Can a story be told before it has happened?
When the first “Balkan Survey” sidebar was added to the structure of the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, in November 1994, it was at a difficult time. The war in nearby Bosnia was at its peak, with the siege of Sarajevo having lasted already two and a half years, with no end in sight.
Some horrible things were happening at that distant moment in the former Yugoslav lands. It must have been around that time that Esma, a Muslim woman from Sarajevo, was violated in a camp, alongside many other women, and ended up pregnant with an unwanted child, one that she would chose to bear and then learn to love. Twelve years later, in 2006, this child – Sara, a daughter – would confront Esma in the Sarajevo suburb of Grbavica, demanding to know more of her origins. And Esma would need to face reality; the lie she maintained for years in order to ensure Sara’s wellbeing had to be dropped in favour of revealing the dreadful truth of her daughter’s origin.
Rapes were still being committed in Bosnia at the time of the first “Balkan Survey”. The men who perished at Srebrenica in 1995 were still alive.
At a time when the civil war was raging in Yugoslavia and the Balkans were presented to the international community as a hotbed of barbarism, ethnic cleansing and human rights violations, the Thessaloniki Film Festival’s director Michel Demopoulos proceeded, in 1994, to establish a section called the “Balkan Survey”, which would be exclusively devoted to films produced in this region. This initiative aimed to showcase the creative cinematic forces of Balkan countries and to seek out bridges of communications through their common cultural roots. At the same time, however, it was an effort to offset the negative representations of the international media regarding the Balkans; to put forward a different way of seeing; and to bring to the fore the discourse and viewpoint of – mostly – native film directors. It was, therefore, a counter-proposal, which would put the Balkans back on the international map under different terms, by linking Balkan cinema to that of the rest of Europe. This move was considered extremely progressive at the time, since there was no such section anywhere on the landscape of international film festivals, and gave the Festival and Thessaloniki the chance to act as a meeting point and a place of communication within the greater region of Southeast Europe.2 Especially in regard to foreign professionals of the world of film (journalists, critics, festival programmers, producers and distributors), the TIFF offered a strong motive for them to attend it and catch up on the latest cinematic developments of the Balkans.
But the Festivals’ emphasis on Balkan cinema also sprung from the interest aroused by being neighbors with the other Balkan countries, combined with the
need to overcome the substantial ignorance and, at times, prejudice of the Greek public for Balkan cinemas. With the age-long national disputes between
Balkan states and the Cold War having contributed to the lack of a feeling of accord between these neighboring countries, this absence is also reflected in
cinema. Each national cinema in the Balkans has developed independently of the other countries, without – up until recently – a real collaboration between
them. In Greece, this cinema was, to a large degree, unknown, since most film-goers knew only the films of the most famous among Balkan directors, such as Güney, Makavejev, and Kusturica, since they were the only ones that were ever shown in the movie theaters (the same had applied
in the past to commercial Turkish films). But with the emergence of talented young directors and the systematic showcasing of their work, the TIFF
contributed decisively to overcoming the pre-existing isolation and the lack of contact which have characterized the cinemas of the Balkans.
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