The Big Waiting in the Balkan Cinema

in 13rd Sarajevo Film Festival

by Nadezhda Mihaylova Marinchevska

The 15th Sarajevo Film Festival offered a diverse focus on issues from the Balkan countries of Latin America, China and Japan. The range of themes and film styles was quite broad – from psychological exploration through social and political films to psychoanalytical approaches and anti-utopia.

However, this year, we witnessed a strong and very unconventional trend in Balkan cinema; a trend that has already shown itself, but never with such intensity. In a considerable number of films, coming from different countries across the region, it seems that people just walk, or perform the most banal and tedious everyday gestures such as eating, putting clothes in a suitcase, riding in a bus, washing hands, smoking… The protagonists wait (and the audience waits with them) for something to happen. The big waiting in the Balkans! Communication is laconic, dialogue is sparse and people seem as if surrounded by a thick emotional cloud. Sometimes at the end they burst, sometimes not. The film language also seems bizarre – snail-paced shots, takes that last for an eternity, wordless scenes in backyards or desolated streets, peeling facades, a tangible sense of distance. This seems to be an approach that goes far beyond the usage of just a simple film language. The shooting of the everyday life goes further than the neorealist or documentary styles, neither is a kind of extension of Eastern European noir. The approach is drawn to its extreme without looking improper. This new manner of expression often serves as a magnifying glass revealing the essence in human or social relationships.

The most indicative example of this approach is Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective (Politist, adjective) which already won the Un Certain Regard and FIPRESCI Prizes in Cannes. The police officer Cristi is following a young boy who offers hashish to his classmates. He is not likely to arrest him as it is clear that the boy is not a dealer and the arrest will ruin his life. But the inspector’s boss demands “action” and is not quite interested in what Cristi calls “conscience”. However, it is not the plot that is important in this very unconventional film. The impossible dilatory (non)action where Cristi walks after the boy following him from his home to the school, after that to a friend’s house, to a girl’s place and back to school is shot in a way that provokes our experience as cinema viewers. The real time of the long takes seems paradoxically extended as it belies the conventions for building a film scene which usually skip all the lengths that might be boring for the spectator. Corneliu Porumboiu wishes to return virginity into our perception, to break the rules so that we could really see the life, the person, society. He goes even further in his striving to reach the purity of essences – at the beginning of the film we witness as if through a lens only the physical behaviour of the characters. Not a single word is spoken for some 15 minutes! And there is no compensation for the viewer, the action is confined to the endless watching of Cristi, hiding behind a tree and waiting. The ending is quite opposite. Porumboiu explores the meanings of the words through their definitions in a dictionary only to show that everything can be turned upside down in a formal and demagogic way. Humanity can be found in the behaviour of the person and not in the notions (even if these notions are “conscience”, “law”, “moral”). Morality is in deeds, not in words. The purity of the language is not equal to the purity in morality. The Romanian director suggests his ideas through a vanguard film expression that destroys our stereotype of watching films and provokes some kind of interactive reaction. In two of the scenes, for instance, he even forces us to read in real time Cristi’s police reports going even further than Godard’s experiments with written words to be read on the screen.

Ordinary people by the Serbian director Vladimir Perišic is another extraordinary film which focuses on a young soldier. The day seems endless for Johnny – since making the beds in the barracks, through the long ride on a military bus to the tedious waiting under the heated sun in the middle of nowhere. All the soldiers phlegmatically wait for fulfilling the not ever coming orders – they smoke, wash hands and necks, sleep on duty… The boredom is unbearable, the atmosphere is stifling, Johnny’s curiosity about what the mission is – unanswered. So, when after a long time, some people (named in the film as “enemies”) are driven to the desolate farm, a certain liveliness occurs. There is a sigh of relief that something will happen. No matter that this will turn into an execution. Vladimir Perišic shows this local massacre in the same distant manner as he showed the boredom before. No cries, no overexposed blood, almost no emotion – just a job to do. The lengthy waiting itself seems to have the power to turn Johnny from an innocent, naive boy, who is frightened by a horse on the road, into a brutal military killer. The abnormal unemotional behavior of the protagonist here is redefined as a moral disease of war. This is a new point of view in Serbian cinema, different from the overemotional interpretations of the Balkan conflicts. The film language is also meant to provoke a new response in the viewer. The slowness of putting on shoes and especially the endless long take of Johnny’s neck on the bus are not formal pirouettes but a kind of urge for the viewer to go deeper inside the meaning, to forget the usual clichés and prepossessions. Both films, Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective and Vladimir Perišic’s Ordinary people only seem distant on the surface, slow and waiting, but in fact they convey true moral messages with a hidden passion.

In Sarajevo there were several more Balkan films in which the lengthy waiting is an essential plot engine, combined with detailed attention to everyday gestures to create a slow rhythm. First of All, Felicia (Felicia, inainte de toate) by Ražvan Radulesku and Melissa de Maaf looks deep into familial relationships to bring to the surface long ago oppressed contradictions. But it is the secondary actions in this film that seem of greater importance than the main ones. A phone conversation with a long ago forgotten aunt Dora about her cat, which had broken its leg behind the radiator, is only one of the small events that will lead to Felicia’s crucial event of missing a flight. A taxi driver will be curious to look at her passport to see how biometrical data appears, the people at the airport will seem too busy with something else and the usual remark will be: “Wait for a second, please!” Felicia cannot control her life. It is the life and especially the non-important details around her that control it. Radu Jude’s The Happiest Girl in the World (Cea mai fericita fata din lumme) also focuses on daughter-parent tensions, and is a satire of the world of advertising. The endless variations of one and the same scene shall be repeated again and again by Delia, a girl who has won a car in the lottery, turns into absurdity. These brilliant repetitions with slight changes in intonation and gesture are musically tuned and yet still we wait for the torture to stop.

Other approaches to the same theme of waiting and expectation could be seen in many other films. The essential “not having what to do” and the absence of perspective turn a young boy into a skin-head in the Bulgarian film Eastern Plays (Iztochni piesi) by Kamen Kalev. Hesitation and not being confident in the future is the reason for the slow uncertain action of the protagonists in two Turkish films – Men on the Bridge (Köprüdekiler) by Asli Özge and Milk (Süt) by Semih Kaplanoglu, though they both are a little bit more symbolic than the other Balkan films.

However the Sarajevo film festival showed that the way of expression which had appeared several years ago in a range of Rumanian films now forms a wider trend in the Balkan cinema. Many directors look forward to peeling off the ooze of film stereotypes, of well-known structures, imposed symbols and signs, and predictable conventions. The pains of the contemporary people are no longer depicted in structural or emotional clichés but rely on the truth of real behaviours. This leads to changes in style, to long observations, to real-time episodes and to the Big Waiting.

Edited by Tara Judah