Cinema of Flames is more than just a study of culture from the Balkans; it is of interest to anyone interested in how images and politics interact, as Alexei Monroe explains.
Does the dictum "never judge a book by its cover" still hold true in an age of total design when publishers obsess over the smallest details of visual presentation? The cover of Cinema of Flames could not be more literal or unsubtle—a dramatic scene from what Iordanova judges to have been one of the key Balkan films of the last decade—Srđan Dragojević's Lepa sela, lepo gore (Pretty Village, Pretty Flame, 1996). In the still, a Chetnik exultantly waves a burning flag in front of a ruined building. The cover trades on our fascination with the Balkan violence of the nineties and the popularity of cinematic representations such as Dragojević's. In this sense, the book "does what it says on the packet," analysing the impact and success of such films. However, although it is published by the British Film Institute and marketed primarily as a film book, its scope is far wider—being about Balkan culture and media in the broadest sense and, perhaps most significantly, about external images of the Balkans.
In the last decade both fictional and documentary visual representations of the Balkans have become an integral component of the Western mediascape. One of the key concerns of this book is to examine the implications of the circulation and re-circulation of such imageries. The Balkans have never experienced greater media exposure, but while the former obscurity is a thing of the past, the high visibility of the region is linked to the negative factors that attract the Western gaze: war, violence, poverty, etc.
The Balkans have achieved visibilty because they have been in extremis, and reading this book it is hard not to draw the conclusion that the newly intensified Western interest in the region is based on our fascination with the spectacular and the catastrophic. While it may be a truism, it is worth noting that most Balkan inhabitants would prefer peaceful obscurity to a high media profile composed almost entirely of images of crisis and despair. As in war, so in peace–even before the crises of the last decade those aspects of self-produced Balkan or east European culture that did tend to penetrate Western screening were the most spectacular–those that were marketable as examples of the "Extreme East" (the title of a Channel 4 documentary series on east European subculture from the early 1990s).
To put it in the most brutal of marketing terms, the perverse fact is that the Balkans have become a far "sexier" subject since the eruption of war in ex-Yugoslavia, and these violent crises have shaped the media representation even of those Balkan countries not directly involved in the fighting. Iordanova is herself aware of the ambiguities of this situation, and the book is both symptomatic of and critical of these trends.
The politics of representation
The author is skilled at deconstructing marketing techniques and the attraction towards aspects of Balkan reality that can be sold as "sexy" and "exotic," not just in film and popular culture, but even (or perhaps especially) in news coverage. There are numerous cases of academics and journalists whose "Balkan" focus dates precisely from the advent of war in Yugoslavia and whose work in practice does not extend far beyond (ex-) Yugoslav state frontiers. This is not to go as far as for instance Stjepan Meštrović, who represents Western media attention almost exclusively in terms of voyeurism and a postmodern morality crisis, but as Iordanova shows there is a very mixed range of agendas and motives underpinning the West's screening of the region. These issues surface strongly in her chapter on "Visions of Sarajevo," in which she examines the behaviour and agendas of the news and film crews who descended on the city during and after the siege. Whilst many had a genuine concern for the city, they still sometimes played a part in perpetuating destructive clichés and were sometimes seen as arrogant by the local population.
Iordanova exposes two facts that challenge the foreign media's frequently self-congratulatory coverage. Sarajevan documentary and feature-makers continued their work throughout, making arduous and persistent efforts at documenting and representing their own situation. Whilst many of their images have enjoyed high international exposure, this has only been after screening by Western media and film-makers. Iordanova claims that such images were seen as potential propaganda simply because of their origin; however, once edited and incorporated into Western productions (frequently without credit) they miraculously lost their propagandist status and were admitted into the approved status of reportage.
This situation arose because the domestic productions were rejected as unsuitable by international networks and the local producers were forced to allow their footage to be used by others if any of it was ever to be seen by a global audience. Iordanova notes the difficulties she as a researcher had in obtaining copies of Bosnian productions and notes that "...none of the films made by Sarajevans was ever seen beyond the festival circuit" (247). This "denial of agency" was a media counterpart to the physical disenfranchisement of the besieged city–effectively the victims were inadmissible except as symbols in externally-imposed narratives.
Even when works do transcend their assigned Balkan marginality, they are often displaced and overlooked in favour of equivalent Western treatments. Iordanova cites the example of the eclipse of Goran Gajić's 1988 Laibach documentary Pobjeda pod soncem (Victory Under the Sun, titled in the book as "Laibach: A Film from Slovenia") by Michael Benson's 1995 documentary Prerokbe ognja (Predictions of Fire) about the art collective Neue slowenische Kunst (NSK). In fact, the differing fates of the two films does have more complex reasons–Gajić's is an effective cross between a "rockumentary" and a propaganda film about Laibach, whereas Benson's is an interpretative film about NSK as a whole, relating the phenomenon to historical processes. So whilst Iordanova is not quite comparing like with like, she is right to note the symbolism of a local production being displaced by a larger budget film in English, and Gajić's work certainly deserved wider exposure than it received.
Alongside the "denial of agency" and the sidelining of local productions runs an even less defensible tendency, which Iordanova characterises as a "double victimization" by the media of the victims of war. Whilst inmates of camps and refuges are rarely individualised (and their own representations of their plight are screened for propaganda) perpetrators of violence such as Arkan received extensive coverage that almost bordered on lifestyle journalism–featuring the details of his house, clothes, cars, etc.
What Iordanova doesn't point out is that glamourised criminals and their lifestyles are a staple of the Western media. There is at least some parallel between the fascination with the glamour of the Kray Twins and the interest in Arkan and other Balkan gangsters. Few Western commentators are wholly immune to the appalling fascination of the spectacular vulgarity and decadence of the "Balkan Hardcore" media culture, and perhaps this is related to what we are exposed to within our own cultures. Is there such a thin line between this fascination and the simultaneous dominance of the faux-ironic "so bad it's good" school of British TV which means that even the most pitiful aspects of 1970s fashion, music and TV are now celebrated? Arkan might not feature on the inevitable "I Love the Nineties" programmes of the next decades, but Kusturica's Podzemlje (Underground, 1995) may well do.
Of the numerous films discussed by Iordanova, only Podzemlje has an entire chapter dedicated to it. Given its huge impact (it won the 1995 Palme d'Or at Cannes) and the political controversies surrounding it, this does not seem disproportionate. Iordanova views it as "...a symptomatic moral case worth discussing beyond the narrow scope of the Balkan conflict." (112) The use of the phrase "narrow scope" is actually misleading here because what Iordanova's analysis reveals are the universal implications of the conflict and its representations.
She identifies (though does not expand on) some intriguing parallels between Podzemlje and the works of Rabelais and Bosch, as well as of Gilliam, Fellini and Wajda. She notes that the final scene in which the wedding party fails to notice the ground it stands on drifting away on the river was seen by Kusturica and screenwriter Dušan Kovacević as a "defining metaphor of Yugoslavia" (114) planned from the outset of work on the film. She discusses Western reviews of the film, characterising the coverage as "evasively positive" (116) in contrast to the reaction of those with more knowledge of its context–many of whom continue to classify it as Serbian propaganda. As with media representations of the siege of Sarajevo, criticisms by regional authors did not receive wide exposure. Only when criticisms were voiced by Western figures such as Alain Finkielkraut did they receive wider exposure.
Iordanova argues that "even if" Podzemlje was planned as overt propaganda (as opposed to being simply ambiguous or apolitical) it largely failed, since foreign audiences tended to read it simply as a metaphor for "the messy state of Balkan affairs" (117). This does not mean she lets Kusturica off the hook, however. She claims that the amorality of his characters effectively supports "the primordialist argument" (119) of innate Balkan immorality or primitivism. She also criticises the inconsistency of showing the manipulation inherent in Yugoslav historiography whilst Kusturica himself manipulates time blatantly, jumping awkwardly from the 1960s section of the film to the Balkan present. Iordanova presents the Podzemlje problem as a series of questions and answers. She claims that by choosing to go and work in Belgrade, Kusturica lost his neutrality and that the film "could not be made elsewhere" (123).
Kusturica claimed his sole intention was to realise his artistic vision, and in this respect Iordanova compares him (not for the first time) to Leni Riefenstahl's denial of remorse for her involvement with the Nazis. She even seems to claim that to choose to go to Belgrade while war was being waged on Bosnia was more questionable than Riefenstahl's position, who, she claims, did not choose but simply failed to reject the Nazis (124). She discusses the issues surrounding the financing of the film and the logistical support it received in Belgrade, which, it has been argued, was in breach of sanctions.
In conclusion she briefly touches on an interesting debate about the extent to which moral norms are seen to apply to or to restrict artists. It would have been interesting to see greater exploration of this theme. In particular, it would be useful to apply a Balkan concept from the period of the first Yugoslav avant-garde: the "Barbarogenius," a primitive but creatively dynamic figure with little respect for norms.
The numerous other films discussed in depth are framed in terms of themes–the use of "historical collage," representations of violence, gypsies, women, Sarajevo and migration. The thematic chapters facilitate discussion of a wide range of films from the region and valuable insights emerge from her comparative approach. One of the most valuable aspects of the book is that it draws attention to the many films that remain confined to the Balkans, having been deemed too obscure or too local to be admitted even to the "arthouse circuit," let alone overseas TV networks.
Beyond the ethics of film-making and image construction, what wider significance do the issues have? One feature of the book is a clear analysis of mediated violence. Iordanova argues that those responsible for creating a para-militarised infosphere should be held as accountable as those committing physical violence:
It is essential that this mediatic indoctrination, seemingly insignificant in the larger context of state-sanctioned violence, be seen as equally accountable for the violence. (168)
There has been no shortage of work on media violence in the region, but it has rarely been so clear in its insistence on culpability and has generally tended to focus on institutional politics rather than the mechanics of image construction. Again, this is a question that is not relevant purely in terms of the Balkans. Reading Iordanova's description of "mediated indoctrination" and the construction of paranoia and insecurity in an audience put me in mind of the extreme Euro-phobic discourse in the English populist media–the same mechanisms of demonisation and the search for conspiracies are present in both cases.
Iordanova shows how marginalisation of the type experienced in the Balkans can intensify aggression, especially since it has long been realised that non-violence can often equate to non-coverage and media invisibility. She characterises this attitude as one of "when we behave, no one cares. Whatever we do, we will always be kept in the backyard. Why, then, not become the bad guys as no one takes us into consideration anyway?" (169). A parallel can be seen in the British media's depiction of an underclass and the resultant "no one likes us, we don't care" attitude seen, for instance, in the defiant pride of the feared fans of Millwall football club.
One of Iordanova's key themes is the marginalisation of the Balkan countries and the problems they encounter in attempting to be accepted as part of the European mainstream. She identifies the key conceptual and discursive mechanisms that continue to relegate the region to an exotic subset of Europe and highlights the extent to which Balkan film and documentary makers often have to collaborate with the stereotypical discourses that confirm the marginality of the region. Stereotyping is not only externally imposed-self-stereotyping can bring better results than attempting to transcend these dominant narratives of "Balkan primitivism," "age-old hatreds," etc.
Iordanova pulls no punches in her descriptions of the "politics of representation" and its consequences for the region, but her style is not aggressively polemical. The tone is calm, patient and detailed and this only adds strength to the criticisms she makes. The book reads smoothly and swiftly and is well illustrated with both film and TV stills and discussions of individual works. On the other hand, it is in some respects a very "academically correct" book that has to pay its dues and conform to the genre expectations of the film/cultural studies "genre," such as the essential references to key figures such as Edward Said early in the book. Many of the authors cited have of course produced works of great insight yet the routine incantation of the "usual suspects" in such works can come across as stiff and ritualistic.
Nevertheless, the book does provide a strong validation of the critical study of film and popular/media culture. The case of the Balkans and Iordanova's analysis of its recent culture proves that this field can be of great political relevance far beyond the region. Events of the last decade have proved how the manipulation of processes of image construction can find expression in political violence that can devastate individuals and communities. Western media practitioners and policy-makers could learn much from the insights here. For these reasons this an important book not just for those with an interest in Balkan film and culture (not least because it may cause them to question the bases of their interest) or in media coverage of the Balkans, but also for anyone with an interest in the effect of film and media on politics.
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