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A Box of Balkan films.

Just north of Belgrade, the Serbian city of Novi Sad is transformed at the begin-fling of summer. As the linden trees bloom, the smallest breeze scatters blossoms in everyone's hair, and fills the streets with a gentle perfume. In the midday heat, characteristically laid-back citizens gather beneath the sun umbrellas of cafe terraces, where they sip strong coffee until evening, when cooler air transforms gazes from languid to flirtatious. Finally, when night falls, the city's parks and squares light up with dancing images and haunting sounds of films from all over the world. This is the Cinema City International Rim Festival, a celebration designed to turn the whole of Novi Sad into one big cinema.

Before Novi Sad's first modern multiplex opened in January of this year, the festival organisers had to be resourceful in order to screen more than one film at a time. The city's theatres and cultural centres were obvious venues, but as a summer festival, open-air screenings were also an appealing option. Although the opening and dosing ceremonies, as well as many regular screenings, now take place at the 'Arena' multiplex in the city centre, the festival remains true to its original concept of a city-wide event. With tickets priced at a modest 150 Serbian dinars (about 2 Canadian dollars), Cinema City is one of the world's more accessible film festivals.

Cinema City is not only designed for the public's benefit: the festival's other main purpose to provide a forum for the nation's talent, giving Serbian directors the opportunity to show their work to the world. Cinema City's mission to promote domestic flimmaking is reflected in the distribution of its prizes: two thirds of the festival's signature Ibis awards are reserved for Serbian films, which compete in the 'National Class' category. This year's Ibis for Best Film in the National Class went to Nikola Lelaic's coming-of-age skater movie Tilva Ros (2010).

The festival still lives up to its international label, as its other two competitive categories ('Exit Point' and 'Up to 10,000 Bucks1) are open to films from all over the world. 'Exit Point' showcases independent cinema on to a given theme (this year's theme was 'women'), while 'Up to 10,000 Bucks' is for low-budget (typically short) films. The Ibis for Best Film in the Exit Point category went to Czech director jan Hfiebejk's Kawasaki's Rose (2010), while Croatian director Irena Skoric took Best Film in the Up to 10,000 Bucks category with her 10-minute short, 'March 9th'.

The festival also embraces international cinema in its out-of-competition selection. This year there were 14 non-competitive categories, encompassing fiction films and documentaries, shorts and features, new films and retrospectives. The only out-of-competition category devoted solely to domestic talent was an homage to actor Bata livojinovic who received a Lifetime Achievement Award for his work in more than 270 films and television series. A number of foreign artists were also honoured with retrospectives: Hungarian master BeJa Tarr, who made a guest appearance at the festival; Lithuanian director Sharunas Bartas, who headed the National Class jury; and Polish director Dorota K'dzierzawska, president of the Exit Point jury. K'dzierzawska was presented with an Ibis Award for Contribution to European Cinema, and the festival opened with her most recent film, Jutro b'dzie lepiej (Tomorrow Will be Better, 2010).

There are a handful of awards in addition to Cinema City's own Ibis awards, some of which are open to films outside the festival's official competition. Rating films by secret ballot after each screening, the public selects one film from any category to win the Audience Award. This year's Audience Award nevertheless went to a film in the National Class: Cinema Komunisto (2010), Mila Turajlic's witty and moving documentary on the former Yugoslavia's film industry. Cinema City also invites two international critics' associations to present their awards. FIPRESCI and FEDEORA each give one award to a film from the National Class: this year, FIPRESCI chose Milo[per thousand] Radivojevic's Kako su me ukrali Nemci (How I Was Stolen by the Germans, 2011) while FEDEORA selected Dejan Zeaevic's Neprijatelj (The Enemy, 2011). In addition, FIPRESCI awards one film in the Exit Point category: Stephen Frears' Tamara Drewe (201 0) was this year's winner. Finally, FEDEORA and the Serbian branch of FIPRESCI each present one award to a film from the otherwise non-competitive category 'Balkan Box', which comprised 6 films from Romania, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Greece and Albania. The remainder of this review will focus on these 6 films which offer a snapshot of trends in contemporary filmmaking in the region.

FEDEORA's award in the Balkan Box category went to Majki (Mothers, 2010, directed by Milao Manaevski). The film is divided into three sections, each of which could easily stand alone as a court or moyeri metrage. In the first section, a couple of schoolgirls see a flasher near the playground. As they are too scared to go to the police, two of their friends act as eyewitnesses on their behalf, which leads to predictable difficulties when it comes to identifying a suspect. The film's second section concerns a group of young urban filmmakers who set out to make a documentary about Macedonia's dying village life. They find a more extreme example than they could have dreamed of: a community that has been reduced to one elderly goatherd and a sister whom he refuses to acknowledge, believing that she brings bad luck. The final section of the film recounts the true story of a serial rapist and murderer in a small town: it begins with the stories of the victims, all elderly female cleaning women, and ends with the story of the man who killed them.

Majki deserves its award for being masterfully directed and well-written: it develops strong emotional intimacy with characters that feel authentic. What makes this film stand out most, though, is its daring combination of fiction and documentary: after two sections that are clearly fictional, the film switches to documentary mode in its final section, complete with talking-head interviews and newspaper clippings. Even though the film's second section incorporates the idea of documentary, this does nothing to prepare the audience for the switch. Surprisingly, the effect is refreshing rather than jarring. Majki does suffer from a fundamental lack of unity at its core, but this is due to the starkly differing duration of the three sections (the first being quite short, and the last quite long). The film's title theme acts as a very weak unifying concept, since the first two sections have very little to do with 'mothers'.

There were far more serious problems with The Show Must Go On (201 0, directed by Nevio Marasovic), which received the award of the Serbian branch of FIPRESCI. Set in Zagreb in the near future, the film centres on a broadcasting company producing 'Housed', a programme based on the Big Brother reality TV series. When world war threatens the future of humanity, the studio executives decide that the show's participants should remain ignorant of events in the outside world: protected in their underground bunker, the housemates may end up being the only humans left on earth.

While FIPRESCI found The Show Must Go On 'coherent and convincing',1 the audience at the screening this reviewer attended were laughing openly at the most serious moments. Creating a credible picture of the future is always a challenge, and although the film did well in the special effects department (which ought to be the biggest challenge for a film without a Hollywood budget), on the level of human emotion

the film fell completely flat. The characters were irritatingly stereotyped, more suited to farce or cheap television drama, and this made it impossible to care about their fate.

The Serbian branch of FIPRESCI made a far better choice in their 'Special Mention', which went to Adis Bakraa's Ostavljeni (The Abandoned, 2010). In an admirably restricted duration of just 85 minutes, this relatively overlooked fiction film presents a convincing, complex and touching portrait of late in a Bosnian orphanage. It weaves three main problems into one compelling narrative. First, some orphans are the children of wartime rape campaigns: one of them, Alen, is now a teenager, and wants to meet his parents, believing that they are world affairs journalists. The second problem is that the orphanage is short of money: this means that they must accept donations from a shady benefactor, who uses some of the orphans (Alen among them) to run his criminal errands. Finally, there is the question of the orphanage's Leadership, as a new director has arrived, bringing with him more liberal ideas: both he and the orphanage's mother figure have secrets which tie their stories to Alen's.

Ostavljeni is important because it uses fiction to draw attention to a real-life issue: namely, the emotional impact for a child of being unwanted, and how to secure a more positive future for such children. Cinematically, Ostavljeni is notable for its original approach to narrative: the director avoids conventional developments so naturally that one would almost think he was not familiar with them. Bakraa clearly has a strong grip of narrative principles, though, as the film is well-unified: its developments, though arguably abrupt, only ever create a moment's confusion, at most. While maintaining its narrative momentum, the film creates a stimulating sense of spontaneity as it hops from one event to the next, hiding its pattern and thus mirroring real life.

Marian Criflan's Morgen (Tomorrow) also uses fiction to examine a real-life problem, in this case illegal migrants. Set in Romania near the border with Hungary, the film centres on Nelu, a Romanian man, and his relationship with a Turkish migrant desperate to reach his family in Germany. The film's approach is refreshing in relation to familiar Western attitudes to illegal immigration, which tend to fall into one of two extremes: pity, which turns the migrant into a martyr, and condemnation, which sees the migrant as part of a faceless tidal wave that must be stopped. While the contrasting attitudes of Nelu and the Romanian border police towards the Turkish migrant are comparable to those in the West, neither is so extreme. The border police have no particular ideological opposition to illegal immigration: as long as they are no longer responsible for him, they are happy to see the Turkish man move on t.o another EU country. Nelu, meanwhile, does not see himself as a humanitarian: as far as he is concerned, if you meet a fellow man in need, it is only natural to give him food, clothing arid shelter. To Nelu, rules become illegitimate when they act as a barrier to a natural human desire, such as being near loved ones.

Although from Nelu's perspective his actions are natural rather than noble, as a spectator you are forced to ask yourself if you would act in the same way. When he first approaches Nelu, the migrant yammers disconcertingly in a language Nelu can't understand (apart from the word 'Almanya', Germany). Here, the audience is placed in the same position as Nelu, as there are no subtitles to translate what the Turkish man is saying. After an initial feeling of alienation from the migrant and his annoyingly insistent chatter, the audience will eventually come to adopt Nelu's view of him. Nelu keeps promising the migrant that 'tomorrow' he will help him to go to Germany (hence the film's title), so the Turkish man patiently waits but, equally feeling a natural obligation, begins to take part in daily life on the farm, chopping wood and fixing the roof. In this way, the migrant becomes a calm, familiar, and endearing presence. Like Nelu, the audience finally sees the migrant as a human being first and foremost: his illegal status is now a troublesome detail rather than his defining feature. The film's slow pace and contemplative shots are arguably appropriate to the film's gentle, philosophical approach. Unfortunately, the copy of the film screened at Cinema City may have been a poor one, as the image could be dark, completely black at times, making some of the film's long takes very boring.

Ballkan Pazar (Balkan Bazaar, 2010, directed by Edmond Budina) also treats an ostensibly serious theme, based on real events, it concerns a French woman, Jolie, and her Italian-born daughter, Orsola, who set out to retrieve the bones of Jolie's dead father, which have mysteriously ended up in Albania. Their search leads to a village where the local priest is involved in illicit bone-trading deals with a rich Greek expatriate. By passing off Albanian bones as the remains o Greek soldiers from World War II, the Greek man intends to annex Albanian territory to Greece, basing his claim on the ancient belief that land belongs to the soldiers who die on it.

For a film treating such sensitive topics as human remains and national borders, Balkan Pazar takes an incongruously farcical approach. While not particularly funny, the film does have a charming energy in its underhanded pots, superstitious rituals, madcap chases, romantic flings and cultural misunderstandings. Although the sets are clearly low-budget, the image is bathed with a golden glow that radiates Southeast Europe, making the film visually pleasing. In terms of narrative, though, in spite of an interesting premise the film soon loses its way: it becomes unclear whether it is the father's bones, the village's nationality, or official corruption that is of most concern, and introducing romance only confuses matters further.


There was also a strange incongruity in the final Balkan Box film, Apnoia (Apnea) 2010. The film revolves around Dimitris, a competitive swimmer with a particular talent for holding his breath underwater. He falls in love with Elsa, who needs to improve her swimming skills for her work as an environmental activist. Their relationship falters when Dimitris refuses to help with her campaigning. As a result, he is not there when Elsa goes missing on a seaside trip with her fellow activists.

Director An Bafalouka is himself a record-holding swimming champion, and his intimate familiarity with the sport shines through in the script's level of detail (Dimitris' advice to Elsa on technique, for example, or the stress of sponsorship deals). An expert's perspective is also evident in the aesthetic approach to the many scenes set in the water. The film leaves a strangely cold impression, though, all the more strange given that it has a romantic relationship at its centre. Yioulika Skafida brings an engaging gentleness to her portrayal of Elsa, but Sotiris Pastras as Dimitris has about as much warmth as a Greek statue. In both cases, though, the audience remains acutely aware that they are actors reciting their lines: this is a film that never passes that threshold of disbelief, where the audience begins to feel that they are watching real characters in real situations. Rather than a problem with the performance, this sense of artificiality points to poor character development arid motivation, and a lack of emotional authenticity in the script.

In terms of theme, films in the Balkan Box category treated topics of particular relevance to the region (war, emigration, corruption, transitional economies), typically in a way that gave them broader relevance. Another notable theme shared by several films was problematic relationships with wives and mothers: Nelu's wife's lack of sympathy for the illegal immigrant in Morgen; the TV executive's perpetually angry ex-wife in The Show Must Go On; the apparent betrayals by Alen's mother and the orphanage's mother figure in Ostavljeni. Most shocking of all were the offhand criticisms of the victims in Majki's documentary section, all respectable widows and beloved mothers who nonetheless had 'something whorish about them' in the opinion of one police representative; their murderer, meanwhile, was portrayed as a man damaged by his own mother's licentious behaviour when he was a child.

There were very few strong or even positive female characters, mothers or otherwise, in these films. The women of the farcical Balkan Pazar were assertive, but: easily seduced, and thereby easily distracted from their mission. Apnea's Elsa, meanwhile, though an activist, came across as vulnerable, and demonstrably in need of father's or boyfriend's protection. The old stereotypes of women as weak or defined by their sexuality seem more easily acceptable when compared with even less flattering characterizations in Majki and Ostavljeni, however. By showing women to be at least as bad as men, do the films attempt a more equal redistribution of blame for society's problems? Does this liberate women from the reductive stereotype of virgin/mother, or does it merely emphasise the other reductive stereotype of whore, and thus signify a deeper current of misogyny? These may be questions for further study. The awards that Cinema City and the critics' juries gave to some of the films discussed here will help to ensure that the best of this year's Balkan cinema makes further appearances at international film festivals over the coming year; one or two may find international distributors and make it to local arts cinemas around the world, and a larger number should become available for study on DVD in the near future.


(1) Serbian branch of FIPRESCI's explanation of their choice, available at <http://eng> viewed 4 July 2011.
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Author:Frank, Alison
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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