The audience – predominantly local youth from 20 to 30 years of age, with some international guests amongst them – sits in front of the outdoor screen. Before each film projection, there is a screening of a sponsor message made by the Israeli advertising company Saatchi & Saatchi. Kosovo, the young Europeans, it says. In the commercial, young Kosovars in fashionable clothes single-handedly build their country out of large yellow bricks: they outline a map of Kosovo. New, young and eager are the keywords here.
Kosovo, of course, was a part of Yugoslavia for 35 years. Since then it has been one of the focal points of the Balkan war, the key medium for the Serbian and Albanian affirmation of nationalistic tendencies (and acts!). These historical, mostly political components, however, can not be the sole ground for understanding Kosovo’s current situation. Nonetheless, they are at least relevant.
However, a new story – bordering on a new paradigm – is being introduced and is noticeable in Dokufest as well. The new Kosovo is starting “from scratch”. Paradoxical as this seems, in order for Kosovo to become a sovereign democratic state, it has to submit itself to capitalism in its purest form: the free market.
There is an elegant way of explaining how the newest acquisition for world capitalism – the Kosovo market – works in terms of ideology. Today Kosovo has to be branded. It is being branded as a new state in the old Europe, a story of European, as well as global, integration. It will be a success! The song in the Saatchi & Saatchi advertisement illustrates the ideological nature of this branding of the future very well: “It’s time to start over, time to join hands”. The meaning of this message embodies the very contemporary European myth of reintegrating the state of Kosovo – “It’s time to start over”. Translated into the language of cultural studies, Kosovo is being reinvented. It seems that the place of history is substituted by empty space, thoroughly cleansed from past ideologies. But as we know, the process of emptying is simultaneously the reverse-side of the process of filling. Its mythology is based on constructing the new, but also reconstructing the old. At the same time, this space is inhabited by new traditions. The phenomenon of this so-called neo-ottomanism is present in many parts of the Balkan peninsula. Prizren’s architectural image is changing every day; buildings as old as a hundred years are being demolished, making room for even “older” buildings – “older” traditions. Young people from the commercial sector are the new people who will submit Kosovo to the now inevitable and irreversible process of “progress” and “development”.
As we sit in Prizren’s main square, in a coffee shop located just next to Dokufest’s ticket office, we witness a bizarre spectacle. We see three KFOR (Kosovo forces) soldiers – there are approximately 9,997 more walking around Kosovo – while they are transformed into tourists. Two of them stand in front of a large Dokufest billboard, posing for the camera’s eye. It is hard to believe that there is any other explanation: somehow they seem to understand the festival as their “mission accomplished”.
This is the stuff contemporary social dreams are made of. Following Freud’s concept of dreams as the manifestation of the unconscious, this ideological scenery is fundamental for understanding how a festival like Dokufest partly aspires to its ideas. Dokufest is at once a rarity because it is a “true” festival, fusing the local and the global, actually bringing something to and taking something from its hometown of Prizren, as well as being a “dream” festival in the sense that it is also a part of another story, the “new” story of success.
This large and ambitious festival also brings out the best in Prizren. The three “improvised” outdoor screens, set up during the first week of August, allow for the only cinematographic experience in the municipality of approximately 300,000 inhabitants. Kosovo being the youngest state in Europe, approximately half of them are youngsters, probably visiting the cinema only once per year. As a film festival anywhere else, it mobilises numbers of people so that they move in a different direction, in a way different from their everyday lives. Dokufest mobilises numbers of young Kosovars so that they move from one film projection to the other, seeing pieces of documentary works coming from differing social realities. If the youth in other parts of Europe perceive similar festivals in a somewhat passive way, regarding them as small parts of an otherwise enormous cultural offer, this film festival has a central role within the “new” Kosovo culture. Due to this centrality, its ambivalence can hardly be resented.
The ambivalent structure of Kosovo culture inevitably marks the festival’s program and its reception. In particular, the films from the documentary section become more involved in the cultural context of Prizren as the days of the festival pass, and the visitors from across borders become more aware of these sorts of Kosovar characteristics. The excellent analysis of Zionist ideology, as it is embraced in the story of the famous Jaffa orange brand in the film Jaffa, the Orange’s Clockwork, is especially haunting in view of the circumstances of the nationalistic ideology Kosovo has been dealing with in the past decade. Besides its immediate connection with the local situation, it is a bold film with an in-depth approach. Analysing the manner in which each critique of Zionism threatens to be understood as an act of anti-Semitism, the fact that this film was made by an Israeli means that its critical approach toward oppressive Israeli politics comes as a pleasant surprise, if not a shocking one. This film is a lesson: a lesson on how documentary filmmaking is able to observe society in a subversive way, thus enabling the possibility of social change. While too many filmmakers reproduce the same cultural concepts, in that they personally collaborate in the reproduction of, let us say, national mythologies and ideologies, Eyal Sivan’s film shows that one of the priorities of a filmmaker is to expose something new, to amplify a voice not heard before, to compose a series of images never before seen linked together. However, the focus of the mission is not inventiveness; it is rather a mission of re-thinking and reflecting.
Contrary to the expectations that the filmmakers from the Balkan documentary section could and would establish a critical position towards their cultural environment, most of their works end up having a conservative view of society. But even this back-to-tradition view is a grateful platform for rethinking cultural patterns, as it reminds us that a form of Saïd’s orientalism is still present not only in the western, but also in the “local” perception of the fictional category of the Balkans. All in all, the double-turn that occurs in the process of viewing the Other is hardly a new phenomenon. Viewing the Other is at the same time constructing how the Other will view itself. In other words, the symptom of the Other is in the adopting of its Other’s phantasm, reacting to it, and finally humouring it.
In the case of filmmaking, meeting the stereotype of Balkan as the dirty, naturalised chaotic society, the so-called “smoking barrel”, has for a long time been traded for money; film works by Emir Kusturica and branding of local autochthonous tunes by Goran Bregović come to mind.
But something seemingly different has been happening for a few years now, something different from earning money by acting as a laughing stock, playing the role of the European Other. At first sight, it seems that this role has been radically shifted in the last few years. There exist numerous forms of contemporary popular art in this cultural space that reach beyond the “wild east” versions of these cultures. As a matter of fact, they exploit quite the opposite by returning to the “true” culture. They do this by taking from the barrel of Tradition: renovating traditional folk songs, branding traditional foods and recipes, promoting traditional dances and so forth. It seems again like a “healthy” distance from the stereotype, proving and showing that there is more to the Balkans, that there exists a realistic, serious side to it.
Filmmakers, as we clearly see in the Balkan documentary section, also do this. An example of this trend is a documentary film by Marina Andree Skop. Sevdah is an intimate portrayal of an immigrant Bosnian girl, returning to her homeland in order to find her true identity. She begins with a tender, nostalgic voice: “In my life, I’ve always had a feeling something was hanging over me, a shadow. Then I realise: this shadow is Bosnia.” Her madeleine is the beautiful sound of traditional Bosnian songs called sevdalinkas. The audience travels with her through the Bosnian countryside in search of forgotten traditional tunes and lyrics. We meet her friend, the musician Damir Imamović, who tries to renovate the antiquated genre, merging it with contemporary musical forms like jazz. There is, in fact, nothing wrong with personal nostalgia per se. But over this film, in the author’s own words, “hangs a shadow” of immense national mythology, the over-sacralisation of certain cultural patterns: the making of a burek, a Bosnian national dish, reveals itself as a sacred ritual of “our” culture, a feature that characterises “us” in order for “us” to be infallibly separable from “others”.
To take a step back, tradition is being elevated to a moral stance. When something is done in a specific way in the name of tradition, there is no room for arguments. Questioning tradition means to expose society as a figment, merely consisting of a series of arbitrary meanings. It means stepping out of “our” story, the one basic narrative we all have to submit to without a shadow of doubt. Resistance to questioning the self-referentiality of society is close to being a taboo. This is exactly what goes on in the construction of the contemporary Balkans: its fictional space, being already a fictional category in the past, becomes even more mystified through this sort of approach: the reinvention of its traditions, the renovation of the old. However, returning to tradition is careless: imagine innumerable ways in which tradition has been used as a synonym for separation – not bringing different ways of living closer together, but further apart. It has been used as the grounds for war and conservatism, clinging to sexual roles, social hierarchies and class divisions.
While Betonni faraoni (Concrete Pharaohs, d. Jordan Todorov) deals with the extravagant lifestyle of a closed Roma community, a stereotype is sold once again; the Balkans are presented as flashy, irrational, excessive. Bir varmis bir yokmus, (Once Upon A Time, d. Eleni Varmazi) brings a nostalgic view of the demolished past – the ruins of abandoned Greek schools in Istanbul. Dugo putovanje kroz istoriju, historiju i povijest (The Long Journey Through Balkan History, d. Željko Mirković) also engages in historical dilemmas. While the duo of well-known writers – Miljenko Jergović from Croatia and Marko Vidojković from Serbia – travel the road once known as the “Highway of brotherhood and unity”, they try to figure out how their common past dissolved in a divided present. They address the famous question of how cultural differences can be put aside in the name of a Community sharing a single culture. The actual film, though, ends up resembling the slow and painful decomposition of Yugoslavia, as the two main characters adopt the political discourse of the federal state’s decay.
Thus Balkan documentaries presented at Dokufest are actually a part of a wider trend, not only in filmmaking but also in terms of the social dimensions of their formation. In the light of this cultural riddle, there were at least two films in the “local” section that bring hope for documentary filmmaking in this part of Europe. Tabakmädchen (Tobacco Girl, d. Biljana Garvanlieva) and 1717 kilometrov poletja 2009 (1717 kilometers of summer 2009, d. Jurij Meden) present open views on the ex-Yugoslav area. Garvanlieva’s film depicts the major dilemmas of a young girl-bride having to decide on her life course. She can stay at home where she would work in the tobacco fields in the highlands of Macedonia and accept an arranged marriage, or continue with her education. Here, tradition is not a praised guideline for authenticating identity, but rather “just” a way of life. Obviously there is no need to travel in time or space to find that different realities co-habit the same dimension. In this case, somewhat oppressive rural customs collide with seemingly liberating urban ones every day. In this sense, Garvanlieva’s film brings a positively simple and realistic view of what goes on in the life of a “tobacco girl”. It is precisely this simplicity that enables her to show some of the tensions in culture as well.
Meden’s road-movie on the other hand takes us on a dizzy ride, a fast-forward journey from Slovenia to Albania and back again, making the road its only permanence. It does not say much by itself. In fact, it has no spoken parts, as the visual delights of the ex-Yugoslav by-the-road scenery are accompanied only by disharmonised sounds and a partisan song. Therefore, this experimental piece presents a hollow space, open for personal, communal, or even cultural interpretations. It just so happens that mute, somewhat disorganised series of glances make up a regular view of the ex-Yugoslav space. Engaging in the same space as Garvanlieva’s film, it can be read as a positively symptomatic out-of-focus map of the social scenery of the former Yugoslavia.
The directors of the two pearls in the section are not advocates of the stories that bring up national sentiments, nor do they agitate nostalgic and unrealistic views of the common past. They are aware of complexities of culture. Both films received awards for Best Balkan Newcomers. “Newcomer” may not be the best expression, for both directors have previously made films. Nonetheless, the formulation makes sense in a way: a newcomer – if he or she is a perspective newcomer – has the benefit of breaking off from the ordinary and making an incision into a “chewed-up” state of mind.
International Documentary and Short Film Festival (Dokufest)
31 July-7 August 2010
Festival website: http://www.dokufest.com/