By Pamela Biénzobas
Could the spark born from the life-long romance between literature and cinema create a privileged light under which to see the soul of a region? If so, what would the complex Balkans look like? Through eleven films inspired on stories and novels from Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, Turkey and ex Yugoslavia (Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia), the tribute From Words to Images within the Balkan Survey section of the 2017 Thessaloniki International Film Festival (November 2 to 12) sought to seize a kind of particular soul as conveyed by the cinema of the past six decades – from 1961 (Boštjan Hladnik’s Dance in the Rain) to 2015 (Grant Gee’s Innocence of Memories), though mostly from before the mid-seventies.
The gaze is not only modern regarding the films, but also their literary sources. All but one of the texts are from the 20th century, even if some stories look back into the past, such as Bulgaria’s The Goat Horn (Koziyat rog, 1972, by Metodi Andonov), set in the Ottoman 17th century. Nikolay Haytov’s violent short story had barely been published in 1967 when it was taken to the screen by Andonov, who chose a rather explicit approach and is especially remembered for the rape and murder scene at the beginning, which motivates the protagonist to raise his daughter (who had witnessed her mother’s attack) like a boy, waiting to take revenge.
The only source text in the entire program that is not from the past century is actually a contemporary, 21st century work: Orhan Pamuk’s “The Museum of Innocence” (2008), on which Gee drew his inspiration for the most recent film of the retrospective. This visit to the Turkish Nobel laureate’s novel was also an exception in its origins, as Innocence of Memories was the only film selected whose director and production are from outside of the Balkans (British), albeit its utterly Istanbulite soul, that Grant Gee dives into guided by the writings of Pamuk, who also participated in the adaptation and expansion of his words into a multiform audiovisual creation.
In between, it is mainly the oppressive social and political landscape (mostly rural) of the early 20th century that is depicted in most of the works, with war as an impending menace or a brutal reality, inspiring films to study the emotional and psychological consequences of the armed conflicts that tore Europe and of course the Balkans apart. Though published in the aftermath of World War II (in 1948), it is towards the end of WWI that Emilyian Stanev situates the tender but despondent story of love and compassion between a Serbian POW in Bulgaria and the wife of the prisoner camp’s chief warden, taken to the screen by Vulo Radev in The Peach Thief (Kradetzat na praskovi, 1964, Bulgaria). In the formally striking Three (Tri, 1965, Yugoslavia – Serbia), based on short stories from the collection “The Fern and the Fire” by Antonije Isakovi?, Aleksandar Petrovi? depicts through vignettes the interaction between a Yugoslavian fugitive (Bata Zivojinovic) with three different people during World War II. The wounds are still open almost two decades later in The Return of the Dead Army (Kthimi i ushtrisë së vdekur, 1989, Albania), by Dhimitër Anagnosti, based on Ismail Kadare’s internationally celebrated debut novel “The General of the Dead Army” (published in 1963). Through the burdensome search for the remains of their compatriots fallen in Albania, undertaken by a general and a priest from Italy in order to repatriate and bury them in their country, the film comments on the utter absurdity and tragicalness of it all.
Other films set in the first decades of the past century could almost seem as if recalling life two hundred years earlier, such is the misery and hardship they portray in the rural areas of the Balkans. In the diptych The Stone Wedding (Nunta de piatra, 1972, Romania), Dan Pita and Mircea Veroiu took two short stories –“Fefeleaga” (Veroiu) and “At a Wedding” (Pita)– by the priest and author Ion Agârbiceanu (as they would do again two years later for Duhul aurului) to create a stunning, at times expressionistic tableau of life in a forsaken Transylvania.
Also from Romania, in this case towards the end of the Ceau?escu era, Stere Gulea’s The Moromete Family (Morome?ii, 1987, Romania), narrates a desperate period in the life of the torn-up rural kin from Marin Preda’s classic eponymous novel (1955), hopeless in the eve of World War II as selfishness and greed endangers their survival both from the outside and also from within.
Croatian peasant life in the early 20th century is depicted with a tiny hint of nostalgia, or at least an idealization of rustic beauty, though just as desolate and fragile in Ante Babaja’s The Birch Tree (Breza, 1967, Yugoslavia – Croatia), based on two stories by Slavko Kolar –and cleverly interweaving the elements of a folk song–, with misery but also an oppressive social structure and religious superstitions determining people’s fate. Rural life and its struggles (in this case conveyed by a love-triangle melodrama) are also at the heart of the 1964 Berlinale Golden Bear winner, Dry Summer (Susuz Yaz, 1963, Turkey) by Metin Erksan, based on the story by contemporary writer Necati Cumal?.
Far from the country, two very different proposals, both in formal and narrative terms, completed the retrospective. Using sound and image to dive into its character’s psyche, Boštjan Hladnik’s feature debut Dance in the Rain (Ples v dežju, 1961, Yugoslavia-Slovenia, based on the novel “Black Days, White Day” by Dominik Smole, published just three years earlier) is often considered one of the precursors of the filmic research by the young, avantgarde cinema soon to be known as “Yugoslav New Film”.
Adapting his own stageplay into a film, renowned screen and stagewriter Dušan Kova?evi? takes a bitter look into the past in his comedy The Professional (Profesionalac, 2003, Serbia and Montenegro), in which a former (or current?) secret agent pays a visit to the man who was his “subject” for years, and appears to know and remember much more about his life than the man himself. Recurring to flashbacks to go back and forth to the absurd meeting in the film’s present, the takes a critical look not just at the country’s past, but also at the fragile post-Milosevic reality of Serbia, which at the time was still one with Montenegro; in a region where the shaky country names and borders are just an anecdotal sign of much deeper and graver tremors.
The retrospective was curated by Dimitris Kerkinos –Head of Programming of Thessaloniki Documentary Festival and of TIFF’s Balkan Survey–, a passionate cinephile and reader. “As these two art forms have always been in dialogue in my mind”, he commented, “I thought of systematizing this relationship in a tribute and do something different, taking a break from the (usual Balkan Survey) retrospectives dedicated to directors. It was a great opportunity to see some old and rare films, and at the same time to read some of the books in which the films were based.”
Did you start with a specific film in mind?
Dimitris Kerkinos: Not really. The fact is that although I had already seen and liked some of the films that I included in the tribute, I hadn’t made the connection with literature. So, when I started my research for the tribute, I got very excited with the fact that so many great films were based or inspired on literary sources.
What connections that you hadn’t thought of before did you discover?
Dimitris Kerkinos: Well, in the beginning I thought that the main (Balkan Survey) program and the tribute would be a bit unbalanced. From one hand I’d have a tribute with great breakthrough films and on the other, in the main program, the recent production of Balkan films, in a year that wasn’t really one of the best. (…) But I liked the idea of creating a dialogue between the past and the present of Balkan cinema, even though the quality of old and new films was uneven, as on one hand you had classics and on the other films that haven’t passed the test of time.
But then I realized that some of the recurring themes and elements among Balkan films and their national cinemas, that shape a distinct identity and give substance to what we can call Balkan cinema (with all the existing differences, of course), were present in the selection of the new films.
If you think of, for example, The Miner by Hanna Slak (where a Bosnian refugee/miner in Slovenia finds a mass grave of war refugees killed at the end of WWII) and The Return of the Dead Army (1987) by Dhimitër Anagnosti (where an Italian General goes back to Albania to collect and repatriate the bones of Italian soldiers from the WWII), you can see a key connection of great relevance, as far as the Balkan history of wars, atrocities and traumas are concerned.
Also, A Brief Excursion by Igor Bezinovic, a 2017 film which comments, among other things, on the figure of the leader that gives promises driving astray his followers, is based on a literary text of the sixties and its theme still has a powerful resonance nowadays. So I was very happy to realize that this dialogue of the past with the present in Balkan film wasn’t some kind of academic abstract but a a very potent and dynamic reality.
What was your criteria for selecting these specific films? Are there others that you would have liked to include as well, but that eventually did not make it to the program?
Dimitris Kerkinos: My emphasis was more cinematic than literary, that is to say, my priority was to screen good films. I wanted to present important and unknown films, and preferably films that had never been screened before in Thessaloniki. So, with the exception of The Peach Thief, Three, The Goat Horn (all screened in the 90s) and The Professional, the rest were presented for the first time in Greece.
I also wanted to include great authors such as Ivo Andric (a Nobel prize winner), Panait Istrati or Danilo Kis, but as the films made on their work weren’t great or had a TV quality I left them out. Finally, I tried to find films whose literary source was translated into Greek, so that to give the opportunity to whoever was interested to read the book. Unfortunately, it was very difficult to combine all these. But, as I said, the first priority was to present good films.
In your view, what overall image does this retrospective convey of the Balkan “soul”?
Dimitris Kerkinos: During my research, I realized that some of the greatest and most innovative Balkan films were related to literature. So the tribute became at the same time a sort of history of Balkan cinema since the 1960s. All films presented from the 60s and 70s were very innovative in terms of their cinematic and thematic approach in the history of their national cinema, not only introducing new modernistic elements in their narrative (often combined with naturalism) but also new thematic areas, opening new doors and influencing the next generations of Balkan directors.
Filmmakers from Bulgaria or Romania that were suffering from censorship realized that they could turn to classic literature sources in order to avoid it. At the same time, a lot of these films opened a dialogue with the Western European cinema of the times, bringing to light their national cinema and creating a great interest