Thessaloniki: Balkan blow-up

  • For years now, one has gained the impression that the audiences at the Thessaloniki Festival have been the most faithful to the Balkan Survey program which, thanks to the efforts of its programmer, Dimitris Kerkinos, has persistently been offering an insight into the latest trends in the films of the countries on Europe’s largest peninsula.

    The stories arriving from this still boiling and unpredictable region, are interesting and exciting, often even touching, humane, and all together they form a clear mosaic of the problems, desires and hopes of the people in these countries. That is why the audiences are faithful to them. And that is why they gladly cast their votes in the boxes, as they know that in this manner – in a democratic way, they will choose their winner.

    At this year’s festival, the largest number of the audience’s votes went to the film Cirkus Columbia by Bosnian director Danis Tanovic, who also became the official winner of the Balkan Survey program.

    Tanovic’s new film is based on the book of the same name by journalist Ivica Djikic and is about a few weeks before the outbreak of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the total disintegration of Yugoslavia. The latter is, actually, only the framework for a family drama with a happy ending at the center of which are Herzegovinians –  Divko (Miki Manojlovic), a returnee from Germany, who throws out of the house his alienated wife Lucija (Mira Furlan) and his son Martin (Boris Ler), and moves in with Azra (Jelena Stupljanin), a much younger woman with whom he has been living for quite some time, and a black cat, his pet Bono, whom he is extremely attached to.  Then there is also a wide range of vivid characters who react differently to the fact that the political and war situation is gathering steam, while Divko’s family and housing problems keep entangling and disentangling…

    Tanovic has made an old-fashioned movie, in the tradition of Yugoslav classics, intended primarily for the audiences in front of both the movie and TV screens. The film is not perfect, but it is completely different from everything Tanovic has done so far (this being a virtue, not a fault), with an exceptional cast that represents its prime mover, a polished visual procedure and impeccable production.

    Yet another film from the Balkan region (Serbia) can be singled out from this program, this being the Serbian-German-Swedish co-production Beli, beli svet (“White, White World”) by Oleg Novkovic (director from Belgrade). Even though it requires a lot of patience and even good will on the part of the cinema audience, the movie “White, White World”, with a screenplay by playwright Milena Markovic, is an art-film worthy of respect.

    It could have even been a masterpiece if Novković had invested additional effort to make the exposition somewhat shorter and less chaotic. He would, thus, have allowed the viewer to become more easily acquainted with the characters, circumstances and intentions, whereby the first,  the weaker part and the second far more powerful part of the movie would have created a more desirable balance.

    In any case, Novković had before him the difficult and complex task of telling what is essentially a banal story, following the principles of an ancient tragedy which he, quite unexpectedly, modernizes with Brechtian songs (considerably filling the voids in the characters), raising it to a socio-political level. Pretentious? Perhaps. But not impossible, as it turns out. The concept by screenwriter Milena Markovic and Oleg Novkovic does function, primarily thanks to the director’s courage, the actors’ strength, the achievements of photography director Miladin Colakovic and the music of Boris Kovac.

    It is set in the unreal environment of the mining town of Bor,  surrounded by chimneys with acid smoke gushing out of them, polluting the air and the inhabitants who are silently waiting for something to happen, something different and better, more dignified, but nothing does. The town is an important character in this portrait of both the emotional and physical devastation brought about by the post-industrial era. Novkovic ends the movie with the mass scene of miners who, like an ancient choir, situated above the gigantic coal mine, are singing a kind of hymn of protest, announcing the day when they will “eat and drink off the tables of the rich”.

    However, a lot of time has passed before that effective and powerful ending comes, as Novkovic starts revealing his true intentions only in the second part of the 121-minute long film. Until then, the viewer is immersed in an oedipal, incestuous relationship between a merciless elderly man (the authoritative Uliks Fehmiu) and a lost young girl (the excellent Hana Selimovic, a true revelation), whose unhappy mother (the convincing and powerful Jasna Djuricic), still in love herself with that man, has just come out of prison having served her sentence for the murder of her husband.

    All this is painted in dark colors, helplessness and death, and such a tragedy could happen anywhere and in any kind of environment. However, the fact that it is set in an impoverished and neglected town (once a mining giant), among unemployed and hungry miners, gives it even greater strength and a greater meaning than it objectively has.

    The film White, White World also represents a memorable aesthetic experience, characterized by a unique cinematographic language, but if I were to choose between this film of the Novkovic-Markovic tandem and their joint documentary drama Miners’ Opera (also about people from the margins of society, miners, Bor and Brecht), I would choose the latter. It is more sincere. Compared to White, White World it was done more from the heart than from the head. 

    Dubravka Lakic,, 19 January 2011

    Film: Cirkus Columbia, director: Danis Tanovic, cast: Miki Manojlovic, Mira Furlan, Boris Ler, Jelena Stupljanin, duration: 100 min., production: Bosnia and Herzegovina/France/UK/ Germany/Slovenia/Belgium/Serbia

    World Sales: The Match Factory, Germany

    Film: Beli, Beli Svet (White, White world), director: Oleg Novkovic, cast: Uliks Fehmiu, Hana Selimovic, Jasna Djuricic, Nebojša Glogovac, duration: 121 min., production: Serbia/Germany/Sweden, 2010.

    World Sales: Films Boutique Gmbh, Germany