SEARCHING FOR AN ENTHRALLING SONG

Whose Is This Song?
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Since Adela Peeva’s documentary Whose Is This Song came out in 2003, it proved to be a great success at numerous film festivals[1] all over the world. The film succeeded both in drawing the attention of connoisseurs and in receiving a warm welcome from a wider audience. Actually, the latter was more important in the context of the dramatic decline of Bulgaria’s film industry during the last fifteen years, when filmmakers were forced to work under harsh conditions and had to comply with new political agendas and business standards. In this unfavourable situation Adela Peeva was among those who quickly discovered that their key dominant themes lived up to the changing audience expectations. Having presented the specific problems of Bulgaria’s ethnic Turks in her previous production The Unwanted (1999) and thus having clearly stated her interest in dealing with specific Balkan issues[2], Peeva ventured into another exciting project – Whose Is This Song – which focused on a different yet related topic.

In a small restaurant in Istanbul a couple of friends with diverse Balkan backgrounds – a Greek, a Serb, a Turk, a Macedonian, and a Bulgarian – are shown sitting around a table. The local Turkish singer takes up a popular song, and all of them start humming along. Everybody knows the melody and argues passionately that, by no means, this song originates from his or her native land. This opening sequence becomes the starting point of a deeply emotional journey into the realm of Balkan mentality.

How can one define the Balkans? Is it possible that a song, in all its transformations (a military march, a school hymn, a love ballad), is adopted for the purposes of an extensive exploration? This non-traditional approach looks at the region from an unexpected perspective:  music proves a powerful device in identifying the most fundamental Balkan controversies.  Furthermore, the film explicitly reveals how a popular musical piece is being associated with a given national imagery (for example, Albanian, Bulgarian, Greek or Turkish). It comes as no surprise that the respondents categorically refuse to accept that representatives of a foreign, even though neighbouring community, could sing the same song and love it as they do. By a bitter irony, instead of dividing, the song binds together national territories like a thin red thread, uniting collective memories and personal stories.  Above all, however, it shows the typical Balkan predisposition to stubborn negativism.

 It is no exaggeration to say that Whose Is This Song convincingly backs up the popular view of the Balkans as sharing a common legacy in terms of lifestyles, everyday social practices and compatible sensitivities. It neither oversimplifies the conceptualization of the region, nor deletes its substantial inner differences. On the contrary, the film deliberately looks for a broad spectrum of confronting standpoints, an approach that ultimately establishes its authentic and lively atmosphere.

Undoubtedly, many visual anthropologists could envy the film crew for the outstanding professional opportunity to carry out such interesting interviews where the informants behave naturally in front of the camera and express their opinions willingly. Sometimes witty, sometimes a little sad, these people live inspired by the song. It keeps their spirits up in moments of bleak despair and hopelessness. One cannot forget the face of an Albanian ex-opera singer, Tereza, whose chances of a distinguished career were wrecked under Enver Hodzha’s communist regime. Despite of all her anguish, she has survived and has become even stronger thanks to her music. This magical power of the beautiful song has also conquered the souls of a few Greek musicians playing in a spontaneous manner and enjoying themselves ‘as people used to do it in the past’.  Their melancholy is so intense; their yearning for the lost youth is so strong that suddenly a huge wave of nostalgia comes over the silver screen. The spectators eagerly wait for the musical piece’s next incarnation – this time the famous melody turns into a symbol of love: from a sentimental soundtrack in an old Turkish melodrama to a folk-like Sarajevan version; but perhaps the most impressive romantic embodiment of the song is closely connected with the vivid image of Koshtana – the eternal femme fatale.

Whose Is This Song would not be of such a great documentary merit, however, if it had not presented in detail the manipulative aspect of music. When, in the Balkans, a song is being performed in a specific political or ideological context, its direct religious or ethnic appeal could fuel the Other’s fears. This is true of former Yugoslavia, where people still suffer the consequences of war-time trauma. Just a brief glance towards the young militant Bosnian Muslims in Sarajevo as well as to their angry Serbian counterparts at the Vranje pub, is enough to reinforce that feeling of anxiety. Moreover, the climax of the demonstrated intolerance gradually accumulates in the course of the cinematographic narrative and finds its most effective visual expression in the last sequence, set on Petrova niva, a place in Strandzha Mountain (Bulgaria), where many Bulgarians gather every year in order to commemorate the Ilinden Uprising. On that sacred memory site a huge fire blazes; its bright flames are lighting up the night sky at the very end of the film. The suggestion is clear enough. This emblematic image of fire inevitably links with the final scene of Goran Paskalevic’s Cabaret Balkan (Powder Keg, 1999) in which the Balkans are depicted through the well-known old stereotype about the region as Europe’s ‘powder keg’. I would not like to discuss Whose Is This Song in these notions because Peeva’s film offers an original treatment that goes beyond the deeply entrenched Balkanistic iconic repertoire usually exploited in the creation of an imaginative vision for this ill-fated peninsula. Against all stereotypes, Peeva uses a most powerful weapon – her self-deprecating sense of humour. And it really works. Thus, despite of the poignant or confrontational moments, the film leaves the viewers not with a grim impression of dark future for the Balkans. On the contrary, its cautious optimism springs directly from the wonderful song, which people continue singing regardless of who composed it many years ago.

Whose Is This Song, Bulgaria, 2003

Colour Documentary Film, 70 minutes

Director: Adela Peeva

Script: Adela Peeva

Camera: Zhoro Nedelkov

Production: Adela Media Film and TV Production Company

 

 


[1] I would like to mention the most prestigious prizes: Nominated by the European Film Academy for “Best Documentary Film 2003”, Golden Rython Festival 2003 – Special Prize of the Jury, Mumbai International Film Festival 2004  – FIPRESCI Award, Mumbai International Film Festival 2004 – Silver Conch Prize, Nashville Film Festival 2004 – Gibson Impact of Music, 23rd Ethnographic Film Festival 2004 – Prix Bartok, International Film Festival “Golden Knight” 2005  -  Silver Knight Award.

[2] Nowadays Adela Peeva is working on her next project titled Divorce Albanian Style. The film is devoted to families in Albania that were forcefully separated during the Communist regime of Enver Hodzha.

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