Balkanrouten: A Few Thoughts on Presence

“The seasons and the years came and went…and always…one was, as the crow flies, about 2,000 km away – but from where? – and day by day hour by hour, with every beat of the pulse, one lost more and more of one’s qualities, became less comprehensible to oneself, increasingly abstract.” (W.G. Sebald)

“History shows that it is not only senseless and cruel, but also difficult to state who is a foreigner.” (Claudio Magris)

In the imaginary of human kind, departure is often associated with transformation. Physical departure from one place to another, whatever it may be, carries the human consciousness with it. But once the destination has been reached, especially if it is about to become a permanent fixture for both body and mind, something cracks. Almost like a broken mirror, one part keeps reflecting the past as it drifts away while the other becomes a vision of a never-arriving future.

As with the title of Goran Dević’s film Buffet Željezara, written on a departing bus in front of the eponymous café facing closure, a permanent rift is introduced into reality. Conversations include and surround it, knowingly paving the way because another departure had already taken place. The steel mill in the Croatian town of Sisak is one of many symbols of deindustrialization brought about by the transition from socialism to capitalism. The trains we keep hearing in the background used to travel far to bring great numbers of workers to the factory. It is a former Mecca, a relict on the brink of becoming fossilized, as the numerous photos taken by a passer-by in the film indicate. The way the café’s customers tell stories of the past could very well be the way they tell each other their dreams.

The imaginary of Eastern Europe in cinema seems impoverished – iron and rust are excellent placeholders for its gray, dreary landscapes. And yet, what do we see when we look over our shoulders? People living everywhere. People living and despairing and rejoicing, people moving and flying and disappearing. People carrying on and changing, people taking turns and swerving. There might be something fatal in this look if it turns into nothing more than a glance. It is one thing to admire the sea of your summer destination and quite another to consider it a place where life takes place all year-round. Humans are not abstract. The inhabitants of Sisak are stranded, literally run aground. Now it is, once again, a matter of leaving or sinking further. The orchestra of crickets speaks of silence, abandonment and emptiness, even languor. Are these the same crickets we hear in Zoran Tadić’s 1975 film Dernek? It would be a miracle if the crickets of the Dalmatian hinterland were to befriend those in Sisak-Moslavina County, so far away from the sea. Still, crickets, with their own imaginary narratives, sing of departures as much as for the departed. For those who travel overnight on long roads enveloped in snow to reach what they may remember differently. For those who board up the windows of their café preparing themselves for the new in their late 50s. For those who don’t know where to go and stay.

And what of Germany? Is it the last European paradise on earth, as many seem to believe? A Germany that was a destination in 1975 just as it is in 2017 and 2019, the one and the same – or has it changed? What was the name of the country again?

What do we recognize?

Sponge hunters in Rudolf Sremec’s films, miners deep underground.

Reality reinventing itself in Ivan Ladislav Galeta’s shots beyond any gravity.

Antifilm. Mihovil Pansini. Let it be a cloud.

Performative ruptures of Sanja Iveković, cutting across our bones.

The closeness of distance in the poetic eye of Ivan Martinac.

The dawn of Ante Babaja.

What do we see?

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