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The shooting stars of the Balkans
The Balkan Films in the Context of Global Cinema Culture

Cinema in the Balkans regularly provokes the world's view of itself. One of the earliest signs of serious success among authors from the region was two consecutive prizes at the Berlinale in the early 1960s - the Silver Bear for directed by Nikos Koundouros for Young aphrodites(1963, Greece) and the Golden Bear for the film by Metin Erksan - Dry summer (1964, Turkey). Of course, the subsequent European gestures of recognition are far more meaningful and impressive, especially the honors at the Cannes Festival, at which Yilmaz Güney and Costa Gavras won the Palme d'Or in 1982 The way (Turkey) or Missing(USA) shared. The undisputed Balkan favorite on the Côte d'Azur, however, is Emir Kusturica, who for the time being is the only one on the peninsula who boasts of being the owner of two "palm trees" for the club Dad is on a business trip (1985, Yugoslavia) and Underground(1995, Yugoslavia), although the other three winners are no less respected masters: Theo Angelopoulos, Cristian Mungiu and Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

From Gergana Doncheva

The analysis of the festival existence of cinema productions from Southeast Europe is important for several reasons. First, as an institution, the festival has the power to discover new talent and artistic phenomena and canonize them over time, making these authors and films part of the global legacy of the art world. Secondly, by comparing them with other works, they clearly show their place and importance in the existing global media context, and thirdly, development trends or regression trends can be clearly identified.

A careful examination of the archives of the most established and renowned film forums on the old continent - Cannes, Venice and Berlin - surprisingly reveals a steady presence of representatives of the Balkans over the years, whereby it should be considered that also / even the chance of a selection in one of the secondary festival programs, accompanied by the relentless competition for fame and success between candidates from around the world. In this sense, the participation of regional works, and beyond their nomination in various categories, and above all their official award, raises the question of how true is the claim that local national film industries are by definition marginal. In general, they are really unknown to the average western viewer who is not interested in art house films. The strong impression, however, is that international interest in Balkan filmmakers is usually stimulated by a particular geopolitical situation.

Cinema and politics

The recognition for the films of well-known directors from Southeast Europe (and not only from this geographical part of the world) is often related to the political context of their festival screening. There are numerous examples: Yilmaz Güney and Nuri Bilge Ceylan received the highest cinematic award in historical periods of intense confrontation between the ruling regime and the intellectual elite in Turkey; the Silver Bears by Živojin Pavlović (The rats wake up, 1967) and Dušan Makavejev (Innocence without protection, 1968), as well as the Golden Bear by Želimir Žilnik for Early works from 1969 clearly illustrate the dual role of the Berlinale during the Cold War, not only to highlight high-quality artistic works, but also (due to their proximity to the countries of the socialist camp) to act as an ideological instrument to promote Western values. It is therefore completely normal that the critical voices of the powerful Yugoslav film school find their worthy reception at the German Forum during these years.

Perhaps the most telling cases where the political agenda affects the global visibility of the region's authors is Milčo Mančevski's Golden Lion for its debut Before the rain (1994, Macedonia) and the Cannes Awards from Emir Kusturica and Theo Angelopoulos in 1995. At that time the war in the former Yugoslavia was in full swing and the world's imagination was obsessed with the constantly circulating media images of ethnic conflicts as they were resolving Federation. The jury in Cannes, chaired by the mythical actress Jeanne Moreau, faces the difficult dilemma to which of the two candidates in the "Balkan duel" they should award the Golden Palm - Emir Kusturica or Theo Angelopoulos. The decision was made in favor of the Bosnian filmmaker, which ultimately made him one of the leading names in European cinema, though The look of Odysseus its Greek rival is qualitatively in no way inferior. Angelopoulos had to be content with the main prize and wait until 1998 to get the most coveted festival prize for Eternity and a day to obtain.

The Romanian New Wave and the Greek Bizarre Wave

In the decades up to the end of the 20th century, one could speak in the elite film forums of an international legitimation of individual local filmmakers who gradually rose to the status of auteurs and were finally included in the cinematic pantheon of the great masters. This trend continues to some extent to this day, although there are also interesting exceptions to be observed: “The Romanian New Wave” and the “Greek Bizarre Wave”.

Romanian cinema has not been without success even in the most difficult transitional periods after 1989, when the film industry collapsed in the countries of the former Eastern Bloc. In the 1990s veterans Dan Pița and Lucian Pintilie received standing ovations in Venice and Cannes, but nothing heralded the emergence of a very talented young generation of cameramen - Christie Puy, Cornelio Porumbo, Cristian Mungiu, Cătălin Mitulescu, Sinisa Dragan and Cristian Nemescu, which was known worldwide and after 2000 would become a global festival phenomenon called the “Romanian New Wave”. The films of these artists go a long way and gradually “climb” the strict hierarchical ladder, first in local and then regional forums, to eventually reach the most influential festivals where they are noticed.
In fact, by the height of 2007, this artistic phenomenon was already evident in the remotest corners of the planet. In addition, it quickly turned into a kind of “festival fashion”. Cristian Mungiu commented objectively and honestly on his remarkable breakthrough: "If I had presented my film in Cannes in 2002, the likelihood of getting a Golden Palm would have been slim, but I took advantage of the interest in Romanian cinema." The gradual accumulation of recognition and Prestige created a favorable reception environment, so that the film 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 dayshas proven to be an unexpected favorite on the French Riviera. The “Romanian New Wave” and its representatives already belong to the elite group of canonical authors who have rightly entered the history of cinema.

Compared to Romanian directors, whose favorite subjects are closely related to the context of the recent past of their homeland, as well as to the subsequent era of post-communism, Greek filmmakers prefer a more universal subject called "Greek bizarre wave" that is as broad as possible global audience and should not be perceived as belonging to a certain artistic direction, i.e. they do not adhere to categorically defined collective aesthetic principles, but rather have a number of characteristics that give journalists and researchers an opportunity to view them from a common perspective. Among these established authors, I would like to specifically mention Filippos Tsitos, Panos Koutras, Efthymis Filippou, Babis Makridis, Yannis Economides, Elina Psiku, Alexandros Avranas, Alexis Alexiou, and Syllas Tzoumerkas. Without a doubt, however, the two most striking names are Giorgos Lanthimos and Athina Rachel Tsangari.

The Balkans track in contemporary art house cinema

Giorgos Lanthimos' fame rose on the occasion of his second feature film Dog tooth (2009), for which he received the prize in the “Un Certain Regard” (Cannes) category. The appearance of the work coincides with the onset of the global financial crisis, which frames and colors the dominant interpretation of the various foreign viewers in a specific way. And although there is no connection whatsoever between the economic situation and the sudden interest in the contemporary Greek film industry, Greece's media presence in the news clearly arouses great curiosity about the cinematography of this Balkan country. Just a year later, continued Attenberg (2010) who successfully brought Athina-Rachel Tsangari into the focus of attention of the most important festivals, due to their provocative originality and their ability to analyze in depth human existential problems.

This promising start in particular gave Giorgos Lanthimos the extraordinary opportunity to become a cosmopolitan filmmaker who has made a conscious choice to step outside the boundaries of his own national culture and work in a decidedly international environment. His last three films The Lobster (2015), The Killing of a Sacred Deer(2017) and The Favorite (intrigue and madness) (2018), were shot entirely in English, including the involvement of Western European, American and Australian artists, as well as funding for these productions based on the productive co-production formula.The emblematic example of a gifted Greek author clearly shows that the path to a global career in today's art world is directly linked to the search for more universal themes and imagery that can provoke the emotional and intellectual response of contemporary global viewers.

First Films First

Do you know our film academy? In 2016, the Goethe-Institut began an innovative, intensive professional training program with the aim of supporting young filmmakers from Southeastern Europe in developing their first full-length feature film. FIRST FILMS FIRST helps eight young directors from Southeastern Europe to realize their dream of being a filmmaker.

You can find more information about the program here.


Gergana Doncheva has a degree in cultural studies and political science from Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski ”. In the period 2007-2009 she prepared her dissertation on the topic “Cultural History of the Balkan Peoples” for the Institute for Balkan Studies at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. There she is currently working as executive assistant. After defending her doctoral thesis in 2010, she published her first monograph entitled “The Image of the Balkans in the Balkans and Western Film: Strategies for Presentation”, which was nominated in 2010 by the Bulgarian Film Academy in the “Best Book” category. Her main interests lie in the areas of Balkan cinema and culture, identities and representation politics, cultural history in the age of communism and post-communism, imagology, migration processes and globalization.

Translation: Vivien Sariewa
Copyright: Gergana Doncheva / Goethe-Institut Bulgaria
April 2020

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