Praznik (1967, Yugoslavia, Djordje Kadijevic)

May 14, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Praznik (1967) was one of several films on the list which director Zelimir Zilnik gave me a few years back; he was making recommendations which films I should make sure to see in order to come to know the most important works dealing with Yugoslavia’s complex historical past. Having now finally seen it out of a DVD which I got courtesy of another director, Slobodan Sijan, I can confirm that this is yet another one of the Yigoslav masterpieces that are largely absent from European film history, as it is currently written about in the West.

Director Djordje Kadijevic (born 1933 in Croatia) made this debut feature at the age of 34; I have not had the chance to see his other films, perhaps because he mostly worked in television. The script was authored by Kadijevic and Aleksandar Petkovic, who is the film’s cinematographer (and the man who shot a wide range of Yugoslavia’s best-known films over several decades). Set in the mountains of Yugoslavia during World War II, the film takes place during the festivities for Božić (Christmas) 1943. Its snowy aesthetics made me think of another East European masterpiece dealing with memories of WWII, Hungarian Cold Days. A group of Cetnics (Nazi supporters) are stationed in the village where they dispense self-styled horrifying justice (there is a difficult to watch violent scene where they instigate violence against a young widow). The main line of the plot evolves around the way in which the leader of the Cetniks opts to deal with two American pilots who crash in the mountain nearby. Initially welcomed, the Americans believe they have found allies who will get them to the Partisans and with comrade Tito very soon; it does not work out this way, and while they are dined and wined at first, later on they are detained. During the night, however, the two captives escape; the leader of the Cetniks gets worried that he may be blamed for letting them free, so he promptly puts arrangements in place for two of his own men to be restrained and slaughtered, their dead bodies are then dressed up in the uniforms of the Americans. Alas, the superiors who are meant to be fooled this way do not buy into the trick as they have captured the two American fugitives meanwhile; the villagers who silently watched the slaughter of the two men (by an expert killer, a handsome and introverted young man pictured below, who spends most of his time looking over the snowy landscape and nibbling apples) now finally burst out in rage; but it is too little too late. Toward the end of the day, a group of Gypsy musicians walk down the deserted streets of the village; they find the Americans’ parachute and take it away with them, it will be of use.

The uncontrollable volatility of the context, the constantly changing mood of the wild and whimsical leader of the Cetniks, the lawlessness, the coldblooded efficiently-executed murders, the extreme violence and the endless reversals of power make this film a difficult viewing. In a subplot, a man is killed for daring to speak up, his killer (Bata Zivojnovic) is assassinated within minutes and his body dumped into a well. It is a place that harbors multiple secrets of a vicious cycle of past and future blood lettings and violence. It is difficult to tell who is who, there are so many changes of mood and allegiances. The only constant feature is the fear in the air, and in this respect the film is directly reminiscent to Miklos Jancso’s most prominent film, The Red and the White, also made in 1967, where the balance of power constantly shifts between the hordes of the revolutionaries and Whites from the time of the short-lives Hungarian Soviet Republic. At moments Praznik looks pretty much like scenes from films by Tarkovsky (Andrei Rublev, Mirror, most notably), perhaps because in all cases there are identifiable influences of Pieter Bruegel.

The more films dealing with the memory of WWII I see from this part of the world, the more I realize what great treasures of cinema remain forgotten. Films like Praznik, or the much-referenced Herrenpartie/ Stag Party (1964), by director Wolfgang Staudte, are not in distribution. Neither are other WWII masterpieces from around the same period, films such as Aleksandar Petrovic’s Three or Zivojn Pavlovic Zaseda. It is about time to do something to bring these films properly into the annals of cinema history.

© Dina Iordanova
14 May 2010

New Book: Cinema at the Periphery (2010)

April 24, 2010 at 12:47 am

A long time in the making, “Cinema at the Periphery is finally out, published by Wayne State University Press in Detroit as part of their series on Contemporary Approaches to Film and Television, under the general editorship of Barry Keith Grant.

Our idea for this project was to explore marginal cinemas from around the world by bringing them together in a comparative perspective. Because, as we see from Iceland to Iran and from Singapore to Scotland, a growing intellectual and cultural wave of production is taking cinema beyond the borders of its place of origin and ventures into exploring faraway places, interacting with barely known peoples, and making new localities imaginable. In an array of films that are made in the context of these traditions, previously entrenched spatial divisions no longer function as firmly fixed grid coordinates, the hierarchical position of place as “center” is subverted, and new forms of representation become possible. Thus, for the project Cinema at the Periphery (first a conference in 2006 and now finally a book), we assembled criticism that explored issues of the periphery, including questions of transnationality, place, space, passage, and migration. The brief to the contributors was to examine the periphery in terms of locations, practices, methods, and themes. The volume includes geographic case studies of small national cinemas located at the global margins, like New Zealand, Denmark or Scotland, but also of filmmaking that comes from peripheral cultures, like Palestinian “stateless” cinema, Celtic-language film, Australian Aboriginal films, and cinema from Quebec. Therefore, the volume is divided into two key areas: industries and markets on the one hand, and identities and histories on the other. Yet as a whole, the project is to illustrate that the concept of “periphery” is not fixed but is always changing according to patterns of industry, ideology, and taste. Most importantly, however, Cinema at the Periphery proposes a workable approach that allows us to link the inextricable interrelationship that exists between production modes and circulation channels and the emerging narratives of histories and identities they enable. It includes some really important writing by leading authors in the field of transnational film studies.

Let me take the opportunity and make an important link here. Back in June 2006, at the inaugural conference that marked the beginning of this project, we recorded the presentations of many of our guests and made them available on-line. Some of these, like Faye Ginsburg (NYU), Mette Hjort (Lingnan), Patricial Pisters (Amsterdam), Sheldon Lu (Santa Barbara), Laura Marks (Simon Fraser), Bill Marshall (Stirling), and Duncan Petrie’s (York) talks became the basis of chapters in the current book. Others, like Dudley Andrew (Yale), John Caughie (Glasgow), Pam Cook (Southampton), Hamid Naficy (Northwestern), Rod Stoneman (Huston Film School), Kristian Feigelson (Paris), published their work elsewhere. While still others, like Lucia Nagib (Leeds), opted to participate in the book but by presenting us with texts on topics that differed from those that they presented. We also commissioned several essays that were added to the two parts of the volume (Industry and Ideology). These included contributions by all three of us — myself and David Martin-Jones (both still at the University of St. Andrews) and Belén Vidal (who since moved to take up a job at King’s College in London) — who acted as editors of the collection. We also included a specially commissioned piece by Kay Dickinson (Goldsmiths) (on Palestinian cinema in an international context). Back then, a number of reviews of the event appeared in the film press. Here is a link to the one published in Senses of Cinema.

Reviews of the book are still to materialise, and I would be most excited to see this volume reviewed internationally, at the periphery and in those locations whose cinematic cultures we aimed to discuss (e.g. Spain, Quebec, Denmark, Brazil, Morocco, New Zealand, Australia, China, Palestine, and others). If you are writing for the film journals in these (or other peripheral) countries, where there is likely to encounter particular interest to the writing included in the volume, for review copies, please be in touch with the Press’s coordinator Sarah Murphy at murphysa@wayne.edu. For the time being, we only have Ruby Rich’s lines that describe the book as a ‘collection of reflections that challenge conventional definitions of national film cultures’ that we can quote.

Krvavi put/ Blodveien/ Blood Road (Yugoslavia/Norway, 1955)

April 3, 2010 at 12:21 am

The Blood Road, a Norwegian-Yugoslav co-production released in February 1955, was co-directed by Rados Novakovic (1915-1979), a director whose name is mostly linked with a variety of resistance-themed films made in the late 1940s and through the 1950s, and Norwegian Kåre Bergstrøm (1911-1976).

I am not familiar with the real historical background of the events depicted in the film, nor have I any detailed knowledge of captured Yugoslav partisans being kept by the Nazis in places as remote as Norway (the geographical distance makes it seem impractical). Yet it seems the film is based on real events from the time of WWII. The focus is mostly on the dynamics between those kept in the camp (a group of captured Yugoslav partisans, who are systematically being destroyed by the Nazis through hard labor, inhuman conditions or straightforward murder) and a group of local Norwegians who, caught by historical circumstance, end up involved working in the context of the camp and who, appalled by the Nazis’ inhumanity, gradually grow determined to help the prisoners. The personal drama evolves around two sets of fathers and sons. On the one hand, there is Janko and his father, prisoners, and on the other hand there is the local man Ketil and his son Magnar. Janko dreams of freedom and manages to escape (while his dedicated father perishes in the camp); this father-son pair live in perfect understanding and, once free, the son will continue the struggle of the father. Not so with the difficult relationship between Kjetil, who is determined to help the partisans, and Magnar, who is not only employed by the Nazis but seems totally faithful to them. The rift between father and son (which is equated to a rift between moral responsibility and lowly opportunism) grows deeper and leads to a tragic end: Kjetil accidentally shoots Magnar dead while defending Janko, the escapee. It is the dramatic tension around the relationships of these four characters that keeps the film going; otherwise there isn’t much more but a variation of other films that deal with the life of prisoners in a camp, as seen in films like Stalag 17; other much superior camp films have been made since.

In my recent purchase and watching of this film, I was mostly intrigued by the fact the DVD cover listed the Norwegian Norske Film and Avala film (the Belgrade production studio) as co-producing partners — a transnational collaboration between two peripheral European countries realised in a period during which such joint projects were not very common (some would even claim no such collaborative projects ever took place in the divided Europe of the 1950s). Well, there is one more piece of evidence of the existance of such transnational efforts, and one that testifies not only to the interesting subterranean dynamics of Cold War cultural politics of the 1950s, but also of the liveliness of collaborations between individual small national cinematographies. Tim Bergfelder has explored some aspects of such forgotten (but in fact, quite lively) cross-national collaborations in his book on German co-productions in the 1960s“. Clearly, there is quite a bit more to highlight and work on in terms of Europe’s co-productions history, especially as co-productions between Western (Nordic, in this case) countries and those of the East bloc, especially intriguing in the case of communist maverick states like Yugoslavia and Romania whose cultural policy was relatively independent from the Soviets and who engaged in a variety of extremely interesting co-production ventures. It has been written about only sporadically and in scattered locations; a collaborative transnational project is perhaps due here to highlight these forgotten trans-bloc cultural exchanges of the Cold War.

I bought a copy of the DVD at a large special store in one of Tromso’s shopping malls this January, during the film festival. The DVD cover, pictured above, lists the film as part of the series of ‘Norwegian classics’ that have been now released on DVD (Norske klassikere). Once I had purchased it, I asked around some of the Norwegian friends who were at the festival, but none of them seemed to have heard of the film. When searching on the IMDb for more information on it today, I was not able to find a listing for such a Norwegian classic at all: the search for ‘Blodveien’ only produced a reference to the film’s Yugoslav title, Krvavi put. However, I see that there is at least one review of the DVD in Norwegian, by Kai Arne Johansen at the Norwegian-language site Cinerama.no (I wish I could read it, especially as I see it makes some references to Oscars and Cannes, if I get that correctly).

To purchase the DVD, with English subtitles, click through here.

© Dina Iordanova
3 April 2010

Transnational/migrant actors: A certain case of invisibility I I

November 18, 2008 at 12:04 am

Just this past week I came across two instructive examples that illustrate the invisibility of transnational actors that I have been talking about. In these particular cases, it seems, it all comes along with a degree of voluntarily acceptance of the condition of invisibility. Let me elaborate.

The first instance was with Ingeborga Dapkunaite, the Lithuanian-born actress whom I first came to know of more than a decade ago, from Nikita Mikhalkov‘s Oscar-winning film Burned by the Sun (1994). She since emigrated and, I believe, is based in the UK, but has been taking roles internationally. I just watched her a few days ago in a Belgian production called 25 degrees in Winter a few days ago. She had the lead here, playing a Ukrainian immigrant to Belgium who gets involved with a displaced Spaniard while searching for an elusive Russian husband. A fully competent performance, precisely like the other work in roles Dapkunaite has delivered in more than ten other films where she has been given lead roles (e.g. the British Kiss of Life, 2003, where she plays opposite Peter Mullan). So I could not help being surprised when I came across the Wikipedia entry on the actress, which was not making any mention of what one would think were high profile engagements but was instead describing her exclusively as an actress engaged in ‘minor roles’ in Hollywood, e.g. as the mother of Hannibal Lechter in the ridiculous Hannibal Rising (2007) or as Brad Pitt’s wife in the utterly forgettable Seven Years in Tibet (1997). And yes, it also said she also appeared as a Bosnian refugee in a British TV drama. Clearly, the entry could be enriched substantially. Yet the very tone in which it was written was more than suggestive: whereas I would tend to describe the actress as a notable figure of transnational cinema who mostly moves within the realm of European film, this most easily accessible reference to her profile slots her immediately in the category of actors who are normally engaged in small supporting roles. Hence the resulting lesser visibility.

The other curious case I came across was the one of Max Freeman (a.k.a. Momchil Karamitev). I was on the IMDb, doing research on the Bulgarian epic film Time of Violence (1988), on which I am writing in my forthcoming book on Balkan film and history. Scrolling down the list of actors’ names, I came across the unlikely reference to Max Freeman in the role of the shepherd Goran, a strange appearance of a Western name among the long list of Bulgarian names. What was this Westerner’s name doing here? I did not remember any significant Western actors having taken part in the film. A simple click through the link supplied the answer: Max Freeman was the new name of the actor formerly known as Momchil Karamitev.

Freeman’s filmography as an actor, consisting of 20 titles in total, listed 11 Bulgarian films. He had played in ten of those during an intense five year period between 1984-1989, before emigrating in the early 1990s. In the eighteen years since 1990, the actor had apparently been in another nine films, some in Italy and some in the US. On the IMDb he is pictured with the make-up from his appearance in a singular installment of Star Trek: The Experience (2004; episode 4.04 more precisely); we also learn that he was entrusted with the role of a Russian mobster in the straight-to-video thriller Hit Me (2005). A click through to Freeman’s biography informs that he is the child of two actors, but the Bulgarian references are kept to a minimum. After all, what has been Momchil Karamitev in the past, is no more, and the new name is more like the new face given to him in the context of Star Trek.

As I am Bulgarian, I cannot help thinking of Max Freeman mostly as the son of two of Bulgaria’s greatest actors, the formidable Apostol Karamitev and the theatre diva Margarita Duparinova, people at whose talent I have had many an opportunity to marvel in my early years. Max Freeman’s biography does not include links to the father’s or the mother’s nor to his sister’s profiles on the IMDb, a place where linking to family members who are cineastes is commonplace. Well, true, linking to the names of actors from an obscure nation (even if they are great locally) would not help the actor raise from the certain degree of invisibility that seems to have afflicted him (like many others). Let’s hope that the change of name does the trick for him.

© Dina Iordanova
18 November 2008

Lamerica (Italy, 1994, Gianni Amelio)

November 15, 2008 at 12:26 am

Narrative cinema that tells stories from the transformation of the post-1989 South and Eastern Europe relies on the postcolonial framework much more than is usually acknowledged. It features plots that inevitably reveal dependencies and inequalities in today’s Europe in a way that differs substantially from the view provided by the self-congratulatory rhetoric of official politics that usually depicts the transition from state socialist economies to capitalism as smooth, linear, and universally embraced. Films like Gianni Amelio’s acclaimed Lamerica (Italy, 1994) subtly present old and new colonial-type hierarchies and political compromises that affect the lives of the ordinary people who appear as the film’s protagonists. The underlying postcolonial dynamism may not be overtly manifest in cinematic texts, yet it can easily be revealed in the process of closer analysis, especially in films like this one, featuring migrants that have been set on the move as a consequence of the radical social shifts of 1989.

Lamerica provides a snapshot of postcolonial anxieties affecting Europe in the aftermath of 1989. The protagonist, Gino (the great Enrico Lo Verso), an aspiring young businessman from the South of Italy, is sent to insolvent Albania to sort out a shady business deal. A series of unfortunate events, however, lead to a reversal in Gino’s fortunes and his visit unravels in a way that puts him on the breadline and in a position in which he cannot be distinguished from any other destitute Albanian trying to get a slice of Italy’s prosperity. A secondary but important character in the film is an elderly Italian, another Southerner, who has come to Albania during WWII as a soldier with Mussolini’s army and who has been confined to Albanian labour camps for decades. Now released, but having effectively spent the prime of his life among Albanians, he is closer to them than to his long forgotten Italian compatriots.

Lamerica reveals a situation where Italians live through circumstances that make them experience the challenges that ordinary Albanians face. While the plot line is based on accidental encounters and reversals, the narrative set up is not inconsequential; it is skillfully used by the director whose intention is to show that the invisible divisions between East and West are not as durable as they seem to be. The bonding between dispossessed Albanians and cast-out Italian Southerners charts new fault lines, suggesting that the East and West of Europe’s South are becoming compatible in a new configuration of power affiliations.

See my analysis of the film in Cinema of Flames: Balkan Film, Culture, and the Media (2001) and the essay in The Cinema of Italy (24 Frames)
(2004).

© Dina Iordanova
15 November 2008

René Vautier: Anti-Colonial Filmmaker

November 8, 2008 at 12:32 am

I first heard the name of René Vautier from Erwan Moalic, the powerhouse behind the remarkable film festival in Douarnenez, a true community-based festival dedicated to working class audiences and featuring films on ethnic and other minorities (in existence since the 1970s). I was asking Erwan if he could please identify what was the ideological influence that had informed the establishment of the Douarnenez event, and he named Vautier, whom he described as a hugely important but little known and widely-suppressed Breton filmmaker. The description proved correct, as when I asked around about Vautier at a later point (talking mostly to colleagues in anthropology and French based in the UK and the US), almost no one knew of him (I gather, I did not ask the right people): I was left with the impression that the filmmaker is not as widely known as he apparently should be. Eventually I was nicely surprised to come across a lengthy article on him in the Financial Times (of all places), in which author Tobias Grey described him as ‘the most censored of all French filmmakers’. Luckily, there is the Internet where one can find more on him, from the good French-language Wikpedia article to various write ups on his classic anti-colonialist film Afrique’50 and on his best-known film, the documentary-style feature Avoir 20 ans dans les Aurès (1972).

It is this film,
To be Twenty in the Aures, that prompted me to write on Vautier today, as I finally got round to watching the French language DVD I had purchased in France a few months ago. It is a memorable and certainly extremely brave feature, which can be taken for documentary at moments, especially when featuring extreme scenes such as the rape of a local woman or the torture of detainees (scenes that surpass in intensity similar scenes from such anti-war classics as Brian de Palma’s Casualties of War or recent Iraqi-war themed films like Nick Broomfield’s The Battle for Haditha). A platoon of hesitant French soldiers are fighting the colonial war, being fed daily doses of indoctrination from the radio dispatches and from their own lieutenant Perrin (a remarkable young Philippe Léotard), yet the things that happen on the ground and the local relationships they forge make them more and more disillusioned about the supposedly patriotic mission they are serving. The only French film to be included in the Cannes selection in 1972, the film received the FIPRESCI prize. Aesthetically it is a pre-cursor of Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (1993); at moments I also thought that certain scenes in it may have influenced Bill Douglas’ Comrades (1986) — both films featuring European men who are essentially displaced by being transplanted to a Southern environment. The film is released by Doriane Films, a distributor that carries the work of filmmakers like Peter Watkins and Ousmane Sembene. I see that in the Amazon.fr site, from where it is available for sale, this rare DVD ranks at around 30,000 level of popularity. Sad.

The DVD features various extras, most importantly a 55 minute-long extraction of his earlier work on colonialism in Algeria, called Peuple en marche which presents the anti-colonial stance of the director particularly persuasively and features what I suppose is an extremely rare footage (as Vautier is, reportedly, the only French filmmaker who has filmed the war in Algeria from the point of view of the colonized). The 23 minute documentary called Vautier The Indomitable which chronicles the life of the director, was particularly important to see, especially as it features the sequence of systematic suppression of his work over the years (filming, prison terms, filming again, hunger strike, filming, censorship, and so on) in a light-hearted manner, evidently this being the way in which Vautier prefers to present himself. Born in Bretagne in 1928, he has remained at the periphery of French militant filmmaking. It is sad to see he is so little known, provided that what I saw of his work appears to be so enormously important: after all, he filmed in Algeria at the very same time when Frantz Fanon was writing his seminal The Wretched of the Earth (1961). Yet spending time in Paris earlier this year, I did not come across any mentions of Vautier nor across events that would feature his work (whereas, in conjunction with the commemorations of 1968, there were plenty of discussions of other similarly-motivated groups, such as the Medvedkine collective and others).

© Dina Iordanova
6 November 2008

Transnational/migrant actors: A certain case of invisibility I

November 6, 2008 at 12:51 am

There is a scene in István Szabó’s Mephisto (1981), a film which tackles the case of actor Hendrik Hoefgen (based on famous German actor Gustaf Gründgens), where his friend, the actress Nicoletta von Niebuhr is shown pondering on the advantages and disadvantages of emigrating. She is clearly aware that her career would face decline once abroad, and articulates her concerns over her chances to master a foreign accent or over other types of marginalization she would be likely to face. It is a fateful conversation, which proves decisive not only for her but for the protagonist as well, who decides to stay in Nazi Germany (and returns there even when he has got the chance to emigrate easily). By staying in his native country he enjoys a high profile career indeed, but also becomes a Nazi collaborator. In any case, by committing to a national culture, even if to a problematic one, he avoids the danger of becoming invisible.

This was back in the 1930s, or more than seventy years ago. Things have changed, and the migrations of actors over the years have increased. Yet, scrutinizing the creative paths of those actors who go into emigration today and build transnational careers is most instructive, especially as one traditionally believes that for actors, faced with the challenge of mastering new languages and accents, emigration often spells the end to a career. Having looked closely in the cases of many actors who emigrated out of various Eastern European contexts over the past decade or so, I can clearly establish that it is only singular actors who are able to sustain meaningfully visible careers abroad, and it is a mixture of resilience and luck that proves decisive in the process. Many vanish, or even worse, make appearances in films that are of a much lower quality than the ones in which they have launched their careers, and, having moved over to the nearly invisible periphery, keep working but are never noticed.

Migrant actresses remain invisible even when cast in key roles. For example, international critics nearly unanimously destroyed Bruno Dumont’s Twenty-nine Palms (France/ Germany/ USA 2003), featuring Russian-Lithuanian-French Actress Katia (Yekaterina) Golubeva (pictured here in Claire Denis’ L’Intrus, 2004). Their criticisms of the film were directed elsewhere, yet most of them spoke of the actress as a completely unknown face dug out by Dumont from who knows where. In fact, Golubeva has been a more or less permanent presence in films by Sharunas Bartas since the late 1980s, so these same critics are likely to have not only watched her but also to have praised her for performances in a range of films at the festivals they frequent. In addition, she played significant parts in well-known French art house films such as Claire Denis’s J’ai pas sommeil/I Cannot Sleep (France/Switzerland 1994) and L’Intrus/The Intruder (France 2004) and the lead in Leos Carax’s Pola X (France/Switzerland/Germany/Japan 1999), all extensively covered by these same international critics. Yet, in her new reincarnation in the Californian desert, Katia Golubeva remained unrecognized and was treated as a newcomer (or, rather, not particularly welcomed outsider). Similar examples can be discovered in the case of many other migrant actresses (e.g. Croatian star Mira Furlan, Russian Chulpan Khamatova, Polish veteran Grazyna Szapolowska, the Lithuanian-Russian Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Serbian Branka Katić and Mirjana Joković), all stars of award-winning films by directors such as Kieslowski or Kusturica, yet unrecognized in the Western productions they have appeared in lately. One discovers that these actresses have managed to keep themselves employed by appearing in perfectly respectable Western European or American films even after changing countries. In reality, however, they remain known only in the context of their original national cinema; their transnational work remains invisible.

The situation with migrant male actors is similar. The most successful among the East Europeans are those who, while abroad, are happy to embrace the limitations of typecasting and play the roles of Eastern European villains or migrant patriarchs. This fully applies, for example, to former DEFA star Armin Mueller-Stahl and to Yugoslav Rade Serbedzija, who enjoy high-profile international careers today. Both actors maintain a remarkable transatlantic schedule by regularly taking on roles in Hollywood, in American art-house and indie films, as well as in films made in a range of European or other countries (New Zealand, Canada, Australia), and in their countries of origin. They both are well-known for roles that link them to their Eastern European heritage and tradition: Armin Mueller-Stahl recently played a London-based Russian Godfather in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (2007) while Serbedzija (pictured), who, to his credit, has persisted in retaining his difficult name unchanged even under the temptation to Westernize it by making it somewhat easier to spell or pronounce, has readily embraced the roles of an Eastern European mafioso, Russian gangster or underground trader, in a range of international productions since the mid 1990s.

© Dina Iordanova
6 November 2008

Breaking and Entering (2006, UK/USA, dir. Anthony Minghella)

November 3, 2008 at 12:47 am

Even though this film does not seem to deal directly with migration, it reveals the hierarchy of belonging in post-Cold War Europe. Written and directed by Anthony Minghella, Breaking and Entering (UK/USA 2006) offers a revealing panorama of the symbolic hierarchical standing of different social groups in London. Its prosperous protagonist Will, an architect, is the owner of a beautiful home with a SW postcode; his partner is an attractive Swedish blonde whose daughter, Bea, suffers from autism. A gang of migrants from former Yugoslavia repeatedly breaks into Will’s studio at Kings Cross. Determined to prevent further break-ins, Will takes on night shifts to watch the studio; here he meets and befriends Oana, a streetwise prostitute from Romania. Will also meets the mother of one of the teenage robbers, the Bosnian migrant Amira, who ekes out a living by repairing clothes in her flat in the nearby housing project. Will falls in love with Amira and has several sexual encounters that leave him truly infatuated.Soon, however, he becomes paranoid and begins to suspect that Amira might have entered the relationship in order to protect her felonious offspring; he imagines she may try to blackmail him. Even though he is ready to forget the burglaries, he ‘sobers up’ and takes some radical steps to put an end to the relationship with Amira. While making the generous gesture to forgive the aberrant son at the cost of his own public embarrassment, Will regains the respect of his beautiful Swedish partner. The passion for the Bosnian woman fades away, only occasionally haunting him as a bad dream.

The plot configuration is representative of what has been aptly described as ‘nesting Orientalism’ (Bakic-Hayden). On the surface, Breaking and Entering focuses on the midlife crisis of a white upper middle-class Briton, while below the surface it reveals a hierarchical reality of a Western metropolis where ‘clean’, ‘elevated’ (‘white’) Europeans (an Englishman, a Swedish woman) are forced to co-exist and interact with ‘untidy’ (‘dark’) migrants (a Romanian prostitute, a Bosnian delinquent and his jobbing mother), but soon regain control and distance themselves from these low-grade contacts. A variety of details in the film efficiently restate Europe’s hierarchies: The British protagonist is an educated professional, an architect, who is responsible for a regeneration project in central London’s Kings Cross where the film’s migrant characters live. The Eastern European characters, by contrast, may have had professional lives at some point, but now inhabit the murky spaces of the metropolis and earn a living in menial jobs or moonlight as petty criminals. The daughter of the blond Swede is autistic, but has exceptional talents; she is treated by considerate psychologists. By comparison, the son of the Bosnian brunette is on skid row and in the ‘care’ of tough-talking policemen and overworked social workers. The Swedish woman has difficulties coping with her child’s disability; hence she needs all of Will’s love (and financial support), which she demands and accepts with an air of noble superiority. The Bosnian woman has difficulties coping with her son’s law-breaking, and the revelation of her relationship with Will is tainted with the references to a lowly blackmail-driven affair that should preferably not be mentioned in public.

All that Breaking and Entering purports to do is to show the private predicament of a middle-aged man in need of love. In charting his dilemmas, however, the film reveals a background panorama of racial and class disparities and dependencies, which provide insights into understanding the dynamism of postcolonial Europe and ultimately bring up issues of identity and ideology that are also raised in other of European films – from Lukas Moodyson’s Lilja 4-Ever (Sweden/Denmark 2002) to Ken Loach’s It’s A Free World ((UK/Italy/Germany/Spain/Poland 2007) – that look at further aspects of the post-1989 migrations and make powerful statements on the postcolonial condition as it plays out in Europe today.

© Dina Iordanova
3 November 2008

Intoarcerea lui Voda Lăpuşneanu/ The Return of Prince Lapushneanu (Romania, 1979, Malvina Ursianu)

November 1, 2008 at 1:07 am

Alexandru Lăpuşneanu, a descendant of the Stefan the Great (who ruled for nearly fifty years in the 15th century), was installed prince of Moldova for two periods in the second part of the 16th century. At that time Moldova has lost its sovereignty and has become a vassal to the Ottoman throne; all the affairs of the country are controlled by Istanbul, and this interference is clearly sensed when the Prince’s young son Bogdan is taken away from him and kept away from his father for seven years. Surrounded by all sorts of intrigue, facing resistance from the local feudal landowners, not being particularly capable of (or interested in) communicating with the ordinary people, and often excessively tough, the Prince is often isolated and clearly his life is not easy. He is faced with constant threats to his lands coming mostly from the Hungarians to the West but also from other directions. He cannot rely on proper support from Istanbul and yet he is expected to regularly deliver the Sultan’s cut of all the income.

The Return of Prince Lapushneanu is based on a classical Romanian novel by Costache Negruzzi, written in 1913. It is representative of a wave of films made in the region in the 1970s and 1980s, usually well funded productions that often involve significant numbers of extras, elaborate historical costumes and sets, and revisit important moments of national history. This film clearly influenced other historical productions, for example Bulgarian Boris I.

Malvina Ursianu, the director, is one of the rare women-directors from the region. She has several more titles to her name, and this is clearly her most important film. It is clearly influenced by other films made across Eastern Europe during this period; most of all I see influences by the Polish historical epics of the type made by Jerzy Kawalerowicz, even though the art direction relies more on Byzantyne and Othrodox imagery which makes the ultimate product look quite differently. The main influence, however, is from Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, and it comes across as loud and clear that it overwhelmes at moments: the dark corridors of the compound, the treacherous members of the court who move silently and are engaged in relentless plotting, the unsettling shadows they cast on the walls — it is all as if taken directly from that classical film.

Despite of its ambition and professionalism, The Return of Prince Lapushneanu suffers from two major weaknesses: the pace of editing and the choice of the male lead. Had the editor given the film a slightly faster pace, it would have had the chance to become a truly engaging viewing (and it would have cut the unnecessarily long running time of 140 min.). George Motoi, the actor playing Lăpuşneanu, is competent and certainly good looking, but does not have the dramatic presence that would allow him to elevate the role to the epic psychological dimensions that seem to be written into it. It is a miscasting error that can be compared to the miscasting of Colin Farrel in Oliver Stone’s recent Alexander (2004): there are certain actors who clearly cannot carry an epic film. I was intrigued to discover that Motoi was born in 1936 on the Caliacra peninsula on the Black Sea, a place that was on Romanian territory at that time but is now in Bulgaria — yet another one of these situations of irredentist acquiring or re-acquiring of small pieces of land that have been typical for the region over the last two or so centuries (this particular one linked to an intervention from Nazi Germany around 1940). The ethnic issues typical for the region (known as Dobroudja) are explored in Lucian Pintilie’s excellent Un été inoubliable/ An Unforgettable Summer (1994) with Kristin Scott Thomas.

The film is recognized as one of the most important films in the history of Romanian cinema and screened recently as part of a Romanian cinema panorama as Return of the Banished at the Siskel Center in Chicago.

© Dina Iordanova
1 November 2008

Le Barbizon, rue Tolbiac, 13eme, Paris

October 23, 2008 at 3:39 pm

This is one of the Parisian cinemas on which I want to write, but it is not one where I have seen a film as it is closed and represents a sad picture at the moment. I came across the bricked-up facade of the Barbizon, as shown on the picture, in April 2008 while passing by. My Parisian apartment was located nearby, next to the beautifully maintained garden Moulin de la Pointe near the Maison Blanche metro station. Le Barbizon was just a block or two off L’Avenue d’Italie, on Tolbiac, and next door to an intriguing bookshop which featured predominantly leftist literature (in this particular year mostly dedicated to commemorating the fortieth anniversary of Mai 1968), called Librairie Jonas. Just down Tolbiac, one hits the Asian area, with some of the best Vietnamese places to eat in Paris within steps, full of people waiting on the sidewalk to get a table and start sampling the savory beef soup with mint, sprouts, and fish sauce. A few blocs down Tolbiac are the University dorms, and the highrise area of Les Olympiades, populated mostly by East Asians.

In a city that as well maintained as Paris where you would almost never come across architectural blunders or neglected areas (at least not within the peripherique), it was certainly strange to witness the existence of an eyesore like Le Barbizon, an off-putting impression that came along with the intriguing feeling that this bricked-up facade hides some stories to tell. The place looked more like the abandoned inner city film theaters I have seen at various places in America, bearing disturbing signs of neglect that did not sit well in its surroundings, with the nearby stations for the trendy Velib (the rental city bikes that were recently introduced) and coquettish boulangeries. So I got curious enough to want to learn more about the place. Later in May and June there were various posters around the site, announcing events that all sounded militant in nature (I could not get to any of these); all were being held in the vicinity but none seemed to be scheduled in the cinema hall itself, the space of Le Barbizon seemed to be completely off limits and the brick wall that locked the front facade off was evidently not easy to get beyond.

My subsequent research allowed me to learn that the cinema had first opened doors in 1911, in mid-May of that year under the title « Le Cinématographe des familles» and was re-named to Le Barbizon in the 1950s (after the name of the artistic community based in the namesake village near the Fontainebleau forest). It had functioned continuously until 1983, featuring about 550 places and becoming the longest uninterrupted working cinema hall in Paris. It was a single auditorium with a balcony and a lobby. Renovated in the 70s, it mostly specialized on running karate and kung fu movies and other Hong Kong imports, particularly welcomed by the population in the Chinese district. In the early 1980s, however, it was apparently neglected and the venue closed around 1982 or 1983. Reportedly, the owner left for Hong Kong and was reluctant to be contacted; numerous attempts to reopen the place failed because of this uncertain absentee situation. Two decades later, the cinema was neither demolished nor reopened.

In 2002, a local cultural organization that seems to have come into existence mostly in order to revive Le Barbizon, “Les Amis de Tolbiac”, claimed the space and begun staging a program of activities driven by ideas of spontaneous civic participation, creativity and citizenship. Clearly, the intention had been to turn Le Barbizon into a site for encounters between alternative and independent artists, often featuring international or minority cultures and points of view, with the aim to regenerate the cultural life of the neighborhood. Aiming to encourage experimental and independent cinema events, ‘Les Amis de Tolbiac’ organised events featuring Bolivian cinema, experimental films (C215), and other screenings of this type, aiming to reflect the diversity of contemporary French society, a fact of life that is clearly felt in the area surrounding the cinema’s location.

The wall that has put an end to all this was built under the direct supervision of the Parisian police on 18 October 2006. (The photograph shows builders who are erecting a brick wall under supervision from the police on that day.) I am not really able to grasp the full context that has led to this strange act. The sources I had access to suggest that the mural that seals off Le Barbizon was erected as part of the preparation for the forthcoming presidential elections (if this is true, it is clearly a politically motivated move against the leftist activist groups that congregated there). In any case, the action has been taken under the pretext of an existing 2003 decision to evict the ‘art squatters’ from the premises which they had occupied without legitimate permission (as the owners who could allow the usage of the place were absent). As the authorities had waited for three years before moving on enforcing the eviction order, “The Friends of Tolbiac” do have some point in noting the proximity of the the enforcement action to the presidential election date. The web-site Imaginary Parisian posts information of a letter by Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë which seems to regret the action and promises that it will be reversed (no evidence of such reversal for now, as far as I can tell). Even The Guardian covered the showdown in an article by Angelique Chrisafis, entitled The Battle of Paris.

This is the poster that I saw on that day in April 2008 displayed on the window of Libraire Jonas. It shows the police guarding the newly built wall at the Barbizon, a worrisome photograph that alerted me about the story linked to this absurd wall.

The French cinephile web-site Silver Screens laments the loss of cinemas across the 13th arrondissement and gives background to the Barbizon as a former celebrated site of multiculturalism. One of the oldest cinema halls in Paris, the future is more than uncertain. To keep the sense of urgency alive, a festival of eco cinema, called Cinecolo, took place in the vicinity in the Fall of 2007; it recently had its second edition in October 2008.

Le Barbizon is not the only cinema in Paris that has closed doors (even though I cannot think of any other one that would sport a brick wall built in front of it). There are several Parisian organisations engaged with protesting the closure of other theatres, most notably and noisily the Grand Ecran Italie, also in the 13th not far from the Barbizon, see their postings at Let’s Save The Grand Screen. Le Barbizon is also featured on the site which highlights some of themost cherished cinema theaters in Paris. To contact the organisation that is behind the efforts to re-openLe Barbizon, write to amisdetolbiac@lebarbizon.org. Best of all, go and check the place out.

Le Barbizon
Paris, France
141 Rue de Tolbiac
Paris 75013 France
M: Tolbiac, Maison Blanche, Les Olympiades

© Dina Iordanova
23 October 2008