Dominic Ambrose Blogblot

of words: narrative, film and non-fiction

Beyond the Kosovo rainbow. Today’s gay people trapped in a deadly past.

Sarajevo FF, 2007. A film review
It’s easy to forget with all of the other ethnic, social and economic problems that the people of the former Yugoslav republics face, but intolerance toward gay people in this region can be particularly cruel and violent. This is a first look at homophobia, Kosovo style, with its world premier at the Sarajevo Film Festival, 2007.
The courageous and pioneering documentary, Beyond the Rainbow, was written and directed by Ismet Sijarina and produced by Kastrati Cooper for Crossing Bridges Production. “Crossing bridges” is a particularly significant phrase in a Kosovar context, as the simple act of straying across the wrong one can be deadly for the Albanian residents of this province of Southern Serbia. The symbolism works well for gay people as well, as they must be doubly concerned about wandering into dangerous territory. There are many bridges that need crossing in this part of the world, and many people massing on one side yearning to get to the other. In this case, it’s the bridge over the chasm of dangers that separate the dark, secret world that Kosovar gays are forced to live in and the world that they can see and hear just across the way in western Europe. They can look across at what people in other European societies have been able to achieve, but it is solace and torment in equal parts. They have the unpleasant choice of staying locked up in their dark houses staring across the divide, or they can make a run for it, across the dangerous bridges, dodging the snipers that exist all around them.
A considerably amount of time in this documentary is given over to interviews of four gay men who sit uncomfortably perched on stools, silhouetted in shadows to protect their identities, talking about their feelings, their fears, their humiliations and their hopes. The story is often told between the lines: the way they make excuses for the actions of others, the way they spin their own rationales in ways that western gays would never dream of explaining themselves, the way that some of them put up smokescreens of bisexuality to hide from others and from themselves. This is unfamiliar territory for Western Europeans, like the societies of sixty years ago, when there was no freedom for gay people, not even in their own minds. In fact, one of the characters says that people cannot allow themselves to be free neither in their actions nor in their thoughts. This mental prison is taken up again in the recurring staged scene in which a gay man debates with his embittered alter ego, which ridicules his sexual orientation and almost succeeds in convincing him to accept the deception.
Other citizens speak as well, including social workers and religious spokesmen. A lesbian who is eloquent about her situation, says in contrast to the religious figures, that we live heaven and hell right here on earth, and the interviews given by young straight men on the street, as they cruelly mock the calls for gay rights, is a frightening reminder of the physical danger that the silhouetted interviewees face.
I saw this film in Sarajevo, a city that itself has lived through the era of deadly bridges. It was just a decade ago that the low, harmonious bridges that span the city’s river were some of the most dangerous urban places on earth. And yet today, in this peaceful place, it seems so impossible, so absurd. But what about those other bridges that the gay people of Kosovo are so worried about? Do the gay Sarajevans have any better access than their Kosovar cousins? Sadly, the answer is, just barely. It seems that even here, in this intelligent, cosmopolitan city, homophobia is rampant as well. There isn’t even one gay bar in Sarajevo, and the one organization, Queer BiH, that holds gay parties every month or so, does it with hired security guards. While the film festival was going on, Queer BiH announced that it would organize Bosnia’s first gay pride march in June, 2008, and the news was immediately taken up on the front page of a scandal sheet, ready to stir up trouble for the benefit of circulation. Even here, where people have lived through years of suffering over foolish sectarian divisions, this shameful homophobia still holds sway.
Beyond the Rainbow is a proud, courageous film that reminds us that there is still much work to be done to chase out the secret ghosts lurking in ex-Yugoslav societies. Some bridges are peaceable thoroughfares, for sure, but there are many more that still need to be secured, and all declarations of victory are still very premature as long as gay people are still forced to speak from the shadows.

May 9, 2009 Posted by | cinema | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Mosquito Problem. Bulgarian Film wins Human Rights Award at Sarajevo, 2007

Sarajevo FF, 2007. The Mosquito Problem and Other Stories. A film review

In a field of serious documentaries addressing problems that deeply affect the citizens of this recently traumatized city, how was it possible for a satirical documentary from Bulgaria to win the Human Rights Award at the Sarajevo Film Festival? With a subtle and irrepressible love of life. The Mosquito Problem and other stories, directed by Andrey Paounov, was this year’s surprise winner of the Human Rights Award at the Sarajevo Film Festival. Among the many documentaries that directly addressed the difficult social and political problems that have sprung up in the post-Yugoslavian Balkans, such a seemingly lighthearted satire was definitely a dark horse. But on closer inspection, the subtleties and significance of this playfully subversive film become apparent, and the prize quite reasonable. It is the story of an impoverished small town in Bulgaria that does its best to celebrate the little that it has: an unfinished nuclear power plant, an overgrown island in the Danube River, the ruins of a communist concentration camp for political dissidents, and above all, the billions of mosquitoes that plague this riverside town. Various townsfolk speak into the camera, giving their quirky take on things, their sometimes laughably naïve judgments invariably buoyed by their innate good humor and love of life. There’s the laid off construction worker from Cuba who occupies himself by collecting found art in the forest, the raggedy man in workclothes who ceremoniously introduces his piano works before pounding them out on a badly tuned piano, the caretaker at the former prison camp who dreams of turning the crumbling ruin, the scraggly marshland and the enormous annoyance of the swarming mosquitoes into a unique agro-tourist experience. The past is omnipresent, and the enigmatic story of a woman who, in the 1960s worked as a guard in the political camp acknowledges the political ambiguity and the impossibility of true reconciliation in the present Balkan conjuncture. She has recently died of Parkinson’s Disease, and her story is told from the daughter’s point of view, a sort of everywoman who represents the present generation, heirs of a whole Pandora’s Box of conflicting traditions and responsibilities. Her acceptance of her mother’s conflicting histories is at once deeply personal and symbolic of the instinctive goodwill of the townspeople.

The film’s framing images, coming at the beginning and the end, show young kids on bicycles and on foot following in the poisonous path of a truck spewing beautiful white clouds of insecticide. The sight of these children running in and out of the billowing poison joyfully jumping around and coughing unselfconsciously, while the exterminators watch impassively from the truck, is a fitting image of the irony and sadness of the situation… and the reckless, irrepressible joy. The Bosnian audience at Sarajevo was highly entertained, laughing often, sometimes at the idiotic squalor of life among the detritus of socialist central planning, something the Bosnians know first hand, though never to the same degree of absurdity. And sometimes at the goofiness of the citizens. Bosnians have never experienced the absolute abysmal economic and political system that Bulgarians lived with during socialism, so they can afford to laugh at this town which seems to have inherited only artifacts worthy of a junkheap. But I believe that their laughter was informed by a true respect for these people, and for their talent to turn lemons into lemonade. It must have been with admiration and envy that they watched these people who, without the resources to turn guns into ploughshares, did at least have the good sense and respect for human life to let the guns rust away into obsolescence. It has given them a great luxury that Bosnians were forced to forget about: the luxury of passing from Communist oppression to the long dreamed of western liberal society in peace. In this way, this hopeless little Bulgarian hicktown looks a little bit like paradise on the Danube. The Mosquito Problem and other stories. Bulgaria, 2007. Directed by Andrey Paounov, written by Lilia Topouzova and Paounov and produced by M. Bozhilov for Agitprop.

May 9, 2009 Posted by | cinema | , , , , , | 1 Comment