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

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

Blurred Memory, Responsibility, War Film: Ordinary People (2009), Waltz with Bashir (2008)

January 31, 2010 at 4:18 am

Ordinary People is a Serbian film, which is a co-production of France, Switzerland, Serbia and the Netherlands and does not seem to have a title in Serbian. As France is a co-producer, no wonder it screened in the context of Cannes IFF in 2009; it won awards at Sarajevo and at the specialist East European film festival in Cottbus, Germany.

Perhaps the most impressive recent film from the region, this almost silent, slow moving, and seemingly dull story chronicles one day in the life of soldiers whose work is killing people all day long while staring at the blue sky and smoking cigarettes in the breaks in-between work. It is mid summer, and groups or men are brought in and executed in groups of five or six, shot at the back of the head on the premises of what appears to be a disused vacation camp. The victims are passive, there are no interactions between prisoners and executors, and only in one instance a captive shows signs of resistance. Another one attempts to initiate something like an investigation into why he is here, hoping he may get out, and only gains an extra few minutes of hope – he is still executed along the others.

The protagonist is a young man, Dzoni, just out of high school. There were no jobs when he graduated, he explains, so he joined the army. One learns little of him: he is clearly a most average young man who likes to sleep in, and in his free time smokes cigarettes and stares at the clouds in the sunny sky. That is, when he is not busy killing. At the first group of prisoners he tries to opt out, but then joins in and does his work along the others, he does not want to be ostracized. At the end of the day the soldiers are asked to do some more but he leads something like an improvised protest and says the work been enough and they should now call it a day. The lieutenant, pictured here as he is training the soldiers for the job, is a kind of a father figure. So much so that at some point I thought it may be revealed he is the protagonist’s real father. At the end of the day he catches up with Dzoni in the men’s toilet where he issues a brief technical remark on how to aim better the next day.

Clearly, it is in former Yugoslavia during one of the several wars of the 1990s. As the film is Serbian the soldiers are presumably Serbian as well, executing prisoners from the other nations that sought secession during the wars of Yugoslavia’s break up. But there is very little to identify the place and the time, and indeed, the action of the film could take place in almost any historical period and geographical place. It is a war film about killing in the context of a war that is not of the soldiers’, one in which they take part almost mechanically by doing their little part. It is about how guilt and responsibility is devolved by dismantling the operation into small parts where no one is ultimately responsible.
Reportedly, the film is partially based on some personal experiences of the director who served in the Serbian army in the 1990s. It is probably this fact that has made a number of reviewers to accuse it in trying to exonerate the Serbs for the troubles they have been charged with in the context of the wars of Yugoslavia’s succession. There is no mercy in these critics – the director is said to seek to excuse the killings by showing that individual soldiers cannot be held responsible.

But is this really the case? Ari Folman’s oneiric animation Waltz With Bashir (Israel, 2008), one of the most impressive films I saw last year, was not subjected to such criticism, even though it speaks of largely the same issues. Like Ordinary People, Waltz with Bashir evolved around a young protagonist and his buddies, all involved in an atrocity in a way that similarly dismantles the operation into small parts and creates a context where no individual can be vested with responsibility over the reprehensible results of their collective actions. I cannot recall any critics claiming that Folman was trying to exonerate his protagonists. In both cases the films make a powerful statement that raises above concrete wars and contexts: personal memory becomes blurred and reminiscences uncertain when confronted with the master narrative of the big picture that emerges in the aftermath of the atrocity. Once the focus zooms in on the atrocity for a close scrutiny, personal responsibility becomes increasingly difficult to pin down on to an individual, as singular people have been just parts of an operation that now seems to lack the mastermind that would take responsibility for the whole. Thus, in these two films, war cinema charts out new areas for investigation into the realm of guilt and remembrance.

© Dina Iordanova
31 January 2010

Golyamoto noshtno kapane/The Big Night Bathe (Bulgaria, 1980), dir. Binka Zhelyazkova

March 10, 2009 at 1:01 am

An e-mail from a British colleague prompted me to prioritize the viewing of this DVD, which I recently purchased for 3 Bg leva in the Sofia supermarket near where my parents live. As I promised to lend him the film, I thought I should view it before sending it off, just to refresh my memory of it and see if the feeling of serious reservations that it had left me with on first viewing (now nearly 30 years ago!) would change.

The British colleague is interested in Binka Zhelyazkova’s work in general, and for a good reason: she is one of the major feminist directors from Eastern Europe, but, unlike Vera Chytilova or Marta Meszaros, she remains virtually unknown. The man had tried to approach the cinematheque in Sofia to check if they would consider making Binka’s work available, and had received a polite response written in good English which was informing him that, yes, they could produce copies and DVDs and in general help with availability, only they would do this if he could please make his own arrangements toward presenting them with letters from two other Bulgarian institutions that would give the cinematheque authorisation to go ahead with making the material available. Needless to say, the colleague dropped it all at this point (as most other researchers would); seeing this correspondence gave me an interesting glimpse into the absurdities in treating cinematic heritage that everybody working on these matters is constantly confronted with.

Now about the film itself. I still think i is a really week one; I could not help it being truly annoyed by the cartoonish characters, the slow pace, and lack of dramatic tension. If I remember correctly, the plot of the film is based on a real story. During the shooting of a film set in ancient Thrace, a bunch of friends organise a midnight swimming party on the seaside set. Drunken, they decide to play a game where one of them climbs on a stone with a rope on his neck and a sickle in his hand. The others are dancing in a circle and at one point somebody kicks the stone underneath the hangman; to save himself he is supposed to manage cutting the rope with the sickle. Two of the ‘victims’ make it, but in the third instance the young man does not manage to cut the rope and hangs. This is the culminating event in the film, which is preceded by a long (and tedious) build up of what are supposedly character studies of those involved, and is followed by an equally tedious investigation. It is all supposed to expose the drunken and promiscuous environment and the moral decline (of mature socialism) that leads to the sad loss. One of the subplots is the love affair between young gorgeous Ninel and Sava, a relationship that is seriously tested by their class differences (something that would normally not be supposed to exist under socialism). Another subplot tackles ‘The Little Prince’, the son of a highly placed party apparatchik who has just been demoted (so all speculate how their friend will be affected), yet another story included to expose the moral corruption within socialism. All protagonists are good looking, well-to-do, successful, and sexy; yet their problems are not deeply suffered and there is no dramatic development to build up to the moment of the hanging; the 150 min. length of the film can hardly be justified.

Golyamoto noshtno kapane (1980) is scripted, like Binka Zhelyazkova’s previous film, Baseynat/Swimming Pool (1977) by her husband Hristo Ganev, who is responsible also for the script of A byahme mladi/ We Were Young (1961), a film that won the top award at the Moscow International Film Festival but was nonetheless shelved afterwards and created a number of problems both for the director and the screenwriter.* One should immediately say that the script is probably the film’s biggest liability. It is supposed to have been a daring statement of sort, as Hristo Ganev enjoyed the reputation of a dissident writer, and it is probably not politically correct to declare his work weak (especially, as I can imagine, he has probably seen at least some of his work suppressed by the authorities). However, i simply cannot help it calling the script what it is: a feeble work of screenwriting. While it is clearly intended to critique the moral decline that reigned over mature socialism, as revealed here through the disorientation of this lost generation, the film is heavily dominated by small talk dialogue that should have been cut down in order to allow the director use at least some of her imagination. A pity that she does not appear to have had the strength to resist the weak script and take charge.

The second liability is the poor acting. Not much could have been done there, however, provided the heavy dialogue dominates it all. The actors are selected from among the promising new generation of VITIZ gaduates: Nikolay Sotirov (a Mathew Modine look-alike), Yanina Kasheva, Tania Shahova, Lyuben Chatalov — all actors who showed promise but were then affected by the downturn in cinema that came about at the end of the decade when they had launched their careers. For who knows what reason, there are two foreign actors in the cast (not that their presence is logically required, nor that they contribute anything to the performance, as they are both more than boring): Polish Malgorzata Braunek who plays the jaded masseuse Zhana, and Lithianian heart-throb Juozas Budraitis, whose supporting role barely has more than ten lines. I would speculate that the reason these two were in the film is that they simply wanted to spend a paid vacation on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. The main ‘acting’ is in the heavy dialogues between Nkolay Sotirov (Sava) and Yanina Kasheva (Ninel) and is meant to expose the rift between profound inherent values of carrying morality that is still intact in the provinces (he is taking care of his ill mother in the beautiful mountain hamlet of Melnik) and the inherently corrupt mores exemplified by English-language-school graduate Ninel and her friends, an urban crowd from the capital (new bourgeoisie, so to speak).

There are moments of greatness in this film, however, remnants of Binka Zhelyazkova’s trademark avantgardist brilliance: the occasional low camera shot, the bird-eye view scenes, the filming of animals (killing of birds and crabs), the drum, the dry tree on the stony seaside. These are, however, too few, to compensate for the overwhelming boredom. With the abundance of close up shots of beautiful semi-naked bodies among sand dunes, this film somehow kept referencing in my mind to a relatively recent Vera Chytilová work, the equally weak Vyhnání z ráje/ Expulsion from Paradise (2001), which, even if made more than twenty years later also evolves around sand dunes and relationships, and looks very similar in its beach stories, aesthetics and concerns.

I must confess to taking a profound dislike to all novels and films that feature a group of similar protagonists, and where the focus is on the group dynamics — be it taking place in a boarding school, a student dorm, in a madhouse or, like here, among a group of young people on their summer holidays. It is a large topic that I am not going to go into and which I am mentioning mostly because, strangely enough, it seems it was this kind of group dynamics films that dominated the early 1980s of Bulgarian cinema. The earliest one seems to be Binka Zhelyazkova and Hristo Ganev’s Baseynat/Swimming Pool (1977), about a bunch of young people confronting issues of moral decline, very similar and equally dialogue-heavy as The Big Night Bathe. Then there were films such as Vulo Radev‘s Adaptatsiya/Adaptation (1981), probably the best of this range (about a bunch of young people belonging to a psychoanalysis group), Lavina/ Avalanche (1982), based on Blaga Dimitrova (a bunch of young people forced to confront their moral foundations when challenged by nature), and Rangel Vulchanov‘s A sega nakade?/And Where Do We Go From Here? (1986), about a bunch of young people searching for a moral compass in life. The cycle probably came to an end with Ivan Andonov‘s Vchera/Yesterday (1988) where the bunch of young people affected by a moral crisis put it all squarely on the vicious socialist system. What is noteworthy is that all these films scrutinizing the moral decline in the young generation were made by members of the older generation, directors and writers born in the 1920s and the early 1930s; members of the generation that was being scrutinised (my generation actually, born in the 1960s) simply never had the chance to make films on these matters as by the time we came to maturity, the end of socialist funding for cinema hit and severely limited the chances to develop robust and prolific filmmaking careers. Thus, we never had the chance to give a cinematic response to the diagnostic that older filmmakers were imposing on us.

When I look back now, I realize that I probably hated these films as my life was not particularly different from what was shown in it. We had all adapted to the socialist system which we were not finding particularly onerous, as long as we could go abroad once a year and spend three weeks by leisurely exposing our naked bodies on the cliffs near the village of Varvara, where, for many years, the dry tree used as a prop for the hanging in The Big Night Bathe was still standing. We were passing by it every day, on our way to the nudist beach, and then also on most nights, on our way to the late night parties that were full of alcohol, locally sourced and prepared food, and heterosexual sex: pretty much the same stuff that is seen in the film.

* See my piece on these matters: Iordanova, Dina. “Binka Zhelyazkova” In: Censorship: A World Encyclopedia (ed. Derek Jones), London/Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publ., 2001, vol 4, pp. 2705/6.

© Dina Iordanova
10 March 2009

South East European Women Directors, Round Table at FEST in Belgrade, 2009

March 6, 2009 at 7:05 am

Last week I took part in the round table featured on this photo. The event took place at the Sava Center, the modern and somehow anonymous site in the new part of Belgrade, Serbia (across the river from better-known popular quarters like Kalemegdan and Skadarlija). The project was developed on the initiative of director Slobodan Sijan (of Ko To Tamo Peva/Who Is Singing Out There fame), and the visit to Belgrade was really a great chance for me to meet with this hugely important cinema visionary from the region. It was also a chance to get an update from old friend Dusan Makavejev, who is in great shape and spirit. Besides people like Ron Hollway, Bernd Buder and Silke Rabiger who, like myself, had arrived from abroad, or Pavle Levi from Stanford, who is spending his sabbatical leave in his native Belgrade, the round table brought together some female filmmakers as well, like Melina Pota-Koljevic or Carna Manojlovic and scholars Nevena Dakovic, Milena Dragicevic-Sesic, and Ivana Kronja. Of course, festival director Milos Paramentic and artistic director Mica Vuckovic were also there; it was great to catch up with Vida Johnson, a US-based specialist on Russian cinema, who has decided to finally do some work on Serbian cinema and is preparing a special issue for the on-line journal Kinokultura.

I see that Ron Holloway has already published the study he presented at the Round Table. In the context of our preparation, we also worked collectively to come up with a list of female filmmakers from the region of South East Europe. I am posting here a version of this list which contains 63 names (but it is constantly growing, and I am aware that many names of filmmakers from Greece and Turkey in particular are still to be added). It is great to see that some attention is finally being paid to these filmmakers. I remember that more than 15 years ago I had tried to put in an application to some US-based foundation to finance my travel to the region so that I can explore more the work of female directors. The application was rejected on the basis that I would be exploring something non-existent. Well, the list below would probably help if someone would consider making a similar application nowadays.

SEE WOMEN FILM DIRECTORS – JANUARY 2009
Working List – 63 SEE Women Film Directors – English Titles

Albania – 1
Elezi, Iris (Suicide Inc, USA 2001, Disposable Heroes, Kosovo, 2005), short films

Bosnia and Herzegovina – 7
Begic, Aida (Snow, 2008), Cannes Week of Critics Award
Ljubic, Vesna (Posljednji skretnicar uzanog kolosijeka, 1986)
Majstorovic, Danijela (Counterpoint for Her, 2004, The Dream Job, 2006)
Milosevic, Ivana (Never Been Better, 2006)
Svilicic, Vanja (See You in Sarajevo, 2008), short feature
Vajraca, Sabina (Back to Bosnia, 2005, with Alison Hanson)
Zbanic, Jasmila (Red Rubber Boots, 2000, Grbavica, 2006, Golden Bear Berlinale)

Bulgaria – 17
Aktasheva, Irina (Monday Morning, 1966) (worked in tandem with Hristo Piskov)
Andonova, Milena (Monkeys in Winter, 2006)
Evstatieva-Biolcheva, Mariana (The Prince and the Pauper, 2005)
Grubcheva, Ivanka (One Calory of Tenderness, 2003)
Koseva, Nadejda (Ritual, in Lost and Found omnibus film, 1995)
Milotinova, Milena (The Saved Ones, 1999), documentary
Nikolova, Elka (Binka, 2007), documentary on Binka Zhelyazkova
Peeva, Adela (Whose Song Is This?, 2003), documentary
Pesheva, Sylvia, (Shantav den / Crazy Day, 2004)
Petkova, Roumiana (The Other Possible Life of Ours, 2007)
Petrova, Svetlina (She, 2001), animation
Sophia, Zornitsa (Mila from Mars, 2004)
Tosheva, Nevena (Bulgaria: Land, People, Sun, 1966), documentary
Traykova, Eldora (Of People and Bears, 1995), documentary
Triffonova, Iglika (Investigation, 2006), Cottbus Grand Prize
Tsotsorkova, Svetla (Life with Sophia, 2004)
Zhelyazkova, Binka (The Tied-Up Balloon, 1967)

Croatia – 4
Budisavlejevic, Dana (Everything’s Fine, 2003)
Cakic-Veselic, Biljana (The Boy Who Rushed, 2002)
Juka, Ivona (Facing the Day, 2005), documentary
Tribuson, Snjezana (Three Love Stories, 2007)

Greece – 6
Angelidi, Antouanetta (Thief of Reality, 2001)
Dimitriou, Alinda (Birds in the Mire, 2008), documentary
Malea, Olga (The Cow’s Orgasm, 1997)
Marketaki, Tonia (The Price of Love, 1984), died in 1994; major figure)
Rikaki, Loukia (Symfonia haraktiron, 1999)
Tsangari, Athina Rachel (The Slow Business of Going, 2000)

Hungary – 6
Elek, Judit (Awakening, 1995)
Enyedi, Ildiko (My 20th Century, 1989)
Fekete, Ilboya (Bolshe Vita, 1996, Chico, 2001)
Gyarmathy, Livia (Escape, 1997)
Kocsis, Agnes (Fresh Air, 2006)
Meszaros, Marta (Adoption, 1975)

Kosovo – 2
Zeqiraj, Lendita (Exit, 2004), codirector
Zeqiri, Blerta (Exit, 2004), codirector

Macedonia – 2
Mitevska, Teona Strugar (I Killed a Saint, 2004, I Am From Titov Veles, 2007)
Zarevska, Dragana (Grandma’s Villlage, 2007)

Montenegro – 1
Perovic, Marija (Pack the Monkeys Again, 2004)

Romania – 5
Bostan, Elisabeta (A Telephone Call, 1991), children’s films
Domin, Andrada (The Lamenters, 2007), documentary
Niculescu Bran, Tatiana(For God’s Sake, 2007), documentary, codirector
Radu, Corina (Bar de zi and Other Stories, 2006), documentary
Ursianu, Malvina (What a Happy World, 2003)

Serbia – 7
Balas-Petrovic, Eva (Panonski Peak, 1989)
Boskov, Gordana (What’s Up, Nina?, 1984, Flashback, 1997)
Ceramilac, Ratiborka (Virtual Reality, 2001)
Kapic, Suada (The Trap, 1988)
Maric, Marija (Heartsick Youth, 1990)
Stojkovic, Andrijana (An Island, 1996), Home, 1996, The Box, work-in-progress)
Vukomanovic, Mirjana (Three Summer Days, 1997)

Slovenia – 2
Slak, Hana A.W. (Blind Spot, 2002)
Weiss, Maya (Guardian of the Frontier, 2002)

Turkey – 3
Esmer, Pelin (The Play, 2005), documentary
Ipekci, Handan (Hidden Faces, 2007)
Ustaoglu, Yesim (Waiting for the Clouds, 2003, Pandora’s Box, 2008)

Nie sme na vseki kilometar: A personal memoir

January 7, 2009 at 1:04 am

During a recent visit to my native city of Sofia, Bulgaria, I heard that the Socialist Party (formerly Communist Party) which had just held its 47th or so Congress, has been in the media with a clip using motives of the famous TV series Na vseki kilometar (1969). As this film is associated with a host of memories for me, I could not help it but searching for the clip on YouTube. Here is what emerged:

The man who jumps on the tram is actor Stefan Danailov, who played the lead role of Sergei/Major Deyanov in Na vseki kilometar. (The protagonist was an underground anti-fascist conspirator who always managed to outwit the police and pull off whatever he had planned to do.) There was a well-known episode in the original series where Sergei jumps on a tram, like in this present clip. Using the reconstruction of this familiar visual trope and casting the same actor, who is now nearly forty years older, is a good approach to the clip’s target audience, which consists of die-hard former communists and by those younger Bulgarians who, supposedly, believe in the continuity of the socialist tradition. Actor Danailov himself is now part of the governing coalition, and has enjoyed a relatively good reputation during his mandate as culture minister (prior to entering politics he was mostly busy appearing in various Italian productions, most notably as a bad guy in the seventh installment of Italian mafia TV series La Piovra). In the clip featured here, he talks to the ‘tram driver’ who is, in fact, Sergey Stanichev, the current socialist PM of Bulgaria, a guy of whom I have got no personal views as he has appeared on the country’s political scene in a period over which I have no immediate observations (my understanding is that he is some sort of typical aparatchik). Stanishev turns to Danailov, who is breathing heavily after having jumped on the tram in a well-familiar Sofia setting (‘tramvaycheto v gorichkata na Pionerskiya dvorets’), and comments: “Things are not like before, eh?” Danailov replies: “Well, they are not. Yet the ideas and the dreams remain the same!” An elderly man who is riding on the tram approaches, calls him ‘Sergei’ (the name from the TV series), and, hand on heart, confirms that he is all up for these same ideas and dreams. Inspiring indeed!

Now, I am still significantly younger than the two old men appearing in this video, yet I am old enough to have a host of memories triggered by the viewing of this clip. So maybe in a move of nostalgia, I went on checking if there was anything from the actual Na vseki kilometar on YouTube. And there was, to my surprise: a two-minute long clip featuring the opening scene and credits of the series (where also the well-known tune sounds). It is posted on YouTube by someone from Vietnam, who testifies as to the film’s popularity there (a theme in which I have persistent interest, namely the wide international exposure of some of the East European productions in the specific transnational context of the so-called Second and Third world, see comments in my piece on Estonian Viimne Reliikvia on these matters). Here it is:

Kosta Karageorgiev, the actor who appears here as the young shooter who is killed at the beginning, is also singing the song (a well-recognizable tune in the Bulgarian context; most folks of my generation would know the lyrics by heart). A Woody Allan look-alike, this bespectacled nondescript charmer enjoyed real popularity when I was a child (He was in many childrens’ programmes, known as ‘bate Kosta’; I see from the imdb he has died in 1998, which means that he has not lived beyond his mid-50s).

Karageorgiev was mostly a singer, and one of my earliest memories involves him. My mother was working in the childrens’ department of Radio Sofia at the time (must have been around 1965), and one day she took me to the studio with her; she was to be recording some songs for a radio show she was preparing. The singer she was working this day happened to be Kosta Karageorgiev (who was already a well known TV personality alongside the ubiquitous bat’ Climbo, Kliment Denchev, who was painting on glass in the show and later disappeared by emigrating to Canada, where he also largely disappeared for the artistic profession).

I must have been about 6 years old. The actor approached me and asked me what was my name, and I replied ‘Kostadina’ (my full name). To which he said: ‘Hm, how is it possible then that we have not known each other so far if we have the same name (‘adashi’), all people by the same given name must know each other.’ I was smitten and extremely pleased at the same time. I had never heard anything like this until then, so I took what he said by face value: it would be, indeed, great, if all people by the same given name knew each other. It was only a few years later that I realized this was not really the case. Still, even today I sometimes hear myself producing the same comment when I see children who share the same name — maybe because the friendly comment of the actor back in my childhood is so deeply entrenched in my early memories.

The other personal memory linked to Na vseki kilometar must be from around 1968. We lived in Lozenetz; the house was at the bottom of a hill-street on which a tram runs. One day the traffic was blocked for the same of a film shoot. I was all happening opposite our house, so I was able to look on as much as I wanted. This is the first time I had the chance to see how films are made and to realize how many takes one does for a single sequence in a film. The scene represented a tram descending the steep street, and a young man jumping out of it while the tram is in full motion. They shot probably more than twenty times the same thing: the tram would ascend the hill and then head down down, and the actor would jump out of it at one point, and run parallel to the tram until the acceleration of the tram’s motion wore off. And then all over again and again. I cannot say who was the young man jumping out of the tram. It might have been Stefan Danailov himself (he was an unknown young actor at the time, so I could not have possibly recognize him; he only became a well-known face after the huge popularity of the series), or it might have been a double. I was, of course, looking to see the scene when the film aired on TV, but I do not think I ever saw it. They may have removed it, thus deleting the celluloid equivalent to this memorable day of my life altogether. In any case, I will always remember the sweet feeling I had on that day while looking on, of being part of something in the making that was to come on later, of witnessing the process of creating a film. Who knows, it might have been experiences like this that have led me to become who I am today: an on-looker, a critic.

As to the series itself, I do not remember many details. In my mind, it links with the Romanian films by Sergiu Nicolaescu on Inspector Moldovan — not because the plot or protagonists were the same, but the spirit, the exploitation of the policier genre (and also because I have seen these more recently than Na vseki kilometar). There was this good looking, sleek and superior Sergei/Deyanov, who always outsmarted the cops. There was the unforgettably popular peasant-partisan Mitko Bombata, played by beloved comedian Grigor Vachkov, some of whose lines in the series would then enter into wide for popular circulation. And, of course, there was the intelligent cerebral policeman Velinski, played by respected theatre actor Georgi Cherkelov (this was such a superb performance that the actor, who was mostly known in the capital as he was playing in theatre, and not across the country, was regularly being referred to not by his real name, but by the name of the protagonist whom he played in the series, so high was the degree to which audiences were identifying him with the role). Otherwise, the film was a typical historical propaganda fare, painting the resistance pretty much in black and white and remaining silent on all the awkward issues related to the period of WWII and its aftermath. What else can one expect from the Sixteenth Soviet republic in 1969? (I hear that this is a period where all the countries in the East of Europe have lived through ideological stagnation which reflected their reaction of well-grounded fear from the iron grip of the Soviets in the aftermath of the Prague invasion). In any case, back then this would not have been my assessment as I had no clue of any of these contextual aspects; I have become aware of them at a much later point. As far my personal recollection for back then is concerned, I was a child enjoying the entertainment that was on offer. And it was fun.

© Dina Iordanova
7 January 2009

Romani actors and Invisibility: Welcome Images, Unwanted Bodies

December 7, 2008 at 11:02 am

Having seen many films featuring Romani themes and actors over the years, I cannot help observing that there are rarely actors of Romani origin that sustain more than an episodic career in cinema. In most cases, the pattern is one of appearing in a film, making a great impact, and then either coming back for one or two more installments of doing some more of the same like in the earlier film, or vanishing completely. For instance, Gordana Jovanovic, the beautiful young Romni from Aleksandar Petrovic’s classic I Even Met Happy Gypsies (1967) only appeared in his next film, It Rains in My Village, and ten years later, in a small role in Goran Paskaljevic’s human trafficking film Guardian Angel (1987). The Gypsy musicians of Slobodan Sijan’s classical Yugoslav saga Who Is Singing Out There? (1980), the brothers Miodrag and Nenad Kostic, have appeared in a handful of other Yugoslav films, always playing the same role of Gypsy musicians, a role which they also happen to play in real life as well. The unforgettable motherly Ljubica Adzovic from Kusturica’s Time of the Gypsies (1989, pictured) and Black Cat, White Cat (1999), had no roles in cinema in the decade between the two films, before falling out of sight (reportedly, she was determined to only be in this particular director’s films, so much she liked him). There was a brief report somewhere that she was claiming asylum in France around 2002. Then, according to a note on the imdb, she has died in 2006.

Could it be that this is the way these Romani actors are, in line with the widely spread belief of the freewheeling Gypsy soul that cannot bear the straitjacket of commitment and permanence? Or, could it be that there are other factors at play here? I simply do not know what may have affected casting decisions in the Yugoslav films that I just referenced. However, in more recent cases, I have stumbled upon evidence that the approach to transnational casting of Romani actors often comes along with ‘strings attached’ : true to the transnational nature of their community, Roma are allowed to appear in films shot in different countries, but such appearances cannot possibly serve as the basis of immigration claims on their part. In order to secure this rule, strict measures are put in place. On the one hand, one embraces the Gypsy screen presence while, on the other, one acts to keep the actual Roma out of sight. The resulting paradoxical (and ultimately hypocritical) situation is that Roma actors are hailed as images on the screen, but only as long as they do not attempt to show up in flesh and blood.

In one case from the mid 1990s, the French authorities gave permission to Ovidiu Balan, a Romanian Roma boy (born around 1980 in my estimation), to stay in France for the duration of the shooting of Tony Gatlif’s Mondo, a sensitive drama of adolescent bonding where he played the main role. He was promptly deported to Romania as soon as shooting wrapped up. Balan has since appeared in two more films — the Canadian-Swiss tale of human trafficking Clandestins (1997) and Gatlif’s own Gadjo Dilo (1997), where he played a prematurely grown up community leader. Clearly extremely gifted, Balan has had no film appearances for more than a decade now, and, like in most other cases of actors of Romani origin, his most productive years have clearly not been taken up by film roles.

In another instance, Maria Baco, the Hungarian Roma actress who played the lead in Silvio Soldini’s Un’anima divisa in due (1993) was refused an entry visa to Italy and and effectively barred from attending the screening of the film at the Venice International Film Festival’s competition (where her partner won the award for best actor). This remains her only role up to date, and there is no information on her date of birth or place of residence and occupation today. Meanwhile, leading roles of Romani women in Hungarian cinema have been assigned to actresses of the main ethnicity, like Dorka Gryllus, who look the part.

© Dina Iordanova
7 December 2008

As usually is the case, only a few of these films are available to purchase. Here is what one can buy from Amazon.

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

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

Haiducii/The Outlaws (Romania, 1966, Dinu Cocea)

October 26, 2008 at 12:33 am

The Outlaws, a great example of the adventure-cum-history films that were produced in Eastern Europe in the 1960s, was directed by Dinu Cocea (b. 1929), a director most of whose work is in the lighter genres and who has to his credit some of the most popular titles of Romanian cinema, such as Parasutisti/ The Paratroopers (1972) and the films about legendary outlaw Iancu Jianu from the early 1980s. The Outlaws was 37 year-old Cocea’s truly assured directorial debut, soon thereafter followed by a second installment called Razbunarea haiducilor/ The Revenge of the Outlaws (1968), the poster of which is pictured here.

The film is set during the 18th century in the mountains of Wallachia (a.k.a. Ţara Românească), a province located to the south of the Carpathians, which was part of the Ottoman empire. At the time it was effectively ruled by Greek Phanariots installed by Istanbul to take charge of the empire’s Christian millet (province). The outlaws that acted during this period would usually aim to undermine the rule of the Phanariots and the Ottomans, and this is one of the main motivations behind the actions of the film’s protagonists. But there are also complex inter-personal relations at play.

The story evolves around two stepbrothers, Sarbu and Amza, who are leaders of a band of outlalws. Sarbu, a treacherous and violent person (played by Romanian megastar Amza Pellea, 1931-1983), betrays his brother and sells him off to the Ottoman authorities who come to hunt him in the inn where he has just spent the night with his lover. Amza, the good brother, is brandmarked and then put in a cage and left hanging between the walls of a huge cave. Sarbu violates his woman (a feisty inn-keeper played by Magda Barbu), and then ventures on to a series of outrageous deeds, which involve, among other things, marrying the Phanariot ruler’s daughter and then rudely manipulating and blackmailing her family over money due to the Turkish sultan that they have tried to appropriate. The story, which involves simple-hearted Romanians, treacherous Greek Phanariots, and aloof Ottoman Turks soon turns into a story of revenge, after Amza is freed from his cave imprisonment and comes back to institute a spectacular vengeance over Sarbu.

Here s the only clip from the film I was able to find. Alas, it has got no subtitles. It refers to the moment when Amza’s outlaw friends manage to charm and fool the local Christian monks, a move that allows them to get access to the cave where their friend is imprisoned and manage his bold release.

The film is edited on a fast pace, the characterisation is convincing; all in all it makes for an excellent example for the achievements that East European cinemas had in these genres (see my discussion of another representative of these films, Estonian Viimne Reliikvia). The copy which I watched was black and white, so all I could do was to imagine what it would look like in color, especially as the photography proficiently focused on dynamically-staged fight scenes interspersed between spectacular and breathtaking mountain views. The film is influenced by some of the Polish historical epics of the early 1960s, but also by swashbuckler extravaganzas like Fanfan la Tulipe (1952) as well as by spaghetti Westerns (most clearly seen in the pub and shoot out scenes at the beginning of the film).

The spectacular death of Sabru is interestingly staged: he is hanged on a church bell and his body keeps bouncing up and down for a while. This same set-up is seen in several of the films of Emir Kusturica, most notably in Time of the Gypsies and in Underground (where Marko’s brother commits suicide this way). The Outlaws was most likely distributed in Yugoslavia, and it is quite possible that it informed Kusturica’s artistic vision, as the director is known to frequently re-stage visual tropes from other films in his own works (see my 2002 monograph Emir Kusturica for a more extended discussion on this matter).

I was able to see this film due to the friendly assistance of Marian Tutui from the Romanian National Film Centre of which I am truly grateful.

© Dina Iordanova
26 October 2008