (his name is just an initial), starts his journey in Florina, a little town in northern Greece. His trip will lead him through Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Bosnia on a quest for three lost rolls of the first movie shot by the Manakia brothers in the early 20th century.

Ulysses` Gaze

The Manakia Brothers are a perfect incarnation of ‘the Balkans’. Born of Greek parents in a village in the Pindus Mountains, they moved to Monastir (now Bitola in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), where they started their photo lab and also opened a screening room. Skopje’s National Archives and the Yugoslav Film Archives (Jugoslovenska Kinoteka) share most of the Manakia’s photo and film collection. Another part is also stored at Bucharest’s Film Archives. The Manakia brothers developed their business throughout the Balkans, ignoring borders which were not yet settled. As their work belongs to the collective Balkan patrimony, and because of the complexity of their origins, any attempt to appropriate their work would be in vain. The Balkan dimension of the Manakia archives make them incompatible with any political ideology found within the borders of any single Balkan country.

In the first sequence of the film, A. wanders into Florina’s main square at night time, where a movie is being screened in front of a large, silent crowd. The screen is never shown to us but the voiceover is heard in every corner of the town. We can hear the words: “Balkan reality (…) is sailing in dark waters now” . The tone of the movie is set. A. crosses the Albanian border in a taxi, but the driver seems worried about crossing it. “Do we cross?”. The border separates two sisters. One lives on the Greek side, the other lives on the Albanian one. A. welcomes the one from the Greek side into the taxi and they go to Albania together. A. drops her in her sister’s town. Standing with her suitcase in the middle of a huge and empty square, the old woman remains immobile, struck by the strangeness of this foreign place. She now becomes an outcast. The border divides what was before united. The border not only scatters the land, but also the people sharing the same blood; parents and children, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters.

As well as the concept of borders, Angelopoulos is also strongly concerned with the feeling of being a stranger everywhere. Angelopoulos seems to be speaking to us through Alexander, the main character of Eternity and a Day, a writer who is about to go to a hospital to cure a fatal disease. Alexander says himself that he has always lived his life as an exile. To him, it seems irrevocable. Alexander meets a wandering Albanian child, himself an exile, and takes him under his protection. He drives the child towards Albania through the mist and the snow. Their ride stops at the border. There, in the stillness of the frozen mountains, Alexander and the child remain silent.

A tall wire fence marks the border line with Albania, but as the tracking shot moves forward through the mist, sinister human forms appear at various points of the fence. Desperate emigrants are hanging from the wire, waiting for the chance to pass through.

In summary, all of these three movies form a kind of protest against the inhumanity of the borders, which imprison those on the outside as well as those on the inside. Angelopoulos sees them as barriers to love, languages, races, and religions, preventing real communication from taking place. The borders are severely marked. Crossing them becomes dangerous. However, the last sequence of The Suspended Step of the Stork shows men hanging from the top of some phone polls lined up along the riverside, restoring the cables. These cables could be seen as bridges which transcend the national borders. In this way, the film ends on a positive note, demonstrating the will to restore communication between people.

  Eternity and a Day
  The Suspended Step of the Stork
  Ulysses` Gaze
  Theo Angelopoulos
  Marcello Mastroianni
  The Greek and Balkan Spirit of Comedy During the Journeys with the Films of Theo Angelopoulos
  Imagining the Balkans... in Film
  An Overview of the (New)* Croatian Cinema
  NISI MASA Official Site
  Read the Book
  altcine Explore movies by Country People To read
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