Surveying the Balkans
An in-depth interview with Thessaloniki’s Balkan Survey programmer Dimitris Kerkinos in order to discover if the Balkan Cinema really exists.
Going back to Thessaloniki for the second time this year feels like returning to Arcadia, only not documentaries are in focus now but narrative films at large. The pleasure is again Vassilis Economou’s, and his interlocutor is Dimitris Kerkinos, TIFF’s Balkan Survey programmer. Launched in 1994, amidst the war in ex-Yugoslavia, this section has been perfect tool to take the pulse of Southeastern Europe in terms of artistic, cultural, and social trends ever since, so if you dig Balkan cinema – look no further!
Vassilis Economou: Let’s start with a rather cliché question – how difficult is to organize two festivals every year, Thessaloniki International Film Festival and Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, during a period of financial crisis? Especially now that the financial support from the state is rather limited, do these changes affect the guests who are attending the festivals?
Dimitris Kerkinos: Certainly, the financial support from the state is rather limited for our needs, but I believe that those who are invited to Thessaloniki are primarily people who actually love the festival. We have restricted our expenses, this year, for example, we are offering just a small compensation to our guests. In previous years, we were usually covering the travel expenses to directors and to some members of the industry. This time, instead, we asked them to come without that extra benefit. Luckily, many of them responded positively, and this is rather encouraging when you see that the people are actually coming again, something that means that they actually like the festival.
VE: So the festival is the only reason for them being here?
DK: I think that it is true. Of course, we have lost some people due to that restricted policy, but the important guests are here. It is more difficult to organize everything, when you do not have the necessary budget. You must limit yourself, the films, the events, you should be less flexible. Although we succeeded to keep our standards high, both in the quality of the films and festival’s reputation.
VE: How do these limitations affect the audience?
DK: The audience likes the films, our selection, and still supports the festival regardless the changes. So we are satisfied even though it is more difficult now. On the other hand, the limitations force you to be more creative – when you are in lack of money, you should find other solutions.
VE: Let’s focus on your own section, the Balkan Survey, have you noticed any differences there compared to previous years?
DK: Balkan Survey is a non-competitive section, something that is quite useful, since you do not have to fight for films with other festivals, struggle for premieres, or invite the whole crew. So we can guarantee a high quality of selected films, as we choose what is the best. Also Balkan Survey is an inexpensive section, because most of the filmmakers are actually neighbors, and for the majority of them Thessaloniki is a quite reasonable destination. It is generally a quite reasonable section.
VE: Do you think that you have selected films that could represent this region in the best way?
DK: There is no doubt about it.
VE: Browsing this year’s Balkan Survey, we can see that all the films are mainly dealing with political, social, and historical issues. Is there any common trend in the cinema of the Balkans that forces the directors to follow that similar path, or the similarities of the neighboring countries lead them to focus on quite related themes?
DK: To answer this question, we should start by asking if there is an actual Balkan cinema. For me this cinema exists, and this is proven through these common themes. You can observe the same problematics in every country. If we take into consideration that the majority of these countries are still living in a transitional period, so they have the same problems that are being exposed through art and cinema. Actually, this is a never-ending transition, it has been more than 25 years since it started, and it still goes on. This, for example, is an issue that affects everybody on political level, apart from Turkey that does not go through that transition but still has some quite different present problems to deal with.
VE: Balkan Survey covers the majority of the nearby countries. Do you believe that if someone wants to wrap up this year’s Balkan cinema could do it through your programme?
DK: I think so. I believe that this is the main aim of our programme, to offer to the viewer key ideas of what is happening in the Balkans each year. We are trying to select the best films of the region, and, by being positioned in mid-November, this gives us the chance to watch almost everything.
VE: Comparing the selection with previous years’ films, do you believe that there is a continuity in Balkan cinema?
DK: The trends always change, although we have films that are dealing with everyday life and problems, the transition in different forms, and the traumas of the past. Some years we have films that are dealing more with the war or the role of the woman in current society and other social issues. Some years a subject could be more or less evident, but generally there is a balance among the titles. This year we have many films that are dealing with the role of the women – Mustang and Ana Yurdu (Motherland) from Turkey or Vergine Giurata (Sworn Virgin) from Albania, as well as with fatherhood – Babai (Father) from Kosovo and Comoara (The Treasure) from Romania.
VE: We see that Balkan films are always referring to their countries’ past, and especially former Yugoslav republics, due to the war, are always going back in order to talk about the present. Why does this necessity still exist?
DK: Balkan cinema is quite particular, as it functions in an important anthropological level. The cinema helps to process the traumas of the society, and I think that it is needed to have this procedure, otherwise it is quite difficult to overcome everything. This is the generation that actually lived through this common past, and it is a way to document the present, too. The cinema of the Balkans can also have a therapeutic role to this procedure, as it filtrates everything. Of course, sometimes this does not work for the society, for example Dalibor Matanić’s Zvizdan (The High Sun) was not a crowd-pleaser in his home country, Croatia, since the audience does not want to deal with yet another film about the war.
VE: Do we have any films that depict a drift towards other issues in the region?
DK: In Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, Ines Tanović’s Naša Svakodnevna Priča (Our Everyday Life) is not a “war film” at all, if you take into consideration that in all the previous years, films coming from this country were almost exclusively focused on that genre. The film is a family tragedy and deals with a nuclear family that is also the basis of any Balkan society.
VE: I think this is the first middle-class drama that we see from that country, and I also feel than Bosnians and Serbs are still those who are focusing more on the war.
DK: Probably the Bosnians have that feeling more evident. For example, the Serbs have black comedies as well, and other different genres. Also their approach towards the war is quite varying compared to a more austere look that is expressed by other countries.
VE: Since we are comparing film identities of the former Yugoslavia countries, do you feel that some of the characteristics of the past have been lost?
DK: Apart from the Bosnians, who are mainly focusing on the war issues and also dealt these traumas more than the others, I believe that the essence and the spirit of what we called “Yugoslavian cinema” has been equally divided among the countries. FYRO Macedonia could also be an exception, too, since their films are extremely dark. They are not referring to the past but they are trying to face their current present that seems gloomy and is focused on a new lost generation that does not have any perspective.
VE: What about other countries, other than ex-Yugoslavia, like Bulgaria?
DK: Bulgaria also is quite interesting. Despite the fact that they are producing a lot of films, and some of them are quite exceptional, there is no coherence. There is not any wave or any connection among the filmmakers, you can watch quite different things. Probably this is something that does not allow them to excess themselves, although, each year, we have something remarkable coming from Bulgaria.
VE: Focusing on Romanian cinema, this year Balkan Survey had a special tribute to Mircea Daneliuc, who is rather unknown outside of his country. Do you believe that his era and his generation affected what we call now Romanian New Wave?
DK: Actually, this is the first tribute to Daneliuc outside of Romania. I believe that he was quite “unfortunate” when he started his career, although he has always been a pioneer of cinema. His film Proba de Microfon (Microphone Testing, 1980) is emblematic, since he used different techniques that showed the way to filmmakers of that era how to make films about the present. This film, along with Lucian Pintilie’s Reconstituirea (Reconstruction, 1968), are those that formed a completely different generation of Romanian cinema. Let us not forget that Daneliuc was producing films with state’s money during Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime, while he was undermining it. By dismantling and reversing the socialist realism, Daneliuc could create real films about and for real people, without following the ideological demands of the era. So his courage and his unconventional way of thinking surely reached to our days, too, by showing a different way of telling a story.
VE: Going back to the Balkan Survey’s selection. Which one do you think that is the most interesting of them?
DK: I liked very much Radu Jude’s Aferim! This is one of my favorites, because it is a rich film, both artistically and thematically. You can observe a conversation between the past and the present, you can see the roots of racism, how things have not changed since then, as well as church’s obscure role. This is a Jarmusch-esque road movie that captivates you in every level.
VE: Is there any other film that you really enjoyed?
DK: I liked all the films, of course, since I have selected them. I would just mention again Our Everyday Life – a really sensitive film that talks on a personal level. You can see the country’s tragedy through a family’s tragedy and their relationships. It is a film that really touched me and grew on me slowly.
VE: We should mention, of course, also Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang, that won the Audience Award of Balkan Survey. What are your thoughts about it?
DK: This is a fairytale-like film that is quite smart and through its subtle way can approach serious sociopolitical issues. It can also transmit messages to the world in an easier way than others. Many people will watch it, and they will get involved and informed at the same time.
VE: Then, it will probably have some chance for the Oscars’ rally, too?
DK: I think so. It is impressive that an arguably Turkish film will represent a rich cinematic country like France to the Oscars selection. If we still believe in national cinema identities, then this is a great success for the Balkans. It amazes me, as we see how a Balkan issue can penetrate a Western society – this proves that there is no real distance in cinema and that we need this balance among us.
Originally published: Festivalists