Balkan Spirit: Raindance Review

The doc is a colorful cultural journey through Europe’s war-torn backyard.

Angelina Jolie and Marina Abramovic join a chorus of voices exploring the artistic landscape of the Balkan region in this wide-ranging documentary.

This lively, colorful, freewheeling documentary about the contemporary cultural scene in southwestern Europe features contributions from notable local artists plus a few famous outsiders, most notably Angelina Jolie. Bouncing from Ljubljana to Sarajevo, Belgrade, Istanbul, Athens and all points between, German director Hermann Vaske strains to find unifying threads among a noisy jumble of musicians, film-makers, visual artists and cultural commentators. His subject ultimately proves too big and complex to pin down, but never boring. Screened at London indie showcase Raindance earlier this week, Balkan Spirit makes its U.S. debut at Petaluma International Film Festival next weekend. Outside festival circles, TV should prove its natural home.

Jolie is the most stellar interviewee, but also the blandest, serving up tourist-level platitudes about Balkan natives as soulful, passionate party animals. Nikola Djuricko, co-star of Jolie’s divisive Sarajevo-set war drama In the Land of Blood and Honey, offers a more nuanced insider’s take on the region’s ironic humor and laidback disregard for rules. Film-maker Emir Kusturica appears as host of his own fledgling Küstendorf Festival, high in the snowy Serbian mountains, which provides many of the film’s musical highlights. Superstar performance artist Marina Abramovic is also good value, relating earthy local folklore and crude jokes with a lascivious grin that evokes Cruella De Vil.

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Reliably amusing and typically verbose, the Slovenian pop philosopher Slavoj Žižek provides some of the sharpest commentary, effectively serving as unofficial narrator. Now something of an unlikely movie star himself thanks to his two Pervert’s Guide documentaries with director Sophie Fiennes, the scruffy, beard-scratching, spittle-flecked cultural theorist argues that the Balkans are a quasi-mythical zone that most European nations like to believe begins just below their southern border. He also tells a personal anecdote about oral sex which may be unrelated to the film’s theme, but provides one of its best jokes.

Vaske deserves credit for stretching the elastic borders of the Balkans to include Greece, Turkey and Romania, and also for including older and younger artists alongside the current generation. Connoisseurs of Soviet-era arthouse cinema may be interested to see veteran Serbian provocateur Dušan Makavejev, director of the banned cult classic WR: Mysteries of the Organism. Among the rising stars are the young Greek film-maker Eleni Angelopoulos and the Kosovan visual artist Flaka Haliti, who responded to art-world sexism by dumping sheep’s testicles in her local gallery.

Does some essential shared Balkan spirit yoke all these wildly diverse figures together? Inevitably, Vaske does not reach a definitive conclusion. Recurring themes are lusty emotional excess, black humor, a tragic streak, deep love of music – but these qualities apply to many regions around the globe, especially among bohemian artist types. The film is also way too light on political and historical context, and might have scored some deeper insights by including a few more voices from outside creative circles.

That said, Vaske’s entertaining travelog offers a rich cultural collage with an agreeably playful visual style, including a red box motif that becomes increasingly surreal throughout the film. The musical performances are particularly strong, with several boisterous numbers from the globally renowned Serbian gypsy brass band Boban I Marko Marković Orkestar. Defiant to the last, Žižek ends with a teasingly unexplored riff on Balkan identity as a product of cultural imperialism. “We are caught in other people’s dreams,” he proclaims. “This is what we need to destroy.”

Production companies: Hermann Vaske’s Emotional Network, ZDF/Arte

Producer: Hermann Vaske

Starring: Slavoj Žižek, Angelina Jolie, Marina Abramovic, Emir Kusturica

Director: Hermann Vaske

Cinematographers: Patricia Lewandowska, Miona Bogovic, Alexandru Mavrodineanu, Daniel Tölke, Hermann Vaske

Editors: Sabine Bubeck-Paaz, Kathrin Brinkmann

Art Director: Ana Zarubica

Sales Company: Parkland Pictures

Unrated, 80 minutes