Balkan Creativity: Saving the Soul of European Cinema By Shahla Nahid
by Shahla Nahid
The will to discover new regions and their people through their cinemas was indicated by the dominance, in these last years, of the films coming from the Balkans. Showing a youthful brightness and an audacity without limits, through fiction films and documentaries, mixing music, history, narratives, drama, humor, landscape and character… one discovers unimaginable treasures, mostly Romanian and Turkish, which is not to forget the contribution of the other countries. It is clear that festivals are ideal places to follow these cinemas closely and to extract from them essential topics, major concerns, their resemblances and the dissimilarities.
Admittedly, many directors from the Balkans, in disparate and individual ways, have already filled the world with wonder through their films. Without going too far into the past, it was partly through the prizes at Cannes given to Theo Angelopoulos and Emir Kusturica that put the spotlight on the Balkans. Whereas it was once believed that the future of the cinema was in Asia, the tidal wave of films coming from the Balkans has probably changed this perception. Balkan cinema has given new life to European cinema which, with some exceptions, is betraying signs of tiredness.
Perhaps at the top of these cinemas from the Balkans one can put the Romanian cinema with Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, winner ofthe Golden Palm of 2007, leading the dance of young directors. After him comes Cristian Nemescu, who died before completing the editing of his first film California Dreamin’ but won the “Un Certain Regard” prize in Cannes in 2006; Corneliu Porumboiu, child of the revolution of 1989, who arrived in Cannes with 12:08 East of Bucharest and won the “Camera d’or” in 2006; Cristi Puiu, who also won a prize at Cannes in 2006, for The Death of Mr. Lazarescu…. But the flood did not stop there and the 48th Thessaloniki International Film Festival familiarized spectators with the work of Nae Caranfil, Romanian filmmaker and author, who is hardly known in Western Europe but who deserves ample recognition. Caranfil, author of the scenarios of his films and sometimes composer of their music as well, belongs to the transitional generation in Romania.
Through his outstanding film Don’t Lean Out of the Window (È pericoloso sporgersi, 1994), a film with mordant humor, he exorcises the trauma of post-Communist Romania and uses a narrative style that anticipates Gus van Sant’s Elephant. In his latest film The Rest Is Silence (Restul e tacere), the biggest production in Romanian film history, Caranfil goes to the roots of cinema in Romania and astonishes the spectator with his brilliant handling of actors and his skilful editing. Caranfil knows how to tell a story and entertain vastly. Seeing his films is an absolute must.
What can be termed ‘the Yugoslavian years’, i.e. the difficult years 1960-1970 — portrayed brilliantly in Emir Kusturica’s When Father Was Away on Business (Otac na sluzbenom putu, Golden Palm 1985) — and the topic of the war, which devastated the former Yugoslavia and lasted more than four years, were important components of this cinema in full bloom. The transition into building a new society is a central concern in a number of films coming from the countries which were once Yugoslavia.
No Man’s Land by Danis Tanovic, the winner of the prize for the best scenario at Cannes in 2001, is undoubtedly the best fiction film to deal with these disturbed times as well as the most powerful denunciation of the war and its atrocities. The film has a devastating sense of the comic; it disturbs the spectator and makes her/him think.
Another example of a film about the same topic is the 31-year-old Bosnian filmmaker Jasmila Zbanic’s Grbavica, which won the Golden Bear at Berlinale in 2006. Grbavica is a searing film drama about a mother and her daughter in Sarajevo during the war in former Yugoslavia.
Armin by Ognjen Svilicic, a Croatian director, tells the story of a father and his 14-year-old son who travel from a small city in Bosnia to Zagreb for an audition, is one example. The hard reality of this transitional period is very well shown in The Trap (Klopka), a dark film by Srdjan Golubovic, the Serbian director. He shows the bankruptcy of the moral values in a society enslaved by the market economy.
Bulgarian cinema also attempts to catch other Balkan countries. A verygood example of Bulgarian contemporary cinema is the excellent Investigation (Razsledvane) by Iglika Triffonova. The director effortlessly negotiates the twists and turns of the labyrinthine criminal case, supported by a masterly portrayal from her female lead. The subject is not new for Triffonowa: her first documentary Stories for Murders (Razkazi za ubiystva, 1993), which dealt with convicted killers, was a plea against the death penalty then still in force in Bulgaria.
The Turkish cinema, another cinema which has had the wind in its sails for a several years, preferred not to wonder about the period of the military dictatorship — created by the plot of September 12, 1980 — for a long time. This period saw hundreds of deaths, thousands of people tortured, driven out of employment and/or faced with exile. Lately, some films have nevertheless broken this silence a little. One of the latest films which touches on this significant subject — The International (Beynelmilel) by Sirri Sureyya Onder and Muharrem Gülmez — although pointing a finger at political repression, does not engage the spectator because of too much romantization and a bad set of actors. On the contrary Hidden Faces (Sakli Yüzler) by Handan Ipkeçi, which treats as a subject the ‘crime of honor’, courageously exposes the condition of women in Turkey, something Fatih Akin had already done excellently in Head On but failed to do effectively in the very political The Edge of Heaven.
In addition Turkish cinema shows good health in its treatment of social subjects. An exhaustive list would be too long but one cannot prevent oneself from at least invoking Nuri Bilje Ceylan’s The Climates (Iklimler), which won the FIPRESCI Prize in Cannes in 2006, Kader by Zeki Demirkubuz and Yumurta (Egg) by Semih Kapanaoglu, both released in 2007.
Returning specifically to the cinema from the ex-communist countries, they have as common features the following: their recent pasts with the weights of their drama and their irony, treated without prejudice; a pitiless lucidity with regard to the lost illusions; a clear-eyed look at emerging capitalism and all its deceptions; identity crises and the problem of the minorities; the pain of exile and the younger generation’s fear of a bleak future, a generation born unhappy and perpetually in crisis.
The majority of films ask this question: what will the future be like, how will the wounds of the cruel past be healed and how should one cope with the uncertainty of the present? This is also the leitmotiv of many Greek films which, unfortunately, do not seem much to perpetuate the heritage of great filmmakers, in particular Angelopoulos.
Albania, the small unknown country of Europe, taken up too long with itself, raises its head a little and attempts to make films with strong elements of surrealism and self-mockery. Examples are films like Tirana, Year Zero by Fatmir Koçi which won the Golden Alexander at the Thessaloniki Film Festival of 2001 and Mao Ce Dong (Mao Tse Tung) by Besnik Bisha. The latter film shows the communist reality of the seventies from the point of view of the gypsies. These are films to be discovered.
From where does this Balkan creativity come? With regard to Romania, one explanation offered is that the low cost of living in the country induced foreign film producers to shoot their films there. This resulted in local people coming into contact with foreign film crews, especially with well-known directors, sometimes working as their assistants. The exchange enriched many potential filmmakers locally. This is an explanation but it cannot explain everything. One can also say that Romanians have many things to tell and many wounds to heal. But who does not have any stories or wounds?
All these excesses, the extremism, the horrors occurred for too long because of the lack of any discernible reaction from the powers that be, make us hope that the new cinema will initiate a process of European revolt which the rest of the world will follow. The time has perhaps come to save what can be saved from the European soul.