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)

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

Dina Iordanova, New Bulgarian Cinema, 2008

September 22, 2008 at 12:38 am

My monograph New Bulgarian Cinema (College Gate, 2008) is now available to purchase either by clicking on the link below (to the web-site of Blurb, the excellent PoD service which produced it), or by clicking the PayPal buttons below, directly ordering to the publishers. NB Blurb site requires registration; when you visit you will be able to view a preview of the first fifteen pages of the book.

Described by Ron Holloway as a ‘poetic cinema,’ since 1989 Bulgaria’s film industry underwent testing times. Dina Iordanova’s comprehensive study discusses the ups and downs of the national film tradition in the post-communist period.

Table of Contents:

Ch. 1 Testing Times:
1.1. Managing Change; 1.2. Generations

Ch. 2 Where Are We Coming From?
2.1. Tackling the Ottoman Legacy; 2.2. Multi-ethnic Conviviality? 2.3. Tackling the Communist Period.

Ch. 3 Where Are We Headed To?
3.1. Drabness; 3.2. Existential Concerns; 3.3. The Road to Europe; 3.4. The Road to the Village.

Ch. 4 Embracing the Balkan
Notes, Bibliography, Web-sites, Filmography

Available in soft cover (£14.95; 978-1-906678-02-9) and hard cover (£29.95; ISBN 978-1-906678-01-2). Square 7×7 inches (18×18 cm) 120 pages.

To purchase the paperback edition














To purchase the hard cover edition













Hard cover



Maradona by Kusturica (Spain/France, 2008): A Political Documentary

September 13, 2008 at 1:16 am

Maradona by Kusturica (2008), an updated version of a documentary that was partially released in 2005 or 2006, played at Cannes in May 2008 and was released across France shortly thereafter. The posters advertising the film and featuring a campy-looking disheveled Kusturica in front of a Maradona mural were ubiquitous — all over the Paris metro, all over popular public hang outs like Les Halles or around MK2 Bibliotheque. I saw the film at the MK2 Quai de Loire/Quai de Seine complex in an afternoon screening which was attended by about 15 audience, not bad for a matinee on a weekday. So far the film has only played theatrically in France and Italy where Kusturica still has a strong fan base; an eventual DVD release is likely to give it a better international exposure. It is unlikely, however, to see this film released in the USA or the UK. I would be glad to be proven wrong on this prediction. However, I believe that British and American distributors are likely to find it awkward to make available to their domestic constituencies a film that is full of harsh comments on key politicians and political moves taken by the UK or the USA over the past decades (especially as some of these moves, like the Falklands war or the bombing of Serbia in 1999 enjoyed a degree of popular support here). It is an open question how such not releasing the film should be interpreted, and it is one that is raised in different ways throughout this political documentary, which asks essentially if there is space for opinions and worldviews that dare to differ.

Those who expect to see a portrait of football star Maradona here may be in for some disappointment. Surely, Maradona is present, there is extensive footage of him as a child, of him as the world’s best footballer, of him as a loving family man, of him as a vulnerable ill man in later years, of him as a recovered addict, and so on. The focus of the film, however, is on Maradona’s politics and his view of the imbalances of the world, especially where his politics intersects with Kusturica’s views. At the Cannes press conference on the film Maradona said that ‘we are not all obliged to think as the Americans do’ and pointed out that people living in different countries are entitled to interpret international politics from the point of view of where they stand in the world. It is precisely the combination of this conviction (the right to differ and speak up) and the high visibility of Maradona (and of Kusturica himself) that the director uses to turn the film into a political documentary that accommodates dissenting views that need to be aired.

There is quite a bit in Maradona by Kusturica that is not usually seen widely or positively covered in mainstream media in the West: Maradona’s admiration for Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, his visit to Belgrade in the aftermath of Kosovo, Kusturica’s views on the adverse effects of IMF and G8 policies on countries in Latin America and elsewhere, plenty of animations that caricature American and British politicians. The film is most certainly not ‘politically correct’, an intended effect that the the director clearly seeks to achieve. Having endured all sorts of criticisms of his politics in the aftermath of Underground, Kusturica has clearly resolved to speak up his mind. It is probably this resolve that characterizes his recent work as well as the reason that brings Maradona and Kusturica together stronger than their love for football.

Writing in Screen International from Cannes, Jonathan Romney gave it a reserved review, saying that the film is as much about Maradona as it is about Kusturica. I believe he is right in this observation, but while Romney seemed to mean this in a critical sense, I see this merger between object and author of the documentary as one of its most interesting aspects. What brings the footballer and the director together is not simply Kusturica’s fandom and his admiration for Maradona, and it is not simply the fact that, as Kusturica said at the press conference at Cannes, both he and Maradona are very Dyonisian, in a sense that chaos dominates over rationality. Equally important is the fact that they both belong to peripheral nations that see themselves as having been wronged by America and Britain and that they are both prepared to use their celebrity to bring into the public space a piece of political commentary that is alive but confined to subterranean popular discourse and, if not brought to light by figures of their degree of visibility, would remain fully shut out.

The footage of Maradona’s faithful 1986 World Cup goal in Argentina’s semi-final against England is replayed repeatedly not just for the sake of football lovers, but mostly to reiterate all over again a situation where a weaker nation scores against an imperial power that has just defeated it in a war. In an interview in the French film magazine Split Screen Kusturica explains that the intention was for the film to evolve around the goal that Maradona scored after dribbling seven English players during this legenday match between Argentina and England, an event that is taking place not long after the war between Argentina and the UK over the Falkland islands. Each part of the film returns to a replay of this memorable goal, and each one of the seven English players passed, Kusturica says, is then ‘transformed into some personality that has made our lives difficult, likewise for the Argentinians and for the Serbs: Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, George Bush’ (Split Screen, Autimn, 2007, p. 6). Political personalities that that are featured as adverse figures in the animated sequences of the film include Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, the Queen and even Prince Charles.

The film includes many memorable scenes which Kusturica has opted to leave without much commentary or contextualization as they are sufficiently expressive on their own. One is the specific fan ‘siege’ that Maradona experiences during a visit to Naples, showing the menace of crowds and revealing the downside of celebrity. Another one is a scene in a karaoke bar, apparently in Argentina, where the footballer has come with his wife, daughters and friends. At one point Maradona stands up and delivers a memorable performance at the mike, a seemingly improvised song in which he talks about his life, his ordeals, his mistakes, and his optimism. It is powerful and impressive. The point of the interconnectedness between the two men is clearly articulated throughout the film. At concerts of his rock group No Smoking Orchestra, Kusturica is routinely introduced as “The Diego Armando Maradona of cinema”. In the documentary he goes a step further and continuously uses excerpts of his own films, from Dolly Bell (1981) and When Father Was Away on Business (1985) to recent Life is a Miracle (2004) and Promise Me This (2007), thus cross referencing Maradona’s story with his own life, with his artistic concerns and vision.

Maradona and Kusturica compare in more aspects: they both achieve fame at a relatively early age, they both ‘have it all,’ they both have been exposed to harsh public criticism at one time or another, and they both are resolved to live as they believe they should, in spite controversy or adversity. In that, I believe that Maradona by Kusturica is a film of key importance in the director’s career, an act of soul-searching in the process of portraying someone else.

My favorite moment is the final scene, which is clearly set up by the director and yet has an incredible degree of spontaneity as it seems it came as a surprise to the footballer. Maradona is leaving the site where they just shot an interview just as one of two inconspicuously looking guys with guitars leaning at the graffiti-sprayed wall opposite begin singing a song, it is all very casual. One gradually realizes that the singer is Manu Chao, the famous transnational musician, who is performing his La vida es una tombola, the lyrics of which open with the conditional ‘If I were Maradona…’ and then go on saying how one would live and that one would not regret about anything. Maradona approaches and stands in front of the singer, listening. He is wearing dark glasses, but one can see that, behind the shades, he is crying.

© Dina Iordanova
13 September 2008

Cinema of the Balkans (2006) ed. Dina Iordanova

July 4, 2008 at 1:05 am

Putting together the concept of this book, finding authors and editing the contributions took twice the time I would spend if I were doing a monograph. Looking back now, however, I am proud of having engaged in this scholarly effort. The cinema of the Balkan region remains little known and unexplored, even though films from Romania, Greece, and the countries of former Yugoslavia have been the focal point of international attention. Looking through the contents of this anthology, I see that only one film, Cacoyannis’ Stella with Melina Mercouri, is available on DVD. All the others are still to be released, seen more widely, and appreciated.

Here is the list of films which we included and had covered in this volume, meant to highlight the cinema of the Balkans.

GREECE:
Stella (1995, Michael Cacoyannis) by Dan Georgakas
Ti ekanes ston polemo, Thanassi?/ What Did You Do in the War, Thanassis?
(1971, Dinos Katsuridis) by Stratos Constantiidis
Evdokia (1971, Aleksis Damianos) by John Papargyris
Petrina chronia/ Stone Years (1985, Pantelis Voulgaris) by Dan Georgakas
I earini synaxis ton Agrofylakon/ The Four Seasons of the Law
(1999, Dimos Avdeliodis) by Vassiliki Tsitsopoulou

former YUGOSLAVIA
Tri/ Tree (1965, Aleksandar Petrovic) by Vlastimir Sudar
Kad budem mrtav i beo/ When I am Dead and Pale (1968, Zivojin Pavlovic) by Pavl Levi
Rani radovi/ Early Works (1969, Zelimir Zilnik) by Marina Grzinic
Valter brani Sarajevo/ Walter Defends Sarajevo (1972, Hajrudin Krvavac) by Rada Sesic
Splav Meduze/ The Raft of Meduza
(Karpo Godina, 1980) by Svetlana Slapsak
Petrijin Venac/ Petrija’s Wreath (Srdjan Karanovic, 1980) by Nevena Dakovic
Pad Italije/ The Fall of Italy (1981, Lordan Zafranovic) by Margot Rohringer
Crveniot konj/ The Red Horse (1981, Stole Popov) by Dina Iordanova
Lepota poroka/ The Beauty of Sin
(1986, Zivko Nikolic) by NIkola Mijovic

ROMANIA
Padurea spinzuratilor/ Forest of the Hanged
(1964, Liviu Ciulei) by Marian Tutui
Mihai Viteazul/ Michael the Brave (1970-71, Sergiu Nicolaescu) by Anne Jaeckel
Nunta de piatra/ Stone Wedding (1972, Mircea Veroiu and Dan Pita) by Adina Bradeanu
Proba de microfon/ Microphone Test (1980, Mircea Daneliuc) by Adina Bradeanu

BULGARIA
Kradetsat na praskovi/ The Peach Thief (1964, Vulo Radev) by Alexander Grozev
Koziyat rog/ Goat’s Horn (1972, Methodi Andonov) by Alexander Grozev
Lachenite obuvki na neznayniya voin/ Patent Leather Shoes of the Unknown Soldier (1979, Rangel Vulchanov) by Alexander Grozev
Mera spored mera/ Measure for Measure (1981, Georgi Djulgerov) by Alexander Grozev

ALBANIA
Kthimi i ushtrise se vdekur/ Return of the Dead Army (1989, Dhimiter Anagnosti) by Dina Iordanova
Tirana Year Zero (2001, Fatmir Koci) by Andrew Horton

Slogans (Albania/France, 2001) Gjergj Xhuvani

July 3, 2008 at 12:41 am

Albania is one of the few European countries that are still eligible for assistance under the Fonds Sud Cinéma funding programme, administered by the French government in support of the cinema of underdeveloped nations around the world. In most of these co-productions, France its engaged as a minority partner, providing production and post-production services mostly at the high tech end. Fonds Sud Cinéma is a smartly conceived enterprise, clearly meant to keep a steadily subsidized business flowing to the numerous small and medium-sized French production outfits and post-production companies (see Iordanova, 2002). The main shortcoming of the operation is that producers who get involved in these project are mostly specialized in working with various other countries (such as Russia, Lebanon, Italy) and are thus outsiders within French cinema circles. Their lack of contacts and influence is most palpable when it comes to distribution: the films get made but remain seen very little. If it were not for the French government assistance, however, Gjergj Xhuvani’s Slogans (2001) would probably not even have been made, as local funding bodies in countries like Albania distribute their meager production funds mostly by providing matching funds where foreign assistance is already in place.

Set in a small town in the mountains in the late 1970s, Slogans (2001) follows the arrival of science teacher Andre (Artur Gorishti) to take up a new position with the local secondary school. The atmosphere is stuffy from the onset, and soon various bizarre episodes begin taking place. Evidently, the focus of the school’s endeavors is not on learning; pupil and teachers’ energies alike are directed to appeasing the local authorities’ demand to constantly demonstrate loyalty to the ideas of communism. Rather than in the classroom, instructors and students have to spend their days on the surrounding hills where they are to assemble various prescribed slogans in white stones. About fifteen meters long and two meters wide, the slogans are supposed to express the genuine feelings of all Albanians on important matters in the country’s political agenda. Andre is requested to make a choice between ‘Keep Up the Revolutionary Spirit!’ and ‘America’s Imperialism Is a Paper Tiger’ as his next class project. When he chooses the slogan that is clearly the shorter and easier to put together, his allegiance comes under perilous scrutiny.

Even though the events take place in the late 1970s, everything looks and feels like in the middle of the ideologically absurd 1950s. Discussions of the shape of the slogan’ letters and on the better suitability of certain stones is a fully justified subject for a serious conversation. A series of depressing episodes revealing the dull determination of the local communist party apparatchiks follows and results in unjust treatment of ordinary people. First an illiterate peasant is accused of conspiring with the imperialists because he let his goats disturb the neatly arranged stones of the slogans. Then a boy who has to present on China in class makes a mistake and describes the country as ‘revisionist’ (rather than the correct description of ‘communist’), a misdeed for which the boy’s father is reprimanded (as he falls under suspicion for secretly indoctrinating his son in anti-communist beliefs).

It is mostly due to the French co-producing participation that the film received some exposure, ensuring at least a degree of distribution in Albania, France, and in a handful of European countries. Distributor Celluloid Dreams was involved, and there is an entry giving synopsis and contact information related to the film on the web-site run by France diplomatie, intended to assist the international exposure of French-supported films. Slogans played as part of various festivals (Karlovy Vary, Tokyo), became the fist Albanian film to be shown at Cannes, won awards at regional festivals in Bratislava and Cottbus, and was part of traveling showcases featuring recent Balkan or Albanian cinema. Even though it is not available in mass distribution, Slogans appears to have reached a truly global (diasporic?) niche audience, as the six posts about the film on the IMDb orginate from viewers based in locations as diverse as Australia, Hong Kong, Spain, Canada, Poland, and Norway.

Those who have written about the film on occasion of its release in the West often begin by admitting they know next to nothing of the place where the film comes from, referring to it as ‘mysterious’ and ‘enigmatic’ country with ‘weird’ and ‘bizarre’ history. They usually end up recommending travel books on Albania, which, supposedly, contain some answers on this peculiarly isolated corner of Europe.

Indeed, the countries in the communist camp lived in a self-contained universe. In addition, the Balkan region was the home of three of the states that came to be known as communist mavericks — Romania, Albania, and Yugoslavia – as each one had a bizarre and non-conventional way in being a state socialist country and retain relative independence not only from the West but also from the grip of the Soviets. Among those three, Albania was by far the more isolated one, having voluntary shut itself for the West, but then also having broken up with the USSR, having reoriented itself to China, and then having broken up these ties as well around the time of the cultural revolution (an episode masterfully treated in Ismail Kadare’s The Concert). That a slogan like ‘Vietnam Will Win’ is still in use in Albania a decade after the actual end of the Vietnam war may come across as absurd, but this episode of the film is based on a true anecdote, showing the shocking extent of the country’s isolation from the rest of the world.

The paranoid ruler that the country had ended up with, Enver Hoxha (1908-1985), undoubtedly enhanced Albania’s maverick status. Romania and Yugoslavia were also led by mavericks in their own right, Ceausescu and Tito. But while we can find film portrayals that explain away the charisma of some of the top communists and the popular obsession known as ‘cult of personality’ (e.g. Stalin in The Fall of Berlin, or Tito in Tito and Me or Marshall), a film on Enver Hoxha is yet to be made.

But while not directly presenting Hoxha as a person, Albanian cinema has had its own way in presenting the man by showing off his absurd deeds. Kujtim Cashku’s Kolonel Bunker (1996), for example, explores the process of Albania’s “bunkerization”, a massive defense project involving the erection of thousands of concrete bunkers meant to protect the nation in a foreign assault. These semi-destroyed concrete bunkers litter Albania’s landscape today and have become a sort of an embarrassing visual trademark of the country; they are featured, among other films, in Gianni Amelio’s Lamerica (1994). One of the scenes in Fatmir Koci’s Tirana Year Zero (2001, see Horton), another film produced with the asistance of France, takes place in a field full of meter-tall metal spears sticking up from the ground: yet another one of Hoxha’s defense inventions meant to pierce the foreign parachutists that may try landing on Albanian soil.

Reviewers are more or less unanimous of their assessment of Slogans as a ‘deliciously sardonic’ tour-de-force, which takes a satirical swipe in making a ‘scathing attack on the ignorant and imbecilic nature of fanatical politics’ of Albanian communism (Russell). If we see the film in a wider context beyond the Balkans, however, it could be considered as yet another representation of the presence of Maoist indoctrination in Europe, continuing in the tradition established by Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise (1967) and the Norwegian satire Pedersen: High School Teacher (2006).

In Slogans, Jamie Russell points out, all these endless meetings and discussions of ideology ‘have become so commonplace that no one can blink without offending some obscure party doctrine.’ In that, Slogans is a faithfully realist account, featuring the unbelievable yet fully authentic extremities of indoctrination and stupidity of dedicated party apparatchiks. Revealing moral stupor that comes across in everyday life situations has been the core approach of many of the most successful films about communism. Although many of these are set in the late 1940s and 1950s, some look into more recent periods. Some have relied on showing victims of the absurd (Hungarian Angi Vera, Pal Gabor, 1979), some on revealing the hypocrisy of the system (Bulgarian A Woman of 33, Chr. Christov, 1982, Margarit and Margarita, N. Volev, 1989) while others which prove that the genre of absurdist comedy may be indeed the most appropriate for exposing what is wrong with communist indoctrination, have openly relied on satire (as seen in classics such as Czech The Party and the Guests, Jan Nemec, 1967, The Joke, Jaromil Jires, 1969, and The Ear, Karel Kachyna, 1970, or Hungarian The Witness, Péter Bacsó, 1969),

Based on a story by Ylljet Alicka, who worked on the adaptation, the film relates a series of anecdotes rooted in real events. Andre’s daily reality may seem absurd, but it is nothing more than a condensed account on an ordinary life of an employee under communism. The whitewashed-stone slogans on hillsides existed not only in Albania but also in other neighboring communist countries; they were suggested by the ideological department of the Party either centrally or locally and were ‘built’ not only by school children, but also by the army and factory workers. The absurd usage of ideologically-loaded terms that no one understood was another wide spread practice that went far beyond Albania and was endemic to the whole communist camp; all sorts of things were qualified as ‘revisionist’ without ever being clear what was the doctrine that was being revised and without ever inviting critical scrutiny on political discourse. Thus, Slogans is a straightforward account on a seemingly absurd situation.

What seems more absurd to me, however, is Andre’s attempts to keep a high moral ground. To Western viewers, he is the only one who comes across as utterly ‘normal’. Even though born and bred in Albania (and thus not knowing anything else), Andre resorts to a quiet resistance, in conspiracy with Diana, the French teacher (Luiza Xhuvani), whom he likes. His behavior is driven by pragmatic considerations, which grants him the unanimous support of the pupils when he chooses to work on the slogan that is shorter and easier (and thus not trying to please the local party secretary). Later on Andre will be the only one who will show he is not prepared to tolerate the absurdities, and will become an outspoken advocate for the goats herdsman who is under serious allegation for ideological conspiracy. He then defends the boy who called China ‘revisionist’ and his father. And so on. With the exception of the dedicated officials, Slogans shows that most ordinary Albanians were, like Andre, normal people.

But if this was indeed the case, who are all these people who cheered at Enver Hoxha (and at Ceausescu, at Mao, at Stalin, and various other tyrannical leaders) and whom we see in some astonishing surviving video clips?

A search for Enver Hoxha on YouTube yields a rich selection of videos that show thousands of people who cheer the leader. It shows records of folk performance singing sons in his praise, and then other scenes, of these same songs being sung by crowds on huge rallies.

Were they all ‘normal’ people like Andre who just pretended to participate and kept their heads down? Or were they, as it seems more plausible to me, believers in the idea that was being sold to them, who participated in the indoctrination without having recourse to any other possible view of the world (similar to the marching North Koreans we see on footage from Pyongyang). I would personally prefer to stay with the feeling of despair and suffocation, and the overpowering absurdity that permeates Albanian classics like Ismail Kadare’s The General of the Dead Army (Quartet Encounters) (see Iordanova, 2006) and The Palace of Dreams.

REFERENCES

Horton, Andrrew, Tirana, Year Zero. In: The Cinema of the Balkans (24 Frames). London: Wallflower Press, 2006.
Iordanova, Dina. “Feature Filmmaking Within the New Europe: Moving Funds and Images Across the East-West Divide,” In: Media, Culture and Society. Vol. 24 (4), 2002, pp. 515-534. 19 pp.
Iordanova, Dina. The General of the Dead Army. In: The Cinema of the Balkans (24 Frames). London: Wallflower Press, 2006.

© Dina Iordanova
3 July 2008

Colonel Bunker (Albania, 1996) Kujtim Çashku

July 2, 2008 at 12:34 am

Kujtim Çashku’s Colonel Bunker focuses on the man charged with “the bunkerisation” of Albania, one of the most absurd acts of the country’s paranoid leader that resulted in the erection of thousands of concrete bunkers meant to protect the nation in in the event of an attack from Western imperialist powers. These semi-destroyed concrete bunkers litter Albania’s landscape today and have become a sort of an embarrassing visual trademark of the country.

The Colonel lives in constant overwhelming fear, yet, as a true military man, he never seems to question the madness which he perpetuates. Once the task of building the bunkers is over, he is asked to test them personally by sitting inside one and letting himself being bombarded; then he is interned into a camp, a fate that befalls even the most dedicated servants of the regime. He becomes victim of the system and is gradually destroyed by it. His inner contradictions, however, remain difficult to grasp because the very authority that generates the paranoia does not figure in the film

For a more detailed analysis of the director’s films, see Gareth Jones’ essay in the special supplement I edited for the Cineaste (Summer 2007). The film’s web-site also provides some extra information.

© Dina Iordanova
2 July 2008