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With the end of the Second World War, the advent, coming, and passing of communism, identity has come to be the central issue in many South-European societies. This is true especially to Balkan societies that have been under different ‘constructed identities’ the last three centuries. The Balkan is a region where live many different ethnic and cultural background groups even within the same borders of a state. Yugoslavia is probably the best example of this claim. Throughout the entire twentieth century the identity of the members of a society in this region has been ‘constructed’ communicatively through the depiction of the other.
Unfortunately, the recent history of the Balkan region tells us that this identity has been used against this other (or even others) resulting in various wars and many war crimes and crimes and some of the worse ‘crime against humanity’ cases. Unfortunately this situation carries on continuing even in our time. But the Balkan has not been only the place of coexisting of different ethnic and cultural groups. It has also been the scene of contact and clash between different powers. During the centuries many European powers have made the Balkans the scene of their clashes and turn it into a ‘fighting arena’. Many times in the Western world it is perceived as the Balkans is a place which ‘by itself’ includes violence and fighting.
Many people living in the west do not have any clue of the history of the region and of the fact that the vast majority of the wars and fighting in it have been made, or sponsored, by foreign powers (Jelavich, p. 3).
Dom za Vesanje & Grbavica
All this fighting and history has led its mark and art and media have not been immune from this. Many third and fourth film-making artists have tried to express the depiction of their own society by portraying the other. Other times this depiction of the other has been used to bring to public attention various societal problems that otherwise the public would not notice. This is exactly the case of Emir Kusturica’s “Dom za vesanje: Time of the Gypsies” and Jamila Zbanic’s Grbavica. The first was made in 1988 under the film-making school artists generation under Tito and the second in 2006, ten years after the end of the bloodiest war in the region, the Bosnian war. Both films take place in Bosnia, but the first in the time of the Yugoslav Republic and the second in the bloodiest aftermath of the dismantling of these states. In fact, by analyzing both films from a geopolitical and historic-cultural point of view we can understand what the situation of the societies they are talking about is.
In ‘Dom za Vesanje’ the Roma people are depicted as the other from each mainstream society is to form its identity by differentiating itself. As anthropologist Van de Port points, out the use of Romani protagonists, plots and subplots often evolve around the mechanisms of ‘projective identification’ (1988, p. 154).
This Roma other serves also as a critic to the mainstream societal rigid norms and values and as a form of expression of the author of what he could not say otherwise than with the mount of his Roma character. Roma appears to mainstream society as marginal and poorly adapted but likable for their vigor and non-traditional exuberant attitude. From a geopolitical point of view so would the Balkans like to appear to Europe. But, from a geopolitical perspective, the portrayal of this ethnocultural group this way is a resemblance of the differences between other ethnic groups within the Yugoslavia. In a certain way by portraying the marginalization, large unemployment and deteriorating conditions with the result in an increasing crime rate and violence among the Roma, the authors are sending the message that the same could happen to other national groups in the region. The Roma are perceived as bringing no threat to mainstream society because they are not a consolidated national group and have no nation-state to back their claims. Thus they are viewed as ‘rebels’ of traditional mainstream societal norms and values along with their refuting of law and order. But from a geopolitical point of view so does the Balkan region seem to the rest of Europe. In a certain way by portraying the frustrations of the Roma toward mainstream society the authors are expressing their rebellion against the rest of the western world (Iordanova, p. 14).
From a historic-cultural point of view the authors are making a comparison of the differences perceived among mainstream Yugoslavian society from the Roma to the differences perceived from western societies from the Balkans.
Even though mainstream society views the Roma as the other which is almost the contrary of what it means to be part of mainstream, yet they also are viewed to embed some of the qualities that lack in mainstream society. As the scholar Novena Dakovic says it, the film authors “elevate the Gypsy life to a magical, universal metaphor claiming that if we are to be cinematically translated as Gypsies, we certainly share their most valued, unique qualifications, and recognize the ground for the displacement of the most feared negative labels.’ (Dakovic, 1998, p. 13) by doing this they express the frustration of the lack of these qualities to mainstream society.
The second film is focused on the gender problems within societies of the region. From a geopolitical point of view it expresses the different understanding and perception of women’s rights in this region. Of course it is a different perception in contrast to the western type of understanding. To the western public it would not seem that the film is raising a women-related question but they have to understand the cultural and historical context. The film and its story talk about a country still bleeding and picking back up the pieces from war which also is still a male-dominated society. My idea of how it could have been projected and made stronger no doubt has come from years of desensitization to subtlety that Hollywood has conditioned the western viewer. From a political perspective the film tries to send the message to the viewer that how during the war and still today, the raping of women and their treatment was not considered to be part of the anti-human crimes committed during the war. By portraying the frustration of Esma (the main character) the author portrays the anger and frustration of Bosnian women even toward Western European countries who failed to recognize this as a war crime. At the same time, the scene when she meets with someone in the market and that person feels embarrassed by the presence of Esma’s daughter, shows the cultural difficulties and constraints that still a woman has to face in that society. Esma’s ‘explosions’ of grief and anger during the film are meant to show the protesting of all women toward those rigid norms and values of the local society.
Both of the films do show how the identity of a society can be constructed by the defining of the other/s. also the films are directed to the outside, western, viewer in an attempt to make him understand the ‘feelings’ of the Balkan societies and their societies toward western societies.
Van der Port, M. It takes a Serb to understand a Serb. Anthropology and Sociology Center of Amsterdam: ASCA Publication center, 1988.
Jelavich, B. History of the Balkans: Eighteenth and ninetieth centuries. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Dakovic, N. Sociološki i estetički aspekt recepcije filma (Sociological and aesthetical aspects of films). Beograd: The institute of popular culture, 1998.
Iordanova, D. cinema on flames: Balkan film, culture and media. London, the British Film Institute, 2008.
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Hammond, A. the Balkan and the West: constructing the European other. Washington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2004.